What is a Bureaucracy?

The term bureaucracy (/bjʊəˈrɒkrəsi/) may refer both to a body of non-elected governing officials and to an administrative policy-making group. Historically, a bureaucracy was a government administration managed by departments staffed with non-elected officials. Today, bureaucracy is the administrative system governing any large institution, whether publicly owned or privately owned. The public administration in many jurisdictions and sub-jurisdictions exemplifies bureaucracy, but so does the centralized hierarchical structure of a business firm.

Bureaucracy in a political theory is mainly a centralized form of management and tends to be differentiated from adhocracy, in which management tends more to decentralization.

Bureaucracy, specific form of organization defined by complexity, division of labour, permanence, professional management, hierarchical coordination and control, strict chain of command, and legal authority. It is distinguished from informal and collegial organizations. In its ideal form, bureaucracy is impersonal and rational and based on rules rather than ties of kinship, friendship, or patrimonial or charismatic authority. Bureaucratic organization can be found in both public and private institutions.

What Does Bureaucracy Mean?


Some degree or bureaucracy is always needed in every organization, especially if large. Bureaucracy tends to increase as organizations grow in size and complexity. It helps to maintain uniformity and control as well as to minimize discretion. However, the term is usually used in negative contexts. Large institutions often become too rigid and inefficient due to excessive number of procedures that any employee must fulfill to execute even simple tasks.

Under this framework, governments are frequently seen as bureaucracies. Due to the risks and disadvantages of excessive bureaucracy, a proper balance of rules vs flexibility is desired. Senior managers should, therefore, impose only the required bureaucracy but at the same time to leave room to innovation, creativity and unexpected but valuable behaviors at work.

Labels such as “bureaucrat,” “bureaucratic,” and “bureaucracy” often have negative connotations. Bureaucrats imply government personnel, and the term bureaucratic implies that set methods are more important than efficiency. However, there is a more balanced way to look at a bureaucracy.

The bureaucratic process lends itself to criticism. It is often considered to be synonymous with redundancy, arbitrariness, and inefficiency. One common satirical definition of bureaucracy is “the art of making the possible impossible.”

Structurally, bureaucracy stems from the effort to govern organizations through closed systems. Closed systems are formal and rigid to maintain order. Procedural correctness is paramount within a bureaucracy. Perhaps the single most identifiable characteristic of a bureaucracy is the use of hierarchical procedures to simplify or replace autonomous decisions.

A bureaucrat makes implicit assumptions about an organization and the world with which it interacts. One of these assumptions is that the organization cannot rely on an open system of operations, which is either too complex or too uncertain to survive. Instead, a closed and rationally reviewed system should be implemented and followed.

Bureaucracy in Government and Business

In government or large organizations, bureaucracy is indispensable in administering rules and regulations. A bureaucratic structure is designed to administer large-scale and systematic coordination between many people working at different levels to achieve a common goal. Earlier, it was related to a political organization but in modern times it is associated with the administrative system governing any large institution. The various modes are hierarchy, professionalization, specialization, subdivision, and a fixed way of doing things.

In bureaucratic management, all regular tasks that are to be performed are classified as official duties and imposing rules is the sole authority of the management. Bureaucracy demands bureaucrats to be highly disciplined and abide by the rules. It derives its power from rationality.

Bureaucracy is not just confined to political organizations. Whenever coordination of people is a necessity, bureaucracy is the answer to it. Though bureaucracy smooths the process of realizing institutional goals, at the same time it may make the mechanism appear more important than the desired end service.

Characteristics And Paradoxes Of Bureaucracy

The foremost theorist of bureaucracy is the German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), who described the ideal characteristics of bureaucracies and offered an explanation for the historical emergence of bureaucratic institutions. According to Weber, the defining features of bureaucracy sharply distinguish it from other types of organization based on nonlegal forms of authority. Weber observed that the advantage of bureaucracy was that it was the most technically proficient form of organization, possessing specialized expertise, certainty, continuity, and unity. Bureaucracy’s emergence as a preferred form of organization occurred with the rise of a money-based economy (which ultimately resulted in the development of capitalism) and the attendant need to ensure impersonal, rational-legal transactions. Instrumental organizations (e.g., public-stock business firms) soon arose because their bureaucratic organization equipped them to handle the various demands of capitalist production more efficiently than small-scale producers.

