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Writing room, Germany, Julius Bernhard von Rohr (1719)

Bureaucracy ("rule of administration") is the performance of administrative activities within the framework of defined competencies within a fixed hierarchy .

Excessive bureaucracy is referred to as bureaucratism : a bureaucratically excessive orientation towards action that places regulation above people and largely treats them as objects. In colloquial terms , bureaucracy and bureaucracy are often used synonymously . Another phenomenon is the tendency towards bureaucratic growth , also known as “bureaucratization”.

Bureaucratic structures and procedures exist not only in public administration, but also in private companies, churches and non-profit organizations. In the broadest everyday language sense, the term encompasses all non-private activities involved in paperwork and paperwork, the scope of which has increased worldwide since the 1940s and is now decreasing again slightly.

Word origin and connotation

The term bureaucracy ( French bureaucratie ) was coined by the French Vincent de Gournay (1712 to 1759) and shortly thereafter adopted into German. The made-up word is composed of bureau and the French suffix -cratie , which was formed from the ancient Greek -κράτεια / -κρατία -krateia / -kratia to κράτος krátos "rule, violence, power". The origin of the word office (or French bureau " desk , study ") is the late Latin word burra , meaning "coarse wool, shaggy clothing ". (This word later referred to the fabric used to cover desks. After that, it was applied to the desk itself and ultimately also transferred to the place where the desk is located.) Literally, bureaucracy means “rule of administration”, where the The office as a metonymy represents the administration that takes place there.

Although some researchers (including Max Weber ) use “bureaucracy” as a neutral term for a sociological phenomenon (cf. administrative culture ), the word is practically exclusively negative in common parlance. The economist Ludwig von Mises wrote about this as early as 1944:

“The terms bureaucrat , bureaucratic and bureaucracy are clearly abuse. Nobody calls themselves a bureaucrat or their own business methods bureaucratic. These words are always used with a dishonorable undertone. "

Definition according to Meyers Konversationslexikon from 1894

In 1894, Meyers Konversationslexikon defined “bureaucratism” as follows: “Büreaukratie (French-Greek,“ clerkship ”), a term for a short-sighted and narrow-minded civil servant economy that lacks understanding of the practical needs of the people. Such a civil service and its relatives are also called office lucrations. The bottom line of office lucracy is absolutism . The bureaucratic regiment marks the time of the police state , the police patronizing the people during the 19th century. The establishment of the constitutional form of government, the free right of association and assembly, the importance of the press for the public discussion of state affairs, the recognition of the right of self-government of the municipalities and higher municipal associations are factors which exclude a bureaucratic regime in the present. The terms bureaucratic and bureaucratic are also used as synonymous with the term 'bureaucratic system'. "

Bureaucracy at Max Weber

The sociologist Max Weber has described and analyzed it as the “rational” form of “ legal rule ”, also for companies . His bureaucratic theory (also known as the bureaucratic approach) is one of the classic organizational theories and is treated by Weber in his work Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, published posthumously in 1922, as a manifestation of the rationalization process.

Weber sees the authority with a professional administrative staff as the ideal type of bureaucracy . The legitimation of bureaucratic (legal) rule lies in the rational competence of the superior, not in their traditional competence (as e.g. in the case of inheritance in a monarchy ). His third type of rule, the “charismatic rule”, ideally gets by without bureaucracy. However, all three forms of rule are forms of “legitimate power ”. In contrast to traditional and charismatic rule, the bureaucracy prevents the preferential treatment or disadvantage of individuals in the form of arbitrary decisions because everyone has to adhere to the same and rationally based rules of the game or laws (a set order). Weber's concept of bureaucracy is therefore a positive one. In the strict sense, according to Weber, a B. Administration based on purely political considerations (such as the “ cadre administration ” in the former Soviet system) no “bureaucracy” at all. Also, election officials , as they are in most German states at the forefront of authorities such as district offices and local governments, are not compatible with Weber's bureaucracy understanding.

