Bureaucracy has got a bad name. It is seen as a relatively recent disease in society, yet it has had a long history. Based on rationality and fixed procedures, it can be seen as having stemmed from very positive attempts to deal with variability, unpredictability and patronage – injecting transparency and fairness into social processes.

Bureaucracy has changed as society has changed. With the advent of mechanised mass production and the search for ever more efficiency, it became variously associated with totalitarian regimes, rule-based systems and a lack of humanity. As society continues to change new forms of bureaucracy are emerging. These can be viewed positively as adaptations to flexibility and creativity, or can be viewed more critically as the permeating of all social interaction by procedures and attitudes that are relatively meaningless yet which operate as a means of control.

As a term, ‘bureaucracy’ has been around for a couple of hundred years but the idea of a structured, rational administrative system has been around for thousands of years. In older societies wanting to free themselves from corruption and nepotism, or more recent societies engaged in extensive trade, one way forward was the creation of a structured system with people chosen on the basis of tested skills and examined abilities. Sometimes these arrangements (eg those established in the Byzantine Empire) became complex, overstaffed and unnecessarily complicated: ‘byzantine’ in fact.

Modern bureaucracies emerged in C17th/C18th as states needed to keep track of taxation, and in those nations expanding their control over other places and requiring a reliable civil service to administer their empires. Increases in industrialisation, formalisation of economic systems, and the increased use of formal contractual arrangements – all gave momentum to the development of bureaucracies.

Weber identified it as a key element in the emergence of the modern world. As population numbers increased and interconnections became more complex; with the growth of popular demands for democratisation and the need to treat people more equally – a rational/legal framework increasingly operated as a form of control through knowledge and information, operating via complex structures of formal administrations; organised around stratifications, hierarchies, and elites; and around belief in and promotion of rational authority. An ideal type of this rational and efficient way to organise social processes and maintain order (a rule-by-the-office bureaucracy) was set out by Weber:

  • Clearly defined pyramidal hierarchies of offices; clear chains of command
  • Functions of offices clearly defined and routinised; written guidelines prescribing performance
  • Administrative tasks undertaken by trained officials acting according to the rules
  • Control of day-to-day operations through systematic processes of review, discipline and sanction
  • Written record-keeping – things filed and stored
  • Office-holder contracted to fulfil particular duties (as main occupation; remunerated by fixed, graded salaries)
  • Recruitment and promotion based on specialisation and expertise – against a clear job specification
  • Post-holders observe impersonal duties of the office; separation of public and private interests of those involved
  • Office-holding viewed as a career, a vocation

Weber’s bureaucracy implied a persona of the bureaucrat: Impersonal, procedural, deferential, reliable for efficiently sticking to the rules. Bureaucracy done well was a positive social force: people treated equally, with simplicity, on a rational basis; efficient through flexibilities within a system that is clear to all.

Weber recognised that, in the extreme, bureaucracy could lead to the official becoming distant to the point of being feared and in danger of being unable to provide real help to people because of an over-concern with procedures, rules and regulations. Unfettered, bureaucracy became burdensome, rule-bound and uncaring. Bureaucracy could act as an iron cage, trapping people in situations devoid of all sense of emotion and irrationality.

Those negative connotations continued to multiply. Bureaucracy came to imply activities that were necessarily over complex, inefficient, inflexible, inhuman, mediocre, a set of procedures designed to waste time and dissipate energies. Merton described the ‘trained incapacities’ that arose from workers’ emphasis on absolute conformity to rules and procedures. Such dysfunctioning of bureaucracy was captured in fictions such as Kafka’s ‘The Castle’ and ‘The Trial’ and Heller’s ‘Catch22’. Distortions became linked to perceptions of central control, state control, the nomenclatura of the Soviet Union or order-following minions of fascist states.

During the C20th there was a general expansion of public service employment and with it a (real or perceived) disproportionate increase in bureaucratic activities. Growth in the number of government workers was seen as a growth in bureaucracy. On one measure, however, a bureaucrat is someone with decision-making power but who habitually defers to precedent or to rule in that decision-making. This would cut out policy-makers and would also exclude any routine clerical staff with no real influence on decision-making (the latter group, in many cases, now having largely been replaced by technology). Alternatively, new government workers could be positively applying transparent procedures recognised as bringing fairness and equity to complex situations.

