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Contents Bulletin Scripting in shell and Perl Network troubleshooting History Humor


News Sociology of organizations Corporatism Best books about bureaucracy Recommended Links Bureaucracy as a Political Coalition The Fiefdom Syndrome
Bureaucratic alienation Bureaucratic inertia Bureauactic ritualism Bureaucratic avoidance of responsibility Iron law of oligarchy The Peter Principle Parkinson Law
Does the Government Bureaucracy Stifle Innovation? Military Bureaucracy Mayberry Machiavellians Lysenkoism Groupthink The authoritarian personality Double High Authoritarians
Principal-agent problem Elite Theory The psychopath in the corner office Analogy between corporate and psychopathic behavior Meetingomania Humor Etc


Bureaucracy is an organizational model rationally designed to perform complex tasks efficiently. Bureaucratic organizations are typically large organizations, and they are characterized by formalized rules and regulations, systematic record-keeping and archiving of past decisions, formalized planning for the future, hierarchies of status, defined career paths (within the organization and across organizations), a concern for organizational identity, and other features. Many of these features considerably vary across organizations, but government, military and international corporations as well as international organizations (UN, UNESCO, World Bank, IMF) are more or less typified forms. The army and most churches also belong to this category. The fact that bureaucracies are governed by rules make them something like staffed with human robots, where rules serve as a program governing the robot behavior. And as in sci-fi such robots very soon start to demonstrate behavior that was not designed by the programmers ;-).

For example, scholars and specialists often lament that once the bureaucracy commits itself to a course of action, it rarely adjusts its path. Bureaucracies prize continuity over innovation and cling to the prevailing orthodoxy even if that means moving strait till everybody start to fall from the cliff.  With the notable exception of the top layer of hierarchy ;-).

Principal agent problem and the process of corruption of bureaucracy

Any bureaucracy is a political coalition that is designed to protect and enrich the members (see Bureaucracy as a Political Coalition). And that goal explicitly conflict with the goal of efficient and dispassionate service that they theoretically should provide. That means that central problem of bureaucracies is Principal-agent problem and corruption of top layers of hierarchy.

There are three laws that govern this process of corruption:

Even in cases of indoctrination with ideology which inhibits those impulses, corruption of the organizational elite is a serious problem as collapse of the USSR demonstrated to the surprised world. Only an idiot (or PR prostitute ;-) would say that it was angry Russians who overthrow the Communist regime; in reality it was Communist elite, including KGB elite that just changed flags and privatized the state resources.

This is the key to understanding complex dynamics in large organization, where bureaucracies that often engage in actions that look close to absurd (or are absurd) to the uninitiated but are always directed on preservation and enhancement of power of top bureaucrats.  One of the most important features of bureaucracies is that along with "functional side" it also necessarily becomes a political coalition which relentless, consistently and skillfully fights for self-preservation and growth of its influence, often sacrificing "functional" part like pawns in the chess game.  As soon as self-preservation become the paramount concern, the original purpose of the bureaucracy to provide efficient and dispassionate service ("functional part") is subverted and buried beneath the higher priority activities of  providing benefits, increasing staffing, and, the most importantly, increasing budgets ("political part").

As soon as self-preservation become the paramount concern, the original purpose of the bureaucracy to provide efficient and dispassionate service ("functional part") is subverted and buried beneath the higher priority activities of  providing benefits, increasing staffing, and, the most importantly, increasing budgets ("political part").

Tendency of mature bureaucracies to pervert their organizational, functional goals necessitates periodic purges and reorganizations. One of the first political party which understood this complex dynamic were Bolsheviks, who under Stalin instituted periodic purges of  State-employed bureaucrats ("apparatchiks"), so that the fear for their well-being (and often life) served as a powerful countervailing force to the natural tendency of bureaucracy to pervert its goals. Which of course have had only temporary effect. 

In the USA similar mechanisms of appointing as head of government agencies by political appointees (who are often, unfortunately, are completely incompetent in the area of activity they were made responsible for) is much less effective, but also has its positive sides.  The US Congress looks more stagnant then the USSR Politburo with the average serving term of senators probably exceeding twice of more the term of a typical Politburo member.

Limitation of term of the President along with natural change of  political objectives  serves as a periodic, but very mild reorganizing  force. This effect is watered down by a to short term assigned to the presidency as in such a period it is impossible to institute substantial changes in top departments such as Department of State and Department of Defense (which actually has budget larger then GDP of the USSR and is probably less efficient is spending those money that the socialist economy of the USSR).  Also CIA looks more like a tail which wags the dog, then as a regular part of the government.  And it was the chief of FBI J. Edgar Hoover   who convincingly proved that that idea of democracy in the US government has well defined exceptions. None of presidents dared to touch him until he died in the office  occupying it for almost 40 years (1935-1972).

