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- Definition and Characteristics of Bureaucracy
- Why Do We Have Bureaucracy?
- Bureaucracy and Markets
- The Bureaucratic State
- Bureaucratic Pathologies
- Internal Pathologies
- External Pathologies
- Living With Bureaucracy
The term bureaucracy denotes a particular form of organization that is complex and differentiated, has defined rules and procedures, and is subject to a command-and-control system of hierarchical authority. this research paper discusses the nature and functions of bureaucracy and the bureaucratic state, as well as the problems and deficiencies associated with it.
Definition and Characteristics of Bureaucracy
The illustrious German sociologist Max Weber noted several characteristics of the bureaucratic form of organization that defined it as an ideal type.
First, bureaucracy derives its authority through law. It depends neither on traditional nor on personal modes of authority. It is instead based on a form of legal-rational authority that defines the foundations of the organization’s jurisdiction and its procedures of operation.
Second, bureaucracy has differentiated offices or units that have specialized competencies and jurisdictions. This aspect of bureaucracy provides it with some obvious advantages, including the ability to bring technical expertise and experience to bear on particular aspects of problems. It also raises some difficulties, however, in coordination of tasks, and it sometimes creates conflicting perspectives as to what the task is or how a problem should be defined.
Third, bureaucracy is characterized by an internally hierarchical system of authority required to bring its distinctive parts together as part of a unified system of coordination. The extent to which this hierarchical control system can actually be put in place is almost always imperfect, though the extent to which it can be consummated rests on many factors other than coercion. These include leadership that obtains support from all of the organization’s distinctive offices and units, clarity of purpose from organizational leadership, and careful assessments of feasible paths to ends.
Fourth, bureaucracy is also characterized by rules and procedures that govern its internal functions. It has a memory and a set of procedures for dealing with recurring matters. Weber referred to this as the organization’s “files,” and this storage of experience and written rules anchors bureaucracy in the legal-rational system of authority. The files provide precedents and also produce standard operating procedures (SOPs) that enable bureaucracies to become more proficient in responding to problems that can be readily identified and are within the organizational repertoire. The more ambiguous or multifaceted the problem, however, the more complicated will be the sorting process within a bureaucratic organization and the more likely, therefore, that problems are recognized and defined in ways reflecting the complex differentiation of bureaucratic organizations. This means that there are likely to be many different perspectives rather than a unified one.
Fifth, bureaucracy is typically characterized by a full-time corps of officials. In governments, these officials are known as civil servants; they represent the continuity of the organizations of government, their missions and functions, and the antecedent ongoing commitments of government. Similarly, in private enterprise and even in nonprofit organizations (nongovernmental organizations), full-time managers and subordinates provide the basic maintenance functions within an organization, negotiate its external environment, and organize its production and marketing functions.
Realities are often more complex than this ideal-type description of bureaucracy. Sometimes bureaucratic forms exist but without the reputed benefits of expertise and efficient allocations of attention. Bureaucratic pathologies may run deep reflecting both environmental and cultural influences, shortages of resources, and incentives for suboptimal performance. These pathologies are especially notable in less developed countries. Consequently, to understand the topic better, this research paper addresses the following questions: Why do we have bureaucracy? What are the relationships with capitalism and market? What is the bureaucratic state and what are its relationships with democracy? What are the internal and external pathologies of bureaucratic behavior?
Why Do We Have Bureaucracy?
In Weber’s ideal-type description of bureaucracy, he noted that bureaucracy was the technically most proficient and efficient form of organization. Far from the negative stereotypes that have arisen in the contemporary era from pathologies associated with bureaucracy, Weber observed that bureaucratic organization was a necessary concomitant condition for the rise of capitalism based on economic efficiency. The rise of the modern public stock corporation separated management and ownership making the managers extremely important to the direction and guidance of the firm.
Capitalism necessitated legal-rational forms of authority. The modern corporation is itself a legal entity. Unlike a person or even a partnership, corporations have limited liability for their officers. Corporations and other types of firms require legally grounded rules in a capitalist system. Disputes must ultimately be settled through juridical means, and agreements must be carefully and legally delineated so that there is a record—what Weber referred to as “the files”—or a recorded precedent. Impersonal authority is central to a system of rational-legal authority, and bureaucracy is the embodiment of an organization defined by rules of procedure and responsive to external legal authority.
