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The Bureaucracy

What Is a Bureaucracy?


What Is a Bureaucracy?, page 2

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A bureaucracy is a way of administratively organizing large numbers of people who need to work together. Organizations in the public and private sector, including universities and governments, rely on bureaucracies to function. The term bureaucracy literally means “rule by desks or offices,” a definition that highlights the often impersonal character of bureaucracies. Even though bureaucracies sometimes seem inefficient or wasteful, setting up a bureaucracy helps ensure that thousands of people work together in compatible ways by defining everyone’s roles within a hierarchy.

What Bureaucrats Do

Government bureaucrats perform a wide variety of tasks. We often think of bureaucrats as paper-pushing desk clerks, but bureaucrats fight fires, teach, and monitor how federal candidates raise money, among other activities.

The job of a bureaucrat is to implement government policy, to take the laws and decisions made by elected officials and put them into practice. Some bureaucrats implement policy by writing rules and regulations, whereas others administer policies directly to people (such as distributing small business loans or treating patients at a veterans’ hospital). The task of running the government, and providing services through policy implementation, is called public administration.

Bureaucratic Functions

One useful approach to understanding what bureaucrats do is to examine the actions of different governmental agencies. The following table summarizes the government’s major functions and provides examples of agencies that perform those tasks.



Bureaucratic Agencies

Promote the public good National Institutes of Health, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Protect the nation Armed forces, Coast Guard, Central Intelligence Agency
Sustain a strong economy Federal Reserve Bank, Export-Import Bank, Securities and Exchange Commission

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