What Is Bureaucracy?

The term Bureaucracy is believed to be derived from a reference to a cloth covering the desks of French government officials in the 18th century. Therefore, quite appropriately, FinerOpens in new window has termed bureaucracy as Desk Government.

Early usage referred to an official workplace (bureau) in which individual activities were routinely determined by explicit rules and regulations. From a plethora of conceptions, such as a synonym for civil service to a derogatory term for red tapismOpens in new window, inefficiency and corrupt systems, the usage that has dominated the social science is bureaucracy identified as a form of organizationOpens in new window.

Max WeberOpens in new window perceived bureaucracy as a hierarchical organization devised rationally to coordinate the work of many individuals in order to achieve large scale administrative and organizational goals.

Weber had argued that bureaucratic form of organization is increasingly characterized as a system of administration distinguished by its clear hierarchy of authority, rigid division of labour, written and inflexible rules and strict adherence to policies without humane concern regarding the needs of the people.

The following are the highlights of a bureaucratic form of organization:
  • Bureaucracy has a chain of command where recruitment takes place according to the specialization and merit of an individual.
  • In a bureaucratic organization, every person has a clearly defined role and an area of responsibility.
  • Promotion is conducted on the basis of rules.
  • Rationally formulated impersonal rules govern their behaviour.
  • There is discipline and a strict adherence to rules and regulations as well as a strict separation between official and private income.

According to Weber, bureaucracy is technically, far superior to any other organization as it employs specialists to achieve its goals and does not allow personal emotions to interfere in its working. As a result, it is more efficient than any other format of organization and it is now the dominant form of organization in every aspect of social life. Weber argued that the movement of society toward the bureaucratic form of organization is an irreversible trend in history.

The following are various definitions of Bureaucracy as defined by prominent scholars:
Stillman's definition of bureaucracy:

Bureaucracy is the structure and personnel of organizations, rooted in law, that collectively function as the core system of U.S. government and that both determines and carries out public policies using a high degree of specialized expertise.

Prof. Laski's definition:

Bureaucracy is a system, the control of which is so completely in the hands of officials that their power jeopardizes the liberties of ordinary citizens.

This definition captures the nature of bureaucracy, which, especially in political writings, very often implies an abuse of power, a situation where officials have more power than is necessary for the performance of their legitimate tasks. When this abuse of power is applied it mostly robs citizens of their essential freedom.

Louis Coser and Rosenberg's definition:

Bureaucracy may be defined as that type of hierarchical organization which is designed rationality to coordinate the work of many individuals in the pursuit of large scale administrative tasks.”

In this definition the bureaucratic format is likened to hierarchical structure which is used to coordinate the works in large-scale organizations.

Characteristics of Bureaucracy

The following are the defining characteristics of a bureaucracy:

  1. Hierarchy — A hierarchical structure involving the delegation of authority from the top to the bottom of an organization.
  2. Technical expertise — Technically qualified personnel are recruited and promoted on the basis of technical expertise and competence, rather than on personal relationships or luck.
  1. Division of labour — An explicitly defined division of labour with specialization and training for assigned tasks.
  2. Rationality of rules — Designation of explicit rules to seal uniformity of performance and treatment, displacing emotional and personal decision making.
  3. General rules — Formal rules, regulations, and standards governing operations of the organization and the behaviour of its members.
  4. Written documentation — Official records become important because documentation would make it possible to trace actions and have them inspected by others.
  5. Full and continuous employment — Career expectations are to be fulfilled within the organization in a full-time capacity. This assumes that fulfillment of one’s duty will be the highest priority, thus assuring that clients’ legitimate needs will be met if at all possible. In addition, full and continuous employment contributes to the ability to develop an impersonal and impartial relationship among organization members and with those outside the bureaucracy.

Advantages of Bureaucracy

The above characteristics of Bureaucracy brings to the fore the following advantages of Bureaucracy:
  1. Systematic administration — As evidently examined in the different definitions of bureaucracy, it is a system designed to make administrationOpens in new window systematic and scientific.
  2. Administration by qualified personnel — In a bureaucratic organization, works are divided into various levels and departments and the persons having suitable qualifications for each type of work are recruited to perform such tasks.
  3. Effective measure of control — In a bureaucratic organization, interaction among the individual members of that organization is regulated by rules of conduct. The validity of these rules of conduct consist in fact that they are consciously made rational formulations, whether agreed upon or imposed from above, to which the persons under the rule’s jurisdiction are bound. Thus, obedience is given to the rule rather than any individual person.
  4. Possibility of large scale industry —Above all the greatest advantage of bureaucracy, is that with the help of this system, huge industrial empires can be established and run efficiently.