Above all, complexity requires organizational differentiation, specialization, and limited jurisdiction coordinated through a hierarchical system of authority. These crucial aspects of bureaucracy not only allow for greater efficiency, economy of effort, and expertise but also lead to problems of coordination.
Bureaucracy and Markets
On the face of it, bureaucracy and capitalism seem to live in an uneasy coexistence. One is structured by authority and legal rules, while the other in its pure form reflects an uninhibited free exchange of goods and services mediated by the price mechanism. The reality, however, is much more complicated. Sellers are not necessarily numerous, and where possible, they seek to control markets and thus influence, if not dictate, prices. Public stock corporations’ interests lie in increasing the value of their stock. Rarely are consumers fully armed with perfect information as classical theories of economics assume. The rise of governmental regulation of markets and marketing practices and of the safety of products provides a means of short-circuiting the information needs that consumers by themselves would be unlikely to obtain. As a consequence, the rise, and, to some degree, the inevitable excesses of the profit motive lead to the necessity of regulation and the growth of governmental bureaucracy. Newly capitalistic systems, in fact, often suffer from a rapid expansion of production without adequate means of regulating the quality or safety of what is being produced. Such mechanisms tend to evolve in developed capitalist systems in order to counter the adverse impacts of unregulated capitalism.
The ascendency of capitalism and the modern corporation roughly parallels the rise of professionalism in government and the development of the modern state, characterized by governmental bureaucracy. Ironically, while it is sometimes claimed that capitalism rests on the free exchange of goods and services through the price mechanism and is thus antithetical to bureaucracy, the reality is that modern governments, through their bureaucracies, pave the way for markets to function by providing infrastructure, regulation of markets, transparency in market processes, and regulation of the relationships between private and public interests. In reality, states and markets have been more often collaborative than in conflict. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the effective functioning of markets without the effective functioning of government. The complexity of the modern corporation and the complexity of modern government have grown together more symbiotically than antagonistically.
The Bureaucratic State
It is hard to imagine modern government without bureaucratic capability. Weak states lack capability. And weak states are often characterized as ones affected by civil strife, lacking effective records, influenced by corruption, and unable to bring services to their populations, especially those that are remote from their capital cities. They are also typically incapable of collecting revenues in an impartial fashion. Cronyism runs amok. A professional corps of civil servants is usually absent and government is most often turned into a spoils system of tribal winners—or, as a means of keeping peace among contending factions, sometimes awarding some of the spoils to each of them. Weak states are inept precisely because they lack the desiderata of professional bureaucratic organization and a professional civil service and the resources to ensure their ability to function. Consequently, modern government and bureaucracy are nearly interchangeable. Continuity, specialized expertise, a professional corps of civil servants, the rule of law and impersonal authority, and documented records are the essence of bureaucracy and of modern states capable of governing, providing services, and collecting revenues.
For the most part, the bureaucratic state largely preceded the arrival of democratic government. It served the interests of a sovereign crown and typically led to the crown’s extension of its authority and, eventually, to what we know of today as the modern state. As a result, the state bureaucracy often has been seen as a conservatizing force in society—the consolidator of existing authority rather than a challenger to it. With the growth of mass enfranchisement, the bureaucracy was often viewed as the upholder of the existing regime and a potential threat to democracy. Its power rests on its continuity and specialized expertise and its permanence and durability, while the temporarily mandated leaders of government are often in a position of dependence on the bureaucracy. In a frequently invoked phrase, are the experts on tap or on top?
One major exception to the bureaucracy-democracy sequence was the United States where mass enfranchisement among White males preceded the development of a professionalized bureaucracy. Even after a professional civil service emerged, the federal government had few responsibilities until the 1930s, when the Franklin Roosevelt administration extended the federal role into the realms of economic and business regulation, the provision of social insurance, and, ultimately, the welfare state.