Max Weber defined the following bureaucratic features, among others:

  • Separation of office and person
  • Rule compliance
  • "Impersonality" or neutrality of administrative action
  • Hierarchy principle
  • Written form and records of the administration
  • Division of labor and professionalism

Newer bureaucracy theories

Peter Blau subjected Weber's thesis that the bureaucracy works mechanically to an empirical test and came to the conclusion that real organizations cannot function without informal channels of interaction and socio-emotional exchange between their members. He also examined the processes of functional and vertical differentiation of organizations with increasing size, which are associated with an increase in pure coordination work.

One of the most influential books on bureaucracy and management was The Organization Man by William H. Whyte (1956). Whyte argues that the poverty widespread in the United States as a result of the Great Depression in the 1930s and the military drill of many people during the Second World War promoted the willingness to conform : They saw large corporations as a source of permanent employment, prosperity and security and readily allowed themselves to be incorporated into bureaucracies. Therefore, he predicted that society would be dominated by large bureaucratic organizations in the future and criticized the resulting loss of individuality and creativity. He also observed that this system resulted in the development of risk-averse managers who would remain in their positions for life if they did not make blatant mistakes.

Niklas Luhmann criticized Weber's concept of bureaucracy: bureaucratic rationality is not a result of the purposeful action of individuals, in particular not an instrument of the “organizational masters”, and also not an expression of a general “rationalism of world domination”, but a mechanism of separation required by the complexity of the social system social and personal systems with the aim of absorbing uncertainty and coping with contingency .


The beginnings of the bureaucratically organized administrative system can most likely be traced back to the era of absolutism , when France was transformed into a tightly centralized nation state . The focus was clearly on the administration and increase of the assets of the royal family (= state). Similar developments can also be observed within the German territorial states of the absolutist epoch, whereby cameralistic bookkeeping emerged in the princely asset management . At the same time, the legal discipline of administrative law was created . The administrative history in England took a different course, where internal administrative activity was limited to a few functions of the night watchman state before and relatively long after industrialization ; only the protection of traffic to the outside required some bureaucratic facilities.

A reform of the bureaucratic system - not yet called bureaucratic at the time - took place in Prussia under Stein and Hardenberg at the beginning of the 19th century . The improved efficiency of the resulting administration resulted in widespread adoption in many states.

Fundamental changes in administrative management could only be observed from the middle of the 20th century. On the basis of ever new government functions in the course of establishing one of the social research supported power management was believed planning by forecasting government action and to guide the conduct of citizens rational. This led to what is known as “planning euphoria” in the 1960s and 1970s. It led to a large swell in administration and regulation. Countermeasures only began in the 1980s; far-reaching reforms were not implemented in Germany.

In England and the USA, however, a reform movement known as neoliberalism began to develop in the late 1970s . Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan , the concept of the lean state was partially implemented. The state is limited in its tasks and services previously provided by the state are privatized with the intention that the market takes over the regulation of society instead of the state.

In Germany, newer reform movements began in the 1990s. In addition to a large number of privatizations - mostly initiated by the European Union - the new control model was developed on the basis of New Public Management . This combines a large number of reform ideas such as the administration as a service provider and the concept of bureaucratic procedures as a service process with new accounting methods and the privatization of services that are increasingly to be provided by private hands.

Since the end of the 1990s, e-government has also been discussed more and more. With the help of the Internet and electronic data processing , the effort of bureaucratic regulation for companies and citizens should be reduced. At the same time, eDemocracy is also playing an increasingly important role in making citizens more involved in the legislative process. Here a fundamental problem of legislation and thus of bureaucracy itself is to be solved. Through lobbying, individual interest groups have so far been able to enforce regulations and laws that were disadvantageous for the majority of those affected, but had positive effects for the small group of lobby workers (e.g. the economy, but also individual parts of the administration itself). The large number of unnecessary regulations is often attributed to this. It is hoped that more meaningful regulations will result from a broader involvement of those affected.

