What do you think of when you hear the word “bureaucracy”? If you're like most of us, you might first think of the word's definition: the network of officials and departments that administer the day-to-day activities of a government. But you might also experience a negative reaction to the word and remember all the times you've heard about bureaucracies being inefficient, slow, and even downright corrupt.
Indeed, bureaucracies are far from perfect, and many authors identify five constraints or pathologies that often afflict these administrative systems: red tape, waste, conflict, duplication, and imperialism. We'll look at each of these in turn, but first, let's be clear about the meaning of “constraints” and “pathologies.” The former, constraints, refers to limitations that prevent something, like a bureaucracy, from doing what it is supposed to do efficiently and easily. The latter, pathologies, normally indicates diseases but is used metaphorically here to designate things that are wrong, that are abnormal and harmful, and that essentially make a bureaucracy “sick.”
Let's look at each constraint or pathology in turn. Red tape refers to all the weighty processes and rules involved in bureaucratic work, all the hoops one must jump through to get anything accomplished. To apply for a business license, for instance, you must fill out form after form, pay fees, make sure to conform to all the details required, wait while the proper office or offices decide if you qualify, and then perhaps start all over if your application gets rejected. You might just be ready to pull your hair out by the time you've finished and finally have your license in hand. By the way, the phrase “red tape” comes from a time when government documents actually were wrapped up in red tape.
When a bureaucracy is affected by waste, its officials spend more money than strictly required to purchase the goods and services they need. We've all heard stories about hammers, ash trays, and toilet seats costing the government hundreds of dollars. These may or may not be true, but there is no doubt that bureaucracies often waste money.
Conflict happens when two or more bureaucratic departments are working on the same or similar projects, often getting in each other's way and creating questions (and sometimes arguments) about who must do what, when, and with what resources. Imagine running from office to office in a courthouse trying to ask a question about your property taxes and getting several different answers from people who are positive they are correct. If this ever happens to you, you'll understand the concept of conflict very well.
Duplication is exactly what it sounds like: two bureaucratic departments trying to do the same thing at the same time and, of course, spending double the money to do it! For instance, when two government offices are both trying to regulate and eliminate illegal drug trafficking (and getting into conflicts—see above), we might ask ourselves if one office couldn't do just as well on its own.
refers to a bureaucracy that grows and grows and just keeps on expanding its range of action (and its spending), whether it needs to or not. Eventually, the bureaucracy starts to seem like an empire all on its own with hundreds of departments and programs (and no one quite understanding how they all fit together).
So why do these constraints or pathologies of bureaucracies exist? Usually, no one starts them on purpose or means for them to get out of control. The problem is that bureaucracies are just so big! They grow quickly, and it is hard for bureaucrats to keep track of everything going on. So many people are working on so many projects in so many offices that communication fades, oversight falls away, mistakes happen, abuses slip in, and pretty soon a bureaucracy ends up sick with red tape, waste, conflict, duplication, and imperialism.