WikEd fancyquotes.pngQuotesBug-silk.pngHeadscratchersIcons-mini-icon extension.gifPlaying WithUseful NotesMagnifier.pngAnalysisPhoto link.pngImage LinksHaiku-wide-icon.pngHaikuLaconic

"The bureaucracy is expanding to meet needs of expanding bureaucracy."


"I'm sorry, but you'll need to see Mr. W of Department X in Division Y of Agency Z."

Various bureaucracies are involved at least a little bit in nearly every facet of our lives. Most of the time it's a background entity, such as the government keeping the food safe and the roads repaired and so on. But sometimes, a person needs to interact with it a little more directly, and that's where this trope comes in. As the bureaucracy grew and took on new responsibilities, it created entities within itself to do the work. Sometimes they overlap. Sometimes they get nested within each other, like a Matryoshka doll. And sometimes the individuals within them just don't want to deal with your problem, or the paperwork to fix it, and pass you off to the next poor, overworked soul. At these times you may realize that you are dealing with a vast, formless entity, with no one you can talk to directly in charge.

Notorious for the Inherent in the System way that while no one you deal with is personally evil, yet nonetheless the net effect is horrific.

May have obstructive bureaucrats, but not necessary; there are just a large number of bureaucrats that are mostly just normal people doing their jobs. The Beleaguered Bureaucrat often works here. Rarely, if you are lucky, you can find the Badass Bureaucrat. May be a contributing factor to Jurisdiction Friction. Compare For Inconvenience Press One.

Examples of Vast Bureaucracy include:


  • The Doctor Who Expanded Universe Big Finish audio Caerdroia features one of these. They have at least two similarly-named departments related to writing utensils (which the Doctor discovers when he gets the name of one department slightly wrong, and is told that's a different department), and the Doctor is told he must visit one of these departments in order to get permission to borrow a pencil. When he asks irritably whether anyone at all can help him, he's told to consult the Rhetorical or Genuine Questions Office. To make matters worse, the whole place is apparently staffed by Inexplicably Identical Individuals—multiple copies of the same Welshman, and due to renovations they've taken the signs off all the doors.


  • In the end credits of Quantum of Solace, as with many films, there was a list of thank you's to the agencies in various countries that were dealt with during production. Panama takes two lines, Mexico one, Chile one, the United Kingdom one... and Italy 14.
  • The entire plot and setting of Brazil revolves around a Vast Bureaucracy.
  • Steven Soderbergh's Kafka invokes this, based on the various bureaucracies in Kafka's own writing.


  • The Vogons in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy have a society that's practically made of this.
  • Franz Kafka's novel The Castle is a classic example, which serves as the inspiration for this News Parody report from The Onion News Network.
  • The Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter, with fully staffed departments for justice, research, non-human relations, maintaining the masquerade, transport, sports, international relations, totaling at least 600 employees (the number of ministry people that built the Qudditch Stadium in Goblet of Fire, and that is a very small fraction of the ministry workforce) ruling over a nation of at most (according to the best fandom estimation) 10,000 people, or 1 bureaucrat per 17 civilians, at minimum.
  • The Red Tape War attempts to surpass the Vogons by having not one, but three galaxy-spanning bureaucracies filled with Obstructive Bureaucrats.
  • Devastatingly satirized in Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit with the "Circumlocution Office," a massive government agency run by the Tite Barnacle family. Everything the government does must be approved by the Circumlocution Office, because they are the foremost at understanding the guiding bureaucratic principle of "How Not To Do It."
  • As a Deconstruction of many Cyberpunk tropes, Snow Crash uses this: the since most of the territory of the United States is now run by individual franchises, the U.S. government has become a bureaucracy that serves no purpose except to keep being a bureaucracy. It's confined to its own sprawling mass of office complexes, called 'Fedland'.
  • The Solarian League in Honor Harrington. As the member worlds could freeze legislation fairly easily bureaucracy started making their own "laws".
    • The Solarians had a Polish style Liberum Veto (universal veto), whose result was that the bureaucracy stopped coming to the legislature. That was in many ways all very well if it required a bit of sleaze that ensured that an honest official didn't just have a hard job of it, like in most governments but literally could not exist. From there, the bureaucracy went downhill until a typical bureaucrat's purpose was to protect the Transtellers which in turn usually were less commercial ventures and more money laundering schemes to siphon off what amounted to crime rackets on the frontier.

Live-Action TV

  • Parodied in The Beiderbecke Affair with a civil service building whose door numbering is constantly changed, so there's virtually no chance of ever finding the same department or person twice.

New Media

  • Wikipedia's growth has slowed as of late for multiple reasons, but the related one is an immense behind the scenes bureaucracy with reams of Wikispeak that few new members can penetrate and casual editors can get driven off by, since they may spend half an hour writing an entry only to have it deleted by someone spouting legalese they don't know the terms to counter.

