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According to Weber, what makes bureaucracies efficient?

Do you agree?
In analysing Max Webers study of bureaucracy in the modern state,
it is crucial to note that his concept came hand in hand with the
rationalisation of society. Shifts in religion in Western Europe, particularly
in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, had a dramatic effect on modern
society, leading to the spread of rational capitalism, secularisation and the
erosion of culture. Bureaucracy is indicative of this rationalisation process,
as society became preoccupied with obtaining goals as quickly as
possible, to maximise profits perhaps or even to minimise the time spent
on a certain task. This is embodied in bureaucracy as Weber saw it as a
concept, though an imperfect one as his criticism of his own work shows,
that was inherently efficient due to several characteristics it harnessed; a
hierarchical structure, clear, universal rules, a specialisation-based
division of labour, purposely impersonal behaviour, unelected bureaucrats
and a clear distinction between the public and private spheres of life. This
being Webers ideal type exemplifies what makes bureaucracies efficient.
The concept is not without flaws however, as Weber and other critics alike
have pointed out where a bureaucracy may fall short of a perfect system.
In Webers study of bureaucracy, he outlined that within this ideal
type the system must have a top-down structure and as such would have
optimum efficiency due to the existence of a hierarchical, specialised
framework and universal rules to keep it in place. A top-down structure in
this way, with orders coming from above, would allow for effective
communication and settle conflicts which inevitably rise in any large
organisation undertaking co-ordinated activities (Downs, 1967). Conflicts
may arise from differences in the goals of bureau members, and a
hierarchy would solve this issue by giving some superior levels in order
to achieve goal focus, as those in higher positions than other bureau
members would set goals for the bureaucrats underneath them, allowing
for maximum efficiency. People within this are subjected to the
permanent control of their superiors (Mommsen, 1989) so focus can be
achieved. In terms of communication, a clear hierarchy would reduce
total wasted time by only interacting with bureau members you are
directly involved with, or where tasks overlap, and only relevant messages
to those who are directly concerned with them. As such, no single person
knows everything about the bureau which makes the system efficient as
it minimises any sort of wasted effort, people focus on their tasks and
nothing else so they can complete their assigned duties as quickly as
possible. Division of labour and functional specialisation therefore also

make bureaucracies efficient according to Weber, as people concentrate

on their given tasks only. Moreover, since members of the bureaucracy are
well informed of their own role and objectives within the bureaucracy, the
possibility of confusion and conflation of separate administrative tasks are
removed, as specialisation allows for greater task focus, as the rational
attainment of specific objectives (Mommsen, 1989) allows for less wasted
time and thereby greater efficiency. Universal rules would keep this
framework in place, as formal regulations applied to every level of the
bureaucracy (Zustndigkeiten) and decisions made at high levels could be
executed consistently by all lower levels.

According to Weber in his principal features of an ideal type

bureaucracy, the bureaucrats themselves also make the system as
efficient as it is, through their impersonal behaviour, a complete
separation of their public and private spheres and their selection. This
absolute separation of work and other areas of life allows for the most
efficient form of dedication to bureaucratic organisation, as with a limited
overlap of the public and private spheres bureaucrats can fulfil their goals
as quick as possible. The person would be detached, one might say, from
his own personality (Aron) which exposes a criticism of bureaucracies in
itself, robbing the individuals within the system of freedom. In terms of
their purposely impersonal behaviour, Weber believed that to make sure
that there were no biased decisions within the organisation, individuals
had to maintain strictly impersonal relations to promote fair and equal
treatment. This is so that within the hierarchy, a supervisor would not
have partial judgement due to a more personal relationship with one
person within the bureaucratic organisation than another. Bureaucrats are
expected to devote their full energy to the fulfilment of their obligations,
but they have to, therefore, operate strictly according to rules and must
never let personal motives, emotions or inclinations influence their
decisions (Mommsen, 1989). Notably, Weber stressed the methods of
selection of who the bureaucrats were finally which would be a final factor
in how efficient it would be as an organisation. Bureaucrats had to be
unelected, and wherever possible excluded from political systems, as they
must be selected based on meritocratic principle. Not having to endure
political election would spare bureaucrats the extensive and arduous
efforts of seeking re-election and electoral accountability, as they may
instead devote this time to working efficiently within the organisation. This
is crucial also as Weber believed in selected those most capable for the
situation, as an election may take into account other non-work based
factors such as personality, funding or connections: Weber saw the only
way to ensure that bureaucrats were the best qualified for the job as

selection. In this way, a continuous administration on the basis of formal

rulesand expert rather than particularised recruitment (Collins, 1986)
would be more efficient, as by this principle the people who could fulfil the
goals set quickest would be those doing the tasks set, election would not
ensure this.
Whilst all these things make bureaucracies efficient, Weber seeing
this form of organisation as infinitely superior (Mommsen, 1989) to other
systems, there are some drawbacks to the model which make it seem less
attractive. Primarily, it can be argued that bureaucrats can change the
objectives of the organisation. Of course, within the hierarchical structure
of the organisation they are not supposed to define their goals and
objectives, as they implement instrumental rationality in place of
substantive rationality, and think more of a means to ends rather due to
the technical orientation of bureaucratic organisation. In practice, this
means that bureaucrats deviate from their given objectives by their
superiors, resulting in a huge potential for a drop in efficiency. Following
this, bureaucrats must be controlled and monitored, yet it is practically
difficult to do so given the specialised work, within the division of labour
aspect, it may be hard to follow what the subject is doing and whether it is
of sufficient quality or in the expected time. More powerful superiors in the
hierarchy do not possess the expertise in which to accurately monitor the
bureaucrats actions within the institution. Third, bureaucrats would argue
not respond well to changing circumstances or crises due to their training.
Due to the hierarchical structure and the universality of rules and formal
procedures, it becomes more difficult for bureaucratic organisations to
shift to a different course of action efficiently, as bureaucrats instinctively
stick to the rules because of the way they have been trained. The
emergence of adhocracies, the polar opposite in structure to a
bureaucracy, goes some way to solidifying limitations in Webers model,
indeed exposing some of its inherent inefficiencies. Since adhocracies are
more egalitarian and democratic in their framework, lacking the rigid
hierarchy and universal rules that Weber sees as more efficient, they can
respond and react far quicker to changes in environment. In creative
professions such as advertising and film-making for example, the lack of a
top-down structure allows more freedom and adaptability to varying
circumstances, since formal, universal rules inhibit innovation and
Such criticisms of the model, or indeed of rationalisation in general,
have been outlined by some sociologists in their own studies, including
Robert Michaels, Adorno and Horkheimer, and Zygmunt Bauman. Indeed
Michaels in 1911 in his critique of socialist parties and trade unions points

out that bureaucracys most significant flaw is its lack of democracy. He

argues that their hierarchical structure and lack of election could not
survive in the contemporary world, as they couldnt co-exist with
democratic, egalitarian values of socialist organisations in particular. Such
organisation develop into oligarchies as they are commanded by a small
elite due to the top-down structure. Though this may be true considering
the focus on accountability, however it is debatable whether this affects
the efficiency of the organisation. Though undemocratic, Webers model
would seem the most efficient though his ideal state in its entirety would
not be viable in a modern state. In Adorno and Horkheimers the
Dialectic of Enlightenment, they point out the role of Hollywood in
producing culture like a commodity, turning it into a culture industry and
a machine used for propaganda rather than a source of genuine
entertainment. This holds true to an extent with bureaucracies, as the
rationalisation process paints a bleak picture of modernity, as
bureaucratic organisation would reduce work to a machine and tasks to
meaningless, inane chores. Bauman puts forward an equally bleak
criticism, saying the structure would be the silencing of morality as
bureaucracies would have a demoralising affect, almost like a moral
sleeping pill. According to Bauman, all division of labourcreates a
distance between contributors and the final outcome itself and as such
would have a negative impact on people within the system. He also draws
a parallel between the homogenous nation state and the notion of in or
out, empirically showing that with the shift to modernity and the nation
state it creates an intolerance towards ethnic differences notably
embodied in the Holocaust, since members of these ethnicities are not
clearly linked to a national identity, such as Gypsies and Jewish people of
the day. The same principle is true, for Bauman, of bureaucracy. In seeking
to follow the rules and formal procedures in the most efficient way, the
danger is that bureaucrats are trained to think in terms of instrumental
rationality, and not in terms of substantive rationality, dehumanising and
demoralising them. Bureaucrats, therefore, are eroded of their individual
responsibility, by virtue of the clear spatial and physical separation
between their actions and the outcomes of their actions, because
bureaucrats do not necessarily have to be confronted with the
consequences of their own actions.
To conclude, Weberian bureaucracy is designed to maximise
efficiency and does so, however its flaws and inherent dangers prevent it
from being associated with positive administration. In his study, Weber
prioritises effective and efficient organisation over all else, and arguably
at the cost of morality resulting in dehumanisation. As such, one must
consider that there will never be a truly efficient system without

sacrificing human or democratic values, nor a democratic one that is as

efficient as it could be; Weber himself was aware the process was bound
to have adverse effects on a liberal social order. This makes it almost
unfeasible in a society dominated by the media, and obsessed with
transparency and accountability. Further, if we are to consider
bureaucracy more in the present, sociologists such as Ulrich Beck in his
study on Risk Society have argued that we have now moved beyond the
society in which Weber was writing, and our attempts to control nature
and our own surroundings now present us with the unintended
consequences of rationalisation. Indeed, McDonaldisation is one such
example, as the fast food industry now has a clear standardisation of
products, allowing for greater predictability on the part of the consumer
and people who produce it, allowing for creative efficiency and maximum
profits. Therefore, whilst Webers analysis of bureaucracy is thorough and
optimally efficient, bureaucracys dangers and impracticality in a liberal,
democratic and increasingly transparent and accountable world largely
outweigh its tremendous efficiency.

Aron, R. (n.d.). Main Currents in Sociological Thought 2: Durkheim, Pareto,
Collins, R. (1986). Weberian Sociological Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Downs, A. &. (1967). Inside bureaucracy. Boston: Little, Brown.
Mommsen, W. J. (1989). The Political and Social Theory of Max Weber.