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What is bureaucracy?
Bureaucracy is the administration of large organizations through the establishment of hierarchical or pyramidal relations between its members and the implementation of rigid and fixed rules and procedures to govern the operations of the organization (2000). The concept of bureaucracy originated from the root word bureau during the early eighteenth century. Bureau meant writing desk or workplace but after the French revolution, the term bureaucracy developed to describe office power or rule. However, the system that bureaucracy was trying to describe existed even prior to the development of the word itself. During the Song Dynasty around 960 AD, the empire was governed through centralized leadership with the delegation of administrative tasks to regional and town leaders accountable to the central leadership. ( 2003) Bureaucracy developed to apply to both public and private administrations. Almost all governments regardless of ideological and political foundations are managed through bureaucracy headed by either the president or prime minister as heads of state. Large domestic corporations as well as multi-national and trans-national corporations take control of their operations through bureaucracy by developing unified company goals and standards of practice implemented by the different levels of managers holding positions directly under the top management. Non-government organizations also apply certain aspects of bureaucracy in their operations.
What are the various aspects of bureaucracy?
Bureaucracy may refer to an administration process, administrative system or administrative structure. It is the administration of governments primarily through the establishment of bureaus or departments made up of non-elected officials and hierarchical authority and procedures governing the relationship of people within a bureau or department and the relationship between the various departments. This implies that bureaucracy pertains to the management of large and complex organizations. It is an administrative system marked by the inclination towards the application of a rigid and complex hierarchy of tasks and standardized procedures. ( 2000) Bureaucracy is also a system of administration characterized by specialization in terms of functions, objectives, position qualifications, fixed rules, hierarchy of authority, and delegated power. These characteristics exist in large organizations such as government administrative agencies and the armed forces, corporations, courts, schools and hospitals. (1998) Bureaucracy is an administrative structure existing in both public and private organizations recognized through hierarchical authority relations and pre-established spheres of competence. Ideally, the objective for organizing structures into bureaucracies is the achievement rational action, efficient service and professionalism. As an administrative structure, a bureaucracy functions through the hierarchical organization of people resulting to the delegation of tasks to individuals and departments with the entire structure bonded together by a central management. (2003)
What are its strengths and limitations?
The strengths and limitations of bureaucracy is rooted to the rise of opposing theories on bureaucracy persisting today leading to the evolution of the concept into different meanings. The most influential proponent and opponent of bureaucracy are Max Weber and Karl Marx respectively. The theories of these political thinkers influenced the development of various opposing opinions on bureaucracy.
Strengths of Bureaucracy
Max Weber provided a positive perspective of bureaucracy through his ideal description of the administrative system as a rational and efficient type of organization. These characteristics are achieved through the application of impersonality, concentrated administration, leveling of economic and social differences, and systematic rule of authority. Based on Weber’s perspective, a bureaucratic organization revolves around several principles. First is the conduct of official business on a continuous basis. Second is the conduct of official business in strict accordance with the duty of every member, chosen through impersonal criteria to perform designated tasks subject to strict rules of practice. Third is the organizations structuring into a vertical hierarchy to be governed by the rights to supervision and appeal. Fourth is the non-ownership of resources necessary in performing tasks but with accountability for the manner of resource use. Fifth is the rigid separation of official and personal interests and income. Sixth is the non-appropriation of offices or positions. Seventh is documentation of every official business. (1980)
By adhering to these principles, the organization expects to achieve rational systematic and structural coherence due to the designation of positions and delegation of tasks. Every member of the organization knows his place and his area of contribution so that all the leader has to do is coordinate the specific tasks to achieve a unified organizational output. Due to adherence to the strict rules on position qualifications, code of conduct and procedural rules, the organization achieves efficiency in both the downward and upward as well as the horizontal flow of information within the organization. This means that decisions coming from the leadership flows down to the various offices and departments and their corresponding feedbacks sent upwards through the hierarchy of personnel. ( 1994)
The military is a stark example of bureaucratic organization because of the strict compliance with hierarchical positions, codes of conduct and procedure (1989). Decision-making about the direction of the entire armed forces emanate from the top leadership to be communicated to the leaders of the different branches such as the air force, marines, army, and coast guard together with their respective duties. The members of the different branches are ordered to fulfill their particular tasks. It is the central or top leadership, which directs the entire military forces and ties the activities of the different branches.
Limitations of Bureaucracy
Although Weber painted a positive and idealist picture of bureaucracy, he also recognized that in actual application these ideals might be subject to abuse. Karl Marx illuminated the various limitations of bureaucracy. Marx illustrates these weaknesses through four organizations or organizational activities. First is the religion, particularly the Catholic Church. According to Marx, the castes of officials, clergies and scribes involve the delegation of certain tasks. Members of the church leadership assume and limit their tasks based on their position in the hierarchy. This social structure leads to discrimination and lack of opportunity for personal development since a member of the church has to abide by strict rules and processes. Second is the government bureaucracy that developed through the separation of church and state. Governance in a class-based society resulted to abuse of power of the tope leadership resulting to corruption, nepotism and political infighting. The worst cases of bureaucratic abuse even resulted to the deaths and displacement of civilians due to the high concentration of power and resources to the top leadership. Third is the capitalist trade and commerce. The industrial revolution radically changed bureaucracy because this created class and economic power schisms domestically and in international relations. The world was divided into developed, developing and underdeveloped countries with the corresponding exploitative relations that sipped through to domestic governance. Fourth is the technological consequence of mass production, where labor became automated and a high premium was given to technological skills resulting to the term technocracy. ( 1979) These bureaucratic systems show how bureaucracy becomes a cost and burden to society.
Bureaucracy remains an important administrative system despite criticisms. Weber and Marx both recognize the ideal benefits of bureaucracy and its pitfalls in actual application. The direction of efforts should then be to establish ways of preventing abuse so that organizations can at least approximate the ideal benefits of the system.
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