Pros and Cons of Bureaucracy

Even though many Americans dislike bureaucracy, this organizational model prevails today. Whether or not they wish to admit it, most Americans either work in bureaucratic settings, or at least deal with them daily in schools, hospitals, government, and so forth. Hence, taking a closer look at the pros and cons of bureaucracy is important.

Pros of bureaucracy

Although the vices of bureaucracy are evident (and are discussed in the next section), this form of organization is not totally bad. In other words, benefits to the proverbial “red tape” associated with bureaucracy do exist. For example, bureaucratic regulations and rules help ensure that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) takes appropriate precautions to safeguard the health of Americans when it is in the process of approving a new medication. And the red tape documents the process so that, if problems arise, data exists for analysis and correction.

Likewise, the impersonality of bureaucracies can have benefits. For example, an applicant must submit a great deal of paperwork to obtain a government student loan. However, this lengthy—and often frustrating—process promotes equal treatment of all applicants, meaning that everyone has a fair chance to gain access to funding. Bureaucracy also discourages favoritism, meaning that in a well‐run organization, friendships and political clout should have no effect on access to funding.

Bureaucracies may have positive effects on employees. Whereas the stereotype of bureaucracies is one of suppressed creativity and extinguished imagination, this is not the case. Social research shows that many employees intellectually thrive in bureaucratic environments. According to this research, bureaucrats have higher levels of education, intellectual activity, personal responsibility, self‐direction, and open‐mindedness, when compared to non‐bureaucrats.

Another benefit of bureaucracies for employees is job security, such as a steady salary, and other perks, like insurance, medical and disability coverage, and a retirement pension.

Cons of bureaucracy

Americans rarely have anything good to say about bureaucracies, and their complaints may hold some truth. As noted previously, bureaucratic regulations and rules are not very helpful when unexpected situations arise. Bureaucratic authority is notoriously undemocratic, and blind adherence to rules may inhibit the exact actions necessary to achieve organizational goals.

Concerning this last point, one of bureaucracy's least‐appreciated features is its proneness to creating “paper trails” and piles of rules. Governmental bureaucracies are especially known for this. Critics of bureaucracy argue that mountains of paper and rules only slow an organization's capacity to achieve stated goals. They also note that governmental red tape costs taxpayers both time and money. Parkinson's Law and the Peter Principle have been formulated to explain how bureaucracies become dysfunctional.

Parkinson's Law, named after historian C. Northcote Parkinson, states that work creates more work, usually to the point of filling the time available for its completion. That is, Parkinson believed that bureaucracies always grow—typically 6 percent annually. Managers wish to appear busy, so they increase their workload by creating paper and rules, filling out evaluations and forms, and filing. Then they hire more assistants, who in turn require more managerial time for supervision. Moreover, many bureaucratic budgets rely on the “use it or lose it” principle, meaning the current year's expenditures determines the following year's budget. This provides a deep incentive to spend (even waste) as much money as possible to guarantee an ever‐increasing budget. Parkinson's views remain consistent with those of conflict theorists, who hold that bureaucratic growth serves only the managers, who in turn use their increasing power to control the workers.

Approaching bureaucracies from yet another angle, the Peter Principle, named after sociologist Laurence Peter, states that employees in a bureaucracy are promoted to the level of their incompetence. In other words, competent managers continually receive promotions until they attain a position in which they are incompetent. And they usually remain in this position until they retire or die. The bureaucracy can only continue because competent employees are constantly working their way up the hierarchical ladder.

Parkinson's Law and the Peter Principle, while fascinating social phenomena, are based on stereotypes and anecdotes rather than on rigorous social science research.