Is bureaucracy as bad as its critics suggest?


            The ideology of bureaucracy was
introduced by a German sociologist and political economist called Max Weber, in
the early-1920s. Appraised in the early staged of its existence, bureaucracy
was a revolutionary way of making organisations more effective and efficient.
After a few years bureaucracy has been facing some critiques, after
implementation and negative aspects appeared to stand out. The best way to
understand the critics of bureaucracy will be to discuss what bureaucracy is,
to understand its fundamentals and advantages, so that we are able to
understand its critics and have a more concreate point of view over the
situation. We will also discuss another alternative to Weber’s bureaucracy
through the Heckscher’s post-bureaucracy work, which could be more adapted to
today’s organisations.


What is bureaucracy? Who invented bureaucracy?


            To understand bureaucracy it is
important to understand its meaning first. The etymology of the word
bureaucracy comes from the French word ‘bureau’, which means office, and the
Greek word ‘kratia’ or ‘kratos’, which means ruling (, 2018).
This helps us understand that bureaucracy is the art of Government by bureaux,
so in other terms governing through office ruling.

According to Max Weber, a German sociologist and political economist who
invented the concept, bureaucracy is a hierarchical organization, which follows
formal lines of authority, a fixed area of activity, rigid division of labour,
regular and continuous execution of assigned tasks. It is also important to
notice that all decisions and powers are specified and restricted by regulations,
as well as career advancement dependents on technical qualifications that are
evaluated by organisational rules and not individuals, due to a high level of
impersonality. Weber also believed that superior’s power should be based on the
position of the individual in the organization, the level of competence that
they have and the adherence to explicit rules and regulations. The higher a
person is in the hierarchy, the most power they will have throughout the
organization, if they have the competence to do so by following the regulations
(Weber, 1921).


What are the advantages and critics/disadvantages of


            By following the main principals of
bureaucracy, stated by Max Weber, it will give us a good view of what
advantages we can gain from such a structure, and what disadvantages this
structure can create and how other researcher have critiqued it.

            The first group of characteristics
for bureaucracy are a well-defined hierarchical structure that help distinguish
the different levels of authority within an organization (Weber 1921). By this
it is meant that individuals that hold higher positions in the organization,
will supervise and dictate the lower position individuals, as well as making
the final choices in organisations. Herbert A. Simon argues by centralising
policy setting and decentralising decision making, the structure of bureaucracy
facilitates the management of organisational scale and its complexity. (Simon,
1976). So for example, a manager of a
supermarket will have authority over the normal workers who fill in the shelfs,
this authority over the lower ranked workers will insure that all the goals are
met and it will give a sense of decision-making to the manager.

            The second characteristic is the
management by the rules and regulations stated by the organization (Weber,
1921). They provide a set of standard operating procedure which must be
followed by everyone part of the organization, at any time. This will ease the
consistency of both management and organizational practices of the organization,
by uniforming their work force. A lack to follow these regulations could end up
in negative effects over the individual that failed to do so. For example, if a
worker is sick for the day, they need to call in to let the managers know, so
that someone else can be replacing the person that is ill. A failure to call in
will surely result in a warring, due to not meeting the working regulations of
the organisation.

third group of characteristics stated by Weber, are the rigid division of
labour, regular and continuous execution of assigned task (Weber, 1921). These
characteristics are used to align the individuals/employees to their task, and
only to their task. This will make the organisation more successful as
employees will be assigned work with which they are experienced, although it
can be repetitive, this will make the level of productivity rise because they
will be able to achieve every aspect of the work (Nelson and Winter, 1982). For
example, if in a supermarket you have a fisherman and a normal employee, it
will be more interesting for the supermarket to put the fisherman at the fish
counter, while putting the other employee as a cashier.

            The fourth, and last, group of
characteristics are based on the qualification of the individuals. Every
employee should be an expert in their field, so for example if an employee
wants to change job within the same organization they will have to have the qualifications
to do so (Weber, 1921). To advance in their career, employees’ qualifications
should be the only dependency on going up the hierarchy, as it is the only
factor that is relevant to their knowledge. This will help the company to be
able employ the right individuals for the job that are opened and this will
make the company be more successful as people will know exactly what to do and
how to act.

