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, 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 "1" and Pen-Pushing President.
This trope can be considered as parent trope to Fascist, but Inefficient. Totalitarian forms of statehood and economy always require and form a vast bureaucracy, which escalates the horrid inefficiency of such societies.
- The Big Finish Doctor Who 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 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 starship Entreprise-2061 of Pouvoirpoint is nothing but a big flying administrative corporation. The main character must complete a several meters long boarding form, fills more and more pointless documents (attestations each time he is going to lunch at the canteen), not to mention all the paperwork related to his work.
- Zigzagged (but overall averted) by the PRT in Mauling Snarks; true, some important information may be locked behind excessive security due to clerical errors, and some important forms might have been phased out due to regional preference, but once those errors are discovered, they are instantly resolved and everything becomes a lot smoother. Moreover, for someone who knows how to ask the right questions and actually does Read the Freaking Manual, the PRT's network becomes incredibly comprehensive and efficient: Wards can request to have their security clearance increased and sign up for firearms and weaponry classes, people with family-unfriendly powers can register as Anti Heroes who actually have clearance to break rules, and even apply to play pranks.
- In the animated movie The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, Asterix and Obelix need to get the permit "A-38" from a bureaucratic agency know as "The Place That Sends You Mad", a Roman bureaucratic building so convoluted it does Exactly What It Says on the Tin. And our heroes comes close to it too, after fruitlessly 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 with is out to lunch, and so forth for hours. The method Asterix uses to win is brilliant in its simplicity: he turns the bureaucracy against itself. He asks for "Permit "A-39", which doesn't exist, but the employees try to find it anyway because they don't know that, exposing the weaknesses of a system where everyone has a task but doesn't know how the rest works. In the end, all of the employees themselves go mad, and the head of the department gives him the permit A-38 just to get rid of him. And after realizing what he'd done, the guy himself goes mad as well.
- 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.
- In The Double, Simon is found to be missing from the office computer system, and is told that he does not exist as a result. To get back into the system, he needs a worker card, which he can't get without being in the system.
- In Jupiter Ascending, the captain of the Aegis cruiser would much rather go into battle than deal with the bureaucracy that claiming Jupiter's title to Earth involves. She's not exaggerating; the process is so laborious that it ends up frustrating even the robotic lawyer assigned to Jupiter.
Jupiter: I'll never complain about the DMV ever again.
- The Pentagon in The Pentagon Wars. Played both for Black Comedy and for drama: everybody involved in the Bradley project who isn't a detached Jerkass War Hawk gets their decency ground out of them because they quickly realise it's the only way to get anything done, and nobody wants to tell the truth about how bad the Bradley actually is because it would make them look inefficient in the grand scheme and cost them their careers.
- Ikiru portrays the Japanese bureaucracy as this setup loaded with Obstructive Bureaucrats. The plot is kicked off when a group of mothers, wanting to convert a nearby dump into a playground, are given the runaround from department to department all requesting forms from other departments until they come back to the first one again. It's best exemplified when one worker laments that - "The thing is, in order to clean up a garbage can somewhere, you need a garbage can full of paperwork!"
- 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. Some of the higher estimates but it at nearly 1 in 2.
- 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'.
- Terran Trade Authority has a variant where it is presented simply as what is logically necessitated by the situation — in the chronologically later stories, the eponymous Authority is extremely vast (enough for its headquarters to have a major forest surrounding it for the express purpose of making paper so they don't have to import quite as many tons each week) by our standards simply because it is an interstellar bureaucracy covering several planets and outposts (whereas the largest we have are ones covering most of a continent).
- In The Stormlight Archive the country of Azir is famous for its obsession with paperwork. When a thief breaks into the palace and pretends to be someone's servant sent to get cake, she's treated to a rant about how dietary requests are supposed to be submitted in advance with the appropriate forms. When a man intends to execute a 13-year old for trespass and theft, they stand aside, unable to argue because he did, after all, fill out the correct paperwork to do it. On the other hand, while an assassin murders rulers across the world and much of it descends into chaos and civil war as factions vie for the throne, the most powerful people in Azir are sitting peacefully around a table, worriedly and earnestly discussing the best options for the country. The idea of rioting in Azir is dismissed as "too much paperwork." And when the slave race present throughout most of the world suddenly (re-)gains full free will and thought they seemingly act in accordance with the nature of the nation they're in — which in Azir means paperwork (specifically, suing for backpay) rather than, say, revolting to enslave the humans.