Trust in the bureaucracy of public administration varies greatly across Europe. The Habsburg effect describes recently scientifically - statistically reliable - proven connections to Eastern Europe between the former Habsburg area and people living there today and their lower propensity for bribery or greater trust in local administration, police and jurisdiction compared to people on the other side of the former Border.

Advantages and disadvantages


(e.g. after Max Weber)

  • Bureaucracy is an instrument of the rational exercise of power. (According to Max Weber, this is the basis of their main advantages over irrational, often only habitual action, but on the other hand also their weakness compared to statesmanlike mastery of pressing problems).
  • Justice: Bureaucratic structures protect against the arbitrary exercise of state power by being bound by general laws. Anyone who violates this will be held responsible.
  • Relief: On the other hand, acting according to given rules eases the responsibility of the individual bureaucrat.
  • Neutrality: As a rule, bureaucracy treats everyone equally and is neutral as an administrative order.
  • Security: Bureaucratic regulations provide safe and reliable regulations for many areas of life and thus serve e.g. B. the prevention of accidents, illnesses and other damages.
  • Rationalization: recurring problems are solved according to a ready-made scheme. So not every problem has to be solved every time. On the other hand, bureaucratic decisions often do not do justice to the particularities of the individual cases.
  • Efficiency: Hierarchical structures with a division of labor according to responsibilities lead to an efficient work organization: everyone decides what they can and may do (what they are "competent" for). The use of tried and tested ways of thinking and techniques also increases efficiency.
  • Stability and continuity: Bureaucratic structures and procedures are not changed abruptly and are therefore stable and reliable.
  • Balance / conscientiousness: Bureaucratic decisions are weighed up and thought through so that hastiness does not lead to wrong decisions.
  • Data collection: Bureaucratic forms are used to collect information that can be used by the administration for statistics and planning.


The disadvantages of bureaucratisation are not only evident in the state, but also in industry and other social organizations. In the state and supranational (especially in European law) area, risks lie in excessive legalization and the associated “bureaucratization” of life. There are obvious reasons for this: In a constitutional state , the administration must not violate the law ( primacy of the law ) and not intervene in the rights of the individual without a legal basis ( reservation of the law ). This leads to the foundations and limits of bureaucratic action by laws, i. H. through general regulations. However, individual justice often suffers under general norms: Because general norms do not adequately grasp the diversity of life, as Plato and Aristotle already pointed out in a way that is still valid today. In order to take into account the diversity of life, a constitutional state has many exceptional and special rules for state action and an increasingly complex system of legal provisions. But even this excess of legal regulations cannot in principle be appropriate to the diversity of the individual cases. In particular, measured against the actual administrative purpose, it can require a disproportionately high expenditure of costs, time and effort at the expense of quick and simple action. In addition, many citizens do not have the necessary overview of the set of norms; this can also lead to inequality of treatment between those who find their way through the system of regulations and those who cannot. All of this fits into Max Horkheimer's picture of a world in which the “instrumental” is prevalent.

One way out could be to decentralize decision-making powers to a large extent , while at the same time strictly adhering to the subsidiarity principle and ensuring an administrative culture that allows the administration to be granted reasonable discretion so that it can do justice to the specific situations. In this way one can create manageable areas of life and functions, thereby strengthening the democratic participation of citizens in the political system and humanizing it as a whole.

Deficiencies in the bureaucratic system also arise when tactical considerations and power play a role in administrative reforms , especially when the authorities called upon to reform are themselves affected by the reform. All of this can lead to bureaucratic structures that contradict a democratic understanding according to which the administration should serve the citizens.

From an administrative perspective it can also be criticized that the prevailing negative coordination logic can lead to suboptimal decisions. In addition, due to the strongly pronounced principle of local jurisdiction, negative external effects of administrative actions must be considered. Furthermore, with a view to the legislative procedure, the information asymmetry between bureaucratic experts and politicians as generalists can be classified as potentially dangerous from a democratic theoretical perspective.


