What are bureaucracies and how do they work? (2023)

A bureaucracy is any organization made up of multiple departments, each with policy and decision-making powers. Bureaucracy is all around us, from government agencies to offices to schools, so it's important to understand how bureaucracies work, what bureaucracies look like in the real world, and the ins and outs of bureaucracy.

Essential characteristics of a bureaucracy

  • Complex multi-level management hierarchy
  • Departmental specialization
  • Strict separation of powers
  • Standard set of formal rules or operating procedures

Bureaucracy Definition

A bureaucracy is an organization, whether publicly or privately owned, made up of multiple political departments or entities. People who work in bureaucracies are informally referred to as bureaucrats.

While the hierarchical administrative structure of many governments is perhaps the most common example of a bureaucracy, the term can also describe the administrative structure of private sector companies or other non-governmental organizations such as universities and hospitals.

German sociologistMax Weberwas the first person to officially study bureaucracy. In his 1921 book Economy and Society, Weber argued that a bureaucracy was the most competent form of organization because of its expertise, security, continuity, and unity of purpose. However, he also warned that an uncontrolled bureaucracy could threaten individual freedom and leave people trapped in an "iron cage" of impersonal, irrational and inflexible rules.

Government bureaucracy arose during the rise of money-based economies and their inherent need to conduct secure and impersonal legal transactions. Large financial institutions, such as public stock-dealing firms, grew in importance, largely because of the unique ability of their bureaucratic organizations to manage the intricate demands of capitalist production more efficiently than small but less complex institutions.

Examples of bureaucracy

Examples of bureaucracies can be found everywhere. Government departments of motor vehicles, health care organizations (HMOs), financial credit organizations such as savings and credit institutions, and insurance companies are bureaucracies that many people deal with on a regular basis.

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Imthe US governmentFederal bureaucracy, appointed bureaucrats create rules and regulations necessary to efficiently and consistently implement and enforce the laws and policies of elected officials. All of the roughly 2,000 federal agencies, departments, departments, and commissions are examples of bureaucracies. Among the most visible of these bureaucracies are the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Veterans Benefits Administration.

Advantages and disadvantages

In an ideal bureaucracy, the principles and processes are based on rational, clearly understood rules and are applied in a way that is never influenced by interpersonal relationships or political alliances.

In practice, however, bureaucracies often fall short of this ideal. Therefore, it is important to consider the pros and cons of real-world bureaucracy.

The hierarchical structure of the bureaucracy ensures that the bureaucrats who administer the rules and regulations have clearly defined responsibilities. That is clear"chain of command" enables management to closely monitor the organization's performance and effectively resolve problems as they arise.

The impersonality of bureaucracy is often criticized, but this "coldness" is intentional. Strict and consistent application of rules and guidelines reduces the likelihood that some people will receive more favorable treatment than others. By remaining impersonal, bureaucracy can help ensure that all people are treated fairly, without friendships or political affiliations affecting the bureaucrats who make decisions.

Bureaucracies tend to require staff with specialized educational backgrounds and expertise related to the agencies ordepartmentsto which they are assigned. Along with ongoing training, this expertise helps the bureaucrats to perform their duties consistently and effectively. Additionally, proponents of bureaucracy argue that bureaucrats tend to have higher levels of education and personal responsibility compared to non-bureaucrats.

While government bureaucrats do not set the policies and rules they implement, they do play an integral role in the rulemaking process, providing essential data, feedback and information to the publicelected legislators.

Because of their rigid rules and procedures, bureaucracies are often slow to respond to unexpected situations and slow to adapt to changing social conditions. Additionally, frustrated employees can become defensive and indifferent to the needs of the people dealing with them when they are not given leeway to deviate from the rules.

(Video) bureaucracy short

The hierarchical structure of bureaucracies can lead to internal "empire building". Department heads can add unnecessary subordinates, whether through poor decision making or to build their own power and status. Redundant and non-essential employees quickly reduce the productivity and efficiency of the company.

In the absence of adequate oversight, bureaucrats with decision-making powers could solicit and accept bribes in return for their assistance. High-level bureaucrats in particular can abuse the power of their positions to further their personal interests.

Bureaucracies (particularly government bureaucracies) are notorious for generating a lot of "bureaucracy". This means lengthy administrative procedures where numerous forms or documents with many specific requirements have to be submitted. Critics argue that these processes slow the bureaucracy's ability to provide a service to the public while costing taxpayers money and time.


Since the rise andFall of the Roman Empire, sociologists, humorists, and politicians have developed theories (both supportive and critical) about bureaucracy and bureaucrats.

Max Weber, a German sociologist, was one of the first modern people to think seriously about the meaning of bureaucracy. The term actually comes from the French word "office", a reference to the small desks that the king's representatives set up in the cities when traveling around the country on the king's behalf. So bureaucracy literally means "government with a small desk".