- In The Laundry Files, while the organization known only as "The Laundry" is much smaller than most of the other examples here, its bureaucracy is still bloated and overstaffed beyond belief, mostly thanks to the fact that people who get offered a job there aren't allowed to refuse and aren't allowed to leave. Justified: since the Laundry must pick up everybody who finds out too much about the squamous horrors dwelling at the bottom of the Mandelbrot set, keeping them chasing paperwork is an excellent way to maintain The Masquerade with a minimum of effort note .
- In Chrono Hustle #14, Jack takes advantage of the bureaucracy in Nazi Germany to get access to KOKON bases.
- Pharaoh, being set in Ancient Egypt, has to have clerks. Too many clerks who draw too much pay.
- The Viiminian Empire in Wise Phuul has an extensive bureaucratic system that governs all areas of life (and unlife).
- In the Chaos Gods series, three of the Four Realms are ruled by pantheons of gods, but the Mutual Lands are instead governed by a vast bureaucracy. Extensive paperwork is required for everything, from travel between towns to holding birthday parties.
- 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.
- In The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, much of the "Prague, August 1917"/"Espionage Escapades, part 2" episode sees Indy encountering an insane Kafkaesque bureaucracy when all he wants is to get a phone installed. Kafka himself later shows up to help Indy out.
- On JAG this tropes comes in two different flavors. If concerning the Navy and Marine Corps, the vast bureaucracy, which it is, will often be portrayed in a positive and/or neutral sense. If concerning any other service or another non-military agency the negatives will be accentuated.
- The MythBusters ran into this trope during the Larry's Lawn-Chair Balloon myth when they spent an entire afternoon calling around to various authorities for permission to do the experiment.
Jamie: He transferred me to his duty officer upstairs who apparently was not on duty right now, so they call us back.
Adam: You know it's that kind of thing where you can call until you are blue in the face, and no'one would know who you should talk to, and if something did happen and people where pissed off. It would still take them like three weeks to figure out; who should punish you?
- In Star Trek, Starfleet Command seems to be entirely staffed by Obstructive Bureaucrats or Insane Admirals, with any visit from its representatives being viewed both In-Universe and out as a sign of an incoming flood of red tape for the heroes.
- In 24, the United States government is portrayed this way, where the bureaucrats seem to outnumber the actual field agents by a factor of ten to one. Hell, there are at least two agencies, District and Division Command, that have the exact same job of overseeing CTU and the show can't quite figure out which agency director out ranks which. It wasn't unusual for CTU to have half a dozen different leaders over the course of a season, with each one being overridden by another, higher ranked bureaucrat.
- The Twilight Zone (1985): In "Wish Bank", Janice Hamill is transported to the Department of Magical Venues after finding a magic lamp. Her broker Mr. Brent hands her a stack of papers and tells her that she needs to bring them to the validation window before her Three Wishes can be granted. He also says that she has to pay tax on the $10,000,000 that she wished for. After queuing at the window for hours, the clerk tells her that she is missing a 604 form and that she needs to get one from her broker. Janice seeks help from Mr. Willoughby, the head of the office, but it is quitting time so he says that she will have to come back tomorrow. She is so frustrated that wishes that she never found the lamp.
- Midst: The Trust is somewhere between a government, a bank, and a cult. The Notaries are halfway between clerks and priests, and they have dozens of algorithms to figure out the exchange rate of good deeds and Valor.
- Reality itself runs on this, where the natural order of things is maintained by the gods of the sprawling, increasingly run-down Celestial Bureaucracy.
- Not to mention the one in Creation. The Scarlet Empress deliberately made sure that nothing noteworthy was easy to accomplish. Rival families and organizations within the Scarlet Empire were pitted against one another in order to keep them from organizing against the Empress and she made sure the Empress herself (not just the office) was utterly indispensable. So when she disappeared, the entire Empire almost immediately began falling apart.
- The Azorius Guild in the Ravnica setting of Magic: The Gathering is this. Just take a look at their acceptance letter◊.
- Paranoia runs on this. Or, to be more accurate, totters shakily along the edge of the catastrophe curve on this.
- In Traveller the bureaucracies of the First and Third Imperiums were so vast that many of the higher-ranked administrators (aka the Imperial Nobility) were hereditary since it was impractical to expect people to achieve those posts meritocratically in a single lifetime.
