Given a bad name

2009-10-21 00:00

RECENTLY, I served on a higher­ degrees committee to evaluate the proposal for a masters degree put forward by a municipal employee in a city not too far from Pietermaritzburg. I was interested to hear the candidate speak repeatedly about “fighting the bureaucracy” in his department. It struck me that surely the organisation is the bureau­cracy and that rather than fighting it, our candidate would be better off finding ways to embrace it and make it work. Bureaucracy has a very bad press and is equated­ with inefficiency, cor­ruption and malpractice. Yet it is still the most popular way to organise­, and the biggest and most effective organisations in the world are inevitably bureaucratic in form.

The birth of a theory about organisations is generally regarded as being heralded by the formulation of the concept of bureaucracy by the German political economist and sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). His definitions have laid the foundations for all subsequent work that has been done on the subject.

The Roman Catholic Church has existed in a bureaucratic form for hundreds of years and many medieval city states also held a bureau­cratic form. However, it was not until the dominant bureau­cratic states of Western Europe came into being that it was possible for the bureaucratic form to spread and assume supremacy in all forms of public, social and business life.

Initially, the activities of the state and the royal house were combined, and only when they split did the concept of a state depart­ment, office or bureau come into being. Bureaucratisation, once established, expanded rapidly in the 16th and 17th centuries, dominated initially by the aristoc­racy as the state increasingly absorbed the functions of local­ government. Bureaucratic offices were commercialised and could be bought and sold — sometimes being created especially for this purpose. In France, in the years 1620 to 1632, the sale of bureau­cratic offices accounted for one third of state income. The opportunities for nepotism and corruption were obviously great in such a system.

After the French revolution and widespread reforms in the rest of Europe, pressure increased to professionalise the state bureaucracy. As people saw themselves as citizens rather than subjects, there was also a move to open the bureaucracy to all and it was no longer the exclusive domain of the wealthy or nobility. Entrance became­ by means of qualification, and neutrality and service to the public was emphasised.

Max Weber initially formulated his theory of an ideal type of bureaucratic organisation to explain the unique features of Western civilisation. He was, therefore, concerned mainly with the state apparatus. Only later did he broaden his theories to encompass all organisational forms, including church, social, state and business.

The essential features of Weber’s ideal type are:

• A continuous organisation with official functions bound by rules.

• Specific spheres of competence with division of labour and provision of the necessary authority to office holders.

• Organisation into a hierarchy of offices with each lower office under the control of a higher one.

• High formalisation with dependence on rules and norms to govern behaviour. Only people who have demonstrated adequate technical training or ability should be considered for promotion or appointment to official positions. Administrative acts, decisions and rules are always committed to writing.

• Separation of ownership and admin­istration, and separation of employees’ organisational and personal lives. Managers are professionals who are remunerated according to their rank or position in the organisation.

• Career paths for employees are based on achievements, seniority and the judgement of superiors.

• Employees are subject to strict and systematic discipline but are protected from arbitrary action by the right to appeal to a higher level of authority.

In the context of controlling an organisation, Weber identified three different types of leadership:

• The traditional leader who derives loyalty by virtue of his inherited status. Functionaries in his organisation are personal retainers dependent on the leader for reward.

• The charismatic leader who derives authority through his personal characteristics or from his status as a hero. Office bearers in this organisation will often be disciples of the leader.

• And finally, the leader who derives­ his authority­ from legal, rational grounds. This is the type of leadership­ which combines most effectively with a professional bureaucracy­.

At the end of the day, then, there is not much wrong with bureaucracy as a concept, particularly when it is viewed as an open system interacting with its environment. It seems that it is the people in the organisation that have given­ bureaucracy its bad name. But then people will have that tendency­ no matter what the organisational­ form. So our candidate would have been better off fighting red tape and dysfunct­ional behaviour, rather than the bureaucracy.

• Dr Bill Raubenheimer is a senior lecturer in business studies with the faculty of management at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. His doctoral research was in the field of organisation theory, specifically examining structural variations in South African industries.

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