Sunday, 11 March 2007

17. What is bureaucracy for?

As soon as societies developed complex organizations, the state, churches, cities, they needed organizers and managers. Almost all activities, in fact, need some rules and administration. No games could be played, no arts performed, no knowledge transmitted, no products made if there were not rules and umpires, referees and teachers to administer them. Schools, hospitals, courts of law, libraries, universities, industrial firms, parliament, all need rules and all need bureaucracy. Unadulterated foodstuffs, uniform measures and standards, agreed rules about behaviour, all need supervision.

So bureaucracy is one of the great tools of civilization. Nowadays most organizations need an accountant, a lawyer, a secretary and an administrator. Our lives would collapse into disorder without bureaucracy.

As a form of government it has many things to commend it, especially when compared to its competitors. The aim of the bureaucrat is to apply uniform rules to uniform cases, to work by a recognized code. Favouritism, corruption, the emotional tugs of power, patronage, family ties should be rejected. Impersonal rules should be imposed. All of this is very commendable. In this letter, however, I shall concentrate on the negative side of bureaucracy, for this is less often noticed.

How do people keep order?

Under traditional authority, society is held together by rulers whom we obey because they represent the past, the ancestral and customary wisdom. Obedience is unquestioning, passed on from generation to generation by succession to offices of power vested with authority. A king, a chief, a priest, all have this source of authority.

From time to time such traditional authority is challenged and sometimes overthrown in a moment of creative chaos by the personal insights and dynamism of a single individual. Why such moments of ‘charismatic’ (literally meaning a laying on of hands) authority occurs, whether through the lives of the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Genghis Khan, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon or Chairman Mao is a large question.

What is certain is that the periods inaugurated by a charismatic leader tend to last only a short time. Soon the founder dies. Yet he or his followers may set up institutions which live by the rules or precedents which he outlined, whether he was St Benedict or Karl Marx. This leads to the third type of authority, the setting of impartial rules and standards, operated by trained officials in a ‘bureaucracy’, literally a place where paper is stored.

All of history can be read as a tension between these types of authority. In fact they usually co-exist rather than one replacing another. The prophet relies on bureaucratic structures, the Civil Service relies on the charisma of politicians.

Why do organizations grow?

The benefits of bureaucracy make it attractive to many. Increased efficiency can lead to better medical care, better traffic control, a better economy, and all sorts of benefits which make life run smoothly. Bureaucrats can stand out against the partisan influence of connections and kinship and the corruptions of threat and bribery. Bureaucracy is a powerful bulwark against revolution, subversion and over-enthusiasm. It can protect scarce resources, allocate wealth more fairly and protect the weak from the strong. As the poet Alexander Pope put it, ‘For forms of government let fools contest: Whate’er is best administer’d is best’.

So there is very often a growing desire to control through administrative action, to use bureaucracies as an arm of government. The State holds the people together primarily through administrative centralization. As it seeks to extend its power, so it increases its chief tool of power, bureaucracy. There is a powerful pressure towards multiplying the number and control of bureaucrats.

A second much more recent trend in modern states is the desire to encourage equality of access and execution of rules. This usually opens with a campaign against inequality, privilege and special favours, with a desire to level and redistribute what there is.

In order to do this, everything must be flattened, be put on the same level. Communist societies try to abolish classes and the State ends up with all-powerful administrative classes and a nightmare of incompatible rules which few believe in. It is no accident that the Soviet Union was ruled by something called the ‘Politburo’ (the political bureaucracy).

For much of the past, bureaucracies were used to maintain inequality, to extract wealth from the mass of the population and distribute it to the privileged. Since the American and French Revolutions of the late eighteenth century, the desire to enforce equality through bureaucratic pressures has been related to the desire to enforce equality and individualism. It is proclaimed that individuals have inherent rights, and if these are infringed then there must be action to protect them.

That is fine up to a point. The problem is that it is much easier to define and protect individual rights than to define and defend the wider community or social rights. It is much easier (and more profitable) for a bureaucrat or lawyer to deal with single individuals than with communities.

