The Problems of Bureaucracy: Contributing Factors

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  • 0:06 Bureaucracy
  • 0:47 Common Bureaucracy Problems
  • 4:09 Attempts at Reform
  • 5:35 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 examine some of the problems of bureaucracy, including red tape, conflict, duplication, imperialism, and waste. Then, we'll take a look at a few ways in which the government has attempted to solve these problems.


What's the first thing you think of when you hear the word 'bureaucracy'? Red tape? Waste? Inefficiency? Excess rules? Paper pushing? It's true that America's bureaucracy, the administrative organization that is supposed to help keep the government running smoothly and efficiently by implementing laws, administrating daily business, and writing rules and regulations, isn't perfect.

Let's face it; with over four million bureaucrats spread throughout the country, the system is bound to have some hang-ups. In this lesson, we're going to look at some of bureaucracy's problems and then examine a few ways in which our elected officials have attempted to solve them.

Common Bureaucracy Problems

Who better to explain the problems of bureaucracy than a bureaucrat? After all, he has first-hand experience. Just for fun, as our bureaucrat speaks about each problem, we'll wrap him up in some red tape. Our bureaucrat gulps but bravely plunges into his assigned task.

'Problem number one,' he says, ' tape.' In the old days, the government really did tie up official documents in red tape, which became a symbol of difficult access and gridlock. Today, red tape refers to the complex procedures and rules that bureaucrats follow in completing their tasks. They must be careful to fill out every little form, follow every little rule, dot all the Is and cross all the Ts, and make sure everything is just right. This can take a long time to do, and it creates a huge paper trail.

While such thoroughness helps make sure that things are done properly, it can also make even minor tasks seem daunting. Take, for example, the process of getting a home loan through a government agency. Applicants have to fill out pages and pages of forms, and the house in question must pass a myriad of inspections. The whole procedure can take months.

The bureaucrat, now with his arms stuck to his sides by red tape, flinches but continues. 'Problem two,' he explains, 'is conflict.' Sometimes the goals of various bureaucratic agencies just don't match up, and they end up working at cross purposes. For instance, one agricultural service helps farmers learn how to raise crops more efficiently, while another one actually wants to pay them to leave their fields empty.

Our bureaucrat winces as a piece of red tape wraps around his chest. 'Problem three,' he continues,' is duplication.' Sometimes government agencies seem to be doing the very same thing. Both the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Customs Service, for example, try to prevent illegal drug smuggling. There is always a chance that their agents will get in each others' way in the process.

A large piece of red tape winds around the bureaucrat's waist. 'Problem four,' he goes on with a grimace, 'is imperialism.' The bureaucracy is supposed to promote the good of society, but sometimes agencies just keep getting bigger and start to take on a life of their own. Then they become little empires with the tendency to rack up costs, pursue vague goals, and outlive their usefulness. In the late 1800s, for example, a government agency to regulate the use of horses and buggies would have been a good idea, but to avoid imperialism, it would have had to recognize its irrelevancy in the age of motor cars. Sometimes that doesn't happen in a bureaucracy.

The bureaucrat looks panicky as a piece of red tape snakes around his knees. 'Problem five,' he says, 'is waste.' Sometimes government agencies spend more than necessary to purchase services and products. We've all read the horror stories of the bureaucracy buying $300 hammers that would probably cost $9.99 at the local discount store and of agencies building bridges to nowhere. These things actually do happen sometimes. Red tape wraps around the bureaucrat's ankles, and he falls over with a thump.

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