Given the subject matter of this essay revolves around bureaucracy, and given that bureaucracy is concerned with rules and order, it seems fitting to first begin with an official definition of the term; “A system of government in which most of the important decisions are made by state officials rather than by elected representatives; a state or organization governed or managed according to such a system.” This essay will break down how this definition came about and where bureaucracy first originated before moving onto explore its unintended consequences and some of its extreme uses while counter balancing this with some of its more positive attributes.
I shall look at the modern cases of bureaucracy and weigh up whether there is a place for it in the modern world and if not whether post bureaucracy is more fitting. Finally I shall conclude by attempting to come down on one side of the argument as to whether in fact bureaucracy is bad.
Bureaucracy as an ideal type and form of power based on legitimate authority Max Weber was a German social scientist (1864-1920) who was concerned with the question of what held societies together, he came to the conclusion that it was down to authority which allows those who have the right of legitimacy to give orders (Wilson, 1999). Weber questioned what the power of this authority was based on, because in most societies it is not based on force, fear or coercion. This authority previously came about in two main ways; authority based on charisma (the personal authority of a particular individual) or authority based on tradition (the established authority of institutions) (Grey, 2009). However, Weber put forward the idea that these previous types of authority were increasingly being overshadowed by rational-legal authority in modern societies (systems of rules devised for rational reasons).
Weber was writing at a time where organisations were growing at a rate not seen before. He was commentating o the transformation that he was directly seeing. The idea of this rationality in society and organisations is not a new one and indeed in Weber’s study regarding the rise of capitalism he argued that it owed a considerable amount to the practices of the Calvinist Church which was itself involved in logical calculative thought. This rationalisation can be defined as a process whereby the means chose to pursue ends can be determined by logical and rational calculation (Wilson, 1999). When applied to organisations, this rational-legal authority means bureaucracy.
When Weber was putting forward his ideas regarding bureaucracy he discussed it as “an ideal type” however a common misconception is that by this Weber meant bureaucracy was a desirable ideal when in fact he despaired of how dominant this organisational structure was becoming. The “ideal type” is simply a subjective element in social theory and research which formed from characteristics and elements of the given phenomena, but it is not meant to correspond to all of the characteristics of any one particular case. According to Wilson (1999) “the ideal type of bureaucracy is governed by a formal set of rules and procedures that ensures that operations and activities are carried out in a predictable, uniform and impersonal manner”.
This comes from the four foundational aspects that according to Weber bureaucracy consist of; functional specialisation (the formal division of labour), hierarchy of authority (the structure that gives those in a superior position authority, simply because they hold that position), system of rules (everything is based upon following a formal set of written rules about practices and procedures) and impersonality (rules are followed without regard for emotions) (Grey, 2009). According to Weber it was these four concepts that meant bureaucracy was the most technically efficient and rational form of organisations, it was adopted because it was simply better than any other system.
Form of rationality it promotes (instrumental/formal vs. value/substantive) It is clear to see that bureaucracy promotes an instrumental form of rationality, which is a type of decision making which is subject to calculation that goes into an action to increase its chance of success. Its decisive feature is that it eliminates an orientation to values because they are non-technical. Rationality is instrumental (formal) when problems are solved by the application of technical criteria. In opposition, substantive (value) rationality is a type of decision making which is subject to values and an appeal to ethical norms – this is not something that bureaucracy is concerned with especially given substantive rationality does not take into account the nature of outcomes.
Weber also concluded that bureaucracy was substantively irrational following his work and reading on the “overall societal effects of its rise” (Grey, 2009). This is where Weber coined his term of “The Iron Cage” of rationality. The idea was that because bureaucracy was becoming so dominant in every aspect of life and work more and more people’s lives were lived within the constraints of a rationalised system. Grey (2009) takes it ones step further and claims that bureaucracy undermines our very humanity. Whilst this may seem ludicrous, he presents a very interesting idea. We live in a world “in which every experience is organised from the hospital in which we are born to the undertakers that take us to our graves” (Grey, 2009).
