On a typology of bureaucracies

Every Italian, and everyone who has, or has had, to deal with the Italian apparatus, knows there is a bureaucracy here—a large and ever growing one. There is some useful material (e.g., [1]) on the thesis that a bureaucracy is profoundly un-decent (just in case you are looking for more arguments against it) and a rant against the system may be ‘therapeutic’ to blow off steam, but I will not digress on these two aspects. To prevent, break, or beat it, one first has to know what type of bureaucracy one is dealing with.

Buried in a footnote in an article about bureaucracies and socialism [2], there is an entertaining list of 20 types of bureaucracies categorized according to their dealings with the public (see further below). Surfing the Internet to find the original source, if any, was fruitless, but I came across a few other attempts from a ‘systems’ perspective that leaves more to the imagination as to how such a bureaucracy operates. And it reveals that it is actually not easy to come up with a single, unambiguous, and useful typology that could partition the instances properly. I will list a few of those systems-based attempts first, then the entertaining one on the behaviour to the public.

Systems-based typologies

Harris [3] (p116) summarises three typologies:

(i) Almond and Powell (1966) have a typology without a clear rationale and criterion to categorise them (such as democratic, Marxist-Leninist, and medieval);

(ii) Merle Fainsod categorises them according to power structure (such as representative, party-state, and ruling); and

(iii) Heady (1979) proposes an unworkable practical one with categories like “classic bureaucracies (Germany and France)”, “Successfully modernizing types (Japan)”, and “Developing or Third World types”, where one country can fit into more than one category, which complicates investigation.

Harris himself proposes one based on a systems-behaviour approach that takes historical knowledge into account, such that we end up with State Bureaucracies created by the state of law, and then there are “other ‘bureaucracies’”, which “rather than stress law, they may tend to stress class, tribe, race, and ideology”. Hence, this division is not particularly helpful either.

The Wikipedia entry has a list of 4 types of bureaucracies (citing J.Q. Wilson’s Bureaucracy as source), which are constructed from a management perspective, based on the idea “whether or not the activities of the operators can be observed, and whether the results of those activities can be observed”, resulting in production, procedural, craft, and coping bureaucracies.

Samuel and Mannheim [4] collected data from 30 industrial plants, subjected the data to a Guttman-Lingoes multi-dimensional scalogram analysis-I program using context and structure variables, and out came six different types of bureaucracy (i.e., each with a unique set of values for those variables): rudimentary, inter-personal, emergent, balanced, technical, and managerial. This sounds more like types of administration to support the employees in their work than a real bureaucracy that has its goal not only to self-perpetuate but also to increase its mass whilst dehumanising humans into mere numbers or cases.

Behaviour-to-the-public typology

The list by Guasch Estévez [2], referred to above, is fun, but one still can encounter different types within one bureaucracy, so it may need some further refinement and categorisation. Nevertheless, I include the full list (translated from the Spanish original), because it also provides a typical phrase uttered by people working in such a bureaucracy, which anyone having to put up with a bureaucracy can relate to—well, find frustrating but perhaps can have a laugh about it, too.

  1. Blind: “I can’t see the solution to the problems”
  2. Sentimental: “The case really goes to my heart, but I cannot help you”
  3. Religious: “Return another day, and then we’ll see if the good saints will help us”
  4. Chronological: “Come Monday at 4:44 and then we’ll see what we’re going to doing”
  5. Handless: “It is out of my hands to resolve it”
  6. Optimist: “It will be resolved within 24 hours”
  7. Complicated: “It depends on what the Council will approve, and then on the small council, on several operative contacts and a good view on the factors involved, provided the consultation with… ”
  8. Technocratic: “The duplicate of form MXP1 is missing”
  9. Cosmic: “This is already elevated to superior authorities”
  10. Dependent: “Depends from higher up”
  11. Paranoid: “I’m afraid to resolve this, because if they find out…”
  12. Delicate: “Maybe, perhaps, at best, I’m not sure”
  13. Enigmatic: “We are working hard and on various integrated fronts”
  14. Wild: before explaining you the problem, begins to launch grunts, swipes, and insults.
  15. Justifying: “Due to the conditions everybody knows… one cannot…”
  16. Idolatry: “Be grateful to me that I’m here to resolve it”
  17. Egomaniac: “If history does not agree with me, that’s bad for history then”
  18. Zombie: does not listen and is always levitating
  19. Fibber: “Tell him that I’m not here; I have not arrived or I’m in an important meeting”
  20. Terminally corrupt: to resolve a problem, you need this amount of money, that present, that reservation and procedure, and also that special favour.

Another typical response is another version of the dependent type: “we are waiting for information from competent office x in order to solve your problem” (office x does not need to be higher up in the chain). Catch-22s are not uncommon either (“to solve that problem, you need an approved form x, which you can obtain only by providing approved form y, for which you would need the approved form x”), which can go unresolved in particular with mindless responses like “these are the rules, and the rules rule”.


[1] Avishai Margalit. The Decent Society. Harvard University Press. 1996.

[2] Jorge Luis Guasch Estévez. (2009). El burocratismo a la luz del socialismo en el siglo XXI. Temas, 60: 48-57.

[3] Peter Harris. Foundations of Public Administration: A comparative approach. Hong Kong University press. 1990.

[4] Yitzhak Samuel and Bilha F. Mannheim. A Multidimensional Approach Toward a Typology of Bureaucracy. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Jun., 1970), pp. 216-228.