There has been much discussion across many developed societies about transforming bureaucracy, lightening its load, and moving toward market-oriented incentives, but especially in the United States, the bureaucracy has been deeply controversial. There, the identification of bureaucracy with “big government” and with controversial social reforms makes it both a point of partisan division and an object of derision.
The essential point is that while a facade of bureaucracy is no guarantee of effective government, it is virtually impossible to imagine effective government without bureaucracy. That, however, does not mean that public bureaucracy will be without controversy or demands for reform to which it has been subjected especially since the 1980s. Nor does it mean that the bureaucratic organizational form is without contradictions or that it can lead to certain pathologies.
Despite the advantages conferred by bureaucratic organization, pathologies result from the internal contradictions of this form of organization. These we will call internal pathologies. Another set of pathologies results from the ways in which bureaucracies relate to their environment. These we will call external pathologies.
Analysts, as well as antagonists, of bureaucracy have pointed to a variety of problems stemming from the logic of bureaucratic organization. These are presented in no particular order of importance.
One pathology stems from the very system of impersonal authority and legal rationality on which bureaucratic organization is based. As a rule-driven form of organization, bureaucracies must defend decisions based on legal rulings and precedents. Consequently, bureaucracies may be short on compassion, empathy, or extenuating circumstances of case equity. Uniform procedures rather than case equity are a hallmark of bureaucratic organization. A frequent criticism of this formalism in bureaucracy is characterized by accusations directed to “faceless,” “nameless,” or “unfeeling” bureaucrats whose decisions defy “common sense.” Actually, some studies of bureaucrats dealing with clients indicate that bureaucrats themselves often try to provide sympathy, guidance, and solace within the constraints of the law. But law is what guides bureaucracy, and this particular pathology, in reality, is a critique of the rule of law. By contrast, personal relationships often govern politics, and these relationships, in turn, generate charges of favoritism.
A second pathology stems from the command and control system of hierarchy in bureaucracies. Hierarchical authority is necessary to coordinate the various specialized jurisdictions as well as to provide an ultimate point of organizational accountability. Still, there is a continuous tension in all complex organizations between strict control from the top and devolution of authority to those at more operational levels within an organization. Paradoxically, control from the top downward produces more definitive accountability while also stymieing an organization’s ability to adapt to problems it encounters on the ground. It also may encourage risk-averse behavior and a desire on the part of subordinates to keep chastening news away from their superiors. Studies of military units observe that noncommissioned officers (the bottom rung of authority) are crucial to adaptability and to organizational effectiveness. How to apportion and allocate authority in bureaucratic organizations in ways that keep it from flying apart and thus adhering to no common identity remains unresolved. At the same time, how to imprint leadership direction without imposing stultifying restrictions on operational units is also unclear. Organizations need to be responsive and adaptive to their environments but frequently cannot be if control from the top is excessively restrictive. Obviously, balance is needed, but it is unclear, certainly in the abstract, as to exactly where that balance should be struck. Without sufficient control, unaccountable behaviors may become rampant—a potential issue especially for organizations with many “street-level” bureaucrats. But too much control is likely to lead to cautious, perhaps even timid, behaviors on the part of those responsible for hands-on operations.
A third pathology of bureaucratic behavior stems from the differentiated and specialized jurisdictional character of bureaucratic organization. Especially when individuals have spent much of their careers in a given unit, they are likely to look at and define problems within the definitional context of their units. A number of studies show that each unit tends to see the “face of a problem” in a way consistent with their unit’s responsibilities and the subculture of their unit. Given the tendency to search for problem definition and responses in a cognitively economical fashion, responses are apt to rely deeply on how specific organizational units define and codify responses and perpetuate them. Does this produce a cacophony of voices or a necessary diversity of perspectives? Again, a problem of finding the ever-elusive right balance appears. Organizational subunit responses are not random. In fact, they are typically predictable. But the various subunits’ responses cannot all be equally satisfied, which is, of course, where leadership comes in. Differentiation and the codification and subcultural practices that stem from the distinctive component parts of bureaucratic organization provide predictability but not synthesis, which then becomes the responsibility of central organizational leadership.
