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The Bureaucracy

What Is a Bureaucracy?


The Federal Bureaucracy

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

Bureaucratic Models

Scholars have proposed three different models to explain how bureaucracies function, summarized in the following chart.



Important Trait

Problematic Behavior

Weberian Model Hierarchy Lethargy
Acquisitive Model Expansionism Competition
Monopolistic Model Lack of competition Inefficiency
Weberian Model

According to the Weberian model, created by German sociologist Max Weber, a bureaucracy always displays the following characteristics:

  • Hierarchy: A bureaucracy is set up with clear chains of command so that everyone has a boss. At the top of the organization is a chief who oversees the entire bureaucracy. Power flows downward.
  • Specialization: Bureaucrats specialize in one area of the issue their agency covers. This allows efficiency because the specialist does what he or she knows best, then passes the matter along to another specialist.
  • Division of labor: Each task is broken down into smaller tasks, and different people work on different parts of the task.
  • Standard operating procedure (SOP): Also called formalized rules, SOP informs workers about how to handle tasks and situations. Everybody always follows the same procedures to increase efficiency and predictability so that the organization will produce similar results in similar circumstances. SOP can sometimes make bureaucracy move slowly because new procedures must be developed as circumstances change.
Acquisitive Model

The acquisitive model can be distinguished by the following characteristics:

  • Expansion: Leaders of bureaucracies always seek to expand the size and budget of their agency.
  • Turf wars: Bureaucrats defend their responsibilities, resources, and jurisdiction from potential competitors. Even though government bureaucracies do not work for profit, agency heads still jockey for power and try to outdo one another.
Monopolistic Model

Proponents of the monopolistic model believe that bureaucracies can be distinguished by two characteristics:

  1. Monopoly: Federal bureaucracies face no real competition and therefore act like any other monopolies.
  2. Inefficiency: Bureaucracies use their resources inefficiently because they do not have to compete.

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