Beyond Weber: conceptualizing an alternative ideal type of bureaucracy in developing contexts

Beyond Weber: conceptualizing an alternative ideal type of bureaucracy in developing contexts

The study of public administration in developing countries needs to look beyond the Weberian model as the only ideal-type of bureaucracy. When it is assumed that there exists only one gold standard of public administration, all other organisational forms that do not conform to the Weberian ideal are written off as corruption or failures. Drawing on neo-institutional economics, the author introduces an alternative ideal-type of bureaucracy found in China. Termed bureau-franchising, this model combines the hierarchical structure of bureaucracy with the high-powered incentives of franchising. In this system, public agencies can rightfully claim a share of income earned to finance and reward themselves, like entrepreneurial franchisees. Yet distinguished from lawless corruption, this self-financing (or prebendal) behaviour is sanctioned and even deliberately incentivised by state rules. Although such a model violates several Weberian tenets of “good” bureaucracy, it harnesses and regulates the high-powered incentives of prebendalism to ameliorate budgetary and capacity constraints common to developing countries like China.

Key policy messages:

  • this study critiques international measures of the quality of government that are based on a single benchmark. Such measures assumes that only the institutional forms found in Western democracies are the best, whereas all other forms are inferior
  • practices that deviate from Western best practices may not be inferior or dysfunctional—they may fit the needs and constraints of developing countries
  • not all “corruption” is equally harmful. In China local agencies are incentivised to finance their own expenses, yet such behaviour is not lawless predation



  1. How good is this research?

    Assessing the quality of research can be a tricky business. This blog from our editor offers some tools and tips.