The catchphrase reduction of bureaucracy is found more often in politics and business. What is usually meant is a dismantling of regulations and laws, but also increased transparency of official actions.

Dismantling of regulations

It is hoped that the reduction in bureaucracy will result in greater flexibility. In companies (and to some extent also in public authorities) there are increasing attempts to set goals in place of rules. A part of the company is no longer controlled by specifying processes, but by specifying goals. The subsidiary is free to choose the way to achieve its goals.

In politics, however, this is far more difficult to implement. In addition, the goal of reducing bureaucracy is largely shared, but in individual cases it is mostly controversial. For example, the dismantling of safety regulations in chemistry would benefit the economy, but could have health disadvantages for the population.

An opposite goal is partly pursued in countries of the so-called Third World. Since the lack of legal regulations so far has resulted in a lack of legal certainty , “bureaucratisation” is required here.


Many tasks of the bureaucracy often occur in little changed form or repeatedly with little changes. Modern information technology can provide the support with which standard processes can be carried out quickly, without errors and with little effort. The cameralistics of today's public administrations does not allow a quick investment in appropriate support, or only hesitantly. It is a constant annoyance for the citizens to have to experience that the public administration has all options to use such support, but in great indolence hardly meets the requirement of a high-performance service.

Situation in individual countries


In October 2007, statistically well-founded figures on the bureaucratic burden on German companies due to federal laws were made public. The Federal Statistical Office put the bureaucracy costs caused by these laws at € 31.2 billion. A surcharge for average "overhead costs" based on empirical data from other EU countries increases the total cost burden for German companies to around € 39 billion annually. Added to this are the costs that have not yet been quantified by the states and municipalities. The bureaucratic costs for citizens are not included in these figures. The bureaucratic burden is caused by around 90,000 regulations that German entrepreneurs must comply with and observe. At the federal level alone there are currently 1,800 individual laws with more than 55,000 individual standards; in addition, 2,728 ordinances comprise around 40,000 individual provisions.


Italy is considered a very bureaucratic country :

“An ubiquitous, almost omnipotent bureaucracy is the scourge of Bella Italia. Citizens spend tens of thousands of hours in the queues in front of counters and offices, be it in the town hall or at the post office. Infinite hours of work are lost unproductively. The hassle and fees stifle many economic initiatives. Loss of productivity and growth, high unemployment, especially among young Italians, are the price of the madness of bureaucracy. Everything has to be registered, notified, notarized and of course paid for. […] The furniture giant Ikea recently [canceled] its plan to open another furniture store near Pisa and thus create around 350 jobs en passant. Six years of waiting for a permit was simply too much for the Scandinavians. And because many foreign entrepreneurs and managers have similarly little patience, the proportion of foreign investments in Italy is only half as high as the average for the euro countries. "

The inhabitants of northern Italy were able to experience various bureaucratic administrative models as part of the border changes in the 19th and 20th centuries. The representatives of the Italian state with its historically grown Neapolitan-Sardinian roots turned out to be “even more strange than the old Habsburg-Austrian bureaucrats” in terms of their psychology and their professional approach. Seen from the stereotype, the Habsburg official was conservative, inflexible and obedient to authority, but hardly bribable. With the arrival of Italy, matters increased where bribery was necessary and possible. Italian officials were said to have split hairs, carelessly and absent from work. Even unclearly formulated Italian laws and the slowness of the magistracy were experienced as a "shock" by the new Italian subjects. In contrast, for Habsburg officials, a backlog in filing was a personal disgrace.

The centrally organized Italian state apparatus paid little attention to local interests and its lack of understanding of the specifics of the individual regions (Veneto, Trieste, Gorizia, Friuli, Istria) was described as “prepotency coupled with administrative incompetence”. Soon after 1918, the former decentralized Habsburg administration was praised even by former irredentists. According to the Italian writer Paolo Rumiz , 40,000 efficient Habsburg bureaucrats were replaced by incompetent Italian administrations within two years from 1918 onwards.

