Politicization of Bureaucracy

  • Daniel AppiahEmail author
  • Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_682-1



Bureaucracy: Bureaucracy refers to a formal-legal organization with a hierarchical structure of authority whereby merit-based criteria are used to appoint, retain, promote, and reward or sanction officials who perform functionally specialized duties in an impersonal manner.

Politicization: Politicization of bureaucracy is broadly defined as the substitution of impersonality for personal criteria in the functioning of the bureaucracy.

Democracy: Democracy is the institutional arrangement whereby individuals or groups of individuals in a society participate in regular free elections for the people’s vote to acquire the power to decide on constitutional opportunities on the strength of their advocated policies and/or their projected images.


Public bureaucracies are institutions of administration that privilege some values, actions, interests, and actors in the distribution of resources to members of society. Governments create public bureaucracies as a means to distributing resources. Public bureaucracies are key arenas of power struggles in society because they are central instruments used by government for distributing resources. Individuals and interest groups seek to gain access to, and control of, public bureaucracies. Paradoxically, since the middle of the nineteenth century, there have been numerous public sector reforms in countries to create public bureaucracies that perform their mandates autonomously from the control of interest groups in society, particularly government. Such reforms have taken their inspiration from Max Weber’s theory of an ideal-type bureaucracy where impersonal administration is used to attain the highest degree of rationality, reliability, and efficiency in the production and use of resources in society (Weber 1968). From Weber’s theory of bureaucracy emerged the politics and administration dichotomy model where attempts by government and other political groups to influence impersonal administration by bureaucrats are considered anathema to the quest for efficiency and effectiveness. Everywhere, there have been claims and criticisms that public bureaucracies have become more politicized.

Since the inception of public administration as a discipline of study, the study of public bureaucracies has continued to receive a lot of research attention. The politicization of bureaucracy by governments, whatever this means, is a hotly contested issue, both conceptually and empirically. There are numerous questions around the notion of politicization of bureaucracy, including the following: What is an ideal bureaucracy? What is meant by the notion of politicization of bureaucracy? Under what conditions can an impersonal system of administration emerge in any country where diverse political actors are continuously engaged in a power struggle over resource distribution? Is it feasible, and whose responsibility is it anyway, to create a public bureaucracy that is autonomous from the control of the government? Can a bureaucracy that is independent from political manipulation by interest groups be responsive to the development policies of the government? Are the institutions of bureaucracy and democracy contradictory or complementary? What should be the relationship between the political executive and public service bureaucrats in a democracy to promote efficient, effective, and stable development? This chapter tries to briefly take stock of some of the answers provided by scholars to these questions.

What Is Bureaucracy?

The concept of bureaucracy is usually used in two main ways in much of the literature on public administration. The first meaning is Max Weber’s ideal-type concept of bureaucracy defined as a formal-legal organization with a hierarchical structure of authority in which merit-based criteria are used to appoint, retain, promote, and reward or sanction officials who perform functionally specialized duties in an impersonal manner. According to Weber (1968: 959), the core value of impersonality in the performance of jurisdictional functions can only be attained if three conditions are met: first, that the official is servant to some ideological “other-worldly sacred values” of functional purposes embodied by members of the society, rather than establish a relationship of loyalty to a particular person; second, that the official “always strives for and usually attains a distinctly elevated social esteem vis-à-vis the governed”; and third, that the official and the system of rank order are given legal protection in the impartial performance of official duties. Weberian bureaucracy requires expert training, rule of law, and supportive cultural values for its effective functioning. Weber’s ideal-type bureaucracy is the dominant understanding of bureaucracy found in academic textbooks, scholarly publications, and civil service reform programs.

The modern state has not evolved from contending political struggles between powerful actors to function like what Weber refers to as a “monocratic bureaucracy.” In Weber’s words, a monocratic bureaucracy is the one that is “capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency, and is in this sense formally the most rational known means of exercising authority over human beings. It is superior to any other form in precision, in stability, in the stringency of its discipline, and in its reliability” (Weber 1968: 223). Such forms of bureaucracies are extremely rare because countries across the globe are generally characterized by “a combination of merit and patronage, near specialization, and some degree of rules are applied in the real world of public administration and governance worldwide” (Farazmand 2010: 246). Consequently, a group of scholars have developed a “realist” meaning of the concept of bureaucracy. This perspective defines bureaucracy “as a hierarchical organization of officials appointed to carry out certain public objectives. The extent to which such an organization does or does not fit Weber’s model (for instance with regard to the appointment and promotion of officials by objective criteria and the general, objective, impersonal rules guiding their actions) can thus be left open for empirical investigation” (Etzioni-Halevy 1983: 5). The Weberian ideal type of bureaucracy offers the analytical lens for scholars to examine the extent of politicization of the bureaucracy created by governments in modern states. While some states are better organized along the Weberian bureaucracy, others are heavily organized along clientelistic and patronage norms. Some scholars have argued that states that are better organized along Weberian lines are more capable of promoting development (e.g., Acemoglu and Robinson 2012).

Historically, all states (including the ancient Assyrian, Median, Persian, Ottoman, and Chinese Empires) have been organized according to a hierarchy of officials appointed to carry out certain public objectives. Farazmand (1997: 49) observed that “Although the Egyptian and Chinese bureaucracies were very much controlled by the monarch, their systems developed a tendency toward professionalization through functional specialization and structural differentiation based on some education, training, and, in the case of the Chinese, some form of merit entrance examination for the civil service system. The Assyrian empire was a bureaucratic empire with maximum rigidity and inflexibility.” The French, Prussian, and British empires that inherited the practice of bureaucracy improved the system to its modern standards and practices of universal merit-based recruitment of the “common man,” rule-of-law-based impersonality, and functional professionalization in civil service systems. In Britain, the organization of a Weberian professional civil service took off after the publication of the Northcote-Trevelyan Committee Report in 1854. The USA followed in the footsteps of its former colonial master by passing in 1883 the Civil Service Reform Act (the Pendleton Act) to set the foundation for a long contentious process of building a professional civil service out of the entrenched spoils system (Grindle 2012). Woodrow Wilson, who became the 28th President of America, had argued in his famous seminal article “The Study of Administration” (1887) that there was the need to rescue the administration of government policies from “the hurry and strife of politics.” Developing countries inherited their modern public bureaucracies from the Western European colonial rulers. Some scholars have argued that “the character, behavior, culture, structure, and values” of modern public bureaucracies in developing countries “reflect Western influence” (Farazmand 2010: 250); however, other scholars, extending Max Weber’s concept of “patrimonialism,” have characterized these public bureaucracies (particularly in African states) as neopatrimonial structures that reflect both Weberian rational-legal rules and patron-client power relations of power (Erdmann and Engel 2007).

Scholars are yet to secure agreement on the extent to which government can exercise some political influence over its own bureaucracy. In ancient and modern states, bureaucratic administration has never been fully autonomous from the control of their governments who used it as an instrument of domination and policy implementation. Public sector reforms intended to separate bureaucratic administration from the political control of government always met strong resistance from government officials. Reducing the political influence of governments in bureaucratic organization and administration, in the hope of making the bureaucracy more efficient and effective, has attracted scholarly attention. While there is general agreement among scholars that all governments have politicized their civil service bureaucracies to some extent, there exist different conceptions of what is meant by the politicization of bureaucracy in the literature.

What Is Politicization of Bureaucracy?

There are various definitions of what is meant by the politicization of bureaucracy. To clarify what is meant by “politicization of bureaucracy,” it is important to first define the concept of “politics.” In the broadest sense, politics refers to the process whereby power is contested for, obtained, and exercised. Politics is therefore found in all human organizations including the bureaucracy. Due to conflicts of values over questions on who gets what, when, and how, the process of contestation for the acquisition, maintenance, and use of power never ends even when the majority reaches consensus. Weber (1968) observed that “Bureaucracy has been and is a power instrument of the first order – for the one who controls the bureaucratic apparatus.” Different actors in society therefore try to gain access into the bureaucracy to influence the decisions and behavior of bureaucrats in the allocation of resources. Government, political parties, nongovernmental organizations (both local and international), ordinary citizens, and even officials in the bureaucracy are all involved in the game of politics in order to control the distribution of resources.

There have been differences of scholarly opinion as to whether a truly independent, apolitical, and nonpartisan professional bureaucracy can be created in any country for the impersonal performance of functions concerned with resource distribution. This has implications for the definition of what constitutes the politicization of bureaucracy. What has famously become known as the politics-administration dichotomy debate has continued to generate strong debates among scholars and practitioners of public administration. Woodrow Wilson (1887) argued that “Administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics. Administrative questions are not political questions. Although politics sets the tasks for administration, it should not be suffered to manipulate its offices.” Wilson used the concept of politics in its narrow sense of referring to the political process of public policy-making by government for the allocation of resources.

Do the losers in the public policy-making process go home to sleep quietly and allow administrators in the state bureaucracy to impersonally implement the laws and policies in the distribution of resources to the winners? The Wilson orthodoxy of politics-administration dichotomy was the dominant intellectual perspective that drove public administration reforms in the USA until the mid-1940s when it was shattered by other scholars (Waldo 1948). Critics mounted the powerful argument that a public bureaucracy is inherently a political creation of government to implement its policies; bureaucratic officials participate in the process of policy-making by providing information and expert advice to government, and, ultimately, policy administration is only a part of the continuous political process of resource allocation in society. Politics is a process which does not stop with the crystallization of the preferences of contending actors into legal rules and public policies for implementation.

