Bureaucracy is a system of government in which power is divided among different departments and officials.
In theory, bureaucracy is supposed to make government more efficient by dividing up its work so that each department can specialize in a particular area. In practice, bureaucracy often leads to delays and red tape as decisions have to be made by a large number of officials.
One well-known example of bureaucracy is the United States federal government, which has dozens of different departments and agencies, each with its own area of responsibility.
Another example of a bureaucratic organization is the United Nations, which has a complex structure with many different organs and committees.
Bureaucracy Examples in Everyday Life
Universities are large institutions that become extremely bureaucratic as they grow.
Academics often complain about the amount of time spent on administrative and compliance tasks instead of teaching tasks (Forbes notes that up to 15% of an academic’s day is spent on administration).
Similarly, universities spend extraordinary amounts of money on marketing rather than instruction in order to get “bums on seats”.
The above-cited Forbes article notes that there are 2 administrative staff members for every 5 academic staff members, and administration accounts for 24% of a university’s total expenditure. This inflated administration is a result of bureaucratic leadership.
2. The Police Force
Police officers often have to deal with complex rules and regulations, which can lead to confusion and frustration. This is especially true when it comes to the use of force.
For example, police in the United Kingdom need to fill out a 10-page form every time they use force on a member of the public.
Police forces require bureaucracy, however, to implement checks and balances that can curtain police excesses. Given that the police force is the only civil organization that is allowed to exert violence as part of their job, and the extraordinary power they wield, there need to be extensive checks and balances.
3. Getting a Drivers License
Getting a driver’s license is an example of bureaucracy because there is a clear process that must be followed in order to get the license. You can’t just walk in and ask for the license. You need to get approval from various parts of the bureaucracy, including a driving tester and the payments department. This often takes a lot of time and requires paperwork.
4. Getting a Health Insurance Payment
If you have health insurance, you are likely familiar with bureaucracy. In order to get your insurance company to pay for something, you often need to get pre-authorization or go through a complicated claims process. This can be very frustrating, especially if you are sick or in pain. Many health insurance companies advertise the speed with which their claims process works because they are aware of the frustration customers have when putting in claims.
5. Applying for a Passport
Another example of bureaucracy can be seen when applying for a passport. You need to fill out forms, submit them to the correct department, and then wait for your application to be processed. You may also need to submit a range of documents as proof that you are who you say you are. This process can take weeks or even months, so it’s important to plan ahead if you need a passport for travel.
6. Starting a Business
There are a number of rules and regulations that you need to follow when starting a business. You often need to get approval from several different government agencies such as the department of labour (for hiring people according to the law) and the department of trade (for ensuring your products are compliant with the law). This process can be very bureaucratic and it can take a long time to get everything in order. It can also take up a lot of money which acts as a barrier to entry for entrepreneurs.
7. Buying a House
Buying a house is another process that can be slowed down by bureaucracy. In order to buy a house, you need to get approval from the bank, which needs to follow a range of rules set out by the government. You will need to provide a lot of paperwork, such as proof of income and identification. Similarly, the local government may require you to go through red tape like getting building permits before you can start construction.
8. The Postal Service
The postal service has a complex system with many different levels, each with its own set of rules and regulations. This often leads to delays in mail delivery as letters have to go through multiple processing centers where, each step along the way, there are requirements restricting whether the post will get to you. There may be taxes and border tariffs you need to pay as well as checks on the mail to ensure it complies with regulations around weight and what is allowed to be posted (versus what isn’t!)
9. Local Government
The local government is a great example of bureaucracy in action. In order to get something done, such as getting a parking permit or building a new house, you need to go through various processes and fill out paperwork that the local government assesses.
For example, to build a new shed on your property, the local government will need to run assessments such as whether it has appropriate drainage, the quality of the building materials, electrical compliance, and even checks on whether it’s being built on sensitive native land.
This can be very frustrating and it often takes a long time to get the approvals you need. The local government is also responsible for enforcing rules and regulations around zoning, parking, loitering, and so on.
10. The Tax Agency (in the US it is the IRS)
The IRS is a classic example of bureaucracy. There are many different regulations that must be followed in order for the IRS to process your tax return. Furthermore, it has checks and balances run by various departments, such as tax audits for businesses and individuals.
For many people, this bureaucracy is seen as an enormous waste of money – all so the government can collect money off you which they end up wasting in other bureaucratic endeavors. For others, it’s a necessary evil in order to see society operate smoothly, get roads built, and ensure schools are running.
11. The Military
Militaries are some of the largest bureaucracies in the world. Following the United States government, China’s People’s Liberation Army is the world’s 2nd largest bureaucracy. It has 2.3 million employees.
A military is a great example of a bureaucracy because it’s so hierarchical, regulated, and formalized in its structure. For example, in the United States military, there are different ranks (enlisted, officers, and generals), each with their own set of rules and regulations. Promotions within the military are often based on a system of seniority and tenure, rather than merit. This can often lead to stagnation and a lack of innovation.
12. The Social Security Administration
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is a United States federal government agency that administers social security programs such as retirement, disability, and survivors benefits.
