"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, February 1, 2013

Bureaucracy–A Modern Form Of Despotism

Mary McCarthy famously said that “Bureaucracy, the rule of no one, has become the modern form of despotism”.  Anyone who has worked in a bureaucracy or been forced to deal with it can only be impressed by the inertial power of what can only be described as a living, breathing organism as self-protective as any individual, family, or other social grouping.  It is not ruled by any Administrator or Managing Director, but by the collective survivalist rule of its employees.  Changes in structure or operation happen only slowly and incrementally.  The business of bureaucracies is to stay alive, to self-nurture, grow, and expand.  No one plans this expansion, the additional departments, the staffing up, the duplicate and triplicate layers of authority and responsibility, the little, minor arrogations of power which add to the inertial force of this unintelligent amoeba.  Bureaucracies simply ooze and spread until they absorb everything in their path.

As a newcomer to Washington, I was touring the city with my wife who had been born here.  “What’s that building”, I asked, pointing to one of the long, uniform, uninteresting blocks along Independence Avenue.  “The Department of Agriculture”, she replied. “You could go through there and cut out every third job and no one would notice”.

No one has managed to reduce the size of the federal bureaucracy.  Not Ronald Reagan who famously intoned “Government is not the solution.  Government is the problem” and increased the Defense Department to behemoth proportions.  Not George W. Bush who added layer upon layer of bureaucracy with the TSA and Homeland Security.  Not Al Gore who was in charge of reducing paper (a stand-in for bureaucracy).  In fact, not only has every administration in recent years created new bureaucracies and increased layers and levels of existing ones, they have never eliminated any.  So now we have TSA and Homeland Security and the Departments of Energy, Education, HHS, and others that date back to Roosevelt’s New Deal.  While we Washington residents are the beneficiaries of this growing glut of bureaucrats – they buy things – they clog the wheels of political progress.  It is not easy to reduce the size of any one of the government departments let alone eliminate them.  It is difficult even to change their operating procedures to make them more responsive or efficient.

Municipal governments are just as bad and seem worse because while federal bureaucrats beaver away in their cubicles on applying some arcane piece of legislation, the Department of Motor Vehicles bureaucrat is in your face – pissy, dismissive, arrogant, and spiteful.  There is a barely-concealed joy in the words said to a client who has waited an hour for a registration sticker, “You are in the wrong line”.

Civil Service was set up to protect bureaucrats, and the original legislation succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its founding fathers.  Bureaucrats, protected by seniority and law can shuffle papers, drink coffee, shmooze; attend worthless, endless meetings with no fear of recrimination, censure, or dismissal. 

Even it were not for the protective arms of the Civil Service, bureaucracies would still thrive and would find ways to protect their own.  The status quo is something to protect and defend. Change means risk, a possible dislocation from predictable, safe routines.  Even when change occurs, forced on a bureaucracy by a new administrator, it is not long before the routine is re-established and business goes on as usual.

I worked for five years at the World Bank, one of the world’s great, most entrenched international bureaucracies.  Although we felt privileged to be at the Harvard of bureaucracies and the title ‘International Civil Servant’ meant mission, duty, a rich international environment, and high salaries, we were still harnessed by rules, regulations, and endless procedures.  Everything had to be reviewed multiple times, signed off by legions before making its way up the bureaucratic ladder and out the door.  Any final document at the Bank looked like the Declaration of Independence with its 56 signers’ names scrawled at the bottom.

This is not to say that bureaucracies are stagnant.  Far from it. There is as much jostling for position and influence within them as any.  The successful bureaucrats are the smart ones who know how to game the system, how to use the fetters and inhibitions to their benefit. They know the value of feigned collaboration, meetings to neuter rather than to encourage.  Colleagues never know they have been snookered by these paper-pushing Machiavellis until it is too late.

The Bank had many national cabals.  The Indians and Bangladeshis were particular well-organized and as adherent to their self-interest as the Mafia. They listened, gathered information, wheedled and wiggled, insinuated themselves, spread gossip and rumors and never lost a battle with more naïve and ingenuous Americans who were above crass national groupings, believed in corporate individualism, and ended up always with the short end of the stick.

Having been an independent consultant for many years before joining the World Bank, negotiating the bureaucracy was not easy.  I was used to a world of enterprise, innovation, and full and free expression in the interest of efficiency and quick solutions.  One day I proposed a simple but unique idea – not earth-shaking, but an important new perspective to the engineers and economists who led the Infrastructure Department.  I wanted to look at the promotion of low-cost water and sanitation as a marketing exercise, focusing on cost, demand, design, and sustainability.  After a year of proposals, presentations, meetings, reviews, drafts, and minor approvals, my idea was no nearer to the door than when I started.  The process was so cumbersome and inelegant that I was asked by one of the department’s Chief Economists to first do a history of sanitation, beginning at the 5th century monastery of Nalanda (India), focusing on Renaissance Florence, 19th century New York City, and modern American public works, have it peer-reviewed, vetted by the chiefs of all the Bank’s infrastructure divisions, and reworked into a research-cum-action proposal.

The World Bank goes through periodic, cyclical, perennial cataclysms of ‘Reorganization’.  These total disruptions of work last for months during which most good bureaucrats, especially those who have survived coups, palace intrigues, plots, and schemes in Third World countries, hunker down until the dust settles.  Rumors and innuendo abound and spread, and the place becomes a dirty, tangled mess.  The result? Nothing changes.  The Bank is organized geographically instead of by discipline, or vice-versa, but the same bureaucrats run divisions which look no different, with the same squirrely bureaucrats in the same seats with only the format of their documents changed.

Any law passed by Congress has to be translated into regulations, and it is in that transformation process that whatever juice the original law had gets squeezed dry.  Filtered through division after division, argued in endless, perpetual, and inane collaborative meetings designed to produce non-confrontational consensus, the law becomes pages and pages of bureaucratese, legal modifiers and caveats.  Every bureaucrat at every level tries to tinker and tap to get their petty idea in the regulation, and by the time it emerges out the door, it is a rats nest of jargon and impenetrable prose.

Since bureaucracies are no different from any other human social institution and will never go away.  They will always serve the purpose of extending limited family and community groups into the larger world of employment and civil society.  Although there will always be persistent calls for privatizing public services, the bureaucracies will never allow it; or if they do it will be after years of delays and dilatory maneuvers. Vouchers and other private educational schemes seem attractive enough, for they give poor families a way out of the pitifully dysfunctional public school system; but are teachers for it?  Hell know.  They hunker down behind their unions, refuse change, and ignore their constituents. Bureaucracies have been created for bureaucrats, not the people they are supposed to serve.  That has always been true, and it always will be.

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