Contemporary stereotypes of bureaucracy tend to portray it as unresponsive, lethargic, undemocratic, and incompetent. Weber’s theory of bureaucracy, however, emphasizes not only its comparative technical and proficiency advantages but also attributes its dominance as a form of organization to the diminution of caste systems (such as feudalism) and other forms of inequitable social relations based upon a person’s status. In the pure form of bureaucratic organization universalized rules and procedures would dominate, rendering personal status or connections irrelevant. In this form, bureaucracy is the epitome of universalized standards under which similar cases are treated similarly as codified by law and rules, and under which the individual tastes and discretion of the administrator are constrained by due process rules. Despite the widespread derogatory stereotypes of bureaucracy, a system of government grounded in law requires bureaucracy to function.

Nevertheless, the words bureaucracy and bureaucrat are typically thought of and used pejoratively. They convey images of red tape, excessive rules and regulations, unimaginativeness, a lack of individual discretion, central control, and an absence of accountability. Far from being conceived as proficient, popular contemporary portrayals often paint bureaucracies as inefficient and lacking in adaptability. Because the characteristics that define the organizational advantages of bureaucracy also contain within them the possibilities of organizational dysfunction, both the flattering and unflattering depictions of bureaucracy can be accurate. Thus, the characteristics that make bureaucracies proficient paradoxically also may produce organizational pathologies.

Jurisdictional Competency

Jurisdictional competency is a key element of bureaucratic organization, which is broken into units with defined responsibilities. Fundamentally, jurisdictional competency refers to bureaucratic specialization, with all elements of a bureaucracy possessing a defined role. The responsibilities of individuals broaden with movement upward through an organizational hierarchy. The organizational division of labour enables units and individuals within an organization to master details and skills and to turn the novel into the routine. Although the division of labour is highly efficient, it can lead to a number of harmful organizational pathologies; for example, units or individuals may be unable to identify and respond adequately to problems outside their competency and may approach all problems and priorities exclusively from the purview of a unit’s specific capabilities. This feature of bureaucracy also can lead organizational units to shirk responsibility by allowing them to define a problem as belonging to some other unit and thereby leave the issue unattended. Alternatively, every unit within an organization is apt to put a face on a problem congenial mainly to its own interests, skills, and technologies.

Command and Control

Bureaucracies have clear lines of command and control. Bureaucratic authority is organized hierarchically, with responsibility taken at the top and delegated with decreasing discretion below. Because of the risk of organizational parochialism produced by limited and specific jurisdictional competencies, the capacity to coordinate and control the multiplicity of units is essential. Authority is the glue that holds together diversity and prevents units from exercising unchecked discretion. Yet, few features of bureaucratic life have received so much adverse attention as the role of hierarchical authority as a means for achieving organizational command and control. Popular criticisms emphasize that hierarchical organization strangles creative impulses and injects hyper-cautious modes of behaviour based on expectations of what superiors may desire. Command and control, which are necessary to coordinate the disparate elements of bureaucratic organization, provide for increasing responsibility upward, delegation, and decreasing discretion downward.


Continuity is another key element of bureaucratic organization. Rational-legal authority necessitates uniform rules and procedures for written documents and official behaviour. A bureaucracy’s files (i.e., its past records) provide it with organizational memory, thereby enabling it to follow precedent and standard operating procedures. The ability to utilize standard operating procedures makes organizations more efficient by decreasing the costs attached to any given transaction. Organizational files record procedures, antecedent behaviour, and personnel records. They also allow an organization to be continuous and, thus, independent of any specific leadership. On the whole, continuity is vital to an organization’s capacity to retain its identity and even its culture. Without its records, it would be impossible to maintain transactions grounded in legality. Yet continuity also has a dysfunctional side, leading organizations to behave predictably and conservatively or, worse perhaps, merely reflexively. Continuity also may lead a bureaucracy to repeat regularly activities that may be inaccurate and whose inaccuracies thereby cumulate.


Professionalization of management, another basic element of bureaucracy, requires a full-time corps of officials whose attention is devoted exclusively to its managerial responsibilities. In government, professionalization is vested in the corps of civil servants whose positions have generally been obtained through the passage of tests based upon merit. The civil service is sometimes considered a permanent government, distinct from the transient politicians who serve only for a limited time and at the pleasure of the electorate in democratic political systems.

In businesses and in other nongovernmental bureaucratic organizations, there is also a professional cadre of managers. Professionalization increases expertise and continuity within the organization. Even when organizations are temporarily leaderless or experience turmoil in their top leadership positions, the professional cadre helps to maintain an organizational equilibrium. The virtues of professionalization are clear: without a professional corps, organizations would suffer from crises induced by incompetency. Professionalization thus contributes to the superior technical proficiency that Weber claimed was the hallmark of bureaucratic organization.

