Bureaucracy – Concept, criticisms, advantages and characteristics

We explain what bureaucracy is, why it is criticized, its advantages and characteristics. Also, what is bureaucracy according to Max Weber.

critical bureaucracy
Bureaucracy can make tasks slower and more cumbersome.

What is bureaucracy?

Bureaucracy is a method of organizing certain procedures that is characterized by a rational and formal division and distribution of responsibilities and work, as well as by a hierarchical control of administrative relations. This control is normally carried out through written documents.

Put more simply, we understand bureaucracy as a way of organizing any activity, based on the control and formal distribution (generally in writing) of the procedures that it implies.

It is a term widely used in sociology and public administration, whose origins go back to the French voice bureau (“Desk”) and to the Greek root Kratos (“government”). Seen this way, the bureaucracy would be the exercise of power from a desk or an office, something that characterizes those who today we call bureaucrats or civil servants.

In colloquial language, we usually refer to public or private administration by bureaucracy, that is, to the paperwork through which the institutions control the different legal and administrative procedures that regulate daily life: personal identification processes, legal procedures, hospital admissions, purchase-sale operations, etc.

By extension, we also call paperwork of any kind, with a derogatory sense of the term, associated with the unnecessary and cumbersome formal complication of otherwise simple processes.

Characteristics of the bureaucracy

The bureaucracy, broadly speaking, is characterized by the following:

  • The procedures are divided into different steps, each of which must often be done before a different instance within an organizational hierarchy.
  • Officials or clerks are in charge of control and monitor each of these steps, exercising minimal but formal power and authority.
  • Each step must meet a series of requirements or precautions, to be able to advance until the next step.
  • Official positions are not inheritable neither personal, nor are the officials who own the administrative resources they use. They are, on the other hand, responsible for its correct use.
  • Whole procedure is supported on the basis of written documents and endorsed by each of the instances to go.

Bureaucracy according to Max Weber

One of the great theorists and thinkers of the bureaucracy was the German sociologist and politician Max Weber (1864-1920), so much so that he is credited with incorporating this term into the modern academic vocabulary. According to his point of view, the bureaucracy is, in itself, a positive element, which surpasses the previous historical alternatives, based on charisma or tradition.

That is, the bureaucracy it was a positive invention insofar as it introduced clear and official rules in the management of the State: impersonal rules, the same for everyone, and therefore more efficient on a large scale.

This does not mean that Weber did not understand that the bureaucracy can “stagnate” and slow down the processes that should speed up, since there is no perfect organizational system. But compared to the systems of Antiquity or the Middle Ages, the bureaucracy constitutes a step forward in the management of modern States.

Advantages of bureaucracy

The advantages of bureaucracy can be summarized as:

  • The standardization and homogenization of administrative processes, which happen to have clear and obvious rules, the same for everyone.
  • Allows greater control of the process administered during any of its stages, since all are under the authority and power of a specific instance.
  • Is democratic, in the sense that it does not distinguish between race, sex or social class, but offers everyone the same path towards the completion of the process.
  • Leave backups of everything done, since it is handled through written documents or endorsements of some kind.
  • It is effective on a large scale, since being a standardized and repetitive system, it can handle a large number of procedures in a short time.

Criticism of the bureaucracy

At the same time, the main criticisms of the bureaucracy consist of:

  • Its rigidity and inertia in some processes, they delay necessary changes by strictly adhering to the norm, or render it inefficient or powerless in the face of unusual cases or exceptions.
  • Creating more rules than processes themselves, thus increasing the structure in complexity and becoming slower and more cumbersome, and may even give rise to contradictory rules.
  • It is susceptible to nepotism, corruption, politicization of the process and other evils that violate the objectivity of the procedure.
  • Often presents excessive oversight and control, duplicating efforts and wasting resources and time, thus gaining inefficiency.