In large corporation the role similar to Stalin purges can play periodic changing of location of headquarters, as election of president of the corporation and its board are typically formal and are run by the same clique that runs the organization.

Bureaucracies as perfect environment for authoritarians and sociopaths

Another negative side of bureaucracies is that they serve as perfect environment for Authoritarians (especially Double High Authoritarians)  as well as sociopaths. See The psychopath in the corner office and Analogy between corporate and psychopathic behavior

So it is interesting that the term psychopathic is applicable to bureaucracies not only to individuals. Bureaucracies can demonstrate several of typical psychopathic traits. Like psychopathic managers, bureaucracies often prevent subordinates doing their jobs and prevent employees fulfilling their duties. the term Psychopathic corporation is often used to highlight the connection between corporate psychopaths and modern government organizations and megacorporations. Here is a short but very useful list from Our Church Administration is Critically Infected « Another Voice

1.Illogical Thinking: The lack of independent, critical thinking.

2. Highly Compartmentalized Minds: Authoritarians’ ideas are poorly integrated with one another.

3. Double Standards : When your ideas live independent lives from one another it is pretty easy to use double standards in your judgments. You simply call up the idea that will justify (afterwards) what you’ve decided to do.

4. Hypocrisy: The leaders of authoritarian movements sometimes accuse their opponents of being anti-democratic and anti-free speech when the latter protest against various books, movies, speakers, teachers and so on.

5. Blindness To Themselves: self-righteousness.

6. A Profound Ethnocentrism: Ethnocentrism means dividing the world up into in-groups and out-groups…….in-groups are holy and good…out-groups are evil and Satanic.

7. Dogmatism: the Authoritarian’s Last Ditch Defense: By dogmatism I mean relatively unchangeable, unjustified certainty. Loyal followers obey without questions…..

The key feature of such companies is  that do not treat employees as humans, they treat them as animals to be culled when appropriate. 

"The psychopathic company has no allegiance to the employees within, just to top management,"....
 "A psychopathic company is always playing a short-term parasitic game."


Bureaucracies are bad but often better than alternatives

Although multiple vices and tendency to convert rules into absurd of large bureaucracies are self-evident and huge volume of literature exists about perversions of bureaucracies, especially military bureaucracies (The Good Soldier Švejk ), this form of organization is not totally bad. At the same time progressive degradation of bureaucracies with age is an established fact.

In other words, benefits to the proverbial “red tape” associated with bureaucracy do exist, but as its amount increase at some point all benefits dissipate and organization became totally parasitic. At the same time strong mechanisms of self-defense and survival ensure that such a bureaucracy can last a long time past this point. And as Parkinson aptly stated perversion of use of resources is a rule not an anomaly. Also level of competency of top bureaucrats are open to review as within organization exist mechanisms that prevent promotion of competent people into higher levels of hierarchy as well as mechanisms of degradation of previously competent members as they climb the hierarchical ladder (The Peter Principle).

There is a strong tendency of top layers of any large bureaucracy to form a oligarchy and cut oxygen for newcomers, and possibility of change. That's what Iron law of oligarchy is about.  So there can't be a democratic established bureaucracy, even in principle. Any established bureaucracy is by definition an oligarchy that often acts in concert and reflect interests of other oligarchic groups in society no matter what is the formal charter of the organization.

For example, bureaucratic regulations and rules help ensure that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) takes appropriate precautions to safeguard the health of Americans when it is in the process of approving a new medication. It does not work perfectly it is often perverted by special interests, but it is better then nothing and might be even better then alternatives. The proverbial "red tape" associated with truckload of useless documents actually also serves positive role documenting pretty complex things so that multiple players have common vision and if problems arise, data exists for analysis and correction. Here how John Kenneth Galbright viewed the phenomena:

John Kenneth Galbraith, who took the analysis well beyond the manufacture of pins. According to Galbraith, much of the dynamism of the modern world could be attributed to the advance of science and technology, which in turn resulted from “taking ordinary men, informing them narrowly and deeply and then, through appropriate organization, arranging to have their knowledge combined with that of other specialized but equally ordinary men.”12

As Galbraith implied, specialization creates the need for coordination. Bureaucracies bring order out of potential chaos in two ways. The first of these is what people tend to think of when they hear the word bureaucracy: rules, regulations, and strict procedures. Alll bureaucracies make abundant use of explicit and implicit Standard Operating Procedures to guide and control the activities of their employees. This, of course, can be another source of frustration when dealing with a bureaucracy because there may be situations not covered by existing rules, or the rules may be of dubious appropriateness. But even more frustrations, as well as endless opportunities for corruption and abuse, would ensue if the members of an organization simply made decisions on the basis of personal connections or individual whims.

