The Bureaucracy

The Bureaucracy: Form and Function
1. A) What are the 6 characteristics of bureaucracy? B) What is the role of these qualities?
2. A-F: For each of the 6 characteristics, define the characteristic and describe how it adds to the strength
of the bureaucracy.
3. Define bureaucratic alienation, and explain how it develops (from which characteristic of bureaucracy)
and how it undermines bureaucracies.
4. Define bureaucratic ritualism, and explain how it develops (from which characteristic of bureaucracy)
and how it undermines bureaucracies.
5. Define the Peter Principle, and explain how it develops (from which characteristic of bureaucracy) and
how it undermines bureaucracies.
6. Define bureaucratic inertia, and explain how it develops (from which characteristic of bureaucracy) and
how it undermines bureaucracies.
7. Describe three ways in which politics undermines the rationality of government bureaucracies.
The Constitution established the basic goals for the United States government:
1. To form a more perfect union
2. To provide for the common defense
3. To establish justice
4. To ensure domestic tranquility
5. To promote the general welfare, and
6. To secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.
But as a practical matter, how does the government do that? The Founding Fathers created three
governmental institutions to share power to implement those goals: a Congress, a President, and a Supreme
Court. But that simple structure was not nearly enough to meet the specified goals. …
Bureaucracies are the most common kind of formal organization in American society. Of these, the
United States Government is the largest followed by General Motors. Even if we consider each cabinet
department a separate bureaucratic organization, there are some very sizeable bureaucracies. In
Introduction to Sociology, students learn that there are six key characteristics of bureaucracy:
1. Specialization; an elaborate division of labor
2. Hierarchy of positions,
3. Technical competence as the chief criterion for hiring and promotion,
4. Written rules and regulations,
5. Impersonality, and
6. Formal, written communication.
These qualities in an organization each have a role to play to provide a rational basis for efficient and
accountable activity undertaken to meet the organization’s goals. In the case of governments, the goals of a
government agency are established by policies created by the legislative and executive branches of
government when they establish the agency and are amended from time to time thereafter as needs and
conditions change. Occasionally, agencies are disbanded because the need for them has ceased to exist.
Each of the six characteristics listed above is, in practice, a source of strength in a large bureaucratic
organization. In the example above of the Food and Drug Administration, it was noted that a large
workforce of product testers and inspectors is needed to carry out the FDA's goals. But that is only part of
the story. Someone has to manage the agency itself and an even larger number of managers is necessary to
oversee various operations and projects in different parts of the country. Different types of managers are
needed for financial and budget operations, personnel functions, and program oversight functions. Both the
managers and the testers, inspectors and laboratory workers need people to type their reports, to see to it
that they have the appropriate equipment and/or supplies, and to see to it that their offices and laboratories
are cleaned. As the size of the agency expands and as the number of projects and functions expands, not
only the size of the workforce, but also its level of specialization increases. The structure of specialized
positions in an organization develops primarily as a means of allocating the tasks needed to accomplish the
organization's goals. In theory, at least, if everyone does the tasks on his or her job description, the
organization's goals will be met.
The structure of specialized positions also helps to establish levels of authority within an organization
and, along with that, formal channels of communication for disseminating information and ensuring that
everyone knows what he or she needs to know in order to do his/her job. In a very large organization,
people have varying degrees of knowledge of what is actually going on in its various operations. For that
reason, the number of managers and the number of levels of management tends to be quite large. Job titles
identify the level of the manager and thus the extent of his or her authority to make decisions. In
government agencies, titles can often become almost comical because the size of agencies has led to
combining a rather small number of ways to designate levels of authority. Traditionally, the terms
secretary, under-secretary, and deputy-, associate-, and assistant- have been used for upper levels of
management. As the size of cabinet departments has become massive, we got not only deputy
undersecretary, associate deputy under-secretary, and assistant deputy undersecretary, but also associate
assistant deputy under-secretary and assistant associate deputy under-secretary (who outranks the associate
assistant deputy) and even assistant associate assistant deputy under-secretary. At lower levels within the
organization, numbers or letters or both are often used to designate levels: Social Worker I, II, III, IV, and
Technical Specialist E-6, etc. Cumbersome as some of the formal titles may be, they do identify levels of
authority and scope of decision-making power quite effectively.
Hierarchical levels, division of labor, and degrees of specialization also make it possible to identify the
skills, educational and experiential qualifications needed to perform a particular job. Before the creation
of the civil service system, government jobs were handed out as rewards for party loyalty or loyalty to the
person who received a relatively high level position without regard to an individual's competence to
perform the job. This created a situation in which government agencies often could not meet their goals and
also opened to door to a variety of forms of graft and corruption. After the creation of the civil service
system, a large percentage of jobs were given only to persons who passed tests that demonstrated that they
had the knowledge, skills, or other requirements needed to perform the tasks on the job description. In the
past 50 years or so, there has also developed a variety of mid-level jobs which do not require civil service
tests, but which do require specific college degrees and experience. Top jobs, about 5,000 of them, remain
political appointments.
Voluminous written rules and procedures are a hallmark of bureaucratic organizations. Often
referred to as "red tape," the reason for the rules and procedures is supposed to be to ensure that things are
done correctly so that security (where needed), efficiency, and information flow can be maintained. There
are literally hundreds and sometimes thousands of people doing some jobs, and they need to do it the same
way to ensure that the recipients of the services get the same quality of service. Written rules also exist to
ensure that employees are treated the same way by their supervisors. Impersonality is another aspect of
ensuring that all persons in the same category are treated equally. A good organization is not supposed to
hire, pay, discipline, or provide services to people according to who they are related to, how much money
they have, etc., but rather, according to a set of pre-defined standards set forth in its written rules and
procedures. Equal and impersonal treatment eliminates favoritism and/or discrimination based on
individual and personal characteristics that are not job related and, in the case of clients, not relevant to
whether they qualify for services.
