European Bureaucracy: Definition and Presence in European Governments

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  • 0:05 Bureaucracy
  • 0:42 Definition
  • 3:03 Bureaucracy in Europe
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore what a bureaucracy is today, including its idealized version and the problems it often encounters. In addition, we explore the nature of EU bureaucracy.


When was the last time you had to get your driver's license renewed? Chances are you had to go to the DMV or Secretary of State's office, take a number, and wait in a long line to be served. While the waiting was surely monotonous, it was also likely orderly; everyone waited patiently for their number to be called and then had their service or problem resolved. Believe it or not, that mundane activity of your life was your interaction with just one of the many government offices and departments all collectively referred to as the bureaucracy. In this lesson, we will define exactly what bureaucracy means today and its presence in Europe.


The term 'bureaucracy' generally refers to the various departments, agencies, and organizations that conduct the government's business and provide government services to the citizens of said government. The bulk of bureaucratic organizations tend to be made up of unelected officials.

The great champion of bureaucracy, the German philosopher and sociologist Max Weber, claimed that bureaucracy was the most effective way to run a government. As a result, he created an idealized vision of bureaucracy, which most bureaucratic organizations strive to achieve today.

According to Weber, bureaucracies must be based on impersonal authority so as to avoid possible favoritism in the providing of services. Furthermore, bureaucracies must be structured rationally, with a defined hierarchy with various jobs, which are specialized. The bureaucrats, which occupy these positions, must be compensated through a salaried contract so as to ensure they are impartial and not motivated to do better or worse work by fluctuating pay. Finally, the bureaucratic structure must exist outside of its workers' personal lives - bureaucrats work at the bureaucracy, but its impartiality does not constrict the private lives of the bureaucrats themselves.

Most modern bureaucracies are based on this ideal. However, this idealized bureaucracy - what should be a model of efficient government - is not necessarily present in reality. While certain organizations and departments in certain governments have better reputations than others, 'bureaucracy' has become a bit of a dirty word in modern parlance. This has occurred largely due to public opinion being turned against bureaucracy by activists that advocate smaller government and also the inability of modern government to reach that idealized form of bureaucracy.

Some problems modern bureaucracies face are often related to time and size. For example, the decision-making process in a bureaucracy is often highly hierarchical, with each decision or document requiring the approval of multiple layers of management, making the organization slow to react and generally viewed as inflexible. Furthermore, as bureaucratic departments become larger, this same process becomes even tougher. Other constraints, like the need for an impartial message, also bog down bureaucratic documents, which are proofread and revised multiple times.

Bureaucracy in Europe

Though bureaucracies have their problems, they are also essential to the governance of any nation. After all, someone has to write laws, draft news releases, repair roads - all of the countless tasks governments perform. The European Union, Europe's 28-member nation, supranational organization, is no different. The European bureaucracy often has similar complaints leveled at it as the ones previously discussed. In reality, however, the European bureaucracy is far smaller than most of its detractors realize.

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