            The four group of characteristics,
stated by Max Weber in his publication, are showing us why bureaucracy can be
beneficial for an organization and what advantage a company could benefit by
following them. This will often result, at least in theory, to more accurate
work from the employees as they are closely watched over every movement and the
rules will keep them on the right track. Although in theory bureaucracy seems
to be fairly good, there are some big disadvantages to it, which came up years
after its release.


            As well as its effectiveness,
bureaucracy has some imminent limitations for the employees as well as for the
way the leadership works.


            Peter Blau and Marshall Meyer (1987)
have opposed themselves to Weber’s bureaucracy model. Max Weber has used some
expressions to describe his bureaucracy structure, such as: “the pure type” or
even “most highly developed”, which shows that Weber truly believes that his
structure is perfect and that it always functions perfectively and efficiently.
It has in reality not shown that success, the bureaucratic structure is not
“fully developed”, it has shown some lacks of effectiveness in some public
performances and its ability to meet the citizens’ social needs and political
rights. Therefore P. Blau and M. Meyer have argued that the bureaucracy
structure is not idealistic and that organizations are being fooled. By
following the bureaucratic path they might never achieve the efficiency that is
stated by Max Weber in his research. Peter Blau and Marhsall Meyer have stated:
“since perfect bureaucratization is never fully realized, no existing
organisation precisely fits the ‘ideal type’ … which does not provide
understanding of concrete bureaucratic structure” (Blau and Meyer, 1987).
Although that it is arguable that the ideal bureaucracy is only a conceptual
guide, Blau and Meyer have stated that “empirical studies have shown that this
approach is misleading”. The idea behind this limitation, is that it shows that
bureaucracy is never going to be achieved fully, because no organisation is
ever going to achieve the ‘ideal type’ of organisation to be able to completely
follow the theory side of the structure. So this bureaucracy structure is
arguably more a conceptual model than a model that organisations could follow
to the letter.


            The Weberian bureaucracy structure
is based on the on the formal elements of bureaucracy, which are composed of
specialization, rules, hierarchy and qualifications. This structure is ignoring
the aspect of informal organizations introduced by Barnard (1966), which
suggests that it does not take into account any human emotions or relations of
any form. Barnard suggests that the informal elements, such as human
relationships, communication networks, motivation and others were not used well
in the private and public organisations structures that were following the
bureaucracy scheme (Barnard, 1966).


            Bureaucracy’s most known
disadvantage is the obstruction of achieving results in time due to a slow
process. By this it is meant that for a bureaucratic organizations, every
action or decision that needs to be taken, needs to pass through a chain of
command for it to be approved. This process often takes time, as many different
individual need to approve the decision before it can be applied. Crozier
(1964) states that this slowness is a maladapted response to the needs which
bureaucratic organizations should answer to (Crozier, 1964). There are numerous
examples of this issue such as in the military. A certain decision like
military defence often needs to be approved by a numerous of people from the
military and the government hierarchy, which can result in being too slow to
react to the problem. It can result in dramatic outcomes, such as many
causalities or even a failure to react to some terrorist strategies. The
slowness of the bureaucratic process is often criticised and it is the main
disadvantage of such a model.

            As being explained in the
advantages, the work done by employees in a bureaucracy is often repetitive as
employees are assigned with the same work all the time (Spahr,2014). The
specialisation in jobs can provoke a rise in productivity as well as a fall in
productivity, because employees face boredom of repetition (Gardiner and
Haladyn, 2017). Employees need to have a positive belief about their work, but
in a bureaucratic organisation it can be hard to keep over time as their task
will be the same daily and it will not be challenging over a longer period of

            The applied rules and regulations of
a bureaucratic structure can often be problematic for some individuals. These
rules often take away the freedom of the employees and resolve them to only
follow the strict rules and they are implied to do their job and nothing else.
By doing so, bureaucracy does not allow any employees to think outside the box,
which can be quite problematic. Warren Bennis (1968) suggests that bureaucracy
develops conformity, which puts everyone in the same box (Bennis and Slater,
1968). The bureaucracy structure denies that employees’ opinion can sometimes
be crucial to the success of a company by opposing themselves against not well
designed strategies, which in this case is left out.

