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Bending the bars of the iron cage: bureaucracy and the politics of administrative simplification

What can we learn about the nature of bureaucratization by studying political attempts to reduce bureaucracy?

Funded by Forte

Why do political attempts to reduce bureaucracy appear so ineffective? Despite the last decades of reforms aiming to replace bureaucratic organisations with markets, networks, or New Public Management, society appears to be more bureaucratized than ever. Researchers have variously argued that we have are living in an “audit society” (Power, 1999), an “administrative society” (Forssell & Westerberg, 2014), or an age of “total bureaucracy” (Graeber, 2015).

This 2 year research project approaches this puzzle from the assumption that there is something wrong with current ways of thinking about the problems of bureaucracy that keeps us from coming up with more effective solutions. In an attempt to find ways to break out of the “iron cage” of bureaucracy, this project brings together old and new theories on bureaucracy, with an empirical study of so-called administrative simplification programs that are currently being implemented by governments across the world in order to remove unnecessary or inefficient regulations.

This project strives to answer two over-arching research questions: 1) what can we learn about current attempts at administrative simplification by placing them in a historical and theoretical context of bureaucracy critique? 2) what can we, in turn, learn about the nature of bureaucracy by studying programs of administrative simplification?

The project consists of thee studies 1) an analysis of past and present theories of bureaucracy with the aim of developing a new theoretical framework, 2) a study of what is identified as an international discourse of administrative simplification, in order to understand what dominant ideas are giving shape to government programs, 3) a study of administrative simplification programs in Sweden studying the practical effects of current ways of approaching the problem of administrative overload.

Together, the findings of these studies will be used to reflect on alternative ways of thinking about the problems and solutions of bureaucracy that might bring us closer to the goal of creating a healthier and more sustainable society and work environment.