- In Warhammer 40,000, the Administratum of the Imperium of Man takes this trope to an extreme, to the point that Dark Heresy mentions that one of the planets has a civil war is brewing over where to store all the paperwork. Legions of scribes and bureaucrats across the galaxy spend their lives processing data thousands of years out of date, to be stored in archives that will never be read. Reinforcements are sent to wars that ended generations ago, and entire sectors of space are lost due to filing errors. Tithes are demanded of planets that no longer exist, or worse, a world can face punishment for failing to meet a conscription quota because a mass-mobilization order was issued twice by accident. That said, the Imperium is so incomprehensibly vast such errors matter little in the big picture, not to mention the Imperial government (rather than the planetary governments) considers this state of affairs better than the alternative as was shown in the Horus Heresy.
- A recurring issue for many of the star-spanning powers of BattleTech, though arguably the most heavily affected was ComStar, whose strange mix of Machine Worship and Impartial Purpose-Driven Faction made them into a bizarre religious Space AT&T and meant that it was not only possible but common for the right hand to not be fully aware of what the left hand was doing at any given time. This would lead to results like civilians trying to warn people about an invasion force being prevented from sending out word by ComStar members because they didn't have an account, or occasionally taking so long to arbitrate mercenary review cases that some of the disputing parties died before a decision was reached.
- 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.
- In Marathon, the cripplingly bureaucratic Pfhor follow officially marked orders to the letter, no matter how counter-productive or suicidal. This is strongly demonstrated in Infinity, when the crew of a Pfhor ship obeys a fraudulent order that instructs them to summarily execute the higher ranking officers on board. The same order also forbids said officers from surrendering peacefully to be executed.
- In the council building in Amn at the beginning of Baldur's Gate 2, there is a guy who has been continuously shuffled between various desks in his efforts to get someone to acknowledge that his farmhouse is not a castle and should not be taxed as a castle (The one person he actually got to physically inspect his home declared that fixing the paperwork would be too much effort, so he declared that he saw a castle there). If you decide to start murdering people in the council building, he will join in.
- The Witcher 3: Geralt decides to cash in those "long-game" investments at a bank he deposited a few orens in when he was still a kid Witcher. The thing is, Geralt LITERALLY DIED, so he has to go through a gauntlet of bureaucratic nonsense to access a resurrected man's account. It turns out that the bank has a policy of spending the fortunes of the dead, so they put a heap of bullshit in front of monetary recovery to cover up the illegal confiscation from any heirs. Geralt pummels the bank guards and leaves with just 200 orens. Bonus points for referencing Asterix (see above), as the form to edit a deceased person's account is - you guessed it - Permit A-38. You really can't expect more when the bank's motto includes "watch over your coin as if it were our own".
- In the Infocom games Planetfall and Stationfall, your character joins the Stellar Patrol for a life of adventure and exploring new worlds, only to find that its real job is to administer the galaxy's vast bureaucracy. At the start of Stationfall, your mission is to collect a consignment of Request for Stellar Patrol Issue Regulation Black Form Binders Request Form Forms.
- Referenced and cheerfully averted in Mass Effect 2. On first returning to the Citadel, Shepard is informed by C-Sec captain Bailey about the mountain of paperwork officially required in order to restore Shepard's clearances, what with previously being dead and all. Or he can press a button on his terminal instead. Even the most law-abiding Paragon Shepard doesn't complain about ignoring the regulations.
- In Beholder 2 you work in the Ministry Carl reported to in the first game, it's located inside a colossal, grey monstrosity of a building that seems to go on forever.
- Sunless Skies:
- The New British Empire's civil service is... quite complicated. Branches include the Ministry of Public Decency, which serve as Moral Guardians and censors, the Horological Office, which tries to make sure that time is consistent throughout the Empire, the Home Office, which originally processed immigration through the Avid Horizon but now merely keeps an eye on the detainees stuck there, the Bureau of Entertainments, which runs Worlebury-Juxta-Mare, and the Office of Works, whose primary purpose appears to be purchasing Noodle Implements.
- The Blue Kingdom as a whole is even worse. Everything, every last thing, requires paperwork and a good bunch of it. Just having the place acknowledge you exist has its own processes that will take a while, and changing your status from there has its own twists and turns, depending on who and what you actually are. Each possible divide of life and death is acknowledged and requires its own papers. Even different species have their own courts. And, naturally, since the place processes everyone that's dead and many that are still alive, the queues are so huge the streets and roofs are full of people. And you better have your papers in order, because the laws here are written into reality itself, and will come to life and set your arse on fire themselves if you're breaching any of them.
