A bureaucracy (/bjuːˈrɒkrəsi/) is "a body of non-elective government officials" and/or "an administrative policy-making group". Historically, bureaucracy was government administration managed by departments staffed with non-elected officials. Today, bureaucracy is the administrative system governing any large institution.
Since being coined, the word "bureaucracy" has developed negative connotations. Bureaucracies have been criticized as being too complex, inefficient, or too inflexible. The dehumanizing effects of excessive bureaucracy became a major theme in the work of Franz Kafka, and were central to his novels, The Castle and The Trial. The elimination of unnecessary bureaucracy is a key concept in modern managerial theory and has been an issue in some political campaigns.
Others have noted the necessity of bureaucracies in modern life. The German sociologist Max Weber argued that bureaucracy constitutes the most efficient and rational way in which one can organize human activity, and that systematic processes and organized hierarchies were necessary to maintain order, maximize efficiency and eliminate favoritism. Weber also saw unfettered bureaucracy as a threat to individual freedom, in which an increase in the bureaucratization of human life can trap individuals in an impersonal "iron cage" of rule-based, rational control.
A bureaucracy is a way of administratively organizing large numbers of people who need to work together. Organizations in the public and private sector, including universities and governments, rely on bureaucracies to function. The term bureaucracy literally means “rule by desks or offices,” a definition that highlights the often impersonal character of bureaucracies. Even though bureaucracies sometimes seem inefficient or wasteful, setting up a bureaucracy helps ensure that thousands of people work together in compatible ways by defining everyone’s roles within a hierarchy.
What Bureaucrats Do
Government bureaucrats perform a wide variety of tasks. We often think of bureaucrats as paper-pushing desk clerks, but bureaucrats fight fires, teach, and monitor how federal candidates raise money, among other activities.
The job of a bureaucrat is to implement government policy, to take the laws and decisions made by elected officials and put them into practice. Some bureaucrats implement policy by writing rules and regulations, whereas others administer policies directly to people (such as distributing small business loans or treating patients at a veterans’ hospital). The task of running the government, and providing services through policy implementation, is called public administration.
One useful approach to understanding what bureaucrats do is to examine the actions of different governmental agencies. The following table summarizes the government’s major functions and provides examples of agencies that perform those tasks.
A system of administration distinguished by its (1) clearhierarchy of authority, (2) rigid division of labor, (3) written and inflexible rules, regulations, and procedures, and (4) impersonal relationships. Once instituted, bureaucracies are difficult to dislodge or change. See also Parkinson's Law and Peter Principle.
What is a 'Bureaucracy'
A bureaucracy is an administrative or social system that relies on a set of rules and procedures, separation of functions and a hierarchical structure in implementing controls over an organization, government or social system. Large administrative staffs are most common in large organizations that need standardized rules and procedures or consistency across a wide range of business activities.
BREAKING DOWN 'Bureaucracy'
Although some form of bureaucracy is necessary for large, efficiently run organizations, there is much debate over whether the theory is ever manifested in practice. The term is often used in a pejorative way, since many bureaucracies become too large to be efficient, and become dysfunctional as a result. Some form of bureaucracy is necessary, however, in firms that are subject to heavy regulatory scrutiny, since a loss of policy or oversight control could have dire consequences.
It is a widely held belief that small companies can be more efficient because they do not need large bureaucracies and therefore can adapt and innovate very quickly. Large bureaucracies are also associated with more mature companies in mature industries nearing the end of their life cycles.
Simple Definition of Bureaucracy
- a large group of people who are involved in running a government but who are not elected
- a system of government or business that has many complicated rules and ways of doing things
Full Definition of Bureaucracy
- 2 definitions
- body of nonelective government officials
- an administrative policy-making group
- government characterized by specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority