Read this essay to learn about the various aspects of ‘Bureaucracy Organisation’!
This is an important institution in the organisation of work. The idea of bureaucracy was developed and theorised by Weber in his study, Theory of Social and Economic Organization (1947).
Weber believed that bureaucratic organisations were the most dominant institutions of industrial society because they are designed rationally to coordinate the efforts of a large number of individuals working in a wide range of activities.
Weber stated that the distinguishing feature of modern capitalism was ‘the rational organisation of free labour’. Capitalism is based on the pursuit of private gain. This ensures that the system makes profit as a measure of its success. Weber notes that the pursuit of private gain was known in many earlier societies but what distinguishes capitalism from that is the peculiar organisation of the production unit. This was done on the lines of a bureaucracy.
In dealing with bureaucracy, Weber stressed on social relations within the work organisation. He also observed that though bureaucracy is a result of capitalism, it is not solely limited to it for it could be found in other economic systems or organisations as well. These would include government, the Christian church or any organisation that is large and involves a number of personnel.
Weber felt that a bureaucratic structure would be the natural choice of any large-scale organisation because it was superior in precision, in stability, in stringency of discipline and in reliability in comparison with any other form of administration.
Furthermore, the functioning of an efficient bureaucracy makes it possible for a high degree of calculability of results. In other words, the goal set by organisations can be achieved with accuracy. Due to these qualities, bureaucracy is capable of application to all kinds of administrative tasks.
A bureaucracy can be defined as a type of organisation which is designed rationally to coordinate the work of many individuals in the pursuit of large scale administrative tasks. The word originates from ‘bureau’, a large desk with shelves or pigeonholes where files and papers could be stored. Hence the person who worked at the desk had shelves or boxes in which he could store files, and there was a cover which could be locked so that the contents would be safe even after the person left office.
Besides written directions regarding work, there is also clear division of labour among the people in the organisation. Each person performs a specific task or tasks that can be distinguished from the others. In modern organisations, a person who is employed is given an appointment letter which, besides informing them that they have been appointed, clearly states what their work will be. There are also other written rules and guidelines that further clarify the duties and responsibilities of each employee.
An important aspect of the bureaucracy is that the offices within it do not have similar status. On the contrary, there is a distinct hierarchy where the offices and the people are ranked one above the other. The differences between consecutive tiers in the hierarchy are based on access to power. The ones with lesser access to power are at the bottom and those with greater access are in the upper tiers. The higher offices therefore embrace or subsume those below them.
Most organisations have a pyramid-like structure; the base is broad while the top is narrow. Those at the base are the menial workers such as peons, messengers, watchmen, sweepers, etc. Workers in a factory too occupy this position. These people have no power in the sense that they only receive orders, which they have to execute.
Those above them such as supervisors or foremen give them orders. These people, in turn, receive orders from those above and they pass the instructions to those below. This goes on in a similar way till it reaches the person at the top—the chief executive officer/ managing director or someone in a similar position.
Such a person only gives orders and does not receive orders from anyone as there is no one superior. Hence we see that all tiers in the hierarchy receive and give orders to those below, the exceptions being those at the bottom, who only receive orders, and the one on the top who only gives orders.
If we look merely at the giving and receiving of orders it will appear that the bureaucracy is like a relay race, where the baton is passed from one runner to the other. This is, of course, not true. Those in senior positions do not merely issue orders but also have other jobs to do, which could include planning, and ensuring the smooth functioning of the work. Though people in similar positions in the hierarchy enjoy equal power/authority, they do not perform identical work. Let us consider some examples.
The administration in a university comprises peons, security guards, etc., who form the lowest tier. Above them are clerks, senior clerks, superintendents, assistant registrars, deputy registrars, and the registrar whose job, as the head, is to supervise the administration. People in the same tier do not have similar access to power nor do they perform the same tasks.
Let us consider the post of deputy registrar (DR). A university may have several DRs and each is in charge of a specific area of work. The DR in charge of academic activities will do only that work, just as the DR of the decision-making bodies (Academic Council, Senate, Executive Council, etc.) has control over the staff engaged in these sections.
Students seeking clarification regarding the admission process will have to meet only the DR Academic. They cannot go to any other DR to seek clarifications, as this will not be their responsibility. Hence, each office and each person in the office has specific functions based on the division of labour. Each DR has some assistant registrars (ARs) working under them.