‘More’ office-holders does not necessarily mean ‘worse’ bureaucracy. Not all bureaucrats are themselves trapped, or trap other people, in inflexible iron cages.

Bureaucracy getting out of hand, however, was a commonly promoted belief. Government, and supragovernment regulatory bureaucracies were seen as overbearing and self-serving. By the end of the C20th the backlash against Big Government was firmly established. The shrinking of the state became a political narrative.

Not that private sector businesses were immune from the growth of bureaucracy. Indeed, they had always been part of the driving force.

Mass circulation, mass production and mass consumption were supported by the establishment of styles of management based on technical procedures, the industrialisation of the scale and pace of processes, the mechanisation of lifestyles, the division of labour, and controlled forms of communication. Into this context were added scientific management, Organisations and Methods in which individual uniqueness was reduced to statistical units, and supervision based on defined methods of work. Shop-floor monitoring arose from, and fed back into, centralised administrative arrangements. Bureaucracy was seen as a ‘discipline’ supported by modern technocracies.

With the growth of national systems and global enterprises, such local-level regulatory bureaucracy became part of wider networks of command and control. To counter excesses within the wider world of business, higher-level regulatory monitoring was set in place by governments and between governments.

Arguments that business was being held back by too much red tape reasserted themselves. Whilst it was recognised that most organisations relied on some degree of bureaucratic systems to manage records, administer increasingly complex systems and manage relationships – things were seen as getting out of control. Such arguments for reductions in external ‘intrusive’ levels of bureaucracy were often paralleled, however, by arguments for increasing the ‘necessary’ levels of internal bureaucracy.

Rather than wholesale bonfires of regulations, the language of old bureaucracy was increasingly infused with the language of the market:

Contracting; competitive tendering, efficiency savings, Return on Investment, Investing to Save, public/private Initiatives; brokerage; targets and indicators; market development/creating the market; customers and clients; innovation; franchises: enterprise; delivery; performance. This, in turn, began to create its own needs for processing information, assessment panels, performance monitoring, quality assurances and the rest of an extended infrastructure of bureaucracy.

From the mid-1970s liberal capital required the incorporation of large numbers of a new cosmopolitan elite – socially-minded, educated to higher levels, creative, wanting to improve life, critical thinkers unwilling to be fobbed off. These people were employed as progressive managers, pushing forward progress through a new form of bureaucracy – rationalising social practices as data, models and strategies.

The focus became planning and reviewing. Increased use of technology enabled a wider variety of performances to be tracked and flagged in real time. The system grew and became more formalised. Monitoring through performance targets, against idealised standards, became the reason for existence of an increasing range of public agencies: Standards Agency; OF(-sted, –com etc); Investors in People; Audit Commission and auditing in general; alongside an extension of Quality Assurance expectations; Health and Safety compliances, competency frameworks, and so on.

The template, now, was not that of one huge central Office but some other model – the distributed use of constant checks and balances. This put performance management as a thread through supervision, professional reviews and monitoring programmes – but mostly through the regular interrogation of data against centrally-determined targets and the understanding that all levels of an organisation would do their bit in securing such targets. As early as 1956 there were warnings of the perverse outcomes from over-focusing on performance, yet the practice proliferated.

Performance-related stresses could easily spread widely throughout an organisation, reducing productivities. At the same time, performance tracking could reassure managers that everything was going along fine when, sometimes, all that was happening was that bureaucrats had got better at recording against targets – sometimes at the expense of what mattered, what the system was set up to do. Managing the targets tended to take over from managing the work. Where there was strong downward pressure to meet targets, what ensued was a regime of fiddling figures, redefining outputs and, ultimately, fraud.

Whilst there may have been emphasis on reducing bureaucracy (of one defined kind) there was also an increase, in practice, of reporting against a wider range of bureaucracies of other kinds. Meanwhile the constant ambiguities, or actual misuse of statistics, around hospital waiting times, school achievements, levels of crime, joblessness, immigration: and the endless rounds of assessing, planning and reviewing – created an atmosphere in which all such processes lost public confidence to some degree. There has been damage to the reputations of public services, of private undertakings and of overarching structures such as parliament. It may just be that, at the end of all of this, bureaucracy done well is the very thing that needs to be reasserted.

‘Simple’ bureaucracy (as rule by the clear rationality of officialdom) gave way to overlapping mazes of regulatory systems, pervading all areas – systems so complex and costly to manage that they were decentralised out to workers to self-regulate. In the place of heavy-duty external inspection there was a drift towards monitoring self-assessment. Centralised management shifted to a focus on team and individual self-management and self-monitoring – all within set performance frameworks.

Within this approach, people gained more freedoms, but only to the extent that some ultimate social and financial aims were furthered. Autonomies were framed within procedural expectations. What was initially heavy on enforced bureaucracy became something heavy on expectation.

Today’s office-holders are expected to have the capacity to do all the administration required to meet such expectations. Research Assessment scores depend on it; OFSTED categorisations as ‘successful’ or ’failing’ depend on it; continued budgets and the freedom to manage one’s own organisation depend on it. Professional reputations hinge on it.

The current levels of expectation are such that managers and workers have to suspend all critical reflexivity, comply with every bureaucratic demand (however cynically they do that) in order for their work to continue making sense to them.

People caught up in bureaucratic expectations assume responsibility for them, however constraining and futile they may appear to be. The activities become spontaneous. They become inscribed into relationships. Office-holders may even go so far as to stress the sublimeness of the system: Look at the charts, the colour-coding, the slick IT, the infographics, the mass of information (even if little gets transformed into intelligent knowledge and even less produces tangible gains for society as a whole). Ultimately, in the view of some, these active compliances act as one of the key mechanisms through which capitalist relationships get sustained.

In the current economic climate, ‘post-capitalism’ might sound more like a wish than a reality, but the term is being used as a prediction of a future that is getting ever closer as the days of capitalism are seen as being limited by the system’s perpetual instabilities. The current system may deal with crises as they arise but the underlying faults do not go away. Alongside capitalism’s predicted demise, there are emerging signs of its replacement – currently put forward in the form of the sharing economy.

Capitalism has, however, proved very adept at shape-shifting. The old industrial capitalism gave way to capitalism structured around finance and the selling of debt rather than goods. It may well take on new forms with any such changes requiring new versions of bureaucracy to sustain things. It is easy to believe that the sharing economy is simply another iteration of capitalism: capitalism that relies in data and digital platforms, and (to varying extents) on increased surveillance, casualised workforces and deregulated processes. Although there appears to be a communitarian façade to this new microeconomic system, the for-profit version is close to the idealised version of neoliberal capitalism.

The new emerging forms of economic activity bring their own bureaucracy: one much reduced compared with centrally-organised structures. Maybe bureaucracy really is on the way out, or at least being reduced to some still-valued core

Until then, the continuing denigration of bureaucracy continues to outweigh any promotion of its benefits. The target of attack is a vague ‘all this bureaucracy’. Within this, there is a need for clarity about definitions. Over time Bureaucracy has come to mean a range of things:

  • Bureaucracy as rule by the administrative office
  • A bureaucracy as a body of non-elected government officials; an administrative group for implementing policy
  • The Bureaucracy as Government administration managed by departments staffed by non-elected officials
  • Bureaucracy as regulatory regimes and frameworks
  • Bureaucracy as paperwork and procedures

These are increasingly conflated into Bureaucracy (a bad thing) as opposed to Creative Freedom (a good thing). This bureaucracy has spread rapidly from the mechanised industries and the business-like public administrations, to seep into all realms of social activity.

