December 28, 2006

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Enemy Of Bureaucracy

I am an enemy of bureaucracy. The word has been in use for several centuries, apparantly originating in France. To quote the French Baron de Grimm from 1765:

"The real spirit of the laws in France is that bureaucracy of which the late Monsieur de Gournay used to complain so greatly; here the offices, clerks, secretaries, inspectors and intendants are not appointed to benefit the public interest, indeed the public interest appears to have been established so that offices might exist."

According to many definitions, 'bureaucracy' means literally "office rule" or "rule by officialdom", and is a system of governance characterized by four distinguishing features:

* Standardized procedure (following rules)
* Formal division of labour (roles & responsibilities)
* Organisational heirarchy
* Impersonal relationships

You can usually tell when you're dealing with a bureaucracy; someone you've never met, with an extremely specific-sounding job title, rejects your request for a new passport because in your passport photo you look 'slightly too happy', which contravenes the rules and regulations governing the issuance of passports.

Bureaucracies are almost always an end in themselves, as the Baron de Grimm correctly identified. They exist for the benefit of the people working within them, and are anathema to the business of getting the job done. Anyone who's been through the British legal system - or any legal system - will know that following the due process of law is far more imnportant than whether or not the defendant is, in fact, guilty. People who thrive in bureaucracies tend to be the ones who know the system inside-out, and can play the system to their own ends. Having a good lawyer is therefore far more important than actually being innocent, because an innocent person who doesn't know how the system works is every bit as likely to end up behind bars than a career criminal with a top lawyer who knows exactly which buttons to press.

And bureaucracy is expensive. It costs so much money to fight a libel case, for example, that most ordinary folk can't afford to risk it, and are damned to remained permanently defamed. True bureaucrats understand that the overbearing weight of their bureaucracy can be brought to bear when it - no, when they - have to defend themselves. The guy at the top may be a sleazy, incompetent crook, but you'll have to fight through so many layers of red tape to get to him that 99.9% of the time we just give up. Usually we end up going for cheaper, more junior targets. Prime Ministers and Presidents sleep safe in the knowledge that the junior undersecretary will take the rap if it comes to that. Inspector Knacker of the Yard knows it, too, and that's why he won't bother going for the top dog.

Also, bureaucracy is endemic. It's everywhere. It's in every level of government, from the local housing association to the United Nations. It's in the vast majority of corporations. It's in the media. It's in healthcare. It's in schools. It's in the military - boy, is it in the military!? Wherever we look, people in massive, top-heavy, heirarchical organisations are just following rules and procedures, regardless of the outcomes. Where the UK was once a nation of shopkeepers, we have become little more now than a nation of shelf-stackers. If we were to weigh up the characteristics of how our nation is run, I would suggest it's more of a bureaucracy than anything else. Certainly our bureaucratic tendencies massively outweigh our democratic tendencies. On the whole, we're just following orders.

Except... that we're not. Lastly, bureaucracy is dysfunctional. There's a huge difference between following procedures and doing a job of work. Work - in the physics sense - is defined by useful output. In 1955, a schoolteacher directed his or her efforts towards achieving the useful output of pupils knowing how to read and write and do arithmetic. Now, to get ahead in the educational bureaucracy, a schoolteacher must do - and be seen to be doing - what the rule book tells them to do, regardless of whether it ends with pupils who can read, write and do long division. I don't think it's any coincidence at all that as the levels of bureaucracy rise, literacy and numeracy fall. Just as I don't think it's any coincidence that as levels of bureaucracy rise in the police service, crime goes up, or that as levels of bureaucracy rise in the health service, standards of healthcare fall. Whatever the underlying intent or spirit of the rules and procedurtes in our bureaucracy, we casually ignore those and focus on going through the motions instead. If we fail, it's not our fault. It is the procedure's or the rule's fault. By doing what it says we're supoosed to in the manual, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility for the end result. We seem to gladly eschew individual discretion and personal responsibility for our actions, reciting the modern mantra: "don't ask me, I only work here".

I don't want to live in a country where it costs my local hospital $100 to buy an HB pencil, any more than I want to live in a country where the guy in charge is free to flout the rule of law he fervently claims to protect on our behalf. Both extremes are a product of bureaucracy, and both shed light on the true ends of bureaucracy.

That's why I'm an enemy of bureaucracy. And an enemy of anything or anyone who tries to create more bureaucracy. And that's why I'm an enemy of process management.
Posted 14 years, 7 months ago on December 28, 2006