Characteristics of Bureaucracies Research Paper Starter

Characteristics of Bureaucracies

Bureaucracies have been a hallmark of advanced capitalist economies for several centuries. Beginning with public perceptions of bureaucracies and the difference between public and private bureaucracies, this discussion turns to the origins of bureaucracies and how they are defined through reference to characteristics such as hierarchy and division of labor. The essay continues with an examination of three leading exponents of bureaucracy — Max Weber, Karl Marx and Ludwig von Von Mises — and ends with a discussion of the changes and challenges faced by public and private bureaucracies, such as deregulation, as well as the methods government regulatory agencies are using to be more responsive to taxpayers, including public comment and public notice.

Keywords Bureaucracy; Capitalism; Civil Servant; Deregulation; Division of Labor; Hierarchy; Private Bureaucracy; Public Bureaucracy; Regulation

Characteristics of Bureaucracies


Bureaucracies and bureaucrats often suffer from negative public perceptions. As prominent social scientist James Q. Wilson noted, many taxpayers believe that "bureaucrats are lethargic, incompetent hacks who spend their days spinning out reels of red tape and reams of paperwork, all the while going to great lengths to avoid doing the job they were hired to do. Their agencies chiefly produce waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement" (Wilson, 1989, p. 8). Along these same lines, scholars have shown that many American politicians running for election or reelection know that developing an adversarial relationship with public bureaucracies is a winning strategy (Garrett et al., 2006). Meanwhile, the size of the federal bureaucracy continues to grow to record levels (Light, 1995; Light, 2004).

On a more positive note, some historians have argued that bureaucracies have been responsible for the rise of modern nations, including Japan after World War II. Wilson has also noted that, despite the common perception of government bureaucrats, most Americans surveyed about their dealings with state agencies report that their "experiences were good, [and] that the agency personnel were helpful, friendly, and competent. This can only mean that those lazy, incompetent bureaucrats must work for some other agency - the one the citizen never sees" (Wilson, 1989, p. 8).

Marxist conceptions of bureaucracies will be compared and contrasted. The essay concludes with a discussion of the role of public and private bureaucracies in the twenty-first century.

Origins of the Bureaucracy

Bureaucracies date back to the beginning of recorded human history. Bureaucrats toiled in such far-flung locations as ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Samaria, Persia, and China, tending to the daily affairs of life in those empires (Beyer, 1959). Perhaps the most well-known ancient bureaucrat was St. Matthew, a tax collector for Rome and, according to the New Testament, a disciple of Jesus.

While bureaucrats have long been a fixture of empires, the word bureaucracy dates only to eighteenth-century France. It was coined by the Frenchman Vincent de Gournay (1712–1759) from two Greek words that, when combined, have the literal meaning of "government by desk" (Walker, 2001, p. 104). From the very beginning, and certainly by the time Marx first wrote against bureaucracy in 1843, the term bureaucrat had a negative connotation; it quickly became a stick with which to strike out against the increasingly cold and impersonal manner in which government and industry were run. According to Wilson (1989), "Honore de Balzac (1799–1850) described 'bureaucracy' as a 'giant power wielded by pygmies…with a natural kindness for mediocrity…as fussy and meddlesome as a small shopkeeper's wife.'" Referring to the French origins of the word, the Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) huffed in 1850 that bureaucracy was a "continental nuisance" (cited in Wilson, 1989, p. 104).

The origins of the bureaucratic idea in the United States remains the subject of debate, but there is an emerging consensus that the actual rise of public and private bureaucracies was due in part to several factors. In the public sector, bureaucracies formed and grew due to the growth of government and the need to properly administer it; and the desire of reformers to use "objective" scientific methodologies to protect individual rights from being trampled by majority rule (Nelson, 1992; cf. Schwartz, 1984). In the private sector, industrial bureaucracies were used to manage factories and large numbers of workers in what was thought to be the most efficient and "scientific" manner possible. By the beginning of the twentieth century, bureaucracies were firmly entrenched in American life.