Unintended consequences/Dysfunctions of bureaucracy (Blau, Gouldner, Merton) It is already clear to see that bureaucracy may not be without its problems, or unintended consequences. The word itself in the modern day world is often frowned on and associated with issues of red tape as well as a “needless waste and pedantic obsession with rules” (Grey, 2009). It is essential in many organisations nowadays that there is a paper trail, so that it can be proved everything was done how it was meant to be. However, the unintended consequences of bureaucracy go much further than this and begin with the idea that bureaucracy is thought of as a mechanical form of organisation. Whilst this means that every part is designed perfectly and operates in a predictable and standard way, it also means that the people within the organisation have to function as if they are merely cogs which lead to a number of key unintended consequences.
There is firstly an issue regarding the levels of motivation among employees. A lack of personal commitment is bred from having to follow set rules and having no discretion about doing so. These standard procedures that must be followed also provides little interest or stimulation for employees which again weakens their commitment to the organisation. It is not a new idea that motivation is clearly linked to job satisfaction and that higher motivation leads to better work performance. It therefore follows that in bureaucracies where motivation is low employees will simply perform sub optimally meaning they are not as efficient as first thought. Following on from the above problem, is that this lack of motivation often translates into poor customer service. Employees will simply follow rules and procedures blindly with little regard for the customer in the process. Bureaucratic rules are also designed for the benefit of the organisation, not the customer meaning they will not be changed to suit the demands of one individual.
A final key problem involves a resistance to innovation and change. In a bureaucracy once rules are made they will only change very slowly, if at all. This is specifically a problem for organisations that exist in markets with volatile and uncertain conditions. It is well known now that to keep up with competition an organisation must change with the times or will disappear because it cannot keep up with changing markets. It also stifles individual freedom; many of the best ideas within organisations come from the bottom up, but bureaucracy destroys this initiative as “there is little bureaucrats hate more than innovation, especially innovation that produces better results than the old routines. Improvements always make those at the top look inept” (Herbert, 1984).
There are also a number of dysfunctions of bureaucracy which have been written about by a number of theorists; primarily Merton (1940), Blau (1955) and Selznick (1949). Merton (1940) addressed a core theoretical and practical issue with his concept of goal displacement. His argument is an interesting one, and one that can be clearly seen in the working practices of bureaucracies in modern day organisations. He claims that people in bureaucracies started to see following the rules as the goal or purpose rather than the effect that the rule was supposed to produce. Goal displacement became about “doing the thing right, rather than doing the right thing” (Merton (1940). This is perhaps where the negative connotations about bureaucracy come from, this “slavish adherence to rules” (Grey, 2009) becomes the end in itself and becomes central to the concept of red tape which people have come to loathe. Merton termed this as the bureaucratic personality, where someone was so busy adhering to official rules that they lose sight of the aims of the organisation.
Selznick (1949) undertook a number of studies that supported Merton’s (1940) theory of goal displacement. His studies found that the divisionalised structures – a key aspect of bureaucratic organisations – led to employees being concerned only with the aims, rules and procedures of their division with total disregard for the organisations aims as a whole. This disjointedness between divisions meant employees pursued divisional interests often at the expense of the organisation with delivers, what Grey (2009) calls “organisationally sub optimal outcomes”.
Blau (1955) looked at one of the dysfunctions of bureaucracy via the trade union tactic known as work to rule. This means exactly what the terms suggests, employees refuse to do anything over and above the formal and established rules of their contract or workplace. Similarly if they are contractual obliged to do something, but the rules are not laid out on exactly how to do it, they constantly ask for assistance or guidance. The reason this is done is to disrupt organisations. However, Blau addresses the important question that rules under a bureaucratic system are supposedly meant to be a good thing as they are meant to establish the most efficient way of doing something – so how can following them religiously disrupt an organisation. Blau answers his own question and states that following the rules to the letter without using your own initiative is actually not the most efficient way of organising which undermines the whole model of bureaucracy.
Whilst the work of Merton, Selznick and Blau show that following bureaucratic rules to the letter may not lead to efficiency there is the work of Crozier (1964) and Gouldner (1954) which is in diametric opposition to this. The issue is not over attachment of rules but instead a total disregard for them. Gouldner (1954) introduced the concept of mock bureaucracy after his investigation into a gypsum mine revealed its presence. Despite the “impressive array of rules and regulations” (Grey, 2009) found in formal rulebooks, in practice these were ignored. This was specifically noticed in regard to the safety regulations in the mines and is evident today in the disregard for a number of safety regulations that exist in potentially dangerous industries such a building sites and chemical plants. Despite the fact that goal displacement and mock bureaucracy are diametrically opposed, both undermine the bureaucratic model.
