Characteristics of a Bureaucracy

A bureaucracy is a system of organization noted for its size and complexity. Everything within a bureaucracy — responsibilities, jobs, and assignments — exists to achieve some goal. Bureaucracies are found at the federal, state, county, and municipal levels of government, and even large private corporations may be bureaucratically organized. People who work for government agencies, from high-level managers and executives to clerical staff, are called bureaucrats. The superintendent of a large urban school district is a bureaucrat, as are the teachers, librarians, nurses, and security guards.

The terms bureaucrat and bureaucracy have negative connotations. They bring to mind long, difficult forms; standing in long lines; and encounters with inflexible and unsympathetic clerks. The simplest requests are tangled in red tape, the paperwork that slows down accomplishment of an otherwise simple task. Despite this popular perception, bureaucracy is necessary for big governmental agencies to operate.

All bureaucracies share similar characteristics, including specialization, hierarchical organization, and formal rules. In the best circumstances, these characteristics allow a bureaucracy to function smoothly.


Workers in a bureaucracy perform specialized tasks that call for training and expertise. Trained personnel can accomplish their jobs efficiently. The downside of specialization is that bureaucrats often cannot (or refuse to) "work out of class" — that is, take on a task that is outside the scope of their job description.

Hierarchical organization

The structure of a bureaucracy is called a hierarchy, a succession of tiers from the most menial worker in the organization to the highest executive. Each level has clearly defined authority and responsibilities.

Formal rules

Bureaucracies function under formal rules. These instructions state how all tasks in the organization, or in a particular tier of the hierarchy, are to be performed. The rules are often called standard operating procedures (SOP) and are formalized in procedures manuals. By following the rules, bureaucrats waste no time in making appropriate decisions.

There are contradictions in the operation of a bureaucracy, however. The narrow focus on special expertise may blind a bureaucrat to a flaw in the performance of a task. Compounding the problem may be the bureaucrat's inability to recognize the problem if it occurs in an area outside the bureaucrat's expertise. The hierarchical structure also prevents a democratic approach to problem-solving. Lower-level staff find it difficult to question the decisions of supervisors, and executives and managers may be unaware that a problem exists several rungs down the organizational ladder.