Decades after discrediting the Wilsonian orthodoxy, Waldo (1971: 264) recognized that a generation after discrediting of the notion of “politics-administration” dichotomy, “we have made little progress in developing a ‘formula’ to replace it.” Even though the Wilsonian orthodoxy of politics-administration dichotomy is dysfunctional to theory building and the practice of public administration, it still serves a useful purpose for politicians, administrators, and reformers in their continuous struggle over effort to reduce government political control over the civil service administration. Governments seek to control the implementation of public policy by civil service bureaucrats, but the latter also require some degree of independence for its core Weberian value of impersonality in the delivery of public service to all citizens.

Politicization of the civil service has often been discussed in the literature through the lens of Weber’s ideal type of bureaucracy, but scholars have applied the concept to different aspects of the bureaucracy. The politicization of bureaucracy has often been defined to mean the substitution of merit-based criteria in the recruitment of public sector employees for political criteria of loyalty to a political party or political leaders (Peters and Pierre 2004). Many of the definitions of politicization are targeted at the basic level of personnel recruitment and performance management issues of promotion, retention, rewards, and disciplining of members of the civil service.

The criteria of merit-based recruitment of bureaucratic employees have been the most common issue discussed in the literature on politicization of the bureaucracy. It has been noted that the focus on employee recruitment may have received greater attention due to the general assumption that establishing a relationship of personal loyalty with bureaucratic employees is the best launchpad to gain access to vital bureaucratic information and influence decisions concerning the allocation of resources. Peters and Pierre (2004: 6) have noted that “politicians may politicize the public service in order to change policy”; it is also possible for the politicization of policy to occur even in contexts where public service appointments are not politicized (Eichbaum and Shaw 2008: 342). Similarly, politicizing the recruitment of employees may not achieve the objective of changing policy if the new recruits are captured by the organizations they were meant to influence. Definitions of politicization of the civil service bureaucracy that focus on the basic level of human resource management have therefore been criticized by other scholars as too narrow. This has led to suggest the need to “distinguish between the politicization of appointments and the politicization of policy” (Eichbaum and Shaw 2008: 341, italics from source).

It may be helpful to conceive of politicization of the bureaucracy as an intervention that violates the Weberian core value of impersonality. Therefore, using the Weberian core value of impersonality, politicization of the bureaucracy may be broadly defined as the substitution of impersonality for personal criteria in the functioning of the bureaucracy. Specifically, politicization of the civil service bureaucracy can be broken down into the substitution of merit-based criteria for personal criteria in the recruitment, retention, promotion, rewards, and disciplining of members of the civil service; the substitution of neutral competence for personal criteria in the delivery of civil service mandates; and the substitution of civil service mandates for personal functional purposes. Kaufman (1956: 1060) defined “neutral competence” of bureaucrats as the “ability to do the work of government expertly and to do it according to explicit, objective standards rather than to personal or party or other obligations and loyalties.” The concept of “neutral competence” is implied in the Weberian core value of impersonality of bureaucrats in the performance of specialized functions. Other scholars have argued that when the mandate of a civil service organization is substituted for personal functional purposes, or the mandate is taken away and given to a new organization created by the government to achieve political objectives, a process of “structural politicization” has occurred.

Beyond the analysis of politicization of employees of the civil service bureaucracy, empirical analysis of the politicization of policy-making is usually complex because of difficulties in the empirical measurement of concepts associated with these. Peters (1997: 235–236) uses the following five ideal models to conceptualize the relationships between administrative civil servants and political executives in the policy-making process:
  • The “Weberian/Wilsonian” model where there is the almost complete separation of politics and administration, with civil servants willingly taking the direction of their nominal political “masters”

  • The “administrative state” model where there is the same separation between politics and administration but with the bureaucracy being the dominant force

  • The “adversarial model” where there is a substantial separation between politicians and civil servants but also that there is no clear resolution in their struggle for power

  • The “village life” model where civil servants and politicians are both parts of a unified state elite, and that they therefore should not be considered as being in conflict over power or policy

  • The “functional village life” model which assumes some of the same integration of civil servants and politicians but within specific functional areas of government

The Weberian/Wilsonian model is the ideal type which cannot exist in any country. However, the factors that influence the emergence of each of the non-Weberian models in countries have not been extensively examined in the literature. Contrary to popular practice in comparative political analysis, Peters (1997: 250) remarked that the use of any simple division between presidential and parliamentary systems does not appear to be valuable in making predictions about the relationship between the political executives and the civil service bureaucracy. Peters (1997: 250) identified two factors that appear particularly relevant for understanding the relationship between civil servants and ministers. One is the politico-administrative culture of the country as it relates to the role of civil servants and their separation from partisan political life. The second is the “recruitment patterns” of both civil servants and ministers from either a specialist training background or from a generalist background. There has been little empirical research to uncover how the above two factors shape the relationship between the civil service bureaucracy and the political executive. It is important for scholars of public administration to examine the factors that shape the emergence of the four non-Weberian/Wilsonian models, the relative effect of the models on policy-making, and the outcomes on processes of social, economic, and political development.

