It is common these days to hear complaints about bureaucracy, often related to the amount of time it takes to get something done or the waste involved in completing a large project. But it is hard to imagine the world we have today without bureaucracy:
For instance, as a student sociologist, I was taught that bureaucracy was essential to an ordered society. A system of administration, based on a division of labour, designed to undertake a large body of work in a routine manner, was deemed essential to advanced economics.
Yet the term is now used to denote obstruction, complication and sheer bloody-mindedness to produce the opposite outcome.
I guess the modern image is one of an army of pen-pushers, or more accurately, dedicated e-mailers, committed to frustrating the desired outcomes or value for money of any project…
We all need the right skill mix, effective teamwork and the most efficient use of defined resources to serve the public well. In that sense, strategic planning is as essential to the desired outcomes as the obvious contribution made by good service delivery.
So, there is a case for bureaucracy, although it is wise to avoid that term. Demonising particular roles and functions is dangerous. It must be always the quality and quantity of product that counts.
Max Weber wrote about how bureaucracy made modern society possible. It is remarkable to think how large societies are actually able to function. Take the United States: it has its problems but considering that it has over 300 million relatively wealthy people from all around the world, has a large land mass, and has undertaken numerous major projects over recent decades, things still get done and life is decent or good for many residents.
This commentary also hints at what Weber suggested was the possible problem with bureaucracy: a soulless, “iron cage.” The term today has a negative connotation often linked to the reduction of individual freedom. Thus, battles about bureaucracy are all around us: how much should you have to pay for your license plate? Should the government require restaurants to put calorie counts next to the menu? Should you be required to have medical insurance? And so on. It’s not bureaucracy that is really the issue: it is how it runs.
It then becomes a “framing” issue as people seek to avoid the “bureaucracy” label. The trend in recent decades has been to suggest governments, large or local, should be more business-like. Businesses are still bureaucracies – any organization can be a bureaucracy – but they have different goals and different methods of operation. Additionally, they are perceived as being less wasteful and more able to change course (both which are not necessarily true). In the current era of tight budgets, all levels of government are looking for ways to trim costs while maintaining service levels. As the commentator suggests, government needs to be more efficient and cost-effective.