Defining Bureaucracy

At the most basic level, a bureaucracy is just another way of "conceptualizing the system of interrelationships in organizations" (Hall, 1963, p. 32). Bureaucracies have been viewed as negative or positive, depending upon the particular bureaucracy, and possibly, one's perspective:

Organizational research presents two conflicting views of the human, or attitudinal, outcomes of bureaucracy. According to the negative view, the bureaucratic form of organization stifles creativity, fosters dissatisfaction, and demotivates employees. According to the positive view, it provides needed guidance and clarifies responsibilities, thereby easing role stress and helping individuals be and feel more effective (Alder & Borys, 1996, p. 61).


There are both private bureaucracies and public bureaucracies. Private bureaucracies are bureaucracies within corporations and non-governmental organizations, while public bureaucracies are those within local, state and federal governments. Examples of private bureaucracies include corporations, schools and hospitals. Examples of public bureaucracies include governments, courts and the military. Many public local, state, and federal government agencies — from the local registry of motor vehicles to US Department of Housing and Urban Development — are bureaucracies that make and enforce rules on all manner of subjects.

There are several common characteristics of all bureaucracies:

• Hierarchical reporting structure

• Division of labor within various departments

• Well-defined and predictable employee career paths

• A web of connections between various departments

In practical terms, bureaucracy is a type of organization designed to minimize waste and inefficiencies -- economic or otherwise - while maximizing quality service delivery through streamlined, predetermined and objective processes.

The degree to which any given bureaucracy meets, or even aspires to, these lofty ideals continues to be hotly contested in some quarters and bemoaned in others. Justified or not, there continues to be a popular sentiment that many bureaucracies are unelected and unaccountable regulatory bodies that exercise an unhealthy degree of power over the lives of ordinary Americans. Many Americans also feel, as noted by Wilson, that bureaucracies tend to do more harm than good.


Bureaucracy in Modern Corporations

In many contemporary studies of business organization, anti-bureaucracy is the byword. Reacting to the prevailing thesis, articulated most cogently by sociologist Max Weber, that bureaucracies are necessary goods in the business world, a number of influential thinkers have suggested that open or flat business structures are preferable to the hierarchical structures that are part and parcel of bureaucracies. These scholars argue that in advanced capitalist economies such as those found in the United States and Europe, what matters is the rapid transfer of knowledge, which necessarily breaks down traditional bureaucratic structures that were created to facilitate a factory-based economy which has now been largely superseded (cf. Drucker, 1969). Various public intellectuals such as Karl Popper (1902-1994), author of "The Open Society and Its Enemies" (1945), have been enlisted in what might be called an anti-bureaucratic crusade (ArmbrÜster & Geber, 2002).

However, as recent scholarship has shown, there is something remarkably resilient about corporate hierarchies, one of the hallmarks of all bureaucracies:

In organizations, goal-oriented activity legitimately requires a division of tasks and a need to co-ordinate them which, from a certain size, generates a need for coordinative roles, a distribution of information needs and, hence, some sort of stratification. Even 'democratically' conceived organizations, therefore, cannot be equated with a demise of hierarchy (ArmbrÜster & Geber, 2002, p. 174).

In any case, bureaucracy is often a reason employees cite as a hindrance to their job satisfaction and productivity. There seems every reason to believe that, despite economic conditions, corporations operating within a fiercely competitive global economy will continue to seek ways to be more agile, which is another way of saying that they will focus on rapid response to change, innovation and results rather than reinforcing conventional corporate structures and policies for their own sake.

Agility in Public Bureaucracies

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, discussions of bureaucratic reform in the public sector took a distinctly technological turn with the argument being that the best way to reduce public sector waste and improve service delivery was to use technology whenever possible. However, while private sector companies have obvious financial incentives driving innovation, public sector innovation is a new research area, and the best ways to introduce innovation into the public sector remain somewhat unclear (PÄrna & von Tunzelmann, 2007).

How can the public sector best adapt to change? A recent and preliminary study of public services in four European countries found that financial incentives were not a significant driver of public sector reform from within. According to...

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