What do you think of when you hear the word “bureaucracy”?

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What do you think of when you hear the word “bureaucracy”? Many people associate the term with red tape, inefficiency, and waste. In short, bureaucracy is often viewed very negatively.

While it is now frequently used as a derogatory term, bureaucracies were developed originally to make the government more efficient. To understand how bureaucracy would enable the government, it is necessary to define clearly what we mean by a bureaucracy.

Following are the four characteristics of bureaucracies:

  • A division of labor or specialization
  • Systems for recruitment and advancement of workers
  • Hierarchical structure
  • Written sets of rules and procedures

Bureaucracy and Efficiency Specialization Specialization increases efficiency by reducing the range of tasks that workers do.  Basically, this is an extension of the logic of markets to organizations.

In the market theory, people should do what they do best and then exchange their goods or services with other people who also specialize in what they do best.  In government, this means creating agencies that deal with specific topics, such as education, health care, or public safety.

Within each of these specializations, agencies are created that deal with even more narrow tasks.  For example, within education, the tasks of teacher training, teaching, curriculum development, and assessment of learning are typically delegated to specialized organizations.  All these specializations are intended to improve efficiency.

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Systems of Recruitment and Advancement Of Workers The specialization within organizations becomes incorporated into the second feature of bureaucracies — their systems for recruiting and advancing workers.  Workers can then be selected for organizations based on their ability to do specific tasks.  The workers who are most efficient at a task will be hired, that is at least in theory.

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Hierarchical Structure The third characteristic of bureaucracy, hierarchy, is supposed to promote efficiency in two ways.  First, it is intended to motivate people to work harder to gain promotions within the organization.  Second, it is also supposed to give the most important tasks to the most effective workers.

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Rules And Procedures Rules and procedures are needed to specify what tasks should be done, how, and by whom.  The rules and procedures spell out the division of labor, recruitment processes, and the hierarchical structure of each bureaucracy.


Bureaucracies were developed to promote efficiency. However, while the bureaucratic organizational structure was designed to promote efficiency, that is not the only goal of policy. We also have an interest in developing the goals of security, liberty, and equity. Let us think about the goals of security within a bureaucracy first.

An example of addressing a security goal within an organization, including within a bureaucracy, is to provide for security at the workplace for battered and formerly battered women. This is an important security goal that is receiving more attention than it has in the past.

To understand the need for the security of women at the workplace, consider the following facts:

The Bureau of National Affairs estimates that domestic violence costs businesses $3–5 billion each year (A Catalyst for Change, 2007).

74% of employed battered women are harassed at work by their abusive partners (Friedman & Cooper, 1987).

44% of Fortune 1000 executives believe domestic violence increases insurance costs (Addressing Domestic Violence, 1994).

One fourth of business absenteeism and excessive use of medical benefits are believed to be the result of family violence (Friedman & Cooper, 1987).

As you can see from these figures, domestic violence is a serious security concern for battered and formerly battered women and their co-workers at the workplace. You should also see how workers’ security directly relates to the goal of efficiency.

Next, we turn to bureaucracy and equity.


Energy Efficiency Tax Credit Exercise For 2008, energy efficiency credits up to $10,000 were available for homeowners who installed solar electric panels, solar water heating, wind energy, or geothermal heat pumps.  The credits covered 30 percent of the cost of equipment and installation.  The credits were subtracted directly from the income tax owed.  To take advantage of the credits, the owners were required to have a tax bill as much as or greater than the amount of the credits.  In addition, they were required to have enough income to purchase the equipment.

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Before you attempt the exercise, you need to familiarize yourself with Form 1040 and Form 5695.

Internal Revenue Service Form 1040 Click a search engine name to learn about the Internal Revenue Service and to view instructions for Form 1040.

• Google • Yahoo • Ask

Internal Revenue Service Form 5695 Click a search engine name to learn about the Internal Revenue Service and to view instructions for Form 5695.

• Google • Yahoo • Ask

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The following table lists three taxpayers who have annual gross incomes of $9,000, $45,000, and $70,000, respectively.  Assume that each of these taxpayers is filing as a single person.

For each taxpayer, complete the table by providing missing values in the text boxes.  Consider who benefits most from the tax credits and how equitable the credits are.

Energy Efficiency Tax credits by Income Adjusted Gross Income $9,000 $45,000 $70,000 Standard and Personal Deductions $8,950 $8,950 $8,950 Approximate Taxes $4 $5,350 $11,600 Energy Credit Available $4 $5,350 $10,000

Required Energy Expenditures

$13 $17,833 $33,333


As a policy goal, liberty is not as easily implemented through bureaucracies as are the other goals. In terms of employment policy, one reason it is difficult is the hierarchical nature of bureaucracies and their focus on the equal application of rules. Both are designed to promote efficiency. However, as we discussed earlier, an interest in democratic public administration, particularly participatory management approaches, can often provide employees with opportunities to voice their opinions in organizational decisions. In addition, the innovations in e-Government, as you will discuss later, may provide an easier mechanism to provide input about the policies and procedures being implemented by bureaucracies. In both cases, the opportunity to voice opinions in bureaucratic decisions is a key aspect of liberty. In this way, the sometimes conflicting goals of liberty and efficiency can actually co-exist—liberty through employees being allowed to voice their views while the efficiency of the hierarchical structure is maintained.