Weber wrote about Germany in the early 20th century as evolving capitalism spawned more and more large corporations. The changing economic scene had important implications for government. Weber saw bureaucracy as a rational way for complex corporations and governments to organize themselves. He saw them not as necessary evils but as the best organizational response to a changing society.

According to Weber, model bureaucracies have the following characteristics:

  • A hierarchical chain of command; The chief bureaucrat has ultimate control, and authority flows from the top down
  • A clear division of labor in which each individual has a specialized task
  • Clearly written, well-established formal rules that all people in the organization follow
  • A clearly defined set of goals that all people in the organization strive to achieve
  • merit-based hiring and promotion; no giving jobs to friends or family unless they are best qualified.
  • Job performance, which is judged by productivity, or how much work a person gets done

Weber emphasized the importance of bureaucracy in getting things done and believed that a well-organized, rational bureaucracy is the secret behind the successful functioning of modern societies.

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Weber warned that if not properly controlled, bureaucracy could threaten individual freedom and lock people into a rules-based system"Iron triangle" of control.

Observers of modern American government often point to an iron triangle that best shows who is really doing the work of government. The iron triangle, sometimes referred to as the sub-government, consists of interest groups, members of congressional subcommittees, and agency bureaucrats.

According to the theory, offices and departments usually maintain close contact with lobbyists from interest groups who want to influence their actions. Stakeholders can provide valuable statistics to government agencies, and they are motivated to make their voices heard. Lobbyists and bureaucrats alike value exposure to congressional subcommittees that formulate the laws governing their interests. Working together, these three groups set most government policies.

An example of such an iron triangle would be the American Association for Retired People (AARP), the House Subcommittee on Aging, and the Social Security Administration, all working together to set government policy for Social Security.

Consultants, accountants, secretaries. So it's not just the celebrities, the President, the Chief of Staff, the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader who make the real decisions in government. Often the real actors in government are the agency bureaucrats, the people behind the scenes.

Parkinson's Law is the semi-satirical adage that any "work expands to fill the time available for its completion." The "law" is often applied to the extension of an organization's bureaucracy and is based on chemistryIdeales Gasgesetz, which states that gas expands to fill the available volume.

British humorist Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote about the Parkinson Act in 1955, based on his years of experience in the British civil service working for each other.” Parkinson also made the tongue-in-cheek observation that the number of employees in the British civil service was falling by five to seven per cent a year increases, “regardless of fluctuations in the amount of work to be done (if any).

Named for Canadian educator and self-proclaimed "hierarcheologist" Laurence J. Peter, the Peter Principle states that "in ahierarchy, each employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence.”

(Video) Max Weber Bureaucracy

According to this principle, an employee who is competent in his job is promoted to a higher position that requires different skills and knowledge. If they are suitable for the new job, they are promoted again, and so on. However, at some point the employee may be promoted to a position for which he is destinedLackthe necessary professional skills and knowledge. Once they reach their personal level of incompetence, theEmployeesis no longer funded; Instead, he or she will remain at their level of incompetence for the rest of their career.

Based on this principle, Peter's Corollary states that "over time, every post will be filled by an employee who is unable to perform his or her duties."

Before he became US PresidentWoodrow Wilsonwas a professor. In his 1887 essay "The Study of Administration," Wilson wrote that the bureaucracy created a purely professional environment "without allegiance to fleeting politics." He argued that the rules-based impersonality of bureaucracy makes it the ideal model for government agencies, and that the very nature of a bureaucrat's job allows bureaucrats to remain isolated from outside and politically biased influence.

In his 1957 paper Social Theory and Social Structure, the American sociologist Robert K. Merton criticized earlier theories of bureaucracy. He argued that "learned incompetence" resulting from "over-conformity" eventually causes many bureaucracies to become dysfunctional. He also argued that bureaucrats are more likely to put their own interests and needs ahead of those that would benefit the organization. In addition, Merton feared that bureaucrats could become "arrogant" and "haughty" when dealing with the public because they have to ignore special circumstances when applying rules.


Merton, Robert K. "Social Theory and Social Structure." Expanded Edition, Free Press, August 1, 1968.

"Parkinson's Law." The Economist, November 19, 1955.

"Peter Principle." Business Dictionary, WebFinance Inc., 2019.

Weber, max. "Economy and Society." Volume 1, Günther Roth (Editor), Claus Wittich (Editor), First Edition, University of California Press, October 2013.

(Video) Types of Bureaucracies: Crash Course Government and Politics #16

Wilson, Woodrow. "The study of administration." Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2, JSTOR, December 29, 2010.


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