Tabletop Games

  • Paranoia runs on this. Or, to be more accurate, totters shakily along the edge of the catastrophe curve on this.
  • The Administratum in Warhammer 40,000 is described in this manner, to the point that in the Dark Heresy RPG there is a civil war brewing within it over how to store all the paperwork.
    • Indeed, with the Ecclesiarchy (Imperial Church) no better, the Guard an ill-run farce and the Navigators more or less running their own affairs, it could be said that the sole organization run properly in the Imperium is the autonomous Imperial Inquisition - and as its purpose is to purge the Administratum and Ecclesiarchy (all the demon-killing is done by one department) it all devolves into a bloody vicious circle.
  • Reality itself runs on this in Exalted, where the natural order of things is maintained by the gods of the sprawling, increasingly run-down Celestial Bureaucracy.
  • This is actually Exploited by the Vilani Empire in Traveller Interstellar Wars having conquered all the starflight-capable peoples they had discovered(and not having discovered the Puny Earthlings) an exagerrated bureaucracy was created for the precise purpose of making sure nothing got done on the reasonable assusmption that if nothing got done nothing to bad could happen. This worked out until they met said Earthlings and things changed.

Video Games

  • The Infocom text adventure Bureaucracy, designed by Douglas Adams. Your 'health' is measured by your blood pressure, and if it gets too high you die from an aneurysm.
  • The Netherworld of the Disgaea series is mentioned as having one of these (Celestia seems to be slightly better off), mixed with a nice side order of Klingon Promotion. This results in a bureaucracy that is so vast it often welcomes the latter trope, if only to keep the paperwork on whom to keep track of down. The Netherworld villains can usually ignore the dictates of bureaucracy in place (which doubles as its Congressional body), but that's usually because even if they did want to do the paperwork, their goals usually can't be achieved by working the bureaucracy to their advantage regardless, and in the second game, it's to the purposeful advantage of the villain to keep as many people out of the loop about their existence as possible.


  • Schlock Mercenary had the Toughs deal with ancient and labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Luna (Earth's natural satellite was colonized and even terraformed long ago) and queues long enough to spawn their own religion or two. Because while staying around they took a crowd control job, which turned out to be bogus. Thus they decided to force their way in and let rogue AI hanging out with them hack the local museum grade equipment to process those years-long queues in a few hours.
    • …and in process Ennesby accidentally gave birth to an AI, who chose name Lunesby and remained there to see that things are actually get done. Which helped them later - when they found out that it will take too long to collect payment on a government contract here, and their current enemy is up to something, they had a contact in exactly the right place.
    • …and this led to more mess later, since things continued to be done right until the local government started a crackdown on rogue AI, and the matter escalated, which eventually led to the spooks running a sting operation to root out this particular unlicensed AI, involving murder, use of mind-controlling nanomachines, more murder and nothing to show for all their expenses in the end. 31st-century Sol system is that sort of a place.

Western Animation

  • Shows up in the animated movie The Twelve Labors of Asterix (Type 2): Asterix and Obelix need to get a certain paper from a bureaucratic agency, all previous attempts to do so have ended in insanity: going up and down stairs, being informed that the form you need doesn't exist/is the wrong color, the person you need to consult is out to lunch, and so forth. The method Asterix uses to win is brilliant in its simplicity. He turns the bureaucracy against itself: he asks for a paper that doesn't exist, but the employees try to find it anyway, exposing the weaknesses of a system where everyone has a task but doesn't know how the rest works. In the end, the employees themselves go mad.
    • In Asterix the Legionary Asterix goes to the the Roman army headquarters to inquire about a soldier. He's shunted from department to department until giving in and beating the crap out of the first employee he'd met for information.
  • The Central Bureaucracy in Futurama.
  • A Type 1 happened in South Park when there was an emergency and a dozen or so government agencies were fighting over who would be in charge of the situation.

Real Life

  • The disastrous incident at Waco, Texas, in 1993 largely resulted from confusion and bickering between the federal agencies conducting the siege.
  • The New York Times did a special report[when?] on the U.S. intelligence community and reported that it is a huge vast bureaucracy in which literally no one knows about everything that is going on, which means that agencies or even different sections of the same entity periodically bumble into each other as they attempt to serve the national interest in their own way.
  • The U.S. military-industrial complex.
  • See Why Americans don’t trust government by Lawrence H. Summers in The Washington Post. Context: an author in Washington Post, almost by definition, is a representative of the white collar class and the group and occupation that has it easy at that, rather than suffering from bureaucracy directly and greatly, and supports rule by bureaucracy without question, in USA where people run in rather than out. Summary: in 2016 even he couldn't help but see that «a gaggle of regulators and veto players, each with the power to block or to delay, and each with their own parochial concerns» fails even at seemingly trivial task which government actually wants to do, that it's dangerous, and that rather than an isolated accident, it's an inevitable result of the senile system built of said "regulators and veto players" outgrowing sane bounds (however generously defined) even if they are all honest. When an optimistic and sympathetic diagnosis is like this, you can guess how pessimistic or outraged ones sound.