The DR Academic will have ARs, each of whom is in charge of specific activities such as undergraduate studies, post-graduate studies, technical subjects, etc.; similarly, each AR will have superintendents working under them and clerks and stenographers who receive instructions from the superintendent. We can thus see that the higher office subsumes the lower ones and the officer concerned has specific activities or roles to perform.
The procedures in a bureaucracy are written and recorded and these records are preserved for further reference. We notice a difference here between traditional administration and a bureaucracy. In the former, records are hardly ever maintained, and in most cases, procedures are oral, which those holding power use to instruct those working under them based on their understanding or judgement of the situation. There is hardly any reference to the past cases as these are not recorded; if at all there is a mention of the past, it is based on the memory of the elderly.
The administrative staffs have specialisation and have also undergone training. Clerks and officers are selected on the basis of their expertise and nature of specialisation. A clerk must be well-versed in the language of the administration and must also have some typing or, at present, computer skills.
A major aspect of bureaucracy is that members of the staff are selected principally based on their skills. There is a separation between personal affairs and business matters, which means that, within legal limits, employees cannot be penalised for their personal activities. For example, if they are divorced legally, this will not affect their job or career. However, if an officer or clerk commits an illegal act such as rape, he can be removed from his job.
We can contrast this with traditional administration where personal and business affairs go hand in hand. For example, if the minister of a king married outside his caste, especially one that is lower than his, he may be dismissed by the king. The same cannot hold true now. If a government officer marries outside his caste, it will not affect his job. This means that incumbents will be judged solely by their work and not their personal life.
A person occupying public office is expected to be neutral to all pressures and not be influenced by anything other than the merits of the case that they are dealing with. Weber (1947) believed that, in order that the official remains neutral, the relations between the official and their clients should be impersonal.
He felt that this was important because the official should not develop personal relations with the client as the official may then favour one client over others, which would indicate partiality. The officer has to treat all clients on an equal footing. This can be done if officials distance themselves from the clients through impersonal relations.
As mentioned earlier, the authority embedded in the tier of the hierarchy distinguishes the status of each incumbent in the bureaucratic organisation. The authority enjoyed by the official is based on the office and not on personal status, which means that an official draws authority from the office they are appointed to. A DR in the university administration has authority not because he is anybody in particular, but by virtue of being a DR. When he leaves that position, he no longer enjoys that authority.
Weber wanted to show the difference between bureaucracy and traditional organisations, in the latter, authority being embedded in the person and in the position. For example, a king has authority and he derives this from his lineage, and therefore he cannot be removed from office, unless he is dethroned by opponents.
Unlike traditional authority which is embedded in the person, the authority enjoyed by an official can change. It can increase or decrease according to the position they occupy. An important aspect is that employment constitutes a career. The official is appointed through a selection process which may include written tests, interviews, etc.; once appointed, the official is permanent in the bureaucracy and they enjoy a regular salary and increments.
More importantly, the official does not stagnate in one position but can be promoted based on his/her performance. This provides an incentive to the official/incumbent to work better and also ensures that he/she has a stake in the organisation.
This is true not only of senior officials but also others such as those in the lower tiers. All of them receive increments in their salaries and they can also be promoted to higher posts if they prove themselves meritorious. Weber thought that these incentives make a bureaucratic organisation efficient in its activities.
The last point that Weber raises is regarding the appointment of the officials. He stresses the fact that the appointment of officials must be done by those placed above; in other words, the appointment of a DR has to be done through a selection process and the appointment letter is issued by their superior, namely, the Registrar.
This happens in all cases in an administration, where the head of the administration appoints people in various posts. This ensures that the incumbent is loyal to the organisation. Weber mentions this point specifically because in some cases bureaucrats were appointed through elections. He was especially cynical about appointments of administrators such as sheriffs and even judges through elections as was done in the United States.
He felt that this actually weakened the bureaucratic system because the bureaucrat would then be loyal to the electorate and not to the system. This implied that the relations between the official and the client would not be impersonal but would be influenced by the mood of the electorate.
Bureaucracy: An Assessment:
Weber’s construction of a bureaucracy is that of an ideal type. He has built up a model that may or may not exist in reality. An ideal type could be termed as a method of investigation which may or may not exist but is something that is expected or is desirable.
Thus Weber’s formulation of a bureaucracy is not based on the features of existing administrative structures; on the contrary, he envisages a bureaucratic structure based on those features that he thinks are rational or goes together in a rational way. While dealing with bureaucracy, Weber was inspired by the administration in Germany (Prussia).
It was a powerful state in Europe then and had a strong administration. All well-run and efficient governments have strong administrations. Capitalism, or the spirit of industrialisation, created centralisation of production and consequently in distribution. This shift to centralisation requires strong administrative and managerial skills.
Traditional (pre-capitalist) forms of administration were based on localised structures. These could not fulfill the needs of a capitalist form of production. Weber built his model of bureaucracy as a contrast to the traditional means of control. He stressed that bureaucracy could tackle complex problems thrown up by a complex society, which needed centralised administration.
In other words, his model of a bureaucracy was used as a means of comparing it with the existing administrations. One can examine the strengths and weaknesses of these organisations when compared to the rational construct of the ideal type. As the ideal type does not exist, criticism of Weber’s bureaucracy cannot be based on reality.
The criticism therefore has to be on whether the features that he highlights are real or not. The two main arguments against bureaucracy are on the issue of rationality and that of impersonal relations.
Weber himself saw the dangers of ‘over-bureaucratisation’. He expressed his misgivings in an article written some years after he had developed bureaucracy as in ideal type of organisation or administration (Etzioni and Etzioni 1971). He reiterated that bureaucracy was an essential form of administration and that it could not be done away with.
At the same time, there was a need to evolve means to control its consequences. He felt that the feature that a bureaucracy provides a career for the official as it includes a fixed salary, increments and also promotions may help in gaining commitment but it may also lead to complacency, where the official knows that whether he works or not he will get his benefits.
Weber was also critical of the promotions aspect, as it might lead to officials becoming over-ambitious. Each official would want to reach higher and higher in the hierarchy and all would want to reach the top. Weber wrote that they were like small cogs of the machine having ambitions of becoming the machine itself. He dreaded the day when this would happen.
He also noted that too much stability produced men who became nervous about unstable conditions. These people would not want to confront such situations by being bold and taking risks. Instead, they would try to hide behind rules. Suppose a critically injured person is brought to a hospital.
The doctor in charge knows that he has to be treated immediately or else he will die. However, it is found that the person does not have medical insurance and the hospital needs proof that he will clear the bills. There are two possible solutions.
First, the doctor treats the patient as he is critical, but if the patient fails to clear the bills the higher authorities will blame the doctor for this lapse; the doctor takes the risk of treating the patient and he will deal with the consequences later.
The second possibility is that the doctor goes by the rules and refuses to treat the patient until he has proof of his financial condition; the patient may die in the meanwhile but the doctor may not be penalised as he was following the procedures and the rules. Weber was afraid that the second situation would be more common.
Besides Weber, there were other sociologists who were critical of his construction of bureaucracy. Robert K. Merton, in his article ‘Bureaucratic Structure and Personality’, believes that bureaucracy should not apply the same yardstick to all, as it tends to do because of its stress on impersonal relations, which means that the bureaucrat must behave similarly in all situations: an official in a hospital would behave in exactly the same impersonal manner as an official in a prison.
This could have ridiculous consequences, and such behaviour could well be harmful to the patients in the hospital. Such a situation may however arise in a government organisation where the official has to deal with the public at large, where he cannot and should not show any form of partiality to some people or discriminate against others. Merton (1972) says that in other settings, such as in an employment exchange, impersonal relations may not be the ideal way of dealing with people.
The clients here do not have jobs and they are already in a depressed state of mind; the official should be more understanding and his behaviour towards his unemployed client could be personalised. Similarly, in other places, like a hospital, impersonality may actually harm the interests of the clients.
This happens because the bureaucrat has not been encouraged to improvise and innovate. In fact, as Weber has shown, he may be afraid to do so. His career incentives such as promotions and higher salary are designed to reward discipline and conformity to rules rather than empathetic behaviour.
Another American sociologist, Alvin Gouldner, in Wildcat Strike, his study of a gypsum factory, criticised the excessive dependence on formal rules (1954). He found that when the management did not stress unduly on rules and allowed workers to improvise, the work improved considerably and the workers were more relaxed; production also increased.