Along with the use of formal roles and rules, bureaucratic organizations coordinate the work of their members through another property that is distasteful to many: hierarchical authority. The structures of most bureaucratic organizations can be (and usually are) depicted in an organization chart that puts every position at a hierarchical level that clearly indicates who is subordinate or superordinate to whom. In addition to aiding in the coordination of work, organizational hierarchies serve a number of other functions, such as delineating responsibilities and motivating workers by holding out the prospect of promotion. Organizational hierarchies are especially prominent in military and paramilitary organizations such as police forces, where observing rules and obeying orders issued by superiors are of paramount importance. Other kinds of organizations can get by with more egalitarian structures, but some degree of hierarchical ranking will be found in all bureaucratic organizations.

A final characteristic of bureaucratic organizations is their extensive use of, and reliance on, written records. It is no coincidence that the first extensive government bureaucracies emerged in Egypt, Babylonia, and China, places where written languages were first created and developed. As a practical matter, written records are essential for the preservation and dissemination of rules, regulations, and operating procedures, along with essential documents such as contracts, tax records, and voter registrations. What began thousands of years ago with the first scratching on clay tablets continues to a greatly magnified degree today, as modern information and communications technologies such as computerized databases and e-mail have extended the reach and potency of the written word

At this point, many readers are probably thinking that this discussion of bureaucracy is seriously divorced from reality as they have experienced it. And they are right—not only do bureaucracies in the real world often depart from the above principles, but the imputation that they are the embodiment of rationality seems quite a stretch. Here we will again simply note that an ideal type presentation of bureaucracy is only a starting point for further analysis, just as a mathematical description of the acceleration of a falling body has to first set aside the effects of air resistance in order to derive the formula for determining the rate at which the body gains speed. There will be numerous places in this book where real-world organizational structures and procedures and their consequences for the way work is done will be presented, along with the reasons for their departure from ideal-type bureaucracies. As a starting point, we need to consider which kinds of work environments are well suited to bureaucratic modes of organization and which are not.

Likewise, the impersonality of bureaucracies can have benefits. For example, an applicant must submit a great deal of paperwork to obtain a government student loan. However, this lengthy—and often frustrating—process promotes equal treatment of all applicants, meaning that everyone has a fair chance to gain access to funding. Formally bureaucracy discourages favoritism, meaning that on the surface friendships and political clout should have no effect on access to funding. Reality is totally different.

The concept of bureaucracy is closely linked with the concept of oligarchy. Any large corporate bureaucracy is an oligarchy. Corporate oligarchy is a form of power, governmental or operational, where such power effectively rests with a small, elite group of inside individuals, sometimes from a small group of educational institutions, or influential economic entities or devices, such as banks, commercial entities that act in complicity with, or at the whim of the oligarchy, often with little or no regard for society or environment at large.

Bureaucracies may have positive effects on employees. Whereas the stereotype of bureaucracies is one of suppressed creativity and extinguished imagination, this is not the case. Social research shows that many employees intellectually thrive in bureaucratic environments. According to this research, bureaucrats have higher levels of education, intellectual activity, personal responsibility, self-direction, and open-mindedness, when compared to non-bureaucrats.

Another benefit of bureaucracies for employees is job security, such as a steady salary, and other perks, like insurance, medical and disability coverage, and a retirement pension.

Cons of bureaucracy

Programmers and system administrators rarely have anything good to say about bureaucracies, and their complaints may hold some truth. As noted previously, bureaucratic regulations and rules are not very helpful when unexpected situations arise. Bureaucratic authority is notoriously undemocratic, and blind adherence to rules may inhibit the exact actions necessary to achieve organizational goals.

Concerning this last point, one of bureaucracy's least-appreciated features is its proneness to creating “paper trails” and piles of rules. Governmental bureaucracies are especially known for this. Critics of bureaucracy argue that mountains of paper and rules only slow an organization's capacity to achieve stated goals. They also note that governmental red tape costs taxpayers both time and money. Parkinson's Law and the Peter Principle have been formulated to explain how bureaucracies become dysfunctional. They are pretty fascinating findings: