Understanding Bureaucracies and their Types


Bureaucracies are complex institutions designed to accomplish specific tasks. This complexity, and the fact that they are organizations composed of human beings, can make it challenging for us to understand how bureaucracies work. Sociologists, however, have developed a number of models for understanding the process. Each model highlights specific traits that help explain the organizational behavior of governing bodies and associated functions.

The Weberian Model

The classic model of bureaucracy is typically called the ideal Weberian model, and it was developed by Max Weber, an early German sociologist. Weber argued that the increasing complexity of life would simultaneously increase the demands of citizens for government services. Therefore, the ideal type of bureaucracy, the Weberian model, was one in which agencies are apolitical, hierarchically organized, and governed by formal procedures. Furthermore, specialized bureaucrats would be better able to solve problems through logical reasoning. Such efforts would eliminate entrenched patronage, stop problematic decision-making by those in charge, provide a system for managing and performing repetitive tasks that required little or no discretion, impose order and efficiency, create a clear understanding of the service provided, reduce arbitrariness, ensure accountability, and limit discretion.Susan J. Hekman. 1983. “Weber’s Ideal Type: A Contemporary Reassessment”. Polity 16 No. 1: 119–37.

The Acquisitive Model

For Weber, as his ideal type suggests, the bureaucracy was not only necessary but also a positive human development. Later sociologists have not always looked so favorably upon bureaucracies, and they have developed alternate models to explain how and why bureaucracies function. One such model is called the acquisitive model of bureaucracy. The acquisitive model proposes that bureaucracies are naturally competitive and power-hungry. This means bureaucrats, especially at the highest levels, recognize that limited resources are available to feed bureaucracies, so they will work to enhance the status of their own bureaucracy to the detriment of others.

This effort can sometimes take the form of merely emphasizing to Congress the value of their bureaucratic task, but it also means the bureaucracy will attempt to maximize its budget by depleting all its allotted resources each year. This ploy makes it more difficult for legislators to cut the bureaucracy’s future budget, a strategy that succeeds at the expense of thrift. In this way, the bureaucracy will eventually grow far beyond what is necessary and create bureaucratic waste that would otherwise be spent more efficiently among the other bureaucracies.

The Monopolistic Model

Other theorists have come to the conclusion that the extent to which bureaucracies compete for scarce resources is not what provides the greatest insight into how a bureaucracy functions. Rather, it is the absence of competition. The model that emerged from this observation is the monopolistic model.

Proponents of the monopolistic model recognize the similarities between a bureaucracy like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and a private monopoly like a regional power company or internet service provider that has no competitors. Such organizations are frequently criticized for waste, poor service, and a low level of client responsiveness. Consider, for example, the Bureau of Consular Affairs (BCA), the federal bureaucracy charged with issuing passports to citizens. There is no other organization from which a U.S. citizen can legitimately request and receive a passport, a process that normally takes several weeks. Thus there is no reason for the BCA to become more efficient or more responsive or to issue passports any faster.

There are rare bureaucratic exceptions that typically compete for presidential favor, most notably organizations such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the intelligence agencies in the Department of Defense. Apart from these, bureaucracies have little reason to become more efficient or responsive, nor are they often penalized for chronic inefficiency or ineffectiveness. Therefore, there is little reason for them to adopt cost-saving or performance measurement systems. While some economists argue that the problems of government could be easily solved if certain functions are privatized to reduce this prevailing incompetence, bureaucrats are not as easily swayed.