Large organizational units tend to develop a multiplicity of tortuous procedures, narrow outlooks, and a high-handed manner in dealing with individuals and external bodies. This organizational malaise may include failure to allocate responsibilities clearly, application of rigid rules and routines with little consideration of cases, elevation of status over function, blundering officials, diffusion of responsibility, overstaffing, administrative delays, conflicting directives, duplication of effort, departmental empire building, and concentration of real power in the hands of relatively few people.
The modern theory of bureaucracy derives largely from the German sociologist Max Weber, who saw it as the formal codification of the idea of rational organization. Yet from the start popular writers have seen bureaucracy as an irrational force, dominating the lives of people, while political theorists have seen it as an independent force tending to swallow all of society in its maw.
Contrary to the prevailing belief that universal rules govern bureaucracies, in day to day operations, rule can and must be selectively applied which in turn invites corruption and misuse within the bureaucracy. The application of rules requires a high degree of discretion because rules can only specify what should be done when an action falls clearly within unambiguously specifiable categories, about which there can be no disagreement or difference in interpretation. Such categories are impossible. Ambiguity and vagueness can be found in any rule; moreover, conflicting rules or implications of rules can generally found which can be used to justify any decision an office holder wishes to make. Organizations develop their own common practices independent of rules and guidelines which take on the status of rules. Ultimately, the office holder has license to apply rules derived from a nearly bottomless pit of choices. Individual self-interest then depends on the user's ability to ingratiate himself to office holders at all levels in order to ensure that those rule most favourable are applied. The goals of the bureaucracy are frequently displaced by objectives in conflict with the purpose of the organization.
Contrary to current belief, bureaucracy as a disease is not confined to governmental agencies, but can be found in all kinds of organizational units, particularly large ones.