The limitations of Weberian bureaucracy

I’ve been working on a paper for the upcoming European Consortium for Policital Research annual conference in which I link changing views of public administration with thinking about sustainable development governance and I find myself reflecting on the continuing legacy of Max Weber’s description of bureaucracy. There are many things to appreciate in his early 20th century conception of bureaucracy. Not least, we tend (or should that be tended in these troubled times?) to think that a public bureaucracy which is based in the rule of law, impartiality, propriety and clear accountability is a good thing for democracy – and it is.

But the underlying structure of Weberian bureaucracy and the basis of its legitimacy look rather less relevant to the 20th Century. This bureaucrcay takes industrial production as its structural model. It divides things up into different parts, and makes different teams of specialists responsible for each part. It places each team in a vertical hierachy and makes them account for thier actions. It makes them fully occupied with their task and responsible for rapid reponse to the media. It causes them to follow strict rules about how they reach calculable, rational decisions.

This Weberian structure is almost a recipe for ensuring lack of collaboration and integration of policies, risk aversion, short-termism, putting procedures and plans over innovation and reflexivity, and technocratic control and unifomity over engaging creatively with communities’ needs and opportunities. This is not the fault of individual public servants but of the incentives of the structure and its rules. When we see bureaucracy as inflexible or ‘dehumanized’ (in Weber’s own words), that is beacuse that is the purpose of the structure and practice. As one of my interviewees put it (with echoes of Franz Kafak) bureaucracy has “a structure to make you know as little as possible”.

Weber saw this, then new, bureaucracy as essential both to a capitalist economy which demanded predictability and speed in decisons and to mass democracy where people should appear equal before the law. But our understandings have changed since the turn of the 19th century. Separation of functions by topic is no longer the best way to think of how government should work – issues cut across each other and interact, and the really challenging problems like poverty, climate change, environment, future economy and social justice require long-term and joined up consideration. We are also as a public used to more tailored and speedy services in our age of online products and we no longer see experts as all knowing but expect to take more of a role in decisions which effect us. Our modern analogies are not industry but instead ecology or computing.

Much of this thinking has been captured both in notions of what it means to govern for sustainable development and in latest work in public administration under the umbrella term of ‘New Public Governance‘. These ideas now need to be reflected in the way we organize.

Weber felt the basis of bureaucratic legitmacy was found in the dispassionate expertise and subordination to authority which was delivered by the old structure. I believe we need to rethink both of these. Instead of dispassionate expertise, we need engaged and participative bureaucracy which works with communities. Instead of subordination to authority we need a guding constitutional or legal role for bureaucracy as guardians of civic life – still with the rule of law, impartiality, propriety and accountability at its heart, but no longer ‘dehumanized’.

Place-based working and participative bureaucracy offer a way to reconnect with people and integrate policies, but they need strong structures and laws to support them. The Welsh Well-being of Future Generations Act offers good practice that can be built on – area based collaborative structures, elected representatives chairing participative and integrated working, and new legally-required behaviours and goals to guide that participation and policy integration.

We cannot just say we want long-term thinking and joined up government which can reflect local circumstances – we need to restructure and repurpose our Weberian bureaucracy to help to achieve it.

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