Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Can Bureaucracy Be Beautiful?

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Can Bureaucracy Be Beautiful?

Article excerpt


It has long been understood that public administration is both science and art; indeed, for many years the masthead of the Public Administration Review read "PAR: The Journal of the American Society for Public Administration, to Advance the Science, Processes and Art of Public Administration." Although the science and processes of public administration have dominated the field, there is nevertheless a considerable treatment of public administration as art (Goodsell and Murray 1995; Lynn 1996; Egger 1959; Holzer, Morris, and Ludwin 1979; Kroll 1965; McCurdy 1973, 1987; McDaniel 1978; Marini 1992; Tead 1951; Waldo 1956, 1968). This literature describes the artful qualities of good management and the usefulness of organizational and management perspectives taken from literature and art. While I agree with this literature, this essay makes a bolder and more fundamental argument--that bureaucracy is a form of beauty and that organization and the work of organizations, including what is described as administration or management, can be beautiful. This claim is made first by describing organization and management as aesthetic phenomena. This is followed by the claim that these aesthetic phenomena are a search for the beauty of bureaucracy. Finally, the implications of the aesthetics and beauty of bureaucracy are sketched.

The Aesthetic Qualities of Organization and Administration


Art in all its traditional manifestations--painting, sculpture, music, literature, poetry, architecture--exhibits one consistent characteristic--form. So it is with organization. Form is universal. In the practices of organization and management and in its study, form is often mistaken for hierarchy. It is form that is universal to art and organization, not hierarchy. Form has many meanings. We speak of someone being in good form. The human body has form. Marriage is a form of relationship between two persons. A club or organization is said to have been formed. Ice forms on a pond and dew on a tree. Form can be described as a process or an action which shapes something, and form can also refer to that shape. With particular reference to organization, it could be said that form describes the shape or structure of the organization and that forming is close to organizing or managing.

Form in art ranges from fixed and rigid, as in a stone building or a Henry Moore sculpture, to dynamic and malleable, as in a particular rendering of a Mozart concerto. So it is in organization and work. One of the earliest distinctions in organization theory is between the formal and informal organization, the former being or appearing to be fixed or rigid, the latter seeming to be flexible and changeable.

At an elemental level, it is generally understood that form in art is drawn from nature. Forms in nature, such as the bee's cell in a honeycomb, with its precision and order, or the helix structure of DNA, serve as a touchstone for form in art because artists "have sensed it: they have found it instinctively ... the elementary forms which men have instinctively given to their works of art are the same as the elementary forms which exist in nature" (Read 1952). The universality of form in organization might also be described as a sensed or human instinct to establish and maintain human relations and collectivities based on perceptions of form in nature.

It should not be assumed that form in either art or organizations means linear, rectilinear, or regular. Form is often curvilinear, spherical, spiral, tubular, conical, asymmetrical, or even irregularly contorted. It is important to note that unlike form in art or organizations, form in nature very often obeys understood mathematical laws (Thompson 1942).

To this point, it has been claimed that form is basic to both art and organization; that the word form has many meanings but tends to be used in much the same way in art and organization; that form can be rigid or flexible in both art and organization; that form in art and organization can take virtually any linear or curvilinear shape; and that form in art and organization is often drawn from nature. …

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