Disadvantages of Bureaucracy

Notwithstanding, the above advantages of bureaucracy, eminent scholars pejoratively criticize bureaucracy, hence, the following disadvantages have been observed:

  1. Red tapismRed tapismOpens in new window is a major shortcoming of bureaucracy. In a format of bureaucratic organization, the files and papers move at a snail pace and it takes inordinately long time to reach any decision on any matter. According to Robert King Merton “the strict rules and discipline make bureaucracy inflexible and thus inefficient and the bureaucrat becomes a ritualist who worships the means but rejects the goals.
  2. Dehumane in nature — Bureaucracy does not favour the individual because it is a system for the administration of the aggregate. It is cold and impersonal as its strict control limits freedom.
  3. Problem of superiority complex — In bureaucracy, the top-ranking officers are afflicted with egoism; they bluff and bluster. Drunk with power they treat their subordinates with little respect. Therefore, the subordinates feel slighted and demoralized.
  4. Problem of uniform procedures — The bureaucratic uniform procedures prevent spontaneity and individual initiative to influence work while its impersonal nature tends to produce “specialists without spirt.

Bursting Bureaucracy

The bureaucratic approach to organizational structure is the villain that causes organizations to fail to deliver satisfaction to their customers and employees. Bureaucracies stymie action and improvement. Bureaucrats avert accountability. Customers and workers suffer dissatisfaction.

Johnson proposes to replace the bureaucratic paradigm with one called the “mission-driven” organization. Organizations that adopt the new model will be “flexible, responsive, innovative, and have customer friendly politics, practices, and procedures”.

The Mission-Driven Model

Johnson recommends replacing the bureaucratic form with the mission-driven organization are:

  • A customer focused mission (e.g. providing a first quality product or an extraordinary service).
  • Performance measurements based on customer satisfaction.
  • A reoriented hierarchy in which senior management articulates vision and strategy, middle managers empower teams and remove obstacles, and everyone else is organized into cross-functional teams.
  • Decision-making is devolved to those with appropriate skills and training, not by management rank.
  • Attention is paid to the individual needs of customers and employees.
  • Hiring is based on human as well as technical and business skills.
  • Job security depends on mission achievement.

Over time, the teams will evolve into completely self-directed groups, responsible for their own goals, strategies and vision. When that happens, the traditional bureaucracy will be displaced.

However, replacing bureaucracy with a mission-driven organization should be viewed as a never-ending process. A firm does not simply get rid of the bureaucratic form. Customer satisfaction is an ever-shifting target. The mission-driven firm will follow a strategy of continuous improvement to replace bureaucracy.

Getting There

Johnson describes the change process. He recommends assigning people to a “shadow organization” to spearhead and manage the changes. The shadow organization provides planning and goal definition, continuous customer feedback, assistance from outside experts, and extensive training of all personnel. Among the most important things to teach all workers is what Johnson calls the new “social impact”.

In a service economy, we take turns serving each other. When it’s our turn to serve, we give the customer the deference, the respect and the dignity that customers deserve. When it’s our turn to be served, we can then expect, and even insist on, the deference, the respect and the dignity that we deserve.


Busting bureaucracy is a simple but compelling guide to the nature and deficiencies of the bureaucratic model and to the benefits of and transition to the new mission-driven model. The book hammers home the essence of successful businesses in a world of intense global competition: Unrestrained commitment to customers and employees.

The world is rapidly changing. With global competition and uncertain environments, many organizations are fighting against increasing complexity. The problems of the bureaucratic model can be overcome by shifting to a new paradigm to be more flexible, innovative, and responsive to customers.

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  • References
    • Kenneth Johnson, Busting Bureaucracy, Business One, Irwin.
    • Nickinovich, D. Bureaucracy. In Encyclopedia of Socioloyg, 2nd Edition.
    • Weber, Max. In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Edited & translated by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946.
    • Goodsell, C.T. The Case for Bureaucracy: A Public Administration Polemic, 3rd Edition; Chatham House Publishers, Inc.: Chatham, NJ, 1994.
    • Turner, J.; Beeghley, L.; Powers, C. The Emergence of Sociological Theory, 4th Ed.; Wardsworth Publishing Company: Belmont, CA, 1998; 137-188.

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