The Relationship Between Democracy and Bureaucracy

The analysis of the politicization of bureaucracy has led to an increasing scholarly focus on the relationship between democracy and bureaucracy. Democracy is the institutional arrangement whereby individuals or groups of individuals in a society participate in regular free elections for the people’s vote to acquire the power to decide on constitutional opportunities on the strength of their advocated policies and/or their projected images (Lipset 1959; Etzioni-Halevy 1983). A number of scholars have examined the important question of whether democracy undermines or supports bureaucracy and whether democracy and bureaucracy are contradictory or complementary. Weber (1968: 957) was emphatic that there is “the basic contradiction” between the ideal type of monocratic bureaucracy and popular electoral democracy. According to him, “Popular election not only of the administrative chief but also of his subordinate officials usually endangers, at least in very large bodies which are difficult to supervise, the expert qualification of the officials as well as the precise functioning of the bureaucratic mechanism, besides weakening the dependence of the officials upon the hierarchy” (Weber 1968: 961). Many analysts see a political dilemma between popular demands by voters and politicians for a responsive democracy, on the one hand, and the requirement for a professional bureaucracy to support policy-making and implementation by whichever government is elected into power.

What then should be the relationship between democracy and the civil service bureaucracy? Many scholars would support the view that “It is a hypocrisy to speak of democracy without bureaucracy, because both are well integrated, and one without the other does not work” (Farazmand 2010: 255). As earlier pointed out, Weber argued that one of the important conditions for the attainment of the core value of impersonality in a bureaucracy is a system of rule of law that protects bureaucrats in the performance of official duties. Scholars have recognized that democracy provides an environment of political and civil liberties required to support meritocratic recruitment of the common man into the civil service bureaucracy. Bureaucracy, on the other hand, strengthens the democratic value of equality through the impersonal delivery of service to all citizens who qualify to receive benefits from the implementation of public policies, regardless of party allegiance. Although elected governments may have constitutional opportunities to reform the civil service bureaucracy, it is also the case that bureaucratic impersonality in public service delivery will not be achieved if the elected politicians and their appointees substitute bureaucratic impersonality in decision-making for personal and partisan criteria. Indeed, the relationship between democracy and bureaucracy is both paradoxical and complementary as recognized by many analysts (Etzioni-Halevy 1983; Farazmand 2010; Peters 2010).

Many scholars are of the opinion that the incentives for elected governments and other actors to politicize the civil service bureaucracy will be reduced if the bureaucracy is democratized through two main approaches: first, ensuring that there is “social representation” of diverse groups and genders during the recruitment of employees, and, second, ensuring that there is “policy representation” of ideas from diverse professional experts during policy decision-making (Rourke 1997). Social representation and policy representation will serve as the “inner check” in the civil service bureaucracy to reduce the incentive for governments and their appointed bureaucratic heads to pursue politicization. It is commonly accepted that promoting representative bureaucracy “is an important step in democratizing the bureaucracy” (Farazmand 2010: 206). Democracy and bureaucracy are more likely to be more complementary than contradictory if the democratic value of representation in decision-making is extended into bureaucracy. Democratizing the bureaucracy is now being advocated in the literature as the best guarantee against politicization.


Bureaucratic administration by civil servants in developing and developed countries is targeted by both the winners and losers in the politics of resource distribution in society. In spite of increasing criticism by scholars against the politicization of the civil service bureaucracy by governments in all countries, the literature offers no definite conceptual boundary of how far governments should relate to the civil service bureaucracy in the pursuit of developmental goals. Using the Weberian lens of bureaucracy, conceptual definitions of the politicization of bureaucracy found in the literature include the substitution of merit-based criteria for personal criteria in the recruitment, retention, promotion, rewards, and disciplining of members of the civil service, the substitution of neutral competence for personal criteria in the delivery of civil service mandates, and the substitution of civil service mandates for personal functional purposes. Following the ascendency of the modern democratic state, scholars and practitioners of public administration have revived the quest to create a professionally competent civil service bureaucracy that is free from government political interference. Many scholars are now advocating the creation of a democratically representative bureaucracy – through the representation of diverse social groups during employee recruitment, as well as the representation of diverse ideas from different professionals during policy-making – as the best strategy to counter the tide of politicization. The values of responsiveness, equality, and representation are now being used by scholars to strengthen the complementarity of democracy and bureaucracy. How to ensure that political and bureaucratic elites will respect such values in their respective camps is the key challenge to which public administration scholars must provide theoretical and practical solutions.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Public AdministrationUniversity of Ghana Business SchoolLegon, AccraGhana