A couple of decades ago art writings and conversations were substantially about art practices. Since then there has been an increasing focus on the organisation of art: exhibitions, biennales, galleries, curations, sales and prices, prizes and awards, conferences and seminars – the business of doing art. Public and private support for the arts want to control how the money gets used. The art world gets filled with proposal forms, levels of assessments, policy-driven targets, references to theory, explanation of audiences and publics, mechanisms for engagement and relationship, approaches to monitoring and evaluation. The bureaucracy grows.

Artists complain about the amount of paperwork whilst complying with it to the letter in order to sustain funding and recognition. There is a sense that all this needs to be done if one is to be taken seriously as a proper organisation. The same trends that have colonised other areas of social practice have moved into an art world that is increasingly measurable, manageable and controllable. Responsibilities get shunted down the hierarchies (against ideologically-informed national policy frameworks) from government department to national intermediary NGO to regional/local funding bodies and ultimately to self-controlling networks of practitioners. Knowing about doing the work gets supplanted by knowing how to document it. Good practitioners are turned into good administrators. Contemporary bureaucracy is filtered through ever-faster and ever-more pervasive technology. The bureaucracy can be described as less burdensome whilst being a more frequent, more extensive and more pressing necessity.

And so it goes on, throughout other fields of relationships. It becomes the main task, pushing out all others, it appears increasingly meaningless in that it no longer serves the purpose it was supposed to do. Eventually, bureaucracy is so pervasive that it becomes almost invisible in its application and effects. These things are taken for granted. There seems to be little alternative.

There also seems to be no longer any absolute accountability. With the demise of visible hierarchies and the automated nature of information-based decision-making, there is no immediate person to whom representations can be made; no-one who can change things. Bureaucratic activity is woven into all ways of being but with no external legitimisations, no clear authorities. Everything links to everything else, endless documentations, worldwide. It becomes the air we breathe. It simply is. Things are as they are; things just go on as they do.

There are various views of what, if anything, might be done about all of this.

One perspective would claim that none of it is the fault of bureaucracy in and of itself. Bureaucracy can be done well within contemporary society: Well-written documents; carefully scrutinised and revised; done for a clear purpose; within transparent procedures; with content that allows for some expression of feelings as well as logic; setting out explorations of ideas; and with a staunch guardianship of the rights of others. The reality that bureaucracy proliferates more than it needs to; can be badly-written or ill-thought-through; can appear deliberately obtuse or arcane; doesn’t fit well with the shifting problems of real life: These can be taken as failings of management rather than failings of bureaucracy.

Two simple examples spring to mind from my own experiences in the world of adult learning.

Within a national strategy to improve levels of basic skills, some challenging national aspirations were set. These were expressed as National Targets, with each region of the country expected to make a reasonable contribution to their achievement. In my own area this was recognised but played down. The calculation was that if delivery organisations maintained a focus on good teaching then the regional target could easily be met. Any meetings would continue to be about what good teaching looked like and how it might still be improved. In other areas the regional target was distributed across the provider organisations who were then constantly made to worry about whether or not they were meeting the target. The providers were called to meetings about the targets. Organisational stress was passed down to individual teachers. In these areas there was a slipping behind of achievement toward the target. In my own area, where the target was barely mentioned, where the focus was relentlessly on teaching and learning, the area greatly exceeded its expected contribution to national targets.

In another example, two managers received the same Annual Funding Guidance document. One read it as a set of things that had to be complied with – A document that set out the limits to what had to be done, and proscribed doing anything else because there was no rule allowing it. The other read the same document as something that had to be complied with – A document that gave the minimum constraints, allowing anything more to be done so long as there was not a rule forbidding it.

If bureaucracy is seen as uncontrollable and oppressive this is because it has been allowed to become so or because (for whatever reason) some managers actively wish it to be so. It is a matter of agency not of bureaucracy itself.

A different line of thought would challenge the idea that bureaucracy necessarily gest more pervasive and more self-serving. This allows a place for discussion and exploration. What is needed for good regulation? How much systematic regulation is conducive with entrepreneurship and innovation? Why is any bureaucracy needed, and whose interests does it serve? There are no reasons why such questions should not be asked, in order to get beyond the headlines of ‘Has to be done …’, ‘All the fault of Europe…’, ‘Health and Safety gone mad ….’ Or ‘That’s just the way things are ….’

