Death of bureaucracy


An Exaggeration

When attempting to understand the role of Bureaucracy in governments and why it is the most needed and yet the most disliked attempt at governance, it is necessary to understand how economists and social scientists have attempted to define the term over the ages, how it has been defined and how it functions now can lead to an understanding of whether it can no longer be considered 'alive'. It is most often the work of Max Weber, especially his list of ten features of bureaucratic organisations that has constituted the basis of the understanding of modern day bureaucracy. Weber has defined bureaucracy as an organisation that is constructed on impersonal rules and paid professional staff. It is a hierarchal authority structure which clearly defines and limits the duties and roles of different individuals who are a part of this hierarchal structure. One of the main reasons why Weber as well as other social theorists has viewed bureaucracy to be a distinct organisation is because by dividing responsibilities between different individuals it is distinctly different from other forms of organisations, especially when principal authority is given to just one person (Jenkins, Page, 2004).

In his 'Bureaucracy' Weber has defined the characteristics of bureaucracy very clearly as consisting of 'fixed and official jurisdiction areas...ordered by laws or administrative regulations', which are set in 'a firmly ordered system of super-and the bureaucratic type, the office hierarchy is monocratically organised' (Hamilton, 2001). If viewed in the light of Weber's definition of bureaucracy there is perhaps very little room for debate over the 'death of bureaucracy'.

The modern society has basically used the same definition of bureaucracy as was used by Weber but still feels that it is an organisational behavior that defies simplicity as its core value. It would seem that with the passage of time bureaucracy has increased its requirement of role specificity.

Though it is true that bureaucracies are shaped by the specific social forces and cultures in which they function, the one image that is conjured in the mind in the discussion of any bureaucracy in any nation is of an organisational structure that binds its members with specific duties, actions, hierarchal supervision, specialisation by nature of personnel, prohibition on gain besides fixed salaries, and an interrupted and continuous operation over time in which the only change is of the people who are carrying out the specific functions (Greenwald,2007). The other commonality when thinking of bureaucracies of any given country or culture is that they are hated by the general populations. It has often been one of the favorite dilemmas of social scientists to figure out why something that is so integrated within the social structure is so disliked by the masses.

Weber was among the first social scientists to trace the history of bureaucracy and found the evidence for its existence in the Middle Ages, and even as long ago as in ancient China, Egypt, and Rome (Greenwald, 2007). Although bureaucracy with its modern connotation is the product of modern day societies, it has always been associated with the word 'rule' and in this case, the 'rule' of officials and throughout history wherever there has been the paradigm of 'ruler and the ruled' there has bound to be an element of dislike, hate, conflict, and disagreement.

In the words of Martin Albrow (1970), 'bureaucracy has become a term of strong emotive overtones and elusive connotations'. For other social scientists, 'sometimes bureaucracy seems to mean administrative efficiency, at other times the opposite'. Even if one was to consider the gist of modern day bureaucracy, it would be either 'a rule by officials' or 'a particular form of government' and given the desire of the modern day citizen for 'democracy' both actions of bureaucracy are challenging to this desire and even somewhat unacceptable. In the 1930 Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences Harold Laski defined bureaucracy as 'A system of government the control of which is so completely in the hands of officials that their power jeopardizes the liberties of ordinary citizens'. Similarly Lasswell & Kaplan (1950) defined the term in 'Power and Society' as 'the form of rule in which the elite is composed of officials' (Kuper, 1985).

Gornay's modern twentieth century heirs continue to share his initial observations on 'bureauramia' or the mass spread of bureaucracy where the 'rule' of officials is seen to be the most prevalent method of governance in modern society.

However, there is an acceptance for the existence of bureaucracy; it has not reduced the position of disfavor it has always held since the time of its inception and definition. Where modern authors define the term on the basis provided by de Gornay they also share his contempt for the 'illness of bureaucracy'. It is however interesting to note that though this contempt for bureaucracy is shared; there is a very specific polarity in this general opinion about bureaucracy. For instance bureaucracy is sometimes referred to as a 'demanding giant', 'intolerably meddlesome', 'an oppressive foreign power' while on the same note it is seen to be 'timid and indecisive', 'flabby, overpaid, and lazy' (Kuper, 1985). The polarisation in the definition of bureaucracy is often seen in societies where there is an even greater 'power' than bureaucracy itself such as the where army has taken over the control. Though the bureaucracy was still a functioning part of the societal structure, its potential 'power' was somewhat comparatively subdued. Weber has defined this very clearly as he wrote, 'Under normal conditions, the power position of a fully developed bureaucracy is always over towering. The 'political master' finds himself in the position of the 'dilettante' who stand opposite the 'expert', facing the trained official who stands within the management of administration.

When social scientists eventually agreed and decided, even if resignedly, that bureaucracy is so imbedded in society , any society, that the only way to deal with it was to improve the manner of its functioning, they started to focus on curing the 'ills' which have traditionally infected bureaucracies. The main ill has been cited to be the inefficiency of bureaucracy. Similarly Michel Crozier (1964) has defined the main ill of bureaucracy as being 'an organisation that cannot correct its behavior by learning from its errors' (Kuper, 1985). Crozier analysis is highly reflective of the accepted corruption that is found in bureaucracy. It is this corruption that has made the bureaucracy, mostly in the third world countries, the bane of its citizens. Interestingly despite the rampant corruption, and other ills, in bureaucracy they still continue to exist and function even in these societies. This hints at the importance of bureaucracies as a viable mode of government.

Seeing that the development of bureaucracy has been a double edged sword in modern society where on hand it has been considered essential while on the same note it failed to maintain the integral components that would certify it to be a 'perfect' , it can be said that the statement 'death of bureaucracy' is true to a great extent.

When discussing bureaucracies and how they tend to malfunction greatly in certain societies and not so much in other, the important realisation is that their efficiency has been found to be greatly correlative with the economic development of that specific society whereby the greater the complications of the overall societal structure and mechanism, the more the need for coordination, planning, and management that can be instituted with the presence of bureaucracies. Also these complications also create the need for the continual development of future-oriented strategies aimed at management. If Weber had seen bureaucracy to be a necessary component of societies since ancient time to modern, it was on the basis of what he assumed was the 'best' form of bureaucracy which he also attributed to charismatic authority and a great level of traditionalism. Hence the perfect bureaucracy, if there is one, would not be the displeasure of citizens but the sum total of their civic needs. It would not only be based on a very specific authority but would also be separated from authority. However given the complications this 'perfect' form of bureaucracy tends to suffer, it has become the bane of citizens. It can hardly be doubted that modern society is most in need of a bureaucracy but the bureaucracies that are functioning in the majority of modern societies are hardly the 'perfect' bureaucracies envisioned by Weber. This is the reason why the modern analysis of bureaucracy does not invalidate the importance of the bureaucratic structure but tries to draw attention to all the features that create dysfunction in bureaucracy whereby it clashes with the general interests of society and makes it a formidable interest force within society over passing its actual function of a passive conduit that works for the interest s of the society (Mieczkowski, 1991).

The bureaucracy that works for the people is seen to be at the center of political and economic power and the bureaucrats perform their tasks by either actively formulating or passively verbalising the general aspirations of a society since it is the society that they are most responsible for managing and controlling.

The aspirations of the society are influenced by the bureaucrats through the media and more so through the educational and political process. The various bureaus related to difference aspects of civic life bring about this influence by different plans such as political economic plans or five year budget plans. However, bureaucracies that are working more in their own interests tend to formulate these plans more in the light of how this will affect their own interests first. Though the ideal bureaucracy is one which is 'based on specified organisation and on separation from ownership' and is 'socially necessary as it helps to direct the efforts of the society at obtaining the results that are important to it', the modern day bureaucracy is disliked for the fact that it is no longer separated from ownership and hence is no longer the medium of voicing the aspirations of society (Mieczkowski, 1991). William Weissert writes in 'Governing Health: The Politics of Health Policy', 'the importance of bureaucrats in conducting the business of government remains essential. But the public's opinion of the collective bureaucracy and the agencies in which bureaucrats serve may be worsening a situation that could pose future problems for the legitimacy of and trust in the nation's public workforce' (Weissert, 2006).

Given the state of public dissatisfaction, many social scientists have wondered why bureaucracies are still in effect even in the modern world and why they remain one of the most prominent institutions in modern societies. For many observers the bureaucracy has passed its peak and the emergence of globalisation, greater rate of change, and more uncertain environments, have made bureaucratic structure obsolete. The need is now cited for more flexible forms of governments which would also be tied with greater levels of civic satisfaction as compared to the conventional bureaucracies. However, this has not yet happened. Another main point that is often raised in this context is whether the dysfunction and interest based bureaucracies in modern societies have the potential of evolving into the greatest threat to democracy. Regardless of the ills that plagued bureaucracies it cannot be denied that it is an institution so deep rooted as one of the most potent means of governance that it will not be soon before it can be uprooted. Sociologists can lament about the 'death of bureaucracy' that they hardly deny that is still very much a part of society hence proving that the statement is, at least at this point in human society, still an exaggeration.

The social scientists such as the pluralists believe that the growing pervasiveness of bureaucracies have made them more vulnerable rather than power. To the contrary the technocrats and the Marxists argue that the power of bureaucracies has only grown over the years and hence there is no truth in any impending death of it. With reference to its relationship with democracy the pluralists believe that bureaucracies were not and could never be considered a threat for democracies. On the same note the Marxists believe quite the opposite. Interestingly neither one of the two has implied that the power or lack of, of bureaucracies has tended to favor the health of democracies at any time during its evolution in society. In fact the relationship between the democracy and bureaucracy is viewed to be one that constitutes a relative dilemma where how bureaucracy affects democracy is actually dependant upon the specificities of the society. Eva Etzioni-Halevy (1985) articulates this very clearly, '....bureaucracy generates a dilemma for democracy: a powerful, independent, non-politicised bureaucracy poses a threat for democracy, and yet is also indispensible for it. By the same token, democracy generates a dilemma for bureaucracy: under the present, rather inconsistent democratic rules, bureaucracy is expected to be both independent and subservient, both politicised and non-politicised at one and the same time'. This analysis needs to be further evaluated to ascertain whether it is an exaggeration to state that bureaucracy is dead.

Seeing how bureaucracy and democracy are somewhat dependent upon each other for survival, it would be wrong to say that bureaucracy is dead. Perhaps the right way to put it would be that the 'intrinsic nature of bureaucracy' as envisioned by Weber, is dead. For this dysfunction, not only are the masses not happy with the nature and function of modern day bureaucracies, but these bureaucracies are also failing to support the intrinsic functions of what could be healthy democracies too. A healthy bureaucracy would lead to a healthy democracy however the modern day bureaucracy is nothing but a constant source of friction, tension, and conflict. In the words of Etzioni-Halevy (1985), 'Indeed, it seems that the strains bureaucracy creates for democracy grow more salient the more powerful bureaucracy becomes' (Etzioni-Halevy, 1985).

Having illustrated that bureaucracy is not yet dead, it now needs to be assessed what future it has given the growing levels of dislike that people have for it.

There are wide-ranging predictions regarding the future of bureaucracy ranging from remedial to radical. The remedial accept the presence of bureaucracy as being crucial to society and consequently put forth ideas for fixing whatever ills are plaguing it.

The radical expectations see no hope in fixing the dysfunction of bureaucracy, and hence seek to replace with a form of management that would be more aligned with needs of modern societies. What is interesting to note is that neither one of these two options claims that 'this is the future prediction for bureaucracy because bureaucracy is now dead'? Even while the first option seeks to fixe bureaucracy, it still does not claim that it is 'dead'. It can hence be surmised that though there is a great alluring appeal of the 'end of bureaucracy' or 'the death of bureaucracy', the phenomenon has not yet occurred whereby the statement that 'bureaucracy is dead' is, at this moment in time, quite an exaggeration (Jenkins, Page, 2004).


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