Maybe it is time to rediscover bureaucracy?

What is the relevance of bureaucratic organization to the studies of democratic governance today? With Max Weber as point of departure, this paper discusses the fruitfulness of bureaucracy to political analysis. With regards to empirics, furthermore, the paper argues that bureaucracy as method of governance is far more viable than the market and network paradigms suggest.

ARENA Working Paper 10/2005 (pdf)

Johan P. Olsen

The paper questions the fashionable ideas, that bureaucratic organization is an obsolescent, undesirable and non-viable form of administration, and that there is an inevitable and irreversible paradigmatic shift towards market- or network organization. In contrast, the paper argues that contemporary democracies are involved in another round in a perennial debate and ideological struggle over what are desirable forms of administration and government, that is, a struggle over institutional identities and institutional balances.

The argument is not that bureaucratic organization is a panacea and the answer to all challenges of public administration. Rather, bureaucratic organization is part of a repertoire of overlapping, supplementary and competing forms co-existing in contemporary democracies, and so are market-organization and network-organization.

Rediscovering Weber’s analysis of bureaucratic organization, then, enriches our understanding of public administration. This is in particular true when we (a) include bureaucracy as an institution, and not only an instrument; (b) look at the empirical studies in their time and context, and not only at Weber’s ideal-types and predictions; and (c) take into account the political and normative order bureaucracy is part of, and not only the internal characteristics of “the bureau”.

This paper has later been published in Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 16 (1): 1-24, 2006.

Tags: governance, public administration, neo-institutionalism
Published Nov. 9, 2010 10:52 AM