Bureaucracy as an Element of a Political Life

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This essay examines the role of the Bureaucracy and attempts to determine whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages of its power over Assemblies and Executives. To fully examine this relationship we must first have a clear definition of the Bureaucracy. Broken down, it can be accepted as “administrative staff with organized careers and pensions, appointed to office and rewarded based on formal education, merit, and tenure.” (Olsen, 2006) equally many understand it as a hierarchical system, specialised with a clear division of labour and an impersonal approach. At the core, the Bureaucracy is composed of the advantages of educated advisors and a system run by rules. This concrete foundation allows for an advantageous exertion of power over Assemblies and Executives, allowing the government to be more efficient. However, this essay will also investigate the disadvantages that can result from this relationship, such as the Bureaucracy implementing its own interests and its non-representative power. These disadvantages have the potential for the Bureaucracy to challenge the ideology of democracy and become misaligned with the people it serves. In this essay, I argue that to function successfully, the Bureaucracy must lie between efficiency and non-oppression. If such a Bureaucracy exists, then its power over the assembly and executives is advantageous to the political system and society and outweighs the disguised disadvantages.

It is important to keep in mind that the degree of these advantages and disadvantages vary greatly between countries, reflecting the stability of their political systems. Bureaucracies face problems such as impacts of an overly centralized government in the case of Russia and Bulgaria’s history or the inability to meet high demands from citizens in developing countries such as India. Additionally, the power of the Bureaucracy varies depending on the structure of the political system such as the USA’s presidential system. For the purpose of this essay, I will examine the theoretical framework of the parliamentary approach of non-elected government officials rather than empirical case specific examples.

The First Advantage: Educated advisors

Heywood (2013) states that ‘The political significance of the Bureaucracy stems largely from its role as the chief source of the policy information and advice available to the government.” This is an advantage to elected officials as Bureaucracies act as specialised advisors. Members of this system are hired in terms of their academic education and experience in their field. Politicians must cover a broad range of knowledge from housing to defense, as well as a level of charisma, therefore they can generally “lack managerial expertise and technical skills” (Krasner, 1972). In contrast, the Bureaucracy can hone their knowledge to serve specific departments and ministries with particular policy areas. This knowledge is used to advise Executives on the analysed policy proposals and impacts relative to their field. This allows politicians to delegate jobs in order to deal with the pressing concerns of voters.

Often Assemblies grant Executives near-dictatorial rights or ‘emergency power’ in times of civil uncertainty, natural disasters or during war. While these positions allow for such a crisis response, the bureaucracy ensures that ordinary legislation is upheld. Contrary to Weber’s (1904–5) idea that ‘bureaucrats are simply cogs in a machine”, completing mundane administrative tasks – which at times may be true for lower ranking civil servants; top-level actors ‘have daily contact with politicians and are expected to act as policy advisers’ (Heywood, 2013) – This bureaucratic control and the degree to which politicians are subordinate to it is a reminder to all that knowledge is power. Heywood (2013) suggests that Assemblies and Executives are “political masters and appointed bureaucrats are loyal subordinates.” However, let it not be forgotten that political decisions are made from the advice that the Bureaucracy provides. Blom-Hansen (2018) states that it is widely acknowledged that the “bureaucratic expertise constitutes power that can be used to influence the political agenda” – This expresses the strong agenda setting power of the Bureaucracy, one of Luke’s three faces of power. This control should not be undermined as they supply information to elected officials and influence their decisions.