Studies, even of crises, show how distinctive “the face of the problem” will appear to different organizational units in accordance with their distinct missions and their core cultures, technologies, and perspectives. Can unity and clarity of direction be woven against the backdrop of these distinctive perspectives? And can central organizational leadership coax the losers in bureaucratic battles to cooperate rather than to continue the struggle covertly?
A fourth potential pathology of bureaucratic organization is the reliance on precedent. One of the most important characteristics of bureaucracy is that it provides for continuity. Critical to continuity is the recording of precedents and the use of precedents as a platform through which to assess current issues. Precedent serves to economize on cognitive energy. Basing current choices on precedents reduces the costs of search for organizations. However, reliance on precedents may lead to a highly conservative outlook temperamentally, one that may be more wedded to the past than to the future. Bureaucracy tends to be thought of as a lumbering status quo form of organization. That is due in no small part to the emphasis on following rules and procedures and the reliance on precedents set by the organization. Ultimately, bureaucracies are expert at routinizing the previously unexpected or contingent. But once this is done, continuity with precedents becomes part of the operating modality and departures that may be required for adaptability, equity, or even sensibility become harder to achieve. Bureaucracy pro-vides ballast and stability but by itself is unlikely to provide fresh direction.
A fifth possible pathology lies in the intersection between the individual interests of bureaucrats and collective well-being. Some analysis based on economic models, for example, suggests that bureaucrats have a stake in the growth of their agencies’ funding as they themselves are apt to benefit from the growth of revenue. A more compelling interpretation, though, would propose that where the fundamental technology of an organizational unit is invested in significantly by the bureaucrats of that unit, changes in the core technology puts at risk those whose training has been part of a prior technology. The more intensive and specialized that training, the more resistance there may be to alterations in it that would threaten the status of the current technology. The usual cliche about this is that all military forces are prepared to fight the previous war. This bit of conventional wisdom may well be overstated but there is a fundamental truth behind it, and that is that no one likes to be displaced by a newer or different technology that renders one’s own training obsolete. The human being inside the machinery of complex bureaucratic organization, therefore, needs to be taken into account.
In summary, the virtues of bureaucratic organization also contain the seeds of its deficiencies. Continuity, predictability, legality, precedent, and specialized expertise, accordingly, may lead to difficulties in adapting to change or recognizing novelty, difficulties in applying case equity, and problems of coordination. Hierarchical authority also can lead to a lack of sensitivity to problems on the ground. Yet a lack of hierarchical control may lead to a lack of accountability. Because these problems are built into a system of law and impersonal authority, there are no set formulas for resolving them. But they remain problems inherent in bureaucracy.
Despite our dependence on bureaucracy to provide orderly processes, the virtues of bureaucracy tend to be hidden to the unschooled eye, whereas its deficiencies seem to be obvious. One of these defects lies in the rule boundedness of bureaucracy resulting in the well-known “red tape” problem. In contrast to the realm of personal authority where one may petition to have a problem fixed through political means, procedural fairness and the accountability of bureaucracy to legal and auditing requirements inevitably produces large amounts of paperwork. The objective is to reduce the improper use of funds and procedural irregularities and to ensure a record of transactions. Few people, even bureaucrats, are enthralled by red tape. Most are frustrated by it. But red tape is the product of demands for accountability and procedural regularity, especially in the public sphere. A bureaucracy notably responsive to its clienteles might be regarded as showing favoritism and evading lawful procedures. The reality is that while we extol the rule of law in the abstract, we often prefer personal relationships concretely. That is, we often want a “fixer” to deal with the complications that regularity of procedures demands. Everyone wishes to cut through the maze of red tape to get what they want, but they also want to have procedures in place to deter others from getting what is improper.
