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Public Bureaucracy. “ Bureaucracy ”: the term was coined in 18 th -century France Literally means: “ power of the desk ” Power of the person behind the desk – “bureaucrat” An administrator 3 meanings of the word: A form of social organization A social class

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“Bureaucracy”: the term was coined in 18th-century France
  • Literally means: “power of the desk”
  • Power of the person behind the desk – “bureaucrat”
  • An administrator
  • 3 meanings of the word:
    • A form of social organization
    • A social class
    • Red tape, bad government (bureaucratism)
  • Bureaucracy and government
    • Not all public employees are bureaucrats
    • Bureaucracies enjoy immense power in the private sector
Many human tasks require the use of authority systems, which rely on the method of command, rather than exchange
  • Complex tasks requiring coordination
  • Divide a complex task into simpler tasks
  • Assign different tasks to different people
  • Coordinate their interaction
  • Efficiency is the watchword
  • The pyramid of power
  • The hierarchy
Bureaucracy as a form of social organization, main features:*
    • Specialization of tasks (division of labour)
    • Simplicity of individual responsibilities (a bureaucrat must be easily replaceable)
    • All problems, solutions, procedures are categorized
    • Coordination from the top
    • Stability of assignments and authority
    • The organization as an end in itself
    • Resistance to change
    • There can be no ideal structure of administration; bureaucracy always needs reform

Created as a solution, b. inevitably becomes a problem – due to its very nature


*Charles Lindblom Politics and Markets


King Hammurabi, ruler of the Old Babylonian Kingdom

1792-1750 BCE)

The earliest model of efficient public administration


Hammurabi receives the Code of Laws from Sun God

“To cause justice to prevail in the country,To destroy the wicked and the evil,That the strong may not oppress the weak”

337 BCE: Chinese philosopher Shen Buhai wrote a treatise on the same topic. Main points:
    • Seniority
    • Merit rating
    • Official statistics
    • Written reports about government activities
  • From 165 BCE, Chinese officials were selected by examination
Max Weber on efficient bureaucracy:
  • Division of tasks must be carefully defined
  • The tasks must be simple
  • Decisions must be made on the basis of rules, not personal motives (routine, impersonal, mechanistic administration)
  • Personnel must be selected on the basis of merit and competence, not patronage
  • Incentives: job and income security for those competently performing their tasks
  • A disciplined hierarchy of authority

How to make administration efficient is a perennial and major preoccupation - in both public and private sectors

Bureaucracy as a social class
  • A group with distinct interests – in both private and public sectors
  • Public bureaucracy: government officials, public servants, civil servants
  • USA: Growth of number of government officials
  • 1900 – 1 for every 300 citizens
  • 2000 – 1 for every 15 citizens
Are they a power unto their own?
  • Or do they serve others?
  • It is the very nature of bureaucracy to become an autonomous social force, whose source of power is its key role in the functioning of the state.
  • But that tendency toward autonomy is limited by the influence of other forces on the behaviour of bureaucrats
  • Early, pre-modern bureaucrats were personal servants of rulers
  • Modern bureaucracy is supposed to serve the public interest – but private interests seek influence over it all the time
Bureaucracy’s behaviour is constantly shaped by at least 4 different types of forces:
    • Ruling elites (the party in power, head of state, etc.)
    • Powerful private interests
    • Self-interests of bureaucracy
    • Interests of society as a whole (public interests)
  • For the sake of efficiency, bureaucracy needs to have autonomy to perform its tasks in a neutral, rule-based fashion
  • And yet, bureaucracy needs to be under public control (thus, less autonomous) in order to make sure that bureaucrats serve society, rather than themselves
  • Ideally, bureaucracy’s autonomy should be only of such character as to protect its neutrality and concentration of its tasks
For instance:
    • A government minister must not be able to force a public servant to act against the law, provide false information, etc.
    • A private corporation must not be able to influence decisions of a public servant in its favour
    • A citizen must not be able to buy the services of a public servant
  • To withstand such pressures, public bureaucracy must be autonomous
  • But this autonomy must not make it possible for bureaucrats to “privatize” their offices
  • Bureaucracy must be fully accountable to the public through legislative oversight, the courts, the media, etc.
A functioning, developed democracy is a key variable
  • It makes societal control of bureaucracy possible
    • The more democracy,the more likely it is that bureaucracy will serve the public interest
    • Absence of democracy produces a state dominated by the bureaucrats colluding with private interests for mutual benefit at the expense of society
  • Extreme examples from the 20th century:
    • Left-wing (communist) and right-wing (fascist) totalitarian regimes
Bureaucratic self-interests (in a non-corrupt state):
    • Preservation of position
    • Promotion
    • Preservation of government program
    • Influence in the policy-making process
  • None of these necessarily contradict the public interest: a well-trained, dedicated, honest, efficient public servant may have all those interests – they are legitimate
  • And yet, they may serve as sources for the growth of the kinds of bureaucratic autonomy that society seeks to prevent
Sources of bureaucratic power:
  • Capacity for self-presevation
  • Possession of specialized knowledge
  • Role in policy-making
  • Interaction with elected officials and interest groups
    • bureaucratic pluralism
    • representative bureaucracy
  • Corruption (use of public office for private gain)
In a corrupt state,
  • Neither the ruler nor the public are able to restrain bureaucratic self-interests
  • As a result, public offices become bureaucratic private enterprises
  • History is replete with such practices of public officials – sometimes officially sanctioned
Bureaucracy as a problem
  • “Bureaucracy, a gigantic power set in motion by dwarfs…
  • Bureaucracy, made up entirely of petty minds, stands as an obstacle to the prosperity of the nation; delays for seven years, by its machinery, the project of a canal which would have stimulated the production of a province; is afraid of everything, prolongs procrastination, and perpetuates the abuses which in turn perpetuate and consolidate itself. Bureaucracy holds all things and the administration itself in leading strings; it stifles men of talent who are bold enough to be independent of it or to enlighten it on its own follies.”
  • Honore de Balzac, Bureaucracy. Paris, 1865
“There is a dark side to living in Newfoundland which the average employed person knows nothing about. The welfare recipient, or the applicant is the one who knows about it: he knows less than civil treatment from civil servants, gets the feeling that he is a criminal-minded scrounger and is not sure whether he should walk in like a man and demand his rights or should crawl in on his hands and knees and beg for mercy.
  • Most welfare recipients live in fear and dread of the welfare officer. They look on him as the all-powerful lord who can give and take away. A frown from the welfare officer is almost the same as the death sentence and few people are brave enough to risk the wrath of these lords of welfare.
  • At most welfare offices the recipient is treated with less respect than the mat on the floor… In most areas the welfare officer is the lord and master of all he surveys and those who seek his time and attention must put up with his whims, his quirks of personality and any mean or vicious streak that may be included in his character. They have learned from experience that to make an enemy of the welfare officer is unhealthy and unwise…”
  • St.Johns Evening Telegraph, 1973 (from Albert Mills and Tony Simmons, Reading Organizational Theory, Garamond Press, 1999, p.41-42
Even in a non-corrupt state (or a well-organized, efficient private corporation), bureaucracy tends to develop these characteristics*:
  • Rigidity
    • needed to enable a bureaucracy to process large numbers of cases under standardized procedures
  • Goal displacement
    • preservation of the organization itself trumps the goal for which it exists
  • Impersonality
  • Empire-building and self-perpetuation. Parkinson’s Law:
    • (1) 'An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals'
    • (2) 'Officials make work for each other.'
  • Resistance to change
    • undermines efficiency
  • Secrecy
    • control of information as a source of power
  • Anti-democratic behaviour


  • *Mills and Simmons, pp.54-60
Robert Michels, 1912, based on a study of the politics of the German Social Democratic Party:
  • 'He who says organization, says oligarchy.'
  • As soon as people form organizations, power in those organizations gravitates upwards towards the permanent officials or officers. A second, subordinate law suggests that whatever purpose an organization was originally established to serve, the preservation of the organization itself, and of its oligarchy, will come to take precedence.
Controls for bureaucratic efficiency (Gabriel Almond):


  • Elected Chief Executive
  • Elected Assembly, with:
    • committees with investigative power
    • access to information
    • political opposition
  • Independent courts
  • Ombudsmen (pioneered in Sweden), Auditor General
  • Decentralization of government functions
  • Citizen participation (requires access to information)
  • Public opinion
  • Independent media
  • Public interest groups
  • Constituencies
  • Professional standards
Bureaucracy in the post-industrial age
  • Expansion of the practices of networking and mutual adjustment, as opposed to hierarchy and command
  • The dominance of markets over states

New Public Management:

  • Attempts to develop new forms of controlling bureaucracy
    • Mechanisms for greater flexibility
    • Introduction of business methods to cut costs
    • Formal privatization of state functions

Do these ideas contribute to the development of democracy?