The Second Advantage: A System Run by Rules

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The efficiency of this educated workforce is enhanced by a second advantage, a system run by rules. According to Max Weber, bureaucracy is a “reliable, predictable and, above all, efficient means of social organization.’ (Heywood, 2013). This disciplined hierarchy reaches decisions based on rules, encouraging its function as an institution. This reduces the level of personal discretion and leaves little room for bending of laws, effectively making it a fairer system for all. Unlike other areas in the political system, members of the Bureaucracy do not have to be ‘people pleasers’ in fear of not getting re-elected. Its function is structured, secure and familiar allowing for the foundations of government to be maintained. Such a model having power over the Assembly and Executives is, of course, an advantage. Lord Acton (1887) warned that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’; this highlights how control is distributed and appointed by the hierarchy through the chain of command, preventing the government from abusing power. Members of the Bureaucracy claim to represent the ’lay people’ and join the institution in an attempt to improve the state and society compared to the “partisan passions” of executives (Heywood, 2013). Some partisan legislation must be decided by elected officials to meet the social and economic wishes of the public. Having said this, rigid policy, such as inflation or transport, remains very similar throughout different governments. Therefore such issues can be heavily controlled by the Bureaucracy to maximise efficiency. While these rules of neutrality are key to creating a stable government, the power of the bureaucracy has the potential to replace a system of ‘rule by the people’ with an unaccountable body. This leads to its potential disadvantages and thus threatens the concept of western democracy.

The First Disadvantage: the Bureaucracy Implementing its own Interests

Ed Hare explained that Bureaucracies “are far too often, about themselves and expanding the power and influence of the people who head them.” Heskett (2017). Unlike the Assembly and Executives, the Bureaucracy is non-accountable and have permanent employment. This grants the system more security and consequently, power over the rest of government. If knowledge is power then surely the Bureaucracy is in the position to withhold or indeed feed politicians with biased information within their interest. Knowing this, when legislators delegate power, “they face the possibility that agencies will make decisions contrary to their (political) preference” (Volden, 2002.) While this is somewhat of a pessimistic view, it is true that the nature of the Bureaucracy is somewhat hidden from the public, “inevitably, shrouded in mystery and conjecture” (Heywood, 2013) thus closing any platform for public debate. If issues arise, citizens contact or in most cases, blame the Executives who have been voted in. This structure often leads to confusion about the work of the political system and therefore undermines elected officials in the public eye.

This hidden work leads to the startling but real concept that “the influence of the civil service cannot be quantified.” This idea is developed by the idiom of ‘Red Tape’ in which civilians believe that Bureaucracies hold too much control and inevitably slow the system of implementing legislation through lengthy paperwork and approval methods. This is due to the strong enforcement of rules in which the system runs. As mentioned, a rule based system can be one of the defining factors in a successful Bureaucracy, nonetheless, it can lead to the corruption of Bureaucracies and oppression of voters which is outlined in the second disadvantage.

The Second Disadvantage: Non-representative Power

The French novelist, Honoré de Balzac (1837) wrote that “Bureaucracy is a giant mechanism operated by pygmies.” As previously mentioned, the high education of these ‘Pygmies’ cannot be questioned; however, its structure is complex and not representative of the government nor under the control of the state’s citizens. This increases the power of the Bureaucracy as they are not liable to the public. This disadvantage threatens the concept of modern democracy as non-elected and non-accountable officials form a large role in the political system. This leaves the Bureaucracy in a powerful position of having significant influencing control with no accountability nor threat to their position, leading us to question the “façade of representation and democratic accountability” (Heywood, 2013). In order to control such power, the Executives may assign agency heads to supervise funding and occasionally overrule Bureaucratic decisions. Such actions are taken to maintain the respectability of the political system and to ensure that democracy, in practice, does not stray too far from its definition. Equally, this threat can be controlled by enforced accountability, such as the Ombudsman, an official mechanism that examines the legitimacy of the Bureaucracy.


As governments have developed and continue to expand their responsibilities, bureaucracies are “an increasingly important role in political life.’ (Heywood, 2013). Each bureaucracy within a political system differs, resulting in a myriad of costs and benefits for the government. The disguised advantages of Educated advisors and system run by rules along with the disadvantages of implementing its interests and its non-representative power are a testament to the relationship of power and lead us to question modern democracy. When run efficiently with strict measures I conclude that the Bureaucracy is a force for good and its advantages outweigh its potential exploitation.

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