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Views on bureaucracy | Alternatives to bureaucracy | Some pitfalls of bureaucracy | Misconceptions of bureaucracy | Quotes | External Links

Bureaucracy refers to a particular form and style of administrative organization. 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.

Views on bureaucracy

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.

Alternatives to bureaucracy

How we perceive bureaucracy depends partly on what we are contrasting it with.
  • Traditional Authority (Weber)
  • Market, Network, Clan
  • Adhocracy (Mintzberg)
  • Learning Organization
  • Participative / Democratic

Some pitfalls of 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.

Misconceptions of bureaucracy

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 characteristics.
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 procedures.
Sometimes bureaucracy fails to eliminate these practices, or even amplifies them. (Perhaps instead of bribing a single official, you now have to bribe several officials.)
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 corruption.

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 accurate record-keeping.
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 competitors.

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]

Precisely at a time when the expansion of bureaucratic methods in business and government, and the expansion of large-scale manufacture were making the whole routine of practical activity an ever deadlier grind, Protestantism developed a special faculty for getting pleasure out of that grind. ... Drudgery served the Protestant as a valuable mortification of the flesh: valuable in a worldly as well as a spiritual sense, for unlike the hair shirts and self-whippings of the mediaeval saint, his unflagging concentration on dull work brought tangible profits.
Lewis Mumford, Condition of Man, p 199

The impersonal, bureaucratic order of the counting house vied with monastic and military order in laying the foundations for the inflexible discipline and impersonal regularity that has now gradually extended itself to every aspect of institutional life in Western civilization. This order has been smoothly translated into automatic machines and computers, even more incapable of exercising humane judgement and discretion than a trained clerk. The new bureaucracy devoted to managerial organization and coordination again became a necessary adjunct to all large-scale, long-distance enterprises: book-keeping and record-keeping set the pace, in standardized uniformity, for all the other parts of the machine. The failure to reckon with this mathematical aspect of mechanization, as a prelude to industrial inventions, has resulted in a warped and one-sided picture of modern technics. This account gives to specific tools and machines by themselves the priority in effecting changes that first took place in the human mind and were translated later into institutions and mechanisms.
Lewis Mumford, Myth of the Machine, pp 278-9

External Links

BOLA : Business Open Learning Archive
About Psychology - Bureaucracy
Article: Bureaucracy as Idealization (Jon Bennett)