Good Bureaucracy: Max Weber on the 100th anniversary of his death

Blog by Wolfgang Drechsler: “Max Weber passed away a century ago today at the early age of 56, a late victim of the last pandemic — the Spanish Flu.

During the last 100 years, Weber’s position as one of the world’s great economists, sociologists, social science theorists, and public administration scholars has been secure, if with ups and downs.

One can think with or against Weber in the areas he covered, but by and large, not really without him. Weber is often associated with Weberian bureaucracy, i.e. hierarchical, career-organized, competence-based, rules- and files-based public administration of the now traditional type (when he conceived of it, this was public sector innovation).

However, Weber was a Weberian only to the extent that Luther was a Lutheran or Marx was a Marxist: somewhat, but certainly not totally so. In fact, Weber did not particularly like what we understand today as Weberian public administration, often used interchangeably with the term “bureaucracy.” He just thought it was the optimal administrative form, in the sense of rationalization, for the time and society he was analyzing (Germany at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century — both for the public and for the private sector, incidentally).

Nobody would have been more surprised than him that his framework is still the most used — and best — 100 years later. Indeed, it is often applied to systems for which it was never intended.

In fact, Weberian public administration in the wider sense has been, and is, much maligned; bureaucracy is an easy target, and whining about it is a steady feature of complex human societies which always need and automatically generate it. And Weberian public administration has its systemic faults — slowness, process-orientation, a slippery slope to authoritarian, mindless hierarchization and shirking. However, this bureaucracy is in its optimal form ethics-based, high-capacity, and motivation-driven. It is meant to be both responsible — to a state that is above and beyond particular interests — as well as responsive — to groups and citizens, but not at the cost of the commonweal.

However we decide to manage the transition to a CO2-neutral world — via Green Growth or Post-Growth — that process will have to be implemented by competent, motivated, and yes, Weberian civil servants.

But neoliberal ideology never believed that this kind of civil service was real, or pretended not to. So Weberian public administration became the bête noire of the New Public Management (NPM)….(More)”.