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The term bureaucracy traditionally refers to the complex of offices and officials that make up the public administration: the hybrid etymology of the term, which combines the French “bureau” (office) to the Greek “krátos” (power), reveals its late origin and derivation of French-speaking matrix.
The “power of offices” refers to the organization of people and resources for the realization of a collective purpose according to criteria of rationality, impartiality and impersonality: in particular, it is the set of apparatuses and people to which is entrusted, at different levels, the administration of a state or even of non-state entities.
In its derogatory value, the term bureaucracy is used to indicate an exaggerated and pedantic observance of regulations and procedural forms, particularly when the process of administrative practices is rigid, complex, pedantic to the point of making it difficult to achieve certain objectives.
Many modern organizations are bureaucratic in nature. The word “bureaucracy” literally means “power of officials. The term was actually first used in reference to the power of civil servants, but was later extended to include large organizations in general: in addition to government agencies, commercial enterprises, trade unions, universities, etc. In this broad sense, bureaucracy is defined as a hierarchical structure that operates according to precise rules.
Currently, the word bureaucracy is almost synonymous with inefficiency and evokes long lines at counters, mountains of useless certificates, incomprehensible regulations, evasive or even wrong answers, in short, the cynical indifference of an impersonal machine towards the needs and requirements of citizens. And yet, the bureaucracy is a functional structure to the production of large amounts of work and can be considered, at least at the level of ideal model, the most efficient form of organization realized so far.
From the historical point of view, bureaucracy is presented as a form of organization that arises when society must manage complex activities (from tax collection to the distribution of services, etc..) and therefore especially at the beginning of the modern age, when the nation states are born, although there were bureaucracies in ancient Egypt, in imperial China, in the Roman Empire.
However, it is especially in the 1700s and 1800s, with the industrial revolution, that bureaucracy asserts itself beyond the scope of state administration. The large factories require increasingly complex systems for managing resources, expenses, workforce, so the tendency to divide each activity into a series of limited tasks is multiplied, building bureaucratic machines that in turn generate bureaucracy: to manage a problem related to the functioning of a bureaucratic structure, new bureaucratic structures are created, starting a process that tends to be endless.
History of bureaucracy
Despite the fact that the expression “bureaucracy” was introduced in the second half of the eighteenth century (by the physiocrat J.-C. de Gournay), in human societies the formation of bureaucracy has been a constant phenomenon in almost every country and in every era.
The systematic introduction of a system of officials, divided into offices and based on procedures in some way unified, is traced back even to Emperor Claudius in the first century AD following the emptying of the powers of the Senate.
In the imperial era, the bureaucracy continued to grow and expand, not without resulting in a fragmented power, in the hands of bureaucrats, involved in a proliferation of laws and regulations. This was clearly manifested in the Byzantine empire, characterized by a complex, quibbling and tortuous ceremonial.
The typical “bureaucratic” apparatus took on its most complete and rigidly organized form in modern society: in France, it was Napoleon Bonaparte who organized an extremely centralized bureaucratic apparatus, based on the function of prefects, which was streamlined and well-functioning.
In the twentieth century, there is an extraordinary expansion of the process of bureaucratization in all economies of the world and the ideological work of Max Weber appears fundamental, defining burcocracy in a systematic way.
Bureaucracy according to Max Weber
The sociologist and philosopher Max Weber is considered the major theorist of the organization and bureaucracy as a typical phenomenon of the modern age, which he considered an essential element of rationalization of contemporary society and a major synonym of modernity.
Bureaucracy, according to Weber, represents the typical administrative apparatus for the exercise of legal power, i.e. a system of precise rules and regulations, to be applied in a basically impersonal and impartial way, through systematic, precise and rational procedures.
Organizations that adopt bureaucratic principles, according to Weber, see a significant increase in productivity and efficiency through the sperzonalizzazione, standardization and scientific division of labor: the general rules, which replace the structures and relationships based on personal practice, ensure uniformity, continuity and stability.
In addition, since it is a hierarchical organization, characterized by the separation of members and functions performed, it is allowed to coordinate work and facilitate decision-making processes and benefit from a hierarchy of offices and stable competencies, with officials whose specialized preparation reduces the risk of errors.
The concept of bureaucracy in the twentieth century
Weber’s theories, which were refuted and discussed in the following years, did not fail to gather supporters and detractors. The critical tendencies highlighted the flaws of the system and pointed out how the irreversible process of universal bureaucratization led to the risk of imprisoning people in a network of detailed, rigid and quibbling rules.
Today, the term has taken on a mainly negative connotation precisely because of the “unexpected consequences” of the bureaucratic phenomenon noted by many during the 20th century, namely rigidity, slowness, inability to adapt, inefficiency, difficult or even incomprehensible vocabulary (the so-called bureaucratese), excessive pervasiveness, and a tendency to regulate every minimal aspect of daily life.
In its derogatory value, the term also indicates the excessive process or constraints for the achievement of certain personal or state objectives. On the other side of the fence, however, defenders of bureaucracy justify such aspects as allowing the proper application of laws and procedures defined according to the principles of legality and equality.
Especially in the twentieth century, moreover, definitions of bureaucracy have multiplied, a concept probed from historical, economic, psychological, social and so on points of view. Undoubtedly, the greater sensitivity has been accentuated by the changes in the geopolitical order and by the better awareness acquired by citizens following the comparison with other realities beyond the borders.
This has contributed to a deeper understanding of the social dynamics at work in the ruling class and has prompted appropriate reforms and necessary downsizing of the “power of offices”, especially following changes linked to technological development, the differentiation and fragmentation of social demand and the dispersion of political power on new levels, including transnational ones.
The bureaucratic model was, therefore, revised both in theory and in practice and forms of participatory, flexible, contracted administration were developed: this is the so-called telocratic model, from the Greek “telos”, a set of tools for achieving an end/objective.