Bureaucracy | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Bureaucracy may be defined as a formal organizational arrangement characterized by division of labour, specialization of functions, a hierarchy of authority and a system of rules, regulations and record keeping. In common usage, it refers to the administrative branch of government.


Bureaucracy may be defined as a formal organizational arrangement characterized by division of labour, specialization of functions, a hierarchy of authority and a system of rules, regulations and record keeping. In common usage, it refers to the administrative branch of government. This definition avoids the derogatory use of the word as synonymous with red tape, ie, with delay, inefficiency and inflexibility. It does, however, reflect the common association of bureaucracy with the growth of government activities and expenditures and with the growth in the number and power of bureaucrats, also called government or public-sector employees, public servants or civil servants (seePUBLIC SERVICE).

Governments are primarily involved in providing service and in regulation. To support these service and regulatory functions they conduct research on matters ranging from new ways of sorting mail to the inspection of food and drugs. From Confederation to World War II, growth in the level of government expenditures and the number of government employees was relatively small. After 1945 the increasing scale and complexity of government activities (with new responsibilities such as medicare and consumer and environmental protection) resulted in an enormous growth in public expenditures and public employment. Since the mid-1980s and especially during the 1990s, however, government expenditures and employment have been significantly cut in an effort to reduce annual budgetary deficits and the national debt.

Since 1945 the federal percentage of total expenditures has steadily decreased while the municipal percentage has stayed about the same. The provincial share of expenditures has risen, mainly because of increased demand for services within provincial constitutional jurisdiction, notably in the fields of health, education and transportation. As a proportion of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the total combined expenditures of all 3 levels of government increased from 32.5% in 1961 to a peak of 51.3% in 1992. By 1996 it had decreased to 46.1%. Total public-sector employment reached a height of 23% of the employed labour force in 1992 but has declined each year since and in 1996 stood at 21% (a total of 2.86 million). The federal government had only 13.8% of total government employment whereas the provincial and territorial governments had 51.3% and local governments had 34.9%.

Organization of the Bureaucracy

To carry out their responsibilities, governments use a variety of administrative organizations, the 2 major forms being departments and nondepartmental bodies. The federal government has about 23 departments, eg, Foreign Affairs, Justice, Environment as well as several CENTRAL AGENCIES, eg, the Privy Council Office, which are responsible for co-ordinating the activities of departments. There are also many nondepartmental bodies known as Crown agencies, including CROWN CORPORATIONS and various boards, commissions and tribunals. Similar administrative organizations exist in the provincial and local governments. Since the mid-1980s, a considerable number of Crown corporations have been sold to the private sector (privatized) and, particularly in the 1990s, many initiatives have been taken to encourage public organizations to operate in a "less bureaucratic" and "more business-like" fashion.

Power of the Bureaucracy

Because government activities are too large and too complex for all powers to be exercised by elected representatives and the courts, much discretionary power is granted to public employees. Senior bureaucrats are often responsible for the initiation of policy proposals (to which end they frequently work closely with the representatives of powerful PRESSURE GROUPS) and for the implementation of legislation.

The subject matter of many laws is very technical, eg, atomic energy, and very complicated, eg, tax reform. Moreover, the implications of many laws are widespread and their full consequences are unpredictable. Elected representatives are therefore obliged to pass laws written in general and sometimes vague language and to delegate to public employees the authority to interpret and enforce these laws (seeADMINISTRATIVE TRIBUNALS).

Similarly, judges have neither the time to hear all the cases requiring interpretation of the law nor the knowledge needed to understand and to interpret correctly laws involving very technical matters. Parliament therefore delegates to public employees the power to pass regulations that have the force of law, to enforce these regulations and to penalize those who do not obey them. As a result these employees now exercise powers of a legislative and judicial nature traditionally exercised by the legislatures and the courts (seeREGULATORY PROCESS).

Public employees also have power to influence the content of laws. Since elected politicians do not have as much knowledge as public employees about the subject matter or implications of the many laws proposed, they must rely heavily on the advice of the employees.

Image of the Bureaucracy

The negative attitude of many Canadians towards public employees has several causes. Governments, because of their size, their pursuit of political objectives and their focus on service rather than profit, tend to operate less efficiently than business enterprises. Citizens who believe that they receive too few government services for their tax dollars, and that there is too much government regulation, often blame public employees as well as politicians. It is notable, however, that many government organizations, eg, fire departments and libraries, are perceived by the public as providing better service than some business organizations.

There is also a widespread public perception that public employees sometimes misuse their discretionary powers. Control and influence over public employees are exercised by elected politicians, judges, journalists, pressure group representatives, individual citizens and other public employees, but public employees will continue to exercise a large measure of discretionary power.

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