Bureaucracy is not just implementation of programs and laws set by the legislative bodies. Bureaucracies are typically given latitude to develop the rules and processes they use to achieve the requirements of the laws and programs approved by the legislative branch. In addition, bureaucracies also determine how they will balance the policy goals of equity, efficiency, liberty, and security in their implementation plans.

While the formal structure and rules of bureaucracies are supposed to determine their activities and outcomes, it is impossible for the organization and rules to anticipate or control all factors that affect outcomes. One factor that influences the activities of bureaucracies is the emergence of informal groups. Next, we will consider the development and impact of informal groups on bureaucratic activity. We will also pay attention to organizational politics and their relationship to equity and liberty.

Oftentimes, there is more focus on efficiency and security in public agencies. Can you think of examples where a trade-off among the four policy goals has been made?

Next are some examples for you to understand the trade-offs among the policy goals.

Which Policy Goal? You need to select the goals that you think are the most important for the example listed here.

Example 1: War on Terrorism

● Efficiency ● Equity ● Liberty ● Security

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The expert’s view on this example is: The war on terrorism has many trade-offs between security and liberty.  If you think in terms of protection of the country’s borders, then security would likely be the primary policy goal.  On the other hand, if you are thinking of individual citizen’s civil rights, then liberty would likely be the primary policy goal.

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Example 2:  No Child Left Behind Act

● Efficiency ● Equity ● Liberty ● Security

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The expert’s view on this example is: The goal of liberty is not that of individual personal liberty as much as it is the liberty of individual states to act in what they believe is in the best interests of its citizens.  That goal, though, could be in conflict with the policy goal of equity if each state implements the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in ways that vary from state to state.

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Example 3:  Defense of Marriage Act

● Efficiency ● Equity ● Liberty ● Security


Bureaucracies are characterized by formal rules, a specific organizational structure, and groups. For example, the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture, has many formal groups. The formal groups include:

  • Administrative, for example, the Office of the Chief
  • Budget and Finance, for example, the Office of Budget Analysis
  • Business Operations, for example, Human Resources Management
  • National Forest System, for example, Ecosystem Management
  • Research and Development, for example, Environmental Sciences

The formal groups within a bureaucracy are specified by the rules of the organization. In addition, the rules and processes of the organization specify how these formal groups work together to operate to achieve the most positive outcomes, at least in theory. In the case of the U.S. Forest Service, these outcomes include healthy forests, lumber, and recreation.

While bureaucratic theory suggests that the Forest Service will work as an integrated entity to pursue its goals efficiently, practice is different. This is because the goals of the Forest Service, which are formally determined through legislative politics, can conflict. For example, one of the primary goals of the Forest Service is the production of lumber, which requires cutting trees. Cutting trees affects the other two primary organizational goals—healthy forests and recreation. Conflicts among goals within an organization often result in divisions that lead to the development of informal groups, both within an organization and among the groups who receive benefits or costs from the organization.

When the Forest Service was created, forests were more abundant and the primary function of the Forest Service was to work with timber companies to manage the cutting of trees. All Forest Service employees were forest management generalists, with an emphasis on managing extraction.

Since the 1960s, the growth of outdoor recreation, concern over environmental issues, and an increased knowledge of the forest environments required hiring of more specialists for the Forest Service, including hydrologists, biologists, and outdoor recreation specialists. This created a greater diversity of perspectives on forest management among Forest Service personnel.

Within the Forest Service, traditional foresters, biologists, and recreation specialists emerged as informal groups in the bureaucracy. Note that there are other informal groups also. These informal groups have overlapping, but different priorities. As an example, consider the following:

  • Foresters: Are especially interested in timber extraction
  • Biologists: Are most interested in preservation
  • Recreationists: Want to promote activities such as hiking, biking, and skiing in the forests

Rather than being a seamless, well-integrated bureaucracy, the Forest Service is now characterized by greater dissent over the proper management of forests.

Competing informal groups within an organization can conflict with the goals of providing efficiency and security. However, the goals of liberty and equity should be properly incorporated into the bureaucracy’s plans and programs.

Conflict among informal groups has the potential to promote equity by balancing the interests of different groups. For example, the Forest Service was once dominated by foresters who primarily managed the forests for timber extraction.

The diversification of the agency to include recreation and ecosystem health as priorities should allow the agency to serve a greater range of people and values, thereby increasing the equitability of the outcomes produced by the agency.

How would you balance the four goals of public policy if you ran the Forest Service? Think about why you chose that particular balance. Take a minute to really think about why—consider your underlying assumptions about bureaucracies. Think about the US efforts to stop terrorists and how you would balance those same goals. Is the relative weight you give to each of the goals the same for the efforts to stop terrorists as it was for the Forest Service?

Why or why not? Take a minute to think about the answer. Well, the answer is that no matter what balance you selected, the important thing is that you can provide a justification for that balance.

How do we make these decisions? What are some of the decision-making strategies that we use in public policy debates and for public organizations? We will now examine two issues in decision-making: incremental choices and “muddling through.”


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