It is a great example of bureaucracy because it is so large and has many different rules and regulations that need to be followed.
For example, in order to get disability benefits from the SSA, you need to provide paperwork, such as proof of disability, your work history, and medical records. The SSA also has a very strict approval process, which often leads to long wait times for benefits.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a United States government agency that provides emergency management and disaster relief services.
In order to get help from FEMA after a natural disaster, you need to go through step, such as registering for assistance and providing documentation. FEMA also has a very strict approval process, which often leads to long wait times for help.
14. The NHS
The National Health Service (NHS) is a publicly funded healthcare system in the United Kingdom. It employs over 1.5 million people, making it one of the world’s largest employers.
While the NHS is free at the point of delivery, this doesn’t mean it isn’t a bureaucratic beast. For example, in order to get treatment from the NHS, you need to have a valid National Insurance number and be registered with a general practitioner. The NHS also has a very strict approval process for surgeries, which often leads to long wait times for treatment.
15. Private Health Insurance
Despite public healthcare systems like the NHS being bureaucratic, private health insurers are no better.
In fact, many advocates for government-funded healthcare argue that it is less bureaucratic. If everyone is guaranteed healthcare then several parts of the private insurance bureaucracy would be made redundant. These include:
- Advertising and marketing departments – If everyone is covered by the government, there will be no need for advertising departments and budgets.
- Eligibility assessments – Insurers won’t need to assess the eligibility of each claim.
16. Car Insurance
Similarly, car insurance has piles of bureaucratic issues when you make a claim.
Obtaining car insurance is usually relatively easy. You need to provide proof of your driving record, the make and model of your car, and your address. You also need to have a valid driver’s license.
But when you get into a car crash, the insurance company will often need to conduct an investigation. This can involve sending out an insurance adjuster to assess the damage to both cars and interviewing witnesses. The process of filing a claim can be very long and frustrating.
17. The United Nations
The United Nations is an international organization that was created in 1945 after World War II. It consists of member states, which are countries that have agreed to the organization’s charter. The UN’s primary purpose is to maintain international peace and security, but it also has a range of other goals, including promoting human rights, providing humanitarian aid, and supporting sustainable development.
The UN can be considered a bureaucracy because it has a complex structure, with many different departments and rules that need to be followed. UN departments include the Security Council, the General Assembly, and the Secretariat.
Typical of a bureaucracy, the UN is very expensive to run. Its annual budget is over $3.12 billion and has over 40,000 employees.
18. Human Resources Departments
Human resources departments are a staple of any large organization, and they are often considered to be a bureaucratic nightmare.
HR departments are responsible for hiring and firing employees, managing benefits and payroll, and ensuring that employees are following company policies. They also need to deal with employee complaints and handling disciplinary procedures.
All of this can lead to a lot of paperwork and red tape. HR departments can be slow to make decisions, and they often have strict guidelines that need to be followed. As a result, they can be frustrating to deal with.
19. Large Businesses and Corporations
Large businesses and corporations often end up becoming bureaucratic in order to control and manage the extensive workloads and moving parts involved in their operations.
But this can lead to delays in decision-making and frustration for employees and customers.
In fact, smaller businesses often have the advantage of agility: with less bureaucracy, they can make faster decisions, pivot to new markets, and undercut their larger more bloated competitors.
Features of a Bureaucracy
According to Weber’s bureaucratic theory, bureaucracy is characterized by a number of features, including:
-A hierarchical structure: There is a clear chain of command, and each level of the hierarchy has a specific area of responsibility.
-Division of labor: Work is divided up among different departments and officials so that each person has a specific area of expertise.
-Written rules and regulations: There are clear rules and procedures that must be followed.
-formalized decision-making: decisions are made according to established procedures, and there is little room for personal discretion.
Advantages of Bureaucracy
The main advantage of bureaucracy is that it provides a way for large organizations to run despite their complexity and size. By dividing up work and establishing clear rules, bureaucracies can handle a lot of work with a minimum of confusion.
Another advantage of bureaucracy is that it provides stability. Because decision-making is formalized and there is a clear chain of command, it is difficult for one person to make sudden, drastic changes.
This can be a good thing because it prevents one person from messing everything up, but also is bad because it prevents or slows down people from initiating changes that may be required.
Disadvantages of Bureaucracy
The main disadvantage of bureaucracy is that it can be very slow and inflexible. Because there are so many levels of hierarchy and so many rules and regulations, it can take a long time to get anything done.
Another disadvantage of bureaucracy is that it can lead to frustration and stagnation. By emphasizing rules over people, bureaucracies can stifle creativity and innovation.
Finally, bureaucracy can be expensive. The division of labor results in a lot of specialized personnel, which can lead to high overhead costs.
Bureaucracy is not without its disadvantages, but it does provide some advantages that are worth considering. It is important to remember that bureaucracy is not perfect, and there are always trade-offs to be made. Common examples of bureaucracy include government agencies, large corporations, and the military. Each of these organizations has a hierarchical structure, division of labor, written rules and regulations, and formalized decision-making. In addition, each of these organizations can be expensive to operate because of the need for specialized personnel.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.