Such reasonable explorations might start to roll back the volumes of control, change the nature of evidence trails and reduce blind compliance. This will free up time to do productive things, value the honest voices from the so-called swampy lowlands of professional practice, and enable all involved to understand the reasoning behind any bureaucracy that is being required.

Some might counter this by arguing that bureaucracy is structurally woven into capitalism to such an extent that it isn’t going to be reversed. Capitalist relationships and mechanisms rely too much on the existence of obscuring and distracting procedures that get labelled ‘bureaucracy’ whilst, at the same time, appearing to argue against such procedures. In this perspective, bureaucracy will continue to be a negative ideologically-constructed necessity until the current economic system is radically changed.

This is not logically sufficient for others. To make any real change possible, they believe that it is necessary to demonstrate just how bureaucracy works to sustain capitalist relationships, how things might be different and how any non-capitalist systems can operate free from its own burden of bureaucracy.

Other lines of thought accept the need for some forms of bureaucracy but call for a new, more creative, version of it. From these perspectives there is a recognition that the world has undoubtedly changed. Call it post-Fordist, postmodernist, post-capitalist, late modernity, or liquid modernity, or what you will – there are widespread differences now from the late C20th. There is more:

  • Largescale free movement, globally, of capital
  • Data that, used well or badly, can shape ways of doing things
  • Finance-based, debt-based capitalism
  • Flexibility, adaptability and customisation
  • Incorporation of ideas and values once seen as a challenge
  • Connected International economy, in which national governments appear less able to predict and control and manage
  • Trend towards flexible, anticipatory, modes of control via decentralised networks in place of centralising regulatory mechanisms
  • Feeling that modern life is dispersed, decentralised, disrupted, destabilised, dislocated, unpredictable, unstable …
  • Underlying ‘lack of hope’

Since the world is changing dramatically, there comes a stage at which the existing public bureaucracies are no longer going to do the job. There is likely to be a required shift to a bureaucracy that is agile, changeable, responsive, human, and creative whilst remaining strategic and focused on change. It is possible that we are in the midst of such changes.

Charles Landry poses the question of whether there can be a creative bureaucracy – a way of getting through the tensions of those two ideals.

His bureaucracy would involve curiosity, questioning, imagination, puzzling things out. It would be flexible, adaptive, dynamic and loose. There would be open innovation, sharing of information, co-creation of possible solutions. There would be less hierarchy and more horizontal networking, cutting across boundaries, looking for fuzzy connections where these might help. Closely-guarded expertise would be broken down for use in different ways, cross-fertilising thinking across quite different fields, making connections and creating synergies.

There is still the need for the equity and transparency that bureaucracy was ‘invented’ for. There is an argument for going back to rediscover bureaucracy as something transformative and modernising and then to go meld this with the innovation, personal-empowerment, customisation, network-thinking that is beginning to inform public and private activity.

In a fast-moving context, where problems are increasingly seen as complex ones, there is value in slowing the pace, getting a rounded view, considering the intricacies, and mixing strategic principles with tactical flexibilities ie some of those very aspects that defined (and became denigrated) in old-style bureaucracy.

Creative bureaucracy would still have structures, routines and protocols as ways of organising things but might ascribe different understandings to these. The task is to find approaches that keep the gains of ‘old’ bureaucracy whilst allowing for the creativity of any new ways of acting. One step involves taking the focus away from a relentless obsession with structures (organisational charts, rigid operating models etc) and put more energies into considering the behaviours, energies, passions and values of groups of people.

It means people having space to think for themselves, have some initiative, apply critical thinking to their own work, solve problems and create opportunities – within organisational arrangements, administrative and managerial practices that prevent cronyism, fraud, or purposelessness; and within organisational practices that allows for predictability, responsiveness, serendipity, and managing flexibilities within a strategic flow.

Bureaucracy may still have a positive future, shaping the direction of travel at an appropriate pace and scale rather than being the endless application of rules that no longer make sense or the endless rewriting of rules to try to keep up with change.

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