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What is a Bureaucracy?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
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A bureaucracy is a large organization that uses a particular system of administration. This system is characterized by a hierarchy of authority, a division of duties, strict rules of operation and documentation of actions performed. Bureaucracies are most often associated with governments, but any large entity, such as a corporation or school district, can be bureaucratic in nature. Terms such as "bureaucracy" and "bureaucrat," which refers to an official in a bureaucracy, are often used with negative connotations because some people believe that this system of administration includes excessive and unnecessary regulation, inefficiencies and waste.

Structure

This type of organization has what is known as a vertical pyramid power structure, with many more offices, bureaus and employees located at the base, or the service level, than there are at the top, or the management level. The offices and workers at the lower levels typically are subject to rules and regulations that dictate how they must function. Many of the actions that they take must be documented so that a record of what was done can be made available to the offices and administrators at higher levels of the bureaucracy.

Positives

The benefits of a bureaucracy include the ability to manage a large, complex organization in an orderly manner. Rules and regulations can be helpful to ensure that a large number of similar entities — those at the base — operate in the same way. Having supervisory offices and higher levels of management provides oversight and allows the customers, citizens or whomever is being served to appeal to a higher authority than those at the service level.

Negatives

Bureaucracies are often criticized, however, because they sometimes can be inefficient or wasteful. Communication between offices or levels of authority can be essential, so a lack of communication can result in a failure to function properly. Getting things done in a bureaucracy is often complicated by so-called red tape — paperwork and other regulations that might be considered tedious, redundant or even unnecessary. Similar or identical tasks might be performed multiple times at various levels or at different offices at the same level. Bureaucracies also are often slow to change or to implement changes.

Possible Improvements

Critics often claim that bureaucracies can be made more efficient by shrinking, especially when it comes to governments. Less regulation of lower-level offices might allow them to be more adaptable to their own needs and situations, which might differ from those of other offices at the same level. Fewer levels of administration also might allow an organization to change more rapidly because approval for changes is needed from a smaller number of people or groups of people.

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Discussion Comments
By latte31 — On Feb 19, 2011

Cafe41 - That is so true as a matter of fact many banks halted foreclosure proceedings because these foreclosure actions were signed one right after the other without serving the homeowners properly.

I have to say that a federal bureaucracy is not much better. It is amazing how many dead people receive tax refunds. There is so much tax payer money lost to Medicare fraud that never gets accounted for because there are so many different agencies that would handle a problem like this but no one ever addresses it.

The problem is that most bureaucracies have no accountability which allows these kinds of things to happen over and over.

This is the main reason why the public education system will always be bad because there is so much red tape to change a single thing that it is the children that are left to suffer.

For example, firing an ineffective teacher in a public school is difficult because the teacher’s union hold so much power that the tenured teacher will likely hold her job although her performance is poor. A great movie about the subject is "Waiting for Superman" which addresses this very subject.

By cafe41 — On Feb 17, 2011

Sunny27 - I totally agree. I was going to buy a short sale property once and it was a nightmare.

Every time our realtor called the bank no one seemed to be able to get resolution on our offer. The seller could not get a response either because there were probably so many cases pending that they did not have the means to process the short sales in a timely manner.

This posed a large problem for this bank and many others that were so large that they did not have a direct person that a customer or a realtor could talk to regarding these matters.

Many buyers like myself gave up waiting and moved on to other properties which caused the banks to have their properties sit longer without a buyer.

By Sunny27 — On Feb 16, 2011

Sunshine31 - I think that bureaucracy today is far worse than ever before because we have even more government agencies.

I think that we need to apply the “Buck stops here” philosophy so that someone can take ownership of a problem and the person calling can actually receive resolution on the matter.

The same holds true for large companies. These companies sometimes become so large that they become inefficient when servicing their customers.

By sunshine31 — On Feb 13, 2011

I think that too much bureaucracy brings on an ineffective system of handling problems. For example, the multiple layers of bureaucracy requires multiple signatures in order to get something approved.

Instead of having one central person to talk to you have to go through several departments. You will really understand this when you call any government agency with a question or a concern.

You almost always get transferred around and no one really knows how to direct your question because there are so many departments and layers of paperwork to go through.

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