Are organizations a disease?

One reason for bureaucracies to grow is the desire to increase power and pay. As each procedure in an organization is made into a job, it creates ‘ecological niches’ or nesting places, as it were, for officials, who live off the institution. Since there is little power, pay or prestige if one has few or no subordinates, to increase their power and importance, each bureaucrat tries to increase the number of their assistants. The number of ‘officials’ very quickly expands to consume the resources available.

As soon as a germ (administrator) moves into a new body (hospital, school, university, law court) it breeds, dividing and sub-dividing tasks, creating needs which only new administrators can fulfil. It develops or applies a special status-enhancing language (‘goals’, ‘bench-marks’, ‘mission statements’). This compensates for the fact that it is in the nature of such professional administrators that they have no particular skill or knowledge of the area in which they work.

They are not trained to give lectures, to perform surgical operations or to teach children. They probably know little of the content. Yet they do know how to work in local politics, to deal with outside bureaucratic agencies. They are trained to help to bring in money, to minimize risk, to homogenize and generalize rules and to avoid some of the ‘corruption’ of individual action and subjective judgements.

Examples of bureaucratic systems becoming ever larger and powerful are widespread. For example, a constant flow of requests for information or the bringing in of new rules has quite overwhelmed the central administration in many universities, hospitals and police forces in Britain. So the administrators try to handle this by creating new posts and also passing on parts of the load down the system. Lower down, the burden rises and new administrative posts are set up, then soon overwhelmed, which again passes further work on down.

The great analyst of bureaucracies, C.Northcote Parkinson, gives a good example of what happens. In 1914 the British Navy had 62 capital ships in commission, run by 2000 admiralty officials. By 1928 there were 20 capital ships, run by 3569 Admiralty officials. There was, as was noted, ‘a magnificent navy on land’, since the ships had decreased by 67% while the bureaucrats had increased by 78%.

To believe that the spread of more administrators will either diminish work loads, or even lead to more efficient administration (measured by input/output of time and energy) is as naïve as to assume that computers will one day bring less work for humans or create the paperless office.

What is bureaucracy?

Bureaucracy is an extremely efficient and effective system because it rests on a rational ordering of time and space. It is based on the idea of a bureau or writing desk with drawers in it. Everything must fit somewhere. The fact that many things are untidy, or fit between categories, cannot be tolerated.

Ideally, everything should be placed on an equal level on the desk. Like cases, like solutions; a level playing field, universal tariffs. Do not allow discretion or personal circumstances to cloud judgement. Everything should be comparable. Since qualities cannot be compared, as in apples and oranges, so they must be reduced to something similar, for example weight or volume.

It is also necessary to generate some principle of filing the information that is collected so that it can be re-used. Usually an hierarchal storage system is created, based on stating very general principles and then working to split these, layer after layer, until every conceivable type of case has its own pigeon-hole.

The bureaucracy disapproves of all rule breaking, which it tends to label ‘corruption’. It thrives on the multiplication of rules, attempts to make provision for every kind of situation, tries to prevent individuals in the group from exercising too much personal discretion.

Another tendency is towards centralization of power. If possible, decisions are moved upwards in the system, too much delegated power is to be avoided as it might lead to a lack of uniformity, ‘unprincipled exceptionalism’. If it can be shown that different parts of the same institution act differently, this is equivalent to corruption. Usually in a bureaucracy there is not only an hierarchical arrangement of the drawers so that rules are of a rigid kind, but the organization of roles is hierarchical. This means that every decision of any importance has to be ratified by someone higher up the chain.

Why measure everything?

It has often been noted that assessing is a very strong feature of bureaucracies. They always wish to place things on lists in their attempt to turn uniquely varied qualities into measurable quantities. This is very obvious in all walks of life. In schools there are increasing numbers of tests which are marketed as good for the child, parent and school. They will make assessments available in order to mark progress towards targets and to make some kind of comparison between the intrinsically incomparable. In hospitals, universities and elsewhere it is the same.

One particularly intriguing and rapid growth in one branch of this desire to assess, is the wish to try to protect against the future. There is now a huge business in ‘risk assessment’. There are many organizations and individuals whose life is spent trying to quantify and specify and hence, in theory, diminish risks. Since life is full of risk, when consulted they usually suggest extreme caution.

Another technique of modern bureaucracies uses the metaphor of the path or track, namely the ‘audit trail’. The old saying that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done, now applies to all administration. It is not enough to teach or examine well, but every stage must be put on paper so that if there is an enquiry or ‘audit’, the ‘paper trail’ is clear, unambiguous and correct. The principle of finance, that everything must be accounted for, that life is to be reduced to a double-entry page, that there must be written receipts for everything, is now applied more generally.

There are now teaching audits, research audits, hospital, legal, and many other kinds of audits. ‘If it moves salute it, if it doesn’t move whitewash it’ used to be an army saying. The equivalent now is, ‘if it is unpredictable at all, risk assess it; if it leads to an outcome, make an audit trail’.

Is bureaucracy a danger?

A certain amount of bureaucracy, accountability and organization is vital for the world we live in. The benefits of bureaucracy do not need urging. Yet the hidden costs of over-doing the regulation are very considerable. As the rules multiply, it becomes so difficult to do anything that one has to cheat or break the rules in order to survive. Indeed, since the rules often conflict with each other and whatever one does breaks some rule so it is a question of choosing between illegalities.

I still remember how surprised I was when a building regulations inspector came to check the house we live in. We had put in a new staircase without a handrail. He said it was unsafe and must have a handrail. When we put that in, he said that it was now too narrow for safety. Short of pulling down much of a seventeenth century structure, we were bound to break the law one way or another.

The system becomes ever more complicated, with more and more rules. Rather than leading to openness and transparency (which was the original intention), this leads to a situation where only a highly trained specialist (professional bureaucrat) knows how it works. There is as a result more space for hidden corruption.

There is also a loss of personal incentives. Humans like freedom and responsibility in their lives. They like to be given basic guidance and then encouraged to get on with things; to be ingenious and creative in their solutions. As bureaucracy increases, people are ever more rule-bound, forced to work ‘by the book’. This means that jobs become dead; creative and ingenious solutions are often frowned upon.

The hierarchical nature of bureaucracy leads to duplication, the erosion of trust and individual creativity are the emergence of a ‘surveillance society’. It ends up in the typical Japanese office with its endless stamps and fear of being ‘the nail that sticks up’ which will quickly be hammered down.

One unexpected effect of over-bureaucratization is the spread of cynicism. For much of English history rules were few but were observed and respected. The proliferation of rules, as in the Soviet Union, means that they are seen as obstacles, nuisances, pressures which work against the individual, barriers to get round and break if possible.

Cunning, cheating, deviance, learning the real rules behind the rules, are what it is all about, a phenomenon found in all over-centralized bureaucracies. This breeds cynicism since the less successful, the small rule breakers, assume that the successful have got to where they are by cheating, bribery, corruption and breaking rules.

Another harmful effect of over-active bureaucracies is that they divert talent. In almost all organizations, the higher the pay and the higher the status, the less practical work and the more administration. A head teacher who was perhaps an excellent communicator does not teach any more. An excellent surgeon ends up doing paperwork as head of a hospital. A brilliant academic is finally the administrative head of a University. None of them any longer do the thing they most enjoy or are good at. They spend their time as fund raisers, personnel officers, chairs of committees. It is a widespread tendency: if you can do anything really well, stop doing it and become an administrator.

The aim of the bureaucrat is to prevent ‘corruption’, which is defined as the use of human contacts, networks, allowing in warmth, affection and emotion. Ironically the proliferation of rules often means that the only way to cut through them is through a form of networking or as it is known in Nepal, afno manche, literally ‘own people’ knowing someone and using ties of patronage.

