A bureaucracy is a large organization that uses a particular system of administration. This system is characterized by a hierarchy of authority, a division of duties, strict rules of operation and documentation of actions performed. Bureaucracies are most often associated with governments, but any large entity, such as a corporation or school district, can be bureaucratic in nature. Terms such as "bureaucracy" and "bureaucrat," which refers to an official in a bureaucracy, are often used with negative connotations because some people believe that this system of administration includes excessive and unnecessary regulation, inefficiencies and waste.
This type of organization has what is known as a vertical pyramid power structure, with many more offices, bureaus and employees located at the base, or the service level, than there are at the top, or the management level. The offices and workers at the lower levels typically are subject to rules and regulations that dictate how they must function. Many of the actions that they take must be documented so that a record of what was done can be made available to the offices and administrators at higher levels of the bureaucracy.
The benefits of a bureaucracy include the ability to manage a large, complex organization in an orderly manner. Rules and regulations can be helpful to ensure that a large number of similar entities — those at the base — operate in the same way. Having supervisory offices and higher levels of management provides oversight and allows the customers, citizens or whomever is being served to appeal to a higher authority than those at the service level.
Bureaucracies are often criticized, however, because they sometimes can be inefficient or wasteful. Communication between offices or levels of authority can be essential, so a lack of communication can result in a failure to function properly. Getting things done in a bureaucracy is often complicated by so-called red tape — paperwork and other regulations that might be considered tedious, redundant or even unnecessary. Similar or identical tasks might be performed multiple times at various levels or at different offices at the same level. Bureaucracies also are often slow to change or to implement changes.
Critics often claim that bureaucracies can be made more efficient by shrinking, especially when it comes to governments. Less regulation of lower-level offices might allow them to be more adaptable to their own needs and situations, which might differ from those of other offices at the same level. Fewer levels of administration also might allow an organization to change more rapidly because approval for changes is needed from a smaller number of people or groups of people.