What is a Bureaucracy?

Definition: System of work where structure, norms and hierarchies are formally defined and enforced. This term frequently applies to any kind of organization, being private or public, where rigid hierarchies and following of written procedures are common features.

What Does Bureaucracy Mean?

Some degree or bureaucracy is always needed in every organization, especially if large. Bureaucracy tends to increase as organizations grow in size and complexity. It helps to maintain uniformity and control as well as to minimize discretion. However, the term is usually used in negative contexts. Large institutions often become too rigid and inefficient due to excessive number of procedures that any employee must fulfill to execute even simple tasks.

Under this framework, governments are frequently seen as bureaucracies. Due to the risks and disadvantages of excessive bureaucracy, a proper balance of rules vs flexibility is desired. Senior managers should, therefore, impose only the required bureaucracy but at the same time to leave room to innovation, creativity and unexpected but valuable behaviors at work.

The following is an illustration of both positive and negative sides of bureaucracy.


Mrs. Sarah Mills needs to obtain a permit to expand the size of her house because the law preserves traditional architecture in the region where the house is located. Mrs. Mills knew that she would be in line with the maximum area and architecture style allowed so she filled the required papers and went confident to a near government office. The officer that received the papers did not check anything but kindly said to Mrs. Mills that the response would come from a central office located in the Capital city after three months. The local agency validates that the citizen is real and the house exists and then sends a report to the State office.

After all that, other requests are evaluated and all papers are finally sent to the national office, where the remaining requirements are reviewed and the response is delivered. Mrs. Mills argued that this was an unnecessary delay. She suggested that someone in the local office should check all the requirements and directly grant or deny the permit in just a few days.

The example shows that some type of bureaucracy is needed to preserve the traditional architecture. The required license certainly controls and limits undesirable constructions in the region. However, too many steps and hierarchies involved in the process make it inefficient and long.