Beat Bureaucracy

Movies, books, plays, newspapers and magazines that analyze, dissect and skewer government and corporate bureaucracies 


Brazil (1985) by Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard. Dark futuristic farce by a Monty Python alumnus (Gilliam) and the witty author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Shakespeare in Love (Stoppard)

Yes Minister (1980-84) and Yes Prime Minister (1986-88). Comedy television series by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, BBC. A senior bureaucrat and an ambitious politician jockey for position while the needs of society are thoroughly forgotten. Most amusing.

The Hospital (1971) and Network (1976) by Paddy Chayevsky. Dark depictions of a crumbling hospital and a television network hijacked by a madman

Death of a Bureaucrat/La muerte de un burocrata (1966) by Tomas Gutierrez Alea.  Comedy about a model Cuban worker who is buried holding his union card. His widow discovers that her application for a pension cannot proceed without the card. When the family applies to have the body exhumed and then reburied, penpushers cause endless delays and mayhem ensues.

The Trial (1962). Adapted from the Franz Kafka novel by Orson Welles 


Books: Fiction

Catch-22 and Something Happened by Joseph Heller. The first is a manic satire of the US military, the second a disturbing portrait of a numb businessman.

The Castle and The Trial by Franz Kafka. Nightmare worlds, strangled lives

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Satire of the English court in the 18th century. (Illustration left: office seekers try to impress the king of Lilliput during a sycophantic "leaping and creeping" competition.)

The Complete Yes Minister and The Complete Yes Prime Minister See movies section.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday. When a Yemeni sheikh asks a British government scientist to build a salmon stream in the tropics, politicians and bureaucrats leap into the absurdist fray. A worthy heir to the Yes Minister legacy.

Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens (Chapter 10, “The Circumlocution Department”). Seeking to help someone who is in debtor’s prison, a man encounters a bureaucracy that specializes in doing absolutely nothing regardless of the human cost.

Bureaucracy by Honoré de Balzac. When a bureaucrat tries to cut the size of his department in half, his colleagues attack.

1984 by George Orwell. Willing bureaucrats enforce Big Brother's totalitarian regime.


Books: Non-fiction

On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt. The difference between lying and bullshit; the functions of bullshit; the rules of bullshit. “Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

Challenger, A Major Malfunction by Malcolm McConnell. The 1986 disintegration of the space shuttle Challenger, with the loss of all seven crew members, was the result of bureaucratic infighting, miscommunication and fumbling among NASA personnel, the manufacturer of the solid rocket boosters and the federal government. Only a one-man stand during the investigation of the disaster by physicist Richard Feynman prevented a cover-up.

Have Your Way With Bureaucrats and Fuzzify by James Boren. Amusing romps through the “dynamic inaction” and “bafflegab”of government departments. Boren advises paper pushers to “mushify objectives…yesbut all proposals…fuzzify your goals.”

Bureaucratic Language in Government and Business by Roger Shuy. Nine case studies describe language used in US Medicare, Social Security, disability reports, product warning labels; and in the real estate, insurance and used car industries.

A Lean Guide to Transforming Healthcare
How to implement Toyota's Lean Principles in hospitals, medical offices and clinics

Your Call Is Important To Us: The Truth About Bullshit  Government and corporate insincerity; the lies told by politicians and Big Pharma; the bullshit pandemic.  “A slim but venomous diatribe” (USA Today)

Down from Bureaucracy: The Ambiguity of Privatization and Empowerment by Joel Handler. An analysis of whether privatization of government services leads to better service 

Economy and Society by Max Weber. A pioneering analysis, published in the 1920s, of the principles and structures used by bureaucracies

Bureaucracy by James Q. Wilson. Rigorous yet readable, this book describes how the US federal bureaucracy works and doesn’t work, using well-chosen anecdotes.

Bureaucratic Experience: The Post-Modern Challenge by Ralph Hummel. A pessimistic view of current attempts at reform

Beating the System: Using Creativity to Outsmart Bureaucracies by R. Ackoff and S. Rovin. Chapters include “Why Systems Need to be Beaten,” “The Nature of Creativity.” “System Beaters: Their Stories,” “Sidestep the System” and “Threaten the System.”

The Case for Bureaucracy by Charles Goodsell. The author believes that American public servants generally do excellent work. He examines the creation and development of the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11.

Don’t Take No for an Answer: 5 Proven Steps That Get You to Yes by Bruno Gideon. A businessman describes how to be pleasant and positive while asserting your needs.

The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The great Soviet-area dissenter got himself exiled from his homeland for publishing (in the West) this depiction of Stalin’s maniacal government by terror and the author’s own occasional complicity in it.

Bureaucracy and Red Tape by Barry Bozeman. Offers theories on the causes of red tape and bureaucratic pathology and seeks to distinguish bureaucratic "normalities" from bureaucratic pathologies. Case studies include one that focuses on air emissions and the requirements of the Clear Air Act Amendments. Concludes with specific prescriptions for confronting red tape.


The Inspector General (1836) by Nikolai Gogol. The corrupt officials of a small town mistake a congenial vagabond for an Inspector General in disguise. Afraid of being arrested, the officials shower the puzzled but pleased newcomer with gifts and kowtow till the sun goes down. The Russian government banned the play, but Tsar Nicholas loved it and allowed it to be performed.

Chairs for Talking (Katari no Isu) (2010) by Ai Nagai. A freelance event planner, hired by a Japanese government office to stage a town revitalization program, tries to organize a citizens' participation-art festival involving placing chairs around town to encourage people to sit down and talk. Government staffers do all they can to kill the plan. 

The Department (2004) by Jo Strømgren Kompani. Four hardcore bureaucrats have for long been stuck in an office deep inside a government department. Secret message deliveries and bleeping lamps control their daily chores and the outside world has become nothing but a blurred memory. Like all good worker bees, they do as they are told until one strange day when the smell of freshly baked bread fills the air. Performed in nonsensical Polish.

GS - 14 (2009) by Jason Ford. Hank is a US federal government manager who wants to fire the lazy, reveal unwelcome truths, ignore the rules and treat taxpayers fairly. Soon he's at war with everyone.

The Castle adapted by Max Brod from the novel by Franz Kafka. Brod, Kafka's literary executor, ignored Kafka's deathbed request that all his writing be burned. Ingmar Bergman staged The Castle in Stockholm in 1953; the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre performed it in 2002.

Hercules and the Augean Stables (1954) by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Satire of Swiss bureaucracy. Hercules and a Grand Council negotiate endlessly about whether the strongman will shovel dung. Smells like bureaucracy.

Magazines and newspapers that regularly cover bureaucracy stories

The Guardian

An extensive glossary for citizens trying to decipher the endless jargon of the British civil service; plus witty, insightful features about how bureaucracy works and should work. 

The Washington Monthly 

Although much of its focus is on politicians and policy, this Brainy Bunch also publishes insightful observations about how US government departments succeed and fail. Examples:;col1;col1;col1

The Washington Post   Do a web search for "Washington Post bureaucracy."

Columbia Journalism Review   

The Language Corner of the Columbia Journalism Review focuses on how journalists write. Because journalists often quote politicians and bureaucrats, the Language Corner sometimes identifies trends in “official” communication. Short, well-written articles.

The New Yorker

Cartoon collection--enter "bureaucracy" as the keyword at
Cartoon: Business/Citizen Sisyphus: 
Article: Two Cheers for a Bureaucrat: