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Maybe It Is Time to Rediscover Bureaucracy

Johan P. Olsen

Is “bureaucracy” an organizational dinosaur helplessly involved in its death struggle? Is it an undesirable and non-viable form of administration developed in a legalistic and authoritarian society and now inevitably withering away because it is incompatible with complex, individualistic and dynamic societies? 

Or, is the mobilization of anti-bureaucratic sentiments and the claim that it is time to say goodbye to bureaucracies and bureaucrats, just another round in a perennial debate and ideological struggle over what are desirable forms of administration and government -that is, a contest for control of the size, agenda, organization, competences, moral foundations, staffing, resources, and outcomes of the public sector?

How helpful is the literature on “bureaucracy” in analyzing current administrative challenges, compared to the diagnoses and prescriptions presented by reformers over the last 25 years?

The paper acknowledges that there have been important changes in public administration and, even more so, in the way administration is portrayed. Yet, it questions the fashionable ideas, that bureaucratic organization is obsolescent, and that there has been a paradigmatic shift from (weberian) bureaucracy to market-organization or network-organization. In contrast to decades of bureaucracy-bashing, the paper argues that contemporary democracies are involved in a struggle over institutional identities and institutional balances. It also argues that for those interested in how contemporary public administration is organized, functions and changes, it is worthwhile to reconsider and rediscover bureaucracy as an administrative form, an analytical concept and a set of ideas and observations about public administration and formally organized institutions.

The argument is not that bureaucratic organization is a panacea and the answer to all challenges of public administration. Bureaucracy is not the way to organize public administration, for all kinds of tasks and under all circumstances. Bureaucratic organization is part of a repertoire of overlapping, supplementary and competing forms co-existing in contemporary democracies, and so are market-organization and network-organization. 

Rediscovering Weber’s analysis of bureaucratic organization also enriches our understanding of   public administration. The argument is not that Weber always provides authoritative answers. Much has to be learnt about the mechanisms by which public administration approaches the ideal-type bureaucracy, what causes the emergence, growth and decline of bureaucratic organization, and the implications of such changes. Nevertheless, Weber calls attention to important issues and dilemmas and offers stimulating lines of thought. This is in particular true when we (a) include bureaucracy as an institution, and not only an instrument; (b) look at the empirical studies in their time and context, and not only at Weber’s ideal-types and predictions; and (c) take into account the political and normative order bureaucracy is part of, and not only the internal characteristics of “the bureau”.

 

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