What Is A Bureaucracy? And Why They Are So Hard To Change

Bureaucracies, according to Manuel Castells in The Rise of the Network Society, are “organizations for which the reproduction of their system of means becomes their main organizational goal.”

Put differently, bureaucracies strive to maintain themselves at all costs. In this sense, the actual purpose of the bureaucracy becomes secondary to preserving the bureaucracy which is why we see so much dysfunction.

“This means,” writes Dr. Mark Federman, “that a bureaucratic system cannot afford to be demonstrated to be wrong: If it was wrong, it would impede its ability to reproduce its system of means.”

This underlying mentality often translates into bewildering and often arcane public explanations that seem to ignore what to those outside of the system would be simple, common sense. It is the reason why so many bureaucratically minded leaders choose to “stay the course,” rather than admit that a decision was ill-advised (because that would be tantamount to admitting that the system which vested in them decision-making power made a mistake).

Of course, this leads to absurd outcomes.

Take, as one example, the teacher in Edmonton, who was suspended for giving students a zero when they failed to turn in work. The School board spokesperson, Cheryl Oxford, says “as opposed to being assessed on what they don’t know, they’re being assessed on what they do know.” Huh? To anyone (outside of the school board, that is) this goes against common sense. The second order effects of this on the students and society itself are even worse. Remember that often what’s good for us causes pain in the first order.

Perhaps Charlie Munger explained it best: