This month I’m addressing the dreaded b-word. It aggravates you and me both, so let’s just talk about it. Ugh, even spelling it makes me frustrated: bureaucracy.
The word comes from the French word ‘bureau’ which means an office and Greek ‘kratos’ meaning power. The concept of bureaucracy was developed and idealized by a German sociologist named Max Weber in the late 1800s as an organizational structure with clear hierarchy and specialization of tasks. Weber theorized that this purposefully impersonal structure would be the most efficient and economical way to organize large groups of people, be that a government or a business.
Office power. Really? Way to go Weber.
In his defense, maybe a bureaucratic system was an improvement over rule by the monarchy. But now that we’ve put people into space, we can FaceTime people across the planet and have a global digital currency, perhaps our operating system is also due for an upgrade. It’s a dinosaur. Bureaucrasaurus Rex.
The irony is that all these rules and forms, all these decisions made by committees, sub-committees and task farces (oops Freudian typo!) were designed to avoid risk and create public accountability. In reality, they do the opposite. They allow for individuals to deny any responsibility for an administrative error or a bad group decision. And the fear of doing something wrong may paralyze employees from doing anything at all. But I guess that is what their union is for.
And yes, while an individual may have responsibilities within their small area of specialization, a bureaucracy is less than the sum of its parts. Especially if there is no responsibility for the whole, no evaluation to determine if it is effective and no talk of any alternatives.
This is more than just a rant, I did some actual research on this. Weber was just the beginning and many people have been theorizing about the b-word. Some say it can only thrive in a monopoly – because if people had any choice at all, they wouldn’t choose it. Bureaucratic systems often mean terrible customer service, unbelievably slow turnaround times, and really bad decision making, because the people at the top that can make decisions are too far removed from the problem to understand it and, besides, they are far too ‘busy’ anyways.
C. Northcote Parkinson wrote a satirical article for the Economist in 1955, arguing that ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’ and that the tendency in any bureaucracy is for middle and upper management to multiply their numbers and create work for each other to do. It is now called Parkinson’s Law and there is, I kid you not, a mathematic formula quite accurately predicting the swelling of middle management in a bureaucracy.
Here’s another irony. No one hates bureaucracy more than the people that work within it. So, what gives? Compare this to the dynamic energy of start-ups or the passion that drives some non-governmental organizations to be nimble and just get ’er done. Why can’t we tweak our governments like this?
Especially now, at a time when OMAFRA wants farmers to be more innovative, to try new techniques and to share their successes and failures with cover crops and min-till, I can’t help but ask them (and I have) when was the last time they made a change as an institution? Shared their failures as learning opportunities? Would they risk some of their salary to improve the environment?
Sigh. And I wonder why I don’t get invited to meetings at 1 Stone Road anymore.
Still, like it or not, we all tend towards bureaucracy because we naturally avoid responsibility and difficult situations. I saw a great talk by Dev Carey (it was a TED talk people, I don’t get out much) in which he spoke about a shared kitchen he used. The first week went fine, but when a few people weren’t cleaning up their dishes, they began to have all-residents meetings about it, passive aggressive reminders appeared on the fridge and even trainings were created for everyone on how to do the darn dishes. In the end he realized that there were only two people who weren’t cleaning up after themselves and he decided to take responsibility and confront each of them directly. Although it was uncomfortable, he resolved the underlying issues, solved the problem and the residents could live peacefully, without fact sheets.
In a similar way, we have designed bureaucratic systems to allow us to avoid difficult situations. But they also impede progress and may leave us in a more serious situation if we don’t do something about it.
When I say that we need more responsibility, I’m not just talking about the b-words stuck in a dehumanizing workplace, I’m talking about all of us. We all need to be accountable for making our govern-ment accountable to us. And, counter-intuitively, maybe it means allowing our government to take more risks, to be more human, transparent and to learn from their mistakes, instead of having to sweep them under the rug. Goodness knows, someone will look under that rug eventually.
Of course, we need rules and laws, but we also need passion and creativity and a little more of that ‘can do’ attitude. As citizens, we have a responsibility to update Weber’s dinosaur of an operating system to help us meet the challenges of this century.
I called the Premier’s office to tell her this, but I’m still on hold. ◊