- Stellaris has the "Byzantine Bureaucracy" civic: "This society is largely governed by a complex and, to the outsider, almost labyrinthine system of bureaucracy. An army of officials and functionaries work tirelessly to keep the government running smoothly and ensure no citizens are allocated resources they cannot demonstrate a properly filed and triple-stamped need for." Game effect: Reduced housing and amenities usage and more administrator jobs.
- In Void Bastards, the dangers of having to raid a Derelict Graveyard of spaceships with all the aliens, space pirates and other such problems are nothing compared to the horrors of the bureaucratic corporate dystopia that is this setting, you can get sent to prison for minorly inconveniencing a Corporate official, all electronics are designed to be overridden either by buying it out like in Bioshock or with the proper authorisations meaning screwing people over by having money or connections are literally built into the system and you can't get anything done without the proper paperwork. Your first task is to salvage a document printer and a blank ID card to restore your status as a citizen because you were a prisoner and they destroyed your old one, and it gets more convoluted from there.
- Displayed prominently in Backtrace, where the intergovernmental councils and foundations and such are so thick with such varying rules and regulations that it is next to impossible to do much of anything without breaking some kind of red tape, and where if you do break red tape, it is nearly impossible to understand exactly which red tape you broke. And then, considering the numerous exceptions to rules given by other rules, one can never be sure whether any red tape has been broken in the first place.
- The entirety of Nephilopolis runs on this in Dresden Codak. There are even departments with which you register your crimes. And divisions dedicated to undermining the other divisions.
- Schlock Mercenary: Luna's government has a massive bureaucracy. When Tagon's Toughs are hired, they're required to fill out 300 pages (and that's the "short" form) of redundant paperwork because the use of computers for such work was banned by the "Bureaucrat Preservation Act". It turns out the job was to clear out a long-standing (years, apparently) "protest" outside one of their offices that was actually just the line. Thankfully the Toughs manage to find a loophole; computers aren't allowed, but an Artificial Intelligence is legally a person, and the fact that Ennesby can fill out thousands of pages a second is irrelevant to the law.
- The Crew of the Copper-Colored Cupids are a remarkably inefficiently-designed Robot Republic. They are ruled by a Parliament, whose approach to any hard problem is to create a new commission or subgroup that will take care of it for them, meaning there are a lot of weird, nigh-useless government agencies running around from relatively obvious ones like the Cupid Tax Department to bizarre, abstract ones like the Cupid Logic Commission. And in parallel to all that, there is the sprawling Cupid Intelligence Institute, the primary research center of the Cupids, which has a Vast Bureaucracy all of its own, mostly composed of a lot of very specialized Departments. (The Departments spend most of their time bickering about which problems fall into whose area of expertise, as opposed to actually solving the problems, for which reason they ended up creating a Department of Problem-Solving that actually does most of the work.)
- Wikipedia's growth slowed at one point 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.
- Parodied by the Central Bureaucracy in Futurama. The lines to get a birth certificate are so long that babies are born in line, and it has committees just to determine the color of the book of regulations. (They kept it gray). The bureaucrats are not only aware of how anal and rigid they are, they're pretty damn proud of it.
- Many times in South Park, whenever there was an emergency a dozen or so government agencies would fight over who would be in charge of the situation.
- Rick and Morty has the Galactic Federation, with 6,047 member planets at the start of season 2.note Rick is one of their top-wanted fugitives, and is considered an intergalactic terrorist.
- 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 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.
- Eight years after Waco, this would be one of the contributing factors into the 9/11 attack, as one agency knew that the terrorists were in the country, and another agency knew they were taking flying courses, but neither one collaborated until after it was too late. This was, incidentally, the reason the Department of Homeland Security was formed - to help collate information from various other bureaucracies in the intelligence field.
- The Soviet Union was as a whole mired in red tape, as the government was in charge of everything, including science, commerce, and industry, making the bureaucracy more vast and impenetrable than anything that's come before or since.
- Nazi Germany was built in such a way that various services were at each others throats all the time, so that no one of them would try to stage a coup against Hitler, and having them struggling for dominance suited his Social Darwinist philosophy. Obviously, it didn't work out well.
- Literally the Pentagon, home of the U.S. Department of Defense. It's the largest office building in the world, with around twenty six thousand full time occupants.
- The Licence Raj, set up in India after independence from Britain in 1947, played a major role in directing the nation's economy for over 4 decades before economic reforms blunted its powers. Under its governance, as many as 80 agencies had to be satisfied before companies could produce goods.