Bureaucracy as a source of extreme power (Bauman)
It would be an injustice not to use the case of the Holocaust to highlight what can happen when bureaucracy is used as a source of extreme power. Wilson (1999) notes that in bureaucracy “personal relationships are excluded from everyday life” which may go some way to explaining the detachment Nazi soldiers were able to show to their victims. Bauman (1989) wrote prominently on the subject in a book entitled Modernity and the Holocaust. According to Bauman, horrific though the Nazi regime was, the genocide was simply an “extreme application of bureaucratic logic with a system of rules, uniformity, impersonality and technical efficiency” (Bauman, 1989).
Shooting of victims was, after a while, deemed to be insufficiently productive mainly due to the large numbers to be killed. The Nazi regime therefore found a new way, in the form of permanent concrete gas chambers “in which the perpetrators need not see, hear or feel the human consequences of their actions” (Russell and Gregory, 2005). This also backs up a prior point I made regarding the instrumental rationality involved within bureaucracy. Such indifference and neutrality to human life shows that bureaucratic practices can in no way, or from no angle, been seen as substantively rational.
Contemporary manifestations of bureaucracy, audit cultures (Power, 1997) and McDonaldisation (Ritzer, 1993 and 2003) Contemporary manifestations of bureaucracy are all around us, though the most obvious example is that of McDonaldisation (Ritzer, 1993). At the time, Ritzer claimed that fast food restaurants were the new model of rationalisation; however, in the 21st century we know that this model of rationalisation, which is built on many ideas found in bureaucracy, is by no means confined to the fast food industry. Ritzer (1993) defined McDonaldisation as “a process by which the principles of the fast food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of US society as well as that of the rest of the world”.
Four basic dimensions lie at the heart of the success of McDonalds (and as such McDonaldisation); efficiency, calculability, predictability and increased control. Ritzer was quick to highlight the negatives of McDonaldisation and believes that “McDonalised systems through their rules, regulations and scripts encroach upon us and ultimately threaten the ability of people working within these systems to think intelligently”. This was what Grey (2009) was implying when he spoke of employees merely being cogs in a machine. Ritzer also carries on Weber’s theory of “The Iron Cage” by describing that this iron cage is being constructed, piece by piece, by the various organisations and institutions that follow McDonald’s model.
Audit cultures are also an increasing phenomenon in modern day bureaucracies. Power (1977) authored a book called The Audit Society where he argues this culture of auditing is one that has come to dominate more and more areas of our lives. One example is the targets set by the Labour government in the public service, and specifically public health, services where measurements are made according to the outputs (the ends). The problem with this is that it can cause employees to manipulate the system in order to achieve the targets. In addition the fact that audit cultures focus on what you can measure and see means that it is not based on quality, so the measurement itself holds little value. Power argues that it becomes a self-referential system in that an employee can display they are meeting the targets but it does not show the reality of what they are doing. The reality that is in the documents is not the same as the reality that is experiences. In an audit society how something is done is less important than that it is done.
One key example of this is the Mid Staffordshire trust. Ineffective management was often too concerned with hitting targets that between 2005-2008 it was reported that between 400-1200 patients died from preventable causes. However, at the same time this trust met all of its targets to the point that it received foundation status. This demonstrates just how important it is that people look at how targets are achieved rather than just that they are received. Bureaucracy as good because it avoids patronage (DuGay, 2000) or bad because it doesn’t manage to prevent it (Jackall, 1988) DuGay (2000) is a key advocate of bureaucracy and draws upon Weber’s ideal type of bureaucracy that business is discharged “without regard for persons” (Weber, 1978). All love, hatred and purely irrational and emotional sentiments are excluded.
Whilst this main seem callous it is this exact bureaucratic ethic of impersonality and fairness that DuGay defends. In contrast with Bauman’s view of the distinct lack of morality, DuGay (2000) in fact claims that bureaucracy is imbued with morality due to the demands of instrumental rationality for maximum efficiency. DuGay states that for those demands to be satisfied the ethic of impersonality and fairness must come into play. Therefore bureaucracy is actually a way to eliminate discrimination.