Formal, written communication is a mechanism for ensuring that information gets to the people who
need it and also a mechanism for ensuring accountability. Records are kept of what information was sent to
whom. Records are kept of what was said in meetings. Records are kept of what decisions are made and
why they were made. Records are kept of directives issued to employees. Records of income and
expenditures are kept. Records of time utilization and work productivity are kept. When and if there is a
need to determine who was responsible for something, who knew what and when they knew it, etc., these
records can and will be accessed.
The same qualities of organizations that are the source of their strength can also be the source of their
problems, however. Bureaucratic alienation is a big problem for most of the same reasons that Marx
identified 150 years ago. Bureaucracies can be both inhumane and dehumanizing. Because individuals tend
to be hired for highly specialized jobs whose knowledge and skills base tend to be only a fraction of their
total interests and abilities, repetitive, boring work can become alienating to them; but it can also cause the
organization to regard them as less than complete persons, seeing them in terms only of that part of their
total being that is necessary to their job title. Jobs are also often divided too finely (because of over3
emphasis on technical skills) to offer challenge or even, in some cases, enough work to fill the shift. Work
rules are sometimes designed in such a way as to fail to account for the real needs of employees in terms of
time, other parts of their lives, etc. Some government agencies, like some private employers, are beginning
to consider such things as flex-time, child-care centers, not expecting their executives to work 100 hour
weeks etc. In some bureaucratic organizations, especially government agencies, career ladders are too
short, giving employees little opportunity for advancement. Rationality and efficiency are themselves often
dehumanizing. This phenomenon is sometimes called "McDonaldization" because McDonald's was one of
the first bureaucratic organizations to become so automated and to make its procedures so efficient,
predictable, and calculable—so idiot proof—that large numbers of people refused to even consider working
for them, and high percentages of those who did quit within a short time.
Bureaucratic ritualism is also a big problem. Robert Merton first identified this problem and applied
the term to organizational preoccupation with its rules and regulations to the point that managers keep the
organization from meeting its goals. At least a part of the cause of this problem is what has come to be
called the Peter Principle: In any organization, managers will rise to their highest level of incompetence.
(Although people in American bureaucracies are generally hired because they have demonstrated technical
competence for the position for which they were hired, they are often promoted to a higher position
because they were good at doing a lower position rather than because they passed a test documenting that
they are truly competent to perform the higher level job.) Both Merton and Peter recognized that
administrators promoted to their level of incompetence often choose to relieve the strain of being in that
position by becoming rule enforcers; at least then they feel like they know what they are doing. Another
large problem is bureaucratic inertia, the tendency of bureaucratic organizations to resist changes in
procedures, rules, or structure because it is used to doing certain things in certain ways.
Government bureaucracies are not only subject to the same problems destroying efficiency and
rationality that private bureaucratic organizations are subject to, but to politics as well. Politics is almost
guaranteed to foul up the rationality of a bureaucratic system. One of the ways that happens is that
Congress creates an agency to carry out a function and then interferes with the rational operation of the
system. For example, we have a Defense Department and four military services whose job it is to carry out
the general goal of providing for the common defense and the various sub-goals, objectives, and tasks
subsumed under that goal. The Air Force and the Defense Department may decide that a particular type of
airplane is not necessary to the strategic needs of its various tasks and objectives. But because the engines
for the plane would be made in Congressman A's district, the fuselages would be made in Congressman B's
district, etc., and because these congressmen are powerful members of the Appropriations Committee and
the Armed Services Committee who also want to create jobs in their districts, they push the House to
mandate in its budget bill that the plane be built anyway. The Senators from their states also push for the
appropriation because they, too, want jobs for their state. And lo and behold, the Air Force gets a bunch of
planes it does not want or need.
Another way that rationality is frustrated is in agency staffing. The point of introducing the civil
service system in the 1870s was to try to ensure that the people who were hired were competent and
qualified to do the jobs for which government agencies hired them, not political hacks being paid off for
turning out the cemetery vote. But that does not necessarily mean that civil service hiring is politics-free. If
Democrats control the executive branch, the person hired is likely to be a Democrat who passed the civil
service test for the position. Civil service applies only up to a certain level, too; beyond that pay grade
level, appointments are either purely political or some combination of political and professional
competence. Once in place, employees in a bureaucracy may outlast the administrations who appointed
them. When Reagan took office, one goal was to cut down on payments to "disabled" workers. Claims for
disability payments were routinely denied by the lower-level, Reagan-era appointees of the Social Security
Administration. But if a disabled worker persisted in appealing until he got his case before an older, higher
level Johnson-era appointee, he stood a good chance of winning his case for disability payments. It is said
that when President Truman was leaving office, he quipped to a friend "Poor Eisenhower. In the military,
when he gave an order it was carried out. But when he gives an order as President, nothing will happen and
he won't understand why."
Another way politics fouls up the rationality is that powerful lobbies make demands that cannot be
ignored. Different government agencies can be pursuing contradictory goals at the same time. From the
standpoint of rationality, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever that the United States government is
simultaneously trying to get people to stop smoking in order to try to hold down health care costs
attributable to smoking-related illnesses, trying to regulate nicotine as a drug through the FDA, and also
subsidizing the cost of producing tobacco. But it is doing that because a combination of a powerful farm
lobby and influential congressmen and senators from tobacco-producing states keep appropriating money
for the Agriculture Department to spend in price supports and other subsidies for tobacco production.