A further effect is waste of time and effort, much of it never accounted for despite the fact that bureaucracy is supposed to be based on accountability. In case an institution might need to justify an action, huge amounts of time are spent on concocting audit trails, lengthy agendas, minutes, papers to cover every aspect of everything. The time and energy in doing all this when set against the cost of any likely harmful outcome is probably out of all proportion. Yet it is held to be irresponsible not to do it. If there is trouble, the lawyers will go for the weakest point, so the bureaucracies have to lumber themselves with huge protective defences over their whole body.

Can we avoid being drowned in paper?

When people looked at bureaucracy over Europe during the period between 1200-1800, they pointed to one path which had avoided this almost universal tendency. This was to be found in England. Linked to the growth of powerful middling groups, the absence of the threat of war, the nature of the Common Law, the proliferation of wealth, the growth of a powerful set of intermediary groupings, the English from the twelfth to nineteenth centuries represented a strange paradox.

England maintained a curious tension between the most centralized feudal landholding and judicial system in history (with all land ultimately held and all justice flowing from the Crown) and the most de-centralized administrative system, where the legislature and executive were practically separate. Local government was extremely strong and independent down through the county to the parish level. The central bureaucracy in the capital, as well as the size of the standing army and police, was small when compared to almost every other middling-sized state in Europe.

This unusual tradition, which many observers thought was one of Britain’s greatest strengths, has almost vanished. Since the 1980’s as bureaucracy has spread with the so-called ‘management revolution’. Every attempt to get rid of the tentacles seems only to increase the problem.

So what can be done? The main thing is to be aware of the reasons for the spread of this replicating growth. The second is to be aware of some of its effects. The third is, if it cannot be altered, to learn how to survive within the increasingly bureaucratic systems. These are arts which those living in eastern Europe or Italy have perfected.

One obvious way to survive bureaucracy is to join it. This will be a real temptation for you when you are looking for a job. Many people have joined professions and have by their very success been promoted into management positions. Or they have been forced to seek promotion to an administrative post to pay for the mortgage, health insurance, pensions or children’s education.

If you are faced with very intrusive bureaucracy you will be forced to learn various ways to out-wit the system and to get round some of the more unacceptable tests and indices. While these techniques are important, the most important thing is to keep cheerful and positive.

The most insidious feature of bureaucracy is that, like all power, it tends to affect even those who start off as sceptical. People come to believe in the assessments, audits and mechanisms. They tend to take them very seriously and try to fit themselves into the evolving system. Once this concession has been made, there is little chance of escape.

Keeping a sense of humour which mocks some of the more extreme forms of bureaucratic behaviour helps. We need to remember the jokes. Most bureaucracies have an element of the criticism made of the British Civil Service, which provides ‘a difficulty for every solution’. A Committee can often be ‘a group that takes minutes and wastes hours’.

Yet being forced into such joking, and the feelings of wasted talent and time, is a considerable price to pay for supposed gains in efficiency. As in many of the great bureaucracies such as classical Iran or Mandarin China, cynicism is corrosive of integrity, personal and civic, and of morale, personal and public. The dilemma is that we need an uncorrupted civil service and an uncorrupt bureaucracy to make life tolerable. Yet bureaucracies have a tendency to expand and become over-intrusive. Getting the balance right is very difficult.


LucyTozer said...

Alan! It's Lucy from YouTube...

Delighted to see you have posted the section on Bureaucracy from Letters for Lily.

Thank you so much for your note on Monday. There is so much I feel I would like to write but that can wait, I needed to thank you for this post, immediately!

I found the book yesterday and I was delighted to discover such an approachable style of writing. It was exactly what I was looking for.

When the circumstances are right I can be a very motivated individual, brimming with ideas.

My desire to start doing something was powerful and I would be delighted if you would view the fruits of an afternoon's labours here. Hopefully my extended network will create enough momentum:

purplegnu said...

I guess that over extended periods of time bureaucracy is mightier than blogs opposed to it.