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What Is the Bureaucracy? - Role, Structure & Characteristics

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  • 0:03 Bureaucracy Defined
  • 2:01 Functions of the Bureaucracy
  • 4:08 The Face of the Bureaucracy
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study the American bureaucracy. We will explore its nature and characteristics, examine its role and functions, and take a close look at its human face.

Bureaucracy Defined

Buzz, buzz, buzz. Look at all the busy little bees, working hard to keep everything in the hive running smoothly and efficiently. They actually have much in common with the American government's bureaucracy. The word 'bureaucracy' literally means 'government with a small desk,' and it originated in France with reference to the little desks used by the king's officials as they went about the king's business. Today a bureaucracy is a large administrative organization that handles the day-to-day business of a government or society. Here in America, the government's bureaucracy operates on national, state, and local levels.

Bureaucracies have four key characteristics that make their resemblance to beehives all the more apparent.

  • A clear hierarchy - Bureaucracies have a firm chain of command. Every worker has his or her own place in the chain, and everyone's work is overseen by someone on the next level up. Power flows down from the top of the hierarchy and diminishes as it approaches the bottom. Just think of the beehive. The queen bee stands at the top, and each worker bee or drone has its own place in the hive's chain of command.

  • Specialization - Everyone in a bureaucracy has a specific job to do and often becomes an expert at it. Bees have specific jobs, too, collecting pollen, making honey, or populating the hive.

  • A division of labor - In a bureaucracy, nearly every task is broken down into its component parts, and different people work on different parts of the task. Together they get the job done, just like bees in a hive who divide their labor for maximum efficiency.

  • A set of formal rules - These so-called standard operating procedures are the clear, written instructions for each specialized job at every level of the hierarchy. Workers who follow them can be sure that they are on the same page as their colleagues and are doing their jobs properly. According to beekeepers, bees, too, have a sophisticated system of communication that keeps their hives running smoothly.

Functions of the Bureaucracy

America's bureaucracy performs three primary functions to help keep the governmental beehive buzzing along.

1. The bureaucracy implements the laws and policies made by elected officials.

These laws and policies need to be put into practice in specific situations and applied in all the contingencies of daily life. For example, a city council has decided that all dog owners must have their pets licensed and microchipped, but the city council members don't have the time to make sure that their decision is carried out. City workers, members of the city's bureaucracy, are the ones who answer questions and complaints about the law, help dog owners fill out the proper forms, decide when to waive the license fee, refer owners to veterinarians who can insert the microchips, work with the vets to hand out coupons for discounts on microchips, and enforce the law to make sure that all dog owners have their animals licensed and microchipped in a reasonable amount of time.

2. The bureaucracy provides necessary administrative functions, like conducting examinations, issuing permits and licenses, and collecting fees.

Essentially, it handles the paperwork of everyday government operations. Anyone who has a driver's license has come face-to-face with bureaucratic administration through the required written and behind-the-wheel exams, learning permits, fees at all stages, and finally applying for and receiving the driver's license itself.

3. The bureaucracy regulates various government activities.

In other words, it creates the rules and regulations that clarify how various laws work on a daily basis. For instance, the bureaucracy is responsible for writing rules and regulations for public schools, including curriculum standards, examination procedures, discipline methods, teacher training and licensing requirements, and administrative policies. Schoolchildren feel the effects of these regulations when they work on their assignments or take standardized tests. Teachers use them to design class work and assessments. Principals and school boards must follow them when applying for funding or setting policies for their own schools and districts.

The Face of Bureaucracy

The bureaucracy can seem harsh and faceless to many Americans, who often get fed up with its strict rules and time-consuming procedures, but in fact, most bureaucrats, people who work in the bureaucracy, are simply their neighbors and fellow citizens. Who are all these busy bee bureaucrats who implement, administer, and regulate citizens' interaction with the government? A few interesting facts will introduce us to them.

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