Bureaucracy

McGill SGI Research Papers in Business, Finance, Law and Society Research Paper No. 2024-10

'Bureaucracy,' in Keywords of the Datafied State, edited by Jenna Burrell, Ranjit Singh, and Patrick Davison (New York: Data & Society, 2024)

11 Pages Posted: 24 Apr 2024

See all articles by Jennifer Raso

Jennifer Raso

McGill University, Faculty of Law

Victoria Adelmant

New York University School of Law

Date Written: April 12, 2024

Abstract

Bureaucracy is the original machinery of “datafication.” It is an organizational form made up of people, information, rules, and technologies. Bureaucracies are designed to gather, control, curate, and rely upon information. But they are ineffective without people. As an organizational form, then, bureaucracy arranges authority among the people who work within it, distributing and delegating decision-making power to different tiers of civil servants and to others. Bureaucracy thereby fulfills a critical legal function as it organizes and allocates state decision-making authority. Bureaucracy also structures legal relations between the state and the public. The actors, techniques, and systems comprising bureaucracy apply legal rules to real-life situations where most people experience government. Bureaucratic actors (from public officials to decision-making software) thus profoundly impact people’s lives and create, reduce, or amplify structural inequalities.

The term “bureaucracy” has also long been derogatory shorthand for inefficient, impenetrable government. Specific bureaucracies, and bureaucracy more broadly, are regular targets for transformation projects that aim for a government ruled by “common sense” rather than tied up in red tape. For decades, state officials have eagerly adopted new technologies to change how their bureaucracies function. By the early 1990s, digitalization was even proclaimed a means of “ending bureaucracy.” Today, new data-driven tools and methods continue to be deployed as an antidote to inefficient processes. State “datafication” thus features governments adopting ever-more advanced computational tools, techniques, and systems and automating many components of decision-making processes across bureaucracies.

But do datafied state initiatives end or extend bureaucracy? This keyword entry explores this question in two parts. First, it reflects on who and what constitutes bureaucracy as the state is “datafied,” and how datafied state initiatives displace and disperse, rather than replace, the people and systems that make up bureaucracy. Second, it examines how ongoing datafication initiatives affect bureaucracy’s specific legal function, or how bureaucracy organizes and applies decision-making authority. In doing so, it explores how datafied state initiatives disperse decision-making and the implications for accountability mechanisms.

Keywords: Bureaucracy, digital government, administrative law, datafied state

JEL Classification: I30, I38, K10

Suggested Citation

Raso, Jennifer and Adelmant, Victoria, Bureaucracy (April 12, 2024). McGill SGI Research Papers in Business, Finance, Law and Society Research Paper No. 2024-10, 'Bureaucracy,' in Keywords of the Datafied State, edited by Jenna Burrell, Ranjit Singh, and Patrick Davison (New York: Data & Society, 2024), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4792578

Jennifer Raso (Contact Author)

McGill University, Faculty of Law ( email )

3644 Peel Street
Room 506
Montreal, Quebec H3A 1W9
Canada

Victoria Adelmant

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States

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