Whither Bureaucracy?

Bureaucracy used to be a hot topic - or at least the word was - in many places and for many people. It was written about a great deal in the first half of the 20th century and examined the idea that both private and public sector organisations in effect might have a life of their own.

This could be seen in a positive light - producing efficiencies in the new era of factory working and mass production - but also negatively if organisations depersonalised and alienated those who worked in them. The stronger form of the critique saw bureaucracy not just as demoralising, but also an active barrier to progress and innovation, as well as a threat to human rights.

In short a powerful idea, but a word little used nowadays. Why might that be?

There could be a few reasons, but one might be that we have found alternatives. The first is "silo", the original meaning of which is a tall storage structure, often for agricultural products, such as grain. The concept here is of something sealed off, difficult to access, with no connection to another silo, and often describes groups of people working in isolation from each other. Of course, there may be benefits in this, including the avoidance of confusion and the creation of space in which to work without interruption. On the other hand - and this is something organisations worry about a lot - it stifles networking and the exchange of information, leading to a very "vertical" organisation.

The second is the idea of "elites". This has been a well-studied concept in sociology for a long time, but is now gaining more attention with the faster and more graphic spread of information, for example in social media. Again, the idea of smart people benefiting an organisation, and thus wider society, is reasonable. However, the thought that they are using their power, often based on access to information, to gain excessive privilege, does not sit well with people who feel excluded from this. Also, there is a suspicion that elites may not be as smart as they think they are (think banking crisis etc.) and the whole situation becomes very problematic.

So to some extent, we have simply found new words for bureaucracy, and technology has in part accounted for both the reality and the perception. Nevertheless, bureaucracy remains a compelling notion, not least because so many writers have analysed it from a variety of standpoints. Maybe a case for another look?


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