Despite its virtues, professionalization also carries potential risks. Often the professional corps of managerial experts itself becomes a covert source of power because it has superior knowledge compared with those who are its nominal but temporary superiors. By virtue of greater experience, mastery of detail, and organizational and substantive knowledge, professional bureaucrats may exercise strong influence over decisions made by their leaders. The existence of powerful bureaucrats raises issues of accountability and responsibility, particularly in democratic systems; bureaucrats are supposedly the agents of their leaders, but their superior knowledge of detail can place them in a position of indispensability. In addition, although a permanent corps of officials brings expertise and mastery of detail to decision making, it also deepens the innate conservatism of a bureaucracy. The permanent corps is usually skeptical of novelty because the essence of bureaucratic organization is to turn past novelties into present routines. Professional bureaucrats, be they in the civil or private sector, also tend to favour the organizational status quo because their investments (e.g., training and status) are tied to it. Consequently, the more professionalized the cadre becomes, the more likely it is to resist the intrusion of external forces.


Rules are the lifeblood of bureaucratic organization, providing a rational and continuous basis for procedures and operations. An organization’s files provide the inventory of accumulated rules. Bureaucratic decisions and—above all—procedures are grounded in codified rules and precedents. Although most people dislike rules that inhibit them, the existence of rules is characteristic of legal-rational authority, ensuring that decisions are not arbitrary, that standardized procedures are not readily circumvented, and that order is maintained. Rules are the essence of bureaucracy but are also the bane of leaders who want to get things done their way instantly.

Rules restrain arbitrary behaviour, but they also can provide formidable roadblocks to achievement. The accumulation of rules sometimes leads to the development of inconsistencies, and the procedures required to change any element of the status quo may become extraordinarily onerous as a result of the rule-driven character of bureaucracy. One perspective holds that the strict adherence to rules restricts the ability of a bureaucracy to adapt to new circumstances. By contrast, markets, which can operate with very few rules, force rapid adaptation to changing circumstances. Yet, most major business organizations are arranged in bureaucratic form because hierarchy and delegated responsibility reduce the transaction costs of making decisions.

Criticisms of a Bureaucracy

Bureaucratic structures tend to be backward-looking, identifying procedures that worked well in the past. This backward perspective creates a conflict with entrepreneurs and innovators who prefer forward-looking concepts and attempt to identify ways in which processes could be improved.

For example, agile processes that make improvements through an iterative process characterized by self-organization and accountability. Over time, a rigid bureaucracy reduces operational efficiency, particularly compared to rival organizations without large bureaucracies. Losses in efficiency are most pronounced in circumstances where bureaucracy is also used to insulate established power structures from the competition.

Classic bureaucratic rigidity and protectionism are prevalent in the U.S. federal government. For example, firing poor performers is difficult because of an arduous termination process.

Advantages of Bureaucracy

  • Division of labor: Makes work easier; leads to specialization.
  • Efficiency: Competency increases; work is efficiently performed under the supervision of immediate managers in the hierarchy.
  • Accountability and answerability: Common citizens can hold government officials and bureaucrats accountable for the actions performed by them in the course of dispensing their duties. The organization is answerable in case something goes wrong.
  • Decision-making: Decisions are generally handed over to the employees by their immediate managers, and to the managers by the ones above them in the hierarchy.
  • Rules and regulations: The set of rules and regulations that are clearly stated in most cases makes obedience to them a prerequisite in the bureaucratic structure, thereby reducing the scope of non-adherence to the framework of rules and protocols.
  • Ease of administration: Makes administration easier; the organization is more rationally arranged in a structural hierarchy. In a bureaucratic structure, maintaining control of the management, making necessary adjustments as and when required, and the introduction of a new set of rules, as per requirements from time to time, are easier owing to the large size of the organization.

Disadvantages of Bureaucracy

  • Red tape: Bureaucracy, by its very character, follows a certain set of rules and regulations. This imparts a lack of flexibility and can often lead to inefficiency.
  • Bureaucratic delays: The complicated set of rules in a bureaucratic system often causes long delays.
  • Bureaucratic corruption: Corruption in the higher rungs of bureaucracy can be very disastrous to the economy.
  • Change of goals: The process of getting work done in a bureaucratic system is cumbersome and the set of rules and regulations often are given greater importance than the end result.
  • Paperwork: A lot of paperwork may be required even for very simple work.
  • Compartmentalization: As the jobs are divided across categories, it restricts the opportunities for collaboration and people performing tasks in other categories.
  • Nepotism: Nepotism in bureaucracy is often a problem. The managers sitting on top may favor their own people and help them rise quicker than more deserving individuals.
  • Decision-making: Decision-making in bureaucracy is based on a certain set of rules and regulations. This rigidity often leads to opting for programmed decisions while newer avenues are not explored.

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