Bureaucracy in literature and satire

Charles Dickens satirized in his novel Little Dorrit (written 1855 to 1857) the bureaucracy in his description of the Circumlocution Office ("Amt für Umschweife"). In it he criticizes the habit of dealing with everything and filling out lots of forms, but being unable to achieve anything under the circumstances and thereby inhibiting any progress.

In connection with the introduction of the internal mail envelope for communication within the authorities, there is a satire in the staff magazine of the University of Cologne about the inability to handle this office material appropriately.

At Asterix and Obelix, the A38 pass appears as an example of excessive bureaucracy.

Reinhard Mey satirized the German bureaucracy with his song “An application for issuing an application form” in 1977 in an appealing form to this day.

The unfinished novel Das Schloss by Franz Kafka is about a surveyor and his problems of bureaucratic administration.

See also


Web links

Wiktionary: Bureaucracy  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Graeber 2016, p. 9.
  2. cit. n. Peter D. Forgacs: The extradited officer. About the nature of state administration . Böhlau Verlag, Vienna 2016, ISBN 978-3-205-20099-4 , p. 15.
  3. ^ Peter Blau: Dynamics of Bureaucracy. Chicago 1955; ders .: Bureaucracy in Modern Society. New York 1956.
  4. ^ William H. Whyte: The Organization Man. New York, Simon & Schuster 1956. ISBN 978-0-671-54330-3 .
  5. ^ Luhmann, Niklas: Purpose - Rule - System: Basic Concepts and Premises of Max Weber. In: Renate Mayntz (ed.): Bureaucratic organization. Berlin 1968, pp. 36-55; ders .: Concept of purpose and system rationality. Tubingen 1968.
  6. P. Keller: History of Dogmas of Interventionism in Prosperity Policy , 1955
  7. ^ HG Schachtschabel: History of economic doctrines , 1971.
  8. The Habsburg Effect. How the lost empire still shapes the relationship between citizens and their state institutions today
  9. ^ Bureaucracy with Max Weber: Summary and excerpts from the text
  10. Reinhold Zippelius , Allgemeine Staatslehre , 17th edition, 2017. Section 37.
  11. Zippelius, Allgemeine Staatslehre , 17th edition, § 37 II 5.
  12. Reinhold Zippelius, History of State Ideas , 10th edition, 2003, chap. 2 c, 3 d.
  13. Reinhold Zippelius, Philosophy of Law , 6th edition, §§ 23 III, 30 III.
  14. Reinhold Zippelius, Basic Concepts of Legal and State Sociology , 3rd edition, 2012, §§ 2 I, 16 V.
  15. Zippelius, Allgemeine Staatslehre , 17th edition, §§ 3 III 3; 23 III 2; 31 I 1; 38 IV 1.
  16. Zippelius, Allgemeine Staatslehre , 17th edition, §§ 17 I 3, 23 III 2.
  17. ^ Zippelius, Allgemeine Staatslehre , 17th edition, § 30 III 2.
  18. Strategic Personnel Management ( Memento from January 12, 2012 in the Internet Archive )
  19. Extended Cameralistics ( Memento from January 31, 2012 in the Internet Archive ) (PDF; 241 kB)
  20. Cooperative process management ( Memento from July 14, 2014 in the Internet Archive )
  21. http://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/0,1518,513157,00.html , article from October 23, 2007 at Spiegel Online.
  22. Billions of dollars for the economy , article from October 24, 2007 in Focus.
  23. ^ Hans-Jürgen Schlamp in spiegel.de August 22, 2011: Bureaucracy madness in Italy. - Scusi! Unfortunately you are wrong here
  24. Riccardo Valsecchi: Autonomy in the genetic material , in taz , May 16, 2014.
  25. Little Dorrit - Chapter 10 - Charles Dickens .
  26. Mituns from Sept. 2001 (p. 16) in- house mail Cologne online: Accessed October 30, 2014 .