            The hierarchical structure of bureaucracy
is a big disadvantage to its structure, it gives a bad image to the structure
as it can be compared to an oligarchy. By this it is meant that in a
bureaucracy the hierarchy pattern follows the path of oligarchy, a small group
of highly placed individuals are ruling over the rest. The leaders often
promote the junior officials higher up in the hierarchy, because they share
similar views. This problem often occurs in bureaucracy and goes against the
ideology, as you are supposed to be promoted or employed based on your
qualifications. Bennis (1968) also argues that the system of control and
authority is outdated, conflicts between ranks in the hierarchy are ignored and
there is an inappropriate pressure of the higher ranks over the lower ones due
to hierarchical division (Bennis and Slater, 1968).


a possible alternative


            The term post-bureaucracy has been
developed since the 1970s and the end of the industrial era, it is a shift from
mass production of standard products to niche products (Al-Amoudi, 2017). Many
scholars and researchers, such as Charles Heckscher (1994), have contrasted
this new type of structure to the old bureaucracy suggested by Max Weber.
Heckscher argues that these post-bureaucracy are not a fundamental shift from
bureaucracy, but more a cleaned-up version of the Weberian model (Heckscher and
Donnellon, 1994). This shows us that the matter of the organisation has shifted
from organisational structure to organisation culture, in which all the
informal organisations from Barnard are being taken into account. According to
Charles Heckscher rules are now being replaced with consensus and dialogue
based on personal influence rather than status, responsibilities are assigned
on the basis of competence for tasks rather than hierarchy, these are the main
factors that individuals are looking to move to. By this it is meant that these
factors are primordial for employees of the new generation, people in
organisations want to be more flexible and innovative rather than simply
following orders. Employees’ are looking to be treated as individuals rather
than impersonally, they want to be granted freedom of thinking and freedom of
action, which is not possible in traditional bureaucracy.

            Charles Heckscher, as the one of the
leading researcher on post bureaucracy, has devised a list of characteristics
called ‘the post bureaucratic ideal type’, which is contrasting from Weber’s
ideal type of bureaucracy. The post-bureaucratic organisations need to follow
eleven ideal-type feature, according to Heckscher. The most important features
are to introduce consensus through institutionalized dialogue rather than
acquiescence to authority and rules, influence by persuasion rather than
official position, integration through a strong emphasis on organisational
mission rather than formal job definitions and rules, sharing information
rather than hiding it, consultation and communication based on the problem or
project rather than a formal chain of command. Other features such as,
verification of qualifications and expertise through open processes of
association and peer evaluation rather than formal credentials and official
position, or furthermore, evaluation, compensation and promotion based on
public and negotiated standards of performance rather than rigid objective
criteria (Heckscher and Donnellon, 1994). All these factors are important to understand
the difference between bureaucracy and post-bureaucracy, Charles Heckscher is
reformulating the ideal type of Weber’s bureaucracy to a new way of using it by
changing some fundamental boundaries. It gives post-bureaucracy the edge to
make bureaucracy work in the late 20th and 21st century.




            Bureaucracy, as a new
theory invented in the early 1920s by Weber, is an organisation structure based
on a few different factors. As Weber has introduced his concept, with the
different features needed to be followed, he insisted on the efficiency and effectiveness
of his model. However throughout the years, after the release of Weber’s work,
many critiques have been conducted over the viability of the structure and its effectiveness.
By contrasting the advantages and the disadvantages of bureaucracy we have a
clear view of what aspects are not achievable and viable in today’s
organisations. The studies conducted by Charles Heckscher, the most dominant writer
for the post-bureaucracy structure, has showed us how post-bureaucracy is not
putting bureaucracy aside, but it is actually renewing the structure of bureaucracy
in today’s context. This shows us that the structure of bureaucracy is not as
bad as critiques make it appear, although it is lacking, to some extent, the
edge of today’s organisations. Bureaucracy is still viable in some of today’s
organisation, such as in “the administration of government through departments
and subdivision managed by sets of appointed officials following an inflexible
routine” (, 2018).
The military is also using a bureaucratical structure through the way it is
functioning and it could lack its efficiency if it did not follow this
structure (Callaghan and Kernic, 2004). Although it might not follow all of
Weber’s features, it still shows that some organisations’ need to use
bureaucracy to be well managed, mostly in public sector organisations.


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