While  bureaucracy stretches  back into  antiquity, especially the Confucian bureaucracy of the  Han  dynasty,  the modern  rational legal conception of bureaucracy emerged in France in the eighteenth century. Indeed, the word is French  in  origin: it  compounds the  French word for an office – bureau – with the Greek word for rule. In the nineteenth century, Ger many  provided  the  clearest examples of  its success because of the development of a disciplined bureaucracy and standing army, inventions that became the envy of Europe.

Bureaucratic  organization  depends   above all on the application of ‘‘rational’’ means for the achievement of specific ends. Techniques would  be  most  rational  where  they   were designed purely from the point of view of fitness  for purpose.  Max  Weber,  the  famous German  \sociologist,  defined bureaucracy in terms  of 15 major characteristics: (1) power belongs to an office and not the office holder; (2) authority is specified by the  rules of the organization; (3) organizational action is  impersonal,  involving the  execution  of  official policies; (4) disciplinary systems of knowledge frame organizational action; (5) rules are formally  codified;  (6)  precedent   and  abstract rule serve as standards for organizational action; (7) there is a tendency toward specialization; (8)  a  sharp  boundary  between bureaucratic and  particularistic  action  defines  the  limits of  legitimacy; (9)  the  functional  separation of tasks is accompanied by a formal authority structure;  (10) powers are precisely dele gated  in  a  hierarchy; (11) the delegation of powers is expressed in terms of duties, rights, obligations,  and  responsibilities  specified  in contracts; (12) qualities required for organization  positions  are  increasingly measured  in terms  of  formal credentials; (13) there  is  a career  structure   with  promotion  either   by seniority or merit; (14) different positions in the hierarchy are differentially paid and other wise  stratified;  (15)  communication,  coordination,  and  control  are  centralized in  the organization.

Weber identified authority, based on rational legal precepts,  as  the  heart  of  bureaucratic organizations. Members of rational bureaucracies obey the rules as general principles that can be applied to particular cases, and which apply to  those  exercising authority  as much  as to those who must  obey the  rules. People obey not the person but the office holder.

Weber  saw modern  bureaucratic organizations  as  resting  on  a  number  of  ‘‘rational’’ foundations. These include the existence of a ‘‘formally free’’ labor force; the appropriation and  concentration of  the  physical means  of production as disposable private property; the representation of share rights in organizations and  property ownership; and  the  ‘‘rationalization’’ of various institutional areas such as the market, technology, and the law. The outcome of processes of rationalization was the production of a new type of person: the specialist or  technical expert. Such  experts master reality by  means of increasingly precise and abstract concepts. Statistics, for example, began in the nineteenth century as a form of expert codified knowledge of everyday life and death, which could inform public policy. The statistician became a paradigm of the  new kind of expert, dealing with everyday things but in a way that was far removed from everyday understandings. Weber sometimes referred to the results of this process as disenchantment, meaning the process whereby all forms of magi cal,   mystical,   traditional    explanation are stripped  from the world, open and amenable to the calculations of technical reason. Bureaucracy is an organizational form consisting of differentiated knowledge and many different forms of expertise, with their  rules and disciplines arranged not only hierarchically in regard to each other, but also in parallel. If you moved through one track, in theory, you need not know anything about how things were done in the other tracks. Whether the bureaucracy was a public or private sector organization   would  be   largely  immaterial.  Private ownership might enable you to control the revenue stream, but day to day control would be done  through  the  intermediation  of experts. And  expertise  is  always  fragmented.  This enables the  bureaucracy to  be  captured  by expert administrators, however democratic its mandate might be, as Michels’s studies of trade union bureaucracy established. Bureaucracy in the  nineteenth  century  was largely identified with public sector management, yet as private enterprises grew in size they adopted the classical traits of bureaucracy as well as innovating some new elements.

Weber constituted  an  idea of bureaucracy conceived in terms of liberal ideals of governance. Hence,  the  characterization of bureaucracy  as  rule   without   regard   for   persons premised on a democratic ideal against blandishments of power and  privilege was both  a moral and abstractedly ideal empirical description, which, for much of the twentieth century, stood  as  a  proximate model  of  what  public sector responsibility was founded upon. Nonetheless,  criticisms of  bureaucracy have  been legion, perhaps best captured in the exquisite command of the rules of the bureaucratic game shown by the participants in the British television comedy series Yes, Prime Minister.

The criticisms of bureaucracy suggested that it was not so much rational as incremental; it enabled exploitation of uncertainty for sectional benefit; it generated both individual and organizational pathology; and it suffered from segmentalism, where many employees in strictly formal bureaucracies displayed a relative disinterest in the broader conduct of organizational life. The process of reform of bureaucracy seeks to ascribe new norms of authority in the governmental relation between members in the hierarchy. Chief among its methods has been the application of new design principles to the classical bureaucracies whose qualities Weber captured in his model; they have been reengineered to achieve greater efficiencies. A major mechanism is  the  removal of a  bureaucratic ethos and its replacement with a cost cutting mentality – in the guise of efficiency – which elevates one dimension of public sector management  above all other considerations. Outputs increasingly come to be defined and measured and performance based orientations developed toward them.  These  changes are often associated  with  the  widespread development  of contracting out in the public sector, as market testing principles are introduced: what was previously internal work organized according to hierarchy increasingly has to be contracted out to the cheapest provider. The main contemporary  mechanisms for  reforming  public  sector bureaucracy have been privatization of government owned assets and the outsourcing of specific activities. The specialist skills brought by the outsourcing service provider take elements of government’s back office into the front office of the service provider. By moving some elements from intra organizational to  contractual control, increased efficiency occurs. The modern  tendency is  for  markets  increasingly to replace bureaucratic hierarchies. These  ‘‘new organizational forms’’ are attracting consider able contemporary attention as changed paradigms for management.

As the designs of bureaucracy were changing, so too were the mentalities of those who occupied them. If the Weberian bureaucrat valued ethos, character, and vocation, the contemporary bureaucrat is expected to be enterprising. To capture the sense of new forms of government and mentality, the French theorist Michel Foucault came up  with a neologism, governmentality, based on  the  semantic merger  of government with ‘‘mentality.’’ He was pointing to a fusion of new technologies  of government with a new political rationality. ‘‘Governmentality’’ refers both to the  new institutions  of governance in bureaucracies and to their effects. These effects are to make problematic whole areas of  government that  used  to  be accomplished through the public sector, seamlessly regulated by bureaucratic rules; now they are moved into calculations surrounding markets. Foucault defines government as a specific combination  of   governing   techniques   and rationalities, typical of the modern, neoliberal period.  Bureaucracies, rather  than  regulating conduct, now enable individuals in civil society to  act  freely through  markets  to  get  things done, in normatively institutionalized ways governed increasingly by standards, charters, and other codes, and public administrators to recreate themselves as entrepreneurial actors.


  1. Du Gay, (2000) In Praise of Bureaucracy: Weber, Organization,  Ethics. Sage, London.
  2. Foucault, (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Allen & Lane, London.
  3. Weber, (1978) Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. University of  California Press, Berkeley.

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