The term bureaucracy refers to a system of administration that relies heavily on policies, procedures, and rules, as well as a specific hierarchical system. Bureaucratic systems are most common in large corporate environments, and in government agencies and social systems. The purpose of bureaucracy is to impose structure where there would surely be chaos in an unwieldy system. To explore this concept, consider the following bureaucracy definition.

Definition of Bureaucracy


  1. A government characterized by specialization, obedience to fixed rules, and adherence to a hierarchy of authority.
  2. A system of government or business that has many complicated rules, policies, and procedures.


1810-1820       French   bureaucratie

What is Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy is the administration of the many divisions of government by non-elected officials. While it has been acknowledged that bureaucracy is a necessary, efficient way to operate a far-reaching government, the term has met with criticism in recent decades. Complaints about bureaucratic systems mainly refer to the system’s inflexibility, as workers within the system are held to strict rules and practices. It is ironic that a system meant to efficiently administer large agencies is marked by inefficiency, due to the complexity and rigidness imposed on the workers.

History of Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy can be seen as far back as Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire, when scribes used clay tablets to administer fruits of harvest. In more modern times, the United Kingdom instituted a form of bureaucracy during the 18th century, by forming the Department of Excise to collect taxes. The Department of Excise held its employees to a strict hierarchy. England’s taxation system has been modified over the years, and today’s HM Revenue and Customs bears the responsibility for taxation.

Is Bureaucracy Necessary

It is believed that large organizations, whether governmental or private, cannot be run smoothly without compartmentalization and oversight. This is where bureaucracy comes in. By requiring strict compliance with the organization’s policies and procedures, and following a specified chain of command, it becomes possible to make order from chaos.

In reality, governmental bureaucracy is seen in poor light by the citizens it is sworn to serve. Strict rules and regulations, without allowing specialized employees to deviate from the narrow path in order to do their jobs in unusual circumstances, lead these employees to become defensive, and eventually indifferent to the needs of some individuals.

Example of Bureaucracy in Government Benefits

Caitlyn’s husband left her to care for their three children on her own. She is having a difficult time providing the basic necessities, as she is caught between a rock and a hard place – she cannot work because it costs more to hire a daycare provider than she will make each week. Caitlyn finally breaks down and applies for SNAP benefits (previously called “Food Stamps”). When a worker calls out Caitlyn’s name for an interview, she answers each question honestly, but throughout the interview Caitlyn tries to express her concern about needing help right away, as she has almost no food at home.

There is a set list of procedures, and strict policies, that govern what the social workers must do, what they must check into, and whom they will notify, for each application. Asking for an exception to the department’s two-week rule sends the application up the line, where it is likely reviewed by more than one individual before a decision is rendered on the granting of benefits more quickly. Unfortunately, in this example of bureaucracy, Caitlyn’s request for a shortened application process based on hardship is caught up in red tape, and will probably take just as long as it would to simply wait it out.

Characteristics of a Bureaucracy

Max Weber, a German sociologist known for being the architect of modern sociology, viewed bureaucracy as the best way to achieve organization in government, and in large business. Weber defined certain characteristics of a bureaucracy:

  • A hierarchical chain of command in which the top bureaucrat has ultimate authority, and the power flows down from there.
  • A distinct division of labor in which every worker has a specialized job.
  • A definitive set of goals toward which all people in the organization work.
  • Formal rules that are clearly written, which all people in the organization are expected to follow.
  • Judgment of job performance is made according to each worker’s productivity.
  • Merit-based promotion and hiring.

Bureaucratic Agencies in the U.S. Government

The U.S. Government is a massive bureaucracy, with somewhere around 2.6 million employees. That is not even counting the contractors who do government work, but are not considered employees. As to just where all these people work is up for debate, as even experts are not sure about the total number of federal agencies, divisions, departments, and commissions. Most agree that number is somewhat greater than 2,000. Each of these agencies specializes in a particular area, such as the Social Security Administration specializes in collecting Social Security taxes, and distributing Social Security benefits.

To paint a picture of just how complex the federal bureaucracy is, each of these more than 2,000 agencies overlap at least one other agency, sometimes making efficient administration a nightmare. To further muddy the waters, many federal agencies deal with counterparts, or similar agencies, at the state and local levels. Such overlapping obligations lend to the inefficient complexity that causes taxpayers to protest, and to campaign for change.

Information regarding government offices and employment is provided by the U.S. Office of Employment Management (“OEM”). There are, in fact, 15 departments in the executive office, each tasked with dealing with a specific type of issue. These departments are as follows:

Cabinet Department

Date Established

















Housing and Urban Development






Health and Human Services




Veterans’ Affairs


Homeland Security


Organizing the U.S. Bureaucracy

Federal agencies can only be created, organized, and disbanded by Congress. The leaders of each specialized agency is controlled by the President, though in actuality, most of them have no actual access to the White House. Federal bureaucracy is divided into four categories:

  1. Cabinet departments
  2. Government corporations
  3. Independent agencies
  4. Regulatory commissions

The Secretary, or head, of each department sits on the President’s cabinet, and is responsible for overseeing the department’s operations. The organization of each agency is complex, requiring the strict rules, regulations, policies, and chain of command offered by a bureaucracy. Each Secretary has a Deputy, or “Undersecretary,” as well as a horde of Assistant Secretaries, all of which preside over major government programs under their division.

Street Level Bureaucracy

Street level bureaucracy refers to the employees of government agencies who carry out the actions of their agencies. The idea behind street level bureaucracy is that the people favor dealing with people of their neighborhoods – federal employees that have faces they trust. George Washington is credited with saying, “A government will be better accepted if its administrators reflect the origins of its people.”

Bureaucrats at street level act as intermediaries between the citizens and the policy makers, whose job it is to communicate with the general public, and to implement policies handed down from higher in the chain of command.

Example of Street Level Bureaucracy

Post office officials are among the first street level bureaucrats in the country. Families across the nation came to trust their “postman” to bring them important mail, packages, and news. People often stopped to visit for a couple of minutes when he or she arrived. While the postman, nor any other local postal official, has no authority to make or change policies or procedures, he is the first point of contact with the public, often fielding questions, and explaining procedures.

Bureaucracy Example in the Department of Employment Security

In 2014, the Department of Employment Security in Illinois (“DES”) proposed a rule change in administrative hearings on employment issues. The DES wanted to have the final say in any unfavorable decision made by the Office of Administrative Hearings. This would essentially give a judge another say if he doesn’t like the appellate judge’s ruling. This tangled web of power-seeking, is an example of bureaucracy at work.

For example:

Kara claims her employer fired her because she was pregnant. She files a claim with the labor commission, and the matter proceeds to a hearing before an administrative law judge. The judge rules in the employer’s favor, stating that the there was no actual evidence that the employer acted contrary to the law.

Kara appeals the decision to the appellate court, which overturns the trial judge’s ruling. The proposed new rule would allow the trial judge another shot at ruling on the matter if he didn’t agree with the appellate court’s action. As an example of bureaucracy at work, such a rule could have serious negative implications for the administrative law process by sending a message that appealing to the Office of Administrative Hearings is pointless, as the matter may simply be re-decided by the trial judge.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Commission – A form of local government in which all legislative and executive authority rests with a small elected board of commissioners.
  • Hierarchy – A system of governance in which people are ranked one above the other, according to authority.