4 Chapter 4: Postsecondary Institutions and the Function of Bureaucracy

A. Session Introduction

Bureaucracy is an important form of organizational system in which the decisions are made based on rules rather than whim of the person you are dealing with or the leader of the organization at the time in question.


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The concept of bureaucracy was proposed by Max Weber in 1924. It gained tremendous traction and popularity and has subsequently been adopted in most organizations and institutions. As an individual dealing with any organization of any appreciable size, you can rely on terms, rules, and guidelines, to ensure that you are treated fairly, predictably, and consistently, regardless of whom you encounter at the service desk. This is only possible because of bureaucracy.

Owen and Valesky (2015) identify five mechanisms that control and coordinate the behaviour of the people in an organization and it is these five principles that constitute the bureaucracy:

  1. Maintain firm hierarchical control of authority and close supervision of those in the lower ranks (p. 3).
  2. Establish and maintain adequate vertical communication (p. 3).
  3. Develop clear written rules and procedures to set standards and guide actions (p. 4).
  4. Promulgate clear plans and schedules for participants to follow (p. 4).
  5. Add supervisory and administrative positions to the hierarchy of the organization as necessary to meet problems that arise from changing conditions confronted by the organization (p. 4).

If guidelines, principles, rules, (ala policies) and laws are to form the basis of how an organization operates, then bureaucracy has to be the mechanism to ensure that everyone comports in accordance with the dictums of those policies.
See the article by Lougheed and Pidgeon (2016) for details.

B. Learning Outcomes

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By the end of this session, you will be able to:

  • Understand the elements of Bureaucracy;
  • Consider the theoretical foundation of bureaucracy
  • Understand the strengths and limitations of bureaucracy model; and
  • Consider a bureaucratic example that you have experienced in a publicly-assisted college or university in Ontario

C. Session Resources

Optional: If desired, watch this video by CrashCourse to gain a better understanding of bureaucracy in general. Note that the context is the American government, so many of the examples do not apply in the postsecondary education sector.
Optional: Lougheed, P., & Pidgeon, M. (2016). Exploring effective academic governance at a Canadian university. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 46(3), 90–104. http://journals.sfu.ca/cjhe/index.php/cjhe/article/view/188018

Required: Caffrey, C. (2018). Bureaucracy. Salem Press Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://proxy.library.brocku.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ers&AN=100259216&site=eds-live&scope=site [Note, you must sign in using your Brock ID (e.g., ab12yz) to access this material]

Required: Owens, R. G., & Valesky, T. C. (2015). Organizational behavior in education: Leadership and school reform (11th ed.). Toronto, ON: Pearson Education. [Access via Course Readings. Read from “Organizational Theory” on page 2 to the bottom of page 12, stopping at the Social Justice heading].

D. Learning Activities

Using the five mechanisms of bureaucracy, explain how the organization where you work (or study) is based on the bureaucratic model. Come up with examples and explanation for each point.

  • What are the strengths of bureaucracy?
  • What are the limitations of bureaucracy?
  • How can the limitations of bureaucracy be overcome? What solutions are structural or governance related? What other alternatives are there?