||on this page
management briefings and technical education
independent advice on tools and methods
|Bureaucracy refers to a particular form and style of administrative
Although it has been subject to strong criticism for a long time, bureaucracy
and its variants can still be found in a large number of organizations.
sources of material
||Described an ideal type of bureaucractic organization, which he equated
with administrative rationality.
||Bureaucracy becomes inflexible because of various unanticipated consequences
that derive from its structure.
||Bureaucracies embody vicious circles of decreasing efficiency and effectiveness.
||Described an ideal type of hierarchical organization.
See Penguin Dictionary of Sociology, under Bureaucracy.
||There is a tendency in some bureaucratic organizations to regard small
disasters as equally bad as large disasters, if not worse (because a large
disaster is regarded as Act of God, whereas a small disaster is the fault
of an individual). Therefore trivial risks must be avoided at all costs,
even if it means incurring huge risks.
||A bureaucrat suffers from a particularly virulent strain of the multiplication
fallacy. Each step of formalization can be individually justified,
therefore all formalization can be justified. If it is good to measure
this or that aspect of performance, then he ends up measuring all aspects
of performance, because he cannot bear to forego any one.
||Traditional Authority (Weber)
||Market, Network, Clan
||Participative / Democratic
Some of these misconceptions were found in student essays.
Bureaucracy equals corruption
Associating bureaucracy with unaccountable power, corruption, favouritism,
and other unattractive characteristics. Criticizing bureaucracy for these
One of Weber’s main arguments was that a good bureaucracy removed or
reduced opportunities for corruption, favouritism and arbitrary exercises
of power, which were characteristic of previous organizational forms. Bureaucracy
may concentrate power (at the top), but also provides for checks and balances
to prevent the abuse of power.
While some so-called bureaucracies may still manifest various undesirable
characteristics to some extent, this is arguably not because they are bureaucratic,
but because they aren’t bureaucratic enough.
Sometimes extra paperwork is added to a system to make corruption or
favouritism more difficult. This almost certainly makes the system less
efficient, but is supposed to make it more equitable. Bribery or
nepotism should stand out, because they do not conform to the approved
Sometimes bureaucracy fails to eliminate these practices, or even amplifies
them. (Perhaps instead of bribing a single official, you now have to bribe
This suggests a more accurate and sophisticated criticism of bureaucracy
– that its attempts to deal with unethical, inefficient or other bad practices
are counter-productive, actually making things worse rather than better.
Bureaucracy isn’t itself corrupt, but it is ineffective in dealing with
Bureaucracy equals inefficiency and incompetence
People sometimes equate bureaucracy with any manifestation of administrative
incompetence. (Several of our students cited the same anecdote, of a man
whose bank failed to properly update its records of his address.) But true
bureaucracy, for all its faults, is meticulous, almost obsessive about
Obviously error can creep into bureaucratic systems as well as any other
system. Bureaucracy is then characterized not by the presence of error,
but by the sometimes absurd ways that the system tries to eliminate error.
"A French businesswoman was recently summoned
to the Prefecture because - as the official letter of invitation claimed
- she had lost her carte vitale (the French health smart card). In
fact, she had not lost it; so when, after waiting for over two hours, she
got to the front of the queue and produced her card as proof that she had
not lost it, the bureaucrat who was dealing with her said: 'But the computer
says you have lost is, so the one you have now is no longer valid - you'll
have to hand it in to be destroyed, and then ask for a new one!'
If there was ever such a thing as an ethic of bureaucracy, this is an example
of it." [Slavoj Zizek, Revolution at the Gates (Verso 2002) p 185].
Bureaucracy equals size
Some students identified bureaucracy with any large organization. Microsoft
and Enron were both identified as bureaucratic. While it is probably true
that any large organization has some elements of bureaucracy, these two
are unlikely examples of typical bureaucratic organizations, and their
strengths and weaknesses are not obviously caused by the presence of bureaucracy.
It is more likely to be the other way around – their strengths and weaknesses
are associated with the fact that they have less bureaucracy than their
Bureaucracy equals perfect administrative rationality
Of course, this was Max Weber's view, but it is now largely discredited.
Students who adopt Weber’s view uncritically are in danger of overlooking
a very large body of work – both on the nature of organizations and on
the nature of rationality. We would be extremely impressed by a student
who carefully considered this later work, and articulated cogent arguments
against it. We are not impressed by students who simply ignore such considerations.
Bureaucracy equals something else
Finally, some students apparently equated bureaucracy with something else
– e.g civil service, paperwork, neo-Confucianism, servomechanism – and
wrote a critique of these without demonstrating a clear link to bureaucracy.
||“The conception of government as the machinery that guarantees the
execution of the monarch’s utterance was now reshaped into one that prepares
texts for the monarch’s signature. The state governed by the management
of texts - that is, the modern bureaucratic state - was taking shape.”
[Ivan Illich & Barry Sanders, ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular
Mind (Marion Boyers, 1988) Penguin ed pp 65-66]
|Penguin Dictionary of Sociology
||Useful introductory reference - to help you get your bearings if you
haven't studied sociology before.
|Derek Pugh (ed) Organization Theory (Penguin)
||Contains several classic papers on bureaucracy and related matters.
|Gareth Morgan, Images of Organization (Sage)
||Reviews bureaucracy and other organizational forms and patterns, from
several different aspects.
This page last updated on June 26th, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Veryard Projects Ltd