"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 arrogation of power which add to the inertial force of this unintelligent amoeba.  Bureaucracies simply ooze and spread until they absorb everything in their path.

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These living organisms grow, multiply, and spread until they meet resistance; but when they do, their malleability and survival instincts enable them to change course, insinuate themselves in other new corners where they thrive, multiply and spread.  No one has found a way to stop the growth of bureaucracies because of this evolutionary advantage. After a time they gain inertia and their growth, spread, and infiltration becomes even harder to stop. At some point their original raison d'etre, their purpose is lost.  The exist only to exist and are inexorable and unstoppable.

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A newcomer to Washington a few years ago was touring the city with a longtime resident.  “What’s that building”, he 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 significantly.  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). 

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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 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 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, but the original legislation had unintended consequences.   Bureaucrats, protected by seniority and law found they could be dilatory, inefficient, and indifferent 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.

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A colleague worked for five years at the World Bank, one of the world’s great, most entrenched international bureaucracies.  Although employees 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, they 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 maneuvering 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 outflanked by these latter-day 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 behind and clueless.

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For anyone coming to the Bank from the private sector, the transition and negotiating the bureaucracy was not easy.  The world of enterprise, innovation, and full and free expression in the interest of efficiency and quick solutions is a world apart from that of the Bank.

An economist friend one day proposed a simple but unique idea – not earth-shaking, but an important new perspective to the engineers and economists who led the Infrastructure Department. He 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, his idea was no nearer to the door than when he started.  The process was so cumbersome and inelegant that he 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 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 repetitive collaborative meetings designed to produce non-confrontational consensus, the law becomes pages and pages of bureaucratese, legal modifiers and caveats. 

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Since bureaucracies are no different from any other human social institution they will never disappear.  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?  They stand behind their unions, refuse change, and insist on the operational status quo - a bureaucracy which may not be congenial to innovation and increased efficiency, but favorable to employees' benefits. 

Bureaucracies are successful social organisms which serve those who form part of the whole.  They succeed by the smallest of increments, changes in routine to favor increased time, labor, investment, and participation.  Each change seems insignificant until its consequences are realized too late.

Even those who feel they can work the bureaucracy to their advantage, play savvy politics within the system, or find a particular niche for their talents, become co-opted, swallowed up, digested, and forgotten.

Bureaucracies have evolutionary staying power, the advantage of adaptation and numbers, and inexorable growth.  There is nothing that can stop them.

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