Sometime later a new management assumed charge, which was much more formal and it compelled the workers to strictly follow the rules; rule-breaking by workers was to be reported to the higher management and strict action was taken against those guilty.
The workers were also not allowed to move around the factory at will as they had done in the past. While management was successful in increasing the degree of bureaucratisation in the plant, it was not so successful in the mines. The attempts of the management to impose a strict bureaucratic system were opposed effectively by the miners.
Gouldner observes that this section of the workforce expressed greater solidarity because they worked underground and in hazardous conditions. They also believed that they should be exempted from some of the rules because of the dangers involved in their jobs.
The new management tried hard to discipline the miners under its bureaucratic code, but their resistance prevented it from doing so. Gouldner concludes that the management must avoid adopting rigid bureaucratic norms as this may encourage rebellion from the workers which would in turn affect productivity.
Peter Blau, a specialist in the sociology of organisations, criticised Weber for stressing only the formal structure of bureaucracy (1965). He says that there are also informal relations within the bureaucracy, which actually help in the smooth functioning of the organisation. Blau had studied the functioning of a law enforcement agency.
The officials were expected to examine the standards of employment and whether laws dealing with employment had been broken. After completing the inspections, the officials had to write their reports. The agency’s rules stated that the officials should not confer with each other on their cases because the reports they had collected from the employers were confidential, and in case of doubt they should consult their supervisor.
The problem with this was that if they consulted their supervisor too often, it would be construed as being inefficient and lacking the skills of analysis, which would affect their chances of promotion. Hence, despite the rules, the officials frequently consulted each other in private while writing out their case reports. Blau shows that the informal relations led to greater efficiency in the system.
It can be seen that the very basis of Weber’s contention that strict adherence to rules helps in improving efficiency does not appear to be realistic. In real life informal relations actually help in running a bureaucracy efficiently. It is the improvisations in the relations among the incumbents that enable a bureaucracy to function efficiently.
For example, we observe that if in any office the incumbents were to follow the rules strictly, work would be hampered. For example, any customer going to a bank (in the recent past) to cash a cheque needed to deposit the cheque at the counter designated for the bank account number. The clerk would accept the cheque and after verifying the balance in the account would pass it on to the officer sitting behind for checking the signature.
The peons/messengers in the bank were expected to take this and other cheques and deposit them before the officer, who after completing his work, would hand these cheques over to a peon for delivery to the cash counter. In case of a shortage of peons in the bank, the clerk at the front desk would hand over the cheque to the officer, who in turn might carry the scrutinised cheques to the cash counter.
All this was done so that the bank functioned properly and the customers were not delayed or harassed. If the bank employees were to follow rules strictly, the clerk would allow the cheques to accumulate on his table, in case no peon was available to carry these cheques. In that case, the efficiency of the bank would be considerably reduced.
It is evident that if rules are followed strictly, little or no work may be done. For example, bus drivers are expected to ensure that all equipment essential for driving is in working order. In reality, it happens quite often that some of the equipment or instruments like the speedometer, the petrol gauge, a rear-view mirror, are not in working order.
In normal circumstances, the driver does not protest as he is quite sure that he can drive the bus without these appendages. Now let us picture a case when bus drivers decide that they would not drive the buses until all the equipment was in working order. We may in fact find that on that day over half the buses, if not all, would not be playing on the streets.
Such a situation did take place in 1974, when the railways in Britain were on strike. The motormen in the tube (underground rail) did not operate any trains because of a minor provision in the rules. The strike took place in the middle of winter, in January. According to that rule, motormen were to remove their overcoats when they were in the cabin driving the train because heavy overcoats would obstruct their manoeuvrability.
They were expected to hang their coats up on a clothes hanger in the cabin, but none of the cabins had such hangers. In the normal course, the motormen would remove their coats and possibly drape it on their chairs. But in this case, all motormen decided that since there were no hangers, they could not remove their coats and hang them: if they couldn’t remove their coats, they could not operate the trains.
Hence, though all of them reported for duty, none of them would operate a train. This shows that strict observance of rules might actually result in no work being done. In fact one of the effective means of trade union struggle is by declaring ‘work-to-rule’. Invariably, this leads to stoppage of work.