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Can we do without bureaucracy?

Nobody likes it, but we do need bureaucracy, is Sandra Groeneveld's message in her inaugural lecture. Her advice is that we just need to handle it differently and should invest in people's behaviour, rather than focusing on strict rules.

Sandra Groeneveld is Professor of Public Management and Scientific Director of the Institute for Public Administration at Leiden University. She will deliver her inaugural lecture on 27 May, entitled 'The importance of bureaucracy. Dealing with ambivalence in public management.’

Surfeit of rules

Groeneveld recognises that there is a lot of confusion surrounding bureaucracy. 'Often what people mean by it is the surfeit of rules,' she says. 'Bureaucracy in that sense is definitely something we suffer from.'

Another definition of bureaucracy is 'government' or the civil service that is responsible for implementing political decisions with neutrality. This is achieved in practice by means of rules and a clear hierarchy. Bureaucracy is necessary in a democratic constitutional state because people need to have trust in government; in her lecture Groeneveld refers to this as 'uncertainty reduction'. 'It's in countries that are not organised in line with these bureaucratic principles that you often see things going wrong.' 

Not everything can be captured in rules

But bureaucracy can also be regarded as a form of organisation, where agreements are formalised and standardised. Groeneveld: ‘We know from organisation science that this often doesn't work, particularly not for complex issues. Not everything can be captured in rules.'


The tension between the need for bureaucracy on the one hand and the impossibility of it on the other is the ambivalence that public managers have to cope with. It's particularly when something goes wrong that there is a call for new rules to prevent a recurrence. And then when there are too many rules, public organisations have to reduce their number again. A good example is the advent of new public management in the 1980s as a vehicle for modernising the public sector. Groeneveld typifies it as being at least in part 'a sign of resistance against bureaucracy. The general feeling was that all those rules took up too much time, so management principles from the private sector were introduced to bring about change in the public sector.' But it proved impossible to directly translate those principles. ‘Ironically, new public management is now known primarily for having brought about even more new rules.'

Unwritten rules and having confidence in your staff

Groeneveld prefers to focus on the behaviour of people in organisations. 'It may well be that unwritten rules can achieve the same results as written rules.' Staff in leadership roles have to trust the professionalism and workmanship of their employees, and give them them greater scope for discussion. This kind of approach calls for more informal organisations with less strict central governance and a different type of leadership. 

Obviously, these types of organisations are subject to the same requirement of 'uncertainty reduction' in terms of equal treatment of citizens and government accountablity. Groeneveld: ‘Organisations can rely increasingly on unwritten rules, but unwritten rules alone are not enough. We still need bureaucracy.’

Universities: complex and international

Universities, too, are public organisations that have seen the introduction of many new rules as a result of new public management. Groeneveld: ‘But scientists have complex tasks and they often work together with colleagues throughout the world. This makes the university the ideal place to study the conflict between the need for and the non-functioning of bureaucracy.'

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