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