Jackall’s (1988) work regarding bureaucratic careers is in opposition with this however, as he claims much of bureaucracy is based on old authority. His work is based on a large organisation in the US and is recorded in his book Moral Mazes. The idea of the hierarchy within the ideal bureaucracy is that you are trained for a role and then you occupy a role, taking on the authority that came with it. If that ideal occurs than it is an efficient system. However, Jackall found that patronage (an old form of authority associated with traditional authority) was more common within the organisation. In other words, doing things to please your boss who is at the top of the hierarchy of authority purely based upon his position.
According to Jackall (1988) and two years previously to DuGay’s conflicting ideas, fairness and equity are abandoned in favour of “keeping ones eye on the main chance, maintaining and furthering one’s own position and career”. Subordinate advancement is based upon protecting the boss rather than on hard work, ability and dedicated service. The way to move up the career ladder is to keep your eye on the political gamesmanship of the organisation.
Is bureaucracy dead (post bureaucracy?)
This brings me onto the question of whether if bureaucracy is bad, then what is the alternative. An alternative has been put forward, and it is that of post bureaucracy. Heckscher (1994) is one of the leading writers in post bureaucracy and has created a type in contrast to Weber’s which is called the post bureaucratic ideal type. There are three key strands to his ideal type. Firstly, formal rules are replaced with a consensus based upon personal influence rather than status; employees are also trusted to act on shared values rather than rules. Secondly, responsibilities are assigned based on competence and merit rather than hierarchy and individuals are treated as such. Finally, the organisation is much more flexible with regard to employment and working hours.
The ideals of post bureaucracy have been developed as the conditions in which bureaucracy worked are becoming increasingly rare. The industrial era has given way to the post-industrial and the economy has moved away from “mass production of standard products towards short product runs for niche markets” (Grey, 2009). To address the final point of Heckscher’s (1994) post bureaucracy ideal, there is also a growing need for more flexible and innovative working rather than the blind following of orders. Whilst post bureaucracy does seem to address some of the problems associated with modern day bureaucracies it also generates its own set of problems, many of them being what bureaucracy solves. In opposition to the idea of bureaucracy as a machine, post bureaucracy is portrayed as a living, growing organism which means it is far less predictable and prone to malfunctions. Grey (2009) outlines three key problems with a post bureaucratic ideal.
The problem of control is key, the lack of rules means it is difficult to exercise control. Post bureaucracy instead proposes a different form of control based on a culture of management on trust – though this is a rather fragile form of control which relies on self-control. This is particularly difficult to sustain given the conditions in which post bureaucracies claim to operate – flexible and fast moving organisations – which means short term contracts where a trust is hard to build up. Another problem is that of risk which is inherently linked to a culture of freedom and innovation. Whilst freedom can result in good ideas, it can also result in inaccurate and damaging decisions for an organisation. Finally, the problem of fairness is also inherent in an organisational system that stressed individual treatment as this opens the possibility to irrationalities and prejudices.
To come back to the original question, is bureaucracy bad, having evaluated and considered the two sides of the argument. I would have to come to the conclusion that while today’s common form of bureaucracy is bad, the Weberian ideal type is not necessarily so. Like any structure, concept or theory, bureaucracy has its downfalls but there can be no denying that bureaucracy in its ideal type is the most rational and efficient form of organisation. However, over the years and into the 21st century it has become too rigid in its rules and procedures, people working within bureaucracies have lost their sense of initiative and cannot fathom anything that exists outside of their ruled environment.
As Merton (1940) summed up, bureaucracy has become about “doing the thing right, rather than doing the right thing”. The stifling of innovation can lead to the failure of organisations and as James Hayes states “Endless meetings, sloppy communications and red tape steal the entrepreneur’s time”. Through bureaucracy the capacity for discretion is removed, which means that the ability to reason, act and exercise judgement is restricted. The individuals are told to enact a role into which they throw themselves whole heartedly.
However, that is not to say that the alternative of post bureaucracy is much better and one of the particular pitfalls is the lack of security it provides for employees as well as an intensification of time pressures. Though perhaps this is simply the way organisations have to work in the 21st century in order to keep up. Bureaucracy is clearly more relevant is some industries than others, and this should be kept in mind when evaluating the use of bureaucracy. For example it is far more essential to have a paper trail regarding a patients medication and hospital treatment than it is for an artist to rigorously note down the materials they have used. As with most things, neither of the two extremes of bureaucracy or post bureaucracy is ideal, both have their dysfunctions and both have their advantages and as such a merging of the two (as seems to be the case in most organisations) is the most efficient and effective way forward.
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