Public bureaucracies particularly are expected to be both accountable and responsive. These terms, however, are remarkably elusive. Accountable to what and responsive to whom are questions that immediately arise. There appears to be no definitive agreement as to what precisely these words mean. Often, they are used interchangeably. If, however, accountability is taken to mean being answerable to a legally grounded authorization—a constitution, a sovereign, a law, or a fiduciary responsibility—and if responsiveness is taken to mean acceptance of the demands of temporary political authorities or of agency clienteles, one can see how these ideas may come into conflict. The great dilemma is for bureaucracies to be accountable and responsive up to a point—a point, however, that rarely can or even ought to be satisfied fully. An overly responsive bureaucracy will no longer be seen as neutral, fair, or judicious. A bureaucracy, however, that is unresponsive either has succeeded in displacing the elected or, at the other extreme, has lost its political relevance. Bureaucrats need some independence from the current political authorities if they are to function properly, but the line demarcating independence and unresponsiveness is very murky indeed. To find the appropriate balance is as difficult as it is necessary. Studies of senior civil servants in many developed countries indicate that they are sensitive to their political context but are frequently concerned about the proper equilibrium between neutral competence and accountability on the one hand and political/policy responsiveness to the current authorities on the other.
From a political perspective, another criticism of bureaucracy, especially as a regulator of business is that it is a “deadweight” on the functioning of markets by imposing costs on firms that add to prices. While regulation by bureaucrats is the product of political decisions made by duly authorized governments, free market proponents believe that bureaucratic regulation diminishes economic dynamism and efficiency. Each new regulation drives up the cost of doing business and restricts the options that businesses may have available to them. When the regulatory hand is made lighter, however, risks often arise that result in crises or avoidable tragic outcomes, and the call for regulation is renewed. The proper balance between regulation and business flexibility, as with other relationships between desirable but contradictory values, is hard to define, and the proper instrumentation for overseeing and enforcing regulatory behavior is equally difficult to pinpoint.
Finally, a significant criticism of bureaucracy is that its incentive structures are all wrong. Civil servants are insulated through tenure. This insulation may lead to behavior that provides little incentive to promote efficiencies that could disturb the status quo since there is little reward for doing so. A contrast is frequently drawn with private enterprise where continuous innovation is believed to be necessary for a firm’s health and growth prospects. According to this perspective, the business model is presumed to be the form of organization worth emulating, though, of course, most large-scale businesses are also bureaucracies. Administrative-reform efforts beginning in the 1980s, falling under the rubric of “new public management,” essentially emphasized the business model, emphasizing the off-loading of many government functions to the private sector and providing managerial incentives to improve performance in a scaled-down public sector. The assumption was that what worked in the market place would work equally well in government. Freeing up the managers and holding them accountable for performance was one reform pathway. Creating agencies and managers with limited-term contracts was another. In at least one case, tenure itself was eliminated in the public sector.
The results of this emphasis on making government more like business are still uncertain, and the movement toward providing incentives for promoting efficiency and improved performance may rest on an as yet unconfirmed assumption that officials in the public sphere have similar motivations as their counterparts in the private sphere. In fact, what evidence there is on this matter suggests otherwise. In the business model critique of bureaucracy, performance should be based less on adher-nce to rules and more on results. A lessening of rules-based administration, one can imagine, would be open to extensive challenges, and a fundamental search for consistent application of law would hardly disappear. Emphasizing results, of course, requires agreement on what the results should be and on the metrics required to assess performance. It is likely that some agency missions may not be easily susceptible to clear metrics. It is also likely that some agencies will adjust the definition of their missions in ways that allow for favorable metrics even if they are peripheral to their broader, if ill-defined, missions.
Living With Bureaucracy
Not all organizations are bureaucratic and, indeed, some of the most innovative ones in the private sector tend to be flat and intermingled to some degree in their functions. However, the growth of bureaucracy reflects modernity and a system ruled by legal authority and by differentiated function. That produces annoyances such as the heavy emphasis on procedures, rules, and specialized offices whose understandings may not be fully integrated with one another. Nevertheless, bureaucracy is able to provide continuity in government, consistency in application, proficiency through specialized and limited jurisdictions, and professionalism through a full-time civil service based on merit.
The limits and critiques of bureaucracy are notable. Its virtues are also often its vices. Balancing the contradictory tensions of the bureaucratic form of organization presents a continuing challenge. There is also no doubt that much of the criticism of bureaucracy is distinctly political and has little to do with bureaucracy itself and more to do with views about the appropriate scope of government. Finally, to appreciate the advantages of bureaucracy, it is useful to contemplate life without it. It would be a world without continuity, without consistency, and with a shortage of competence. We may not like bureaucracy, but we would assuredly dislike a world without it even more.
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