Why Bureaucratic Bungling is No Surprise

Government bureaucracies are built to perform very specific functions, which are laid out in detail in laws and further clarified in regulations.  As such, there is no room for a government bureaucrat to take his own initiative.  He is obligated to adhere to the bureaucracy’s stated mission, rules and regulations.

Therefore every bureaucrat is required to follow what I refer to as the two Prime Directives:

1)  Follow the rules;

2)  Obey the boss.

There is actually one additional, clarifying directive, which is:  If there is a conflict between Directive 1 and Directive 2, follow Directive 2.

As a result, there is no innovation, no thinking outside of the box, no focus on productivity, growth, quality improvement, etc.  People in a bureaucracy are not paid to think.  In fact, they are paid to not think.  They are paid to follow the rules and obey the boss.  Period.  That’s why bureaucracies get stuck when an unanticipated situation arises.  The low-level bureaucrats who face this situation have nothing in the rule book specifically addressing it, so they don’t know what to do.  They are not authorized to make decisions on their own, so they have to wait for the boss to make the call.  In many cases, the first-level boss does not have authority to make the call either, so the problem gets floated slowly up the ladder, where, at some point, one of the bosses sees it as too low of a priority to bother his boss with, so he tables it.  As a result, nothing happens.  Word flows back down the chain to be patient, a decision is in the works.  And the whole system becomes paralyzed on the issue at hand because no one is willing to make a decision.

This same process is in also in effect when the bureaucracy takes what appears from the perspective of an objective outside viewer to be an inexplicably stupid course of action.  A clear example is a second-grader who was recently suspended from school for bringing in a toy gun.  In this case, the boy discovered the toy gun in his back pack and, realizing it was against the rules, forthrightly brought it to his teacher’s attention.  The school suspended him.  No doubt, at some point the school district had made it clear that weapons – or anything that even looked like a weapon – would result in immediate suspension.  This toy gun certainly fell within the strict definition of the rules, since it did in fact look like a weapon, and that made the suspension entirely legitimate from the perspective of the education bureaucrats.  Once such an action has taken place, the bureaucracy seems to be paralyzed in addressing it.  Most often, the bureaucracy’s first reaction is a full-fledged defense of its own actions.  If that fails to stand up to public scrutiny (and a total onslaught is the pertinent bar to judge by) then usually a lower-level bureaucrat is blamed for misapplying some of the bureaucracy’s rules.  It is a very rare situation when the bureaucracy admits its error and, because of that, changes policy.

Adding to this effect is the nature of people who are attracted to and stay in this type of job role.  People who hold a bureaucratic job accept that their job is to apply an established set of the rules and do what the boss tells them to do without question, day after day.  Creativity and ingenuity is not needed and not wanted.  These are not the type of people who are out to change the world; they do not enter each day with the idea of improving how things work on the job; they do not think outside of the box in order to solve problems.  They are the type of people who will show up, do the same job day in and day out, always do what they are told to do, and cash their paychecks every Friday.  Even if they come into the bureaucracy with the can-do, make-it-happen, improve-the-world mindset, they will eventually either be beaten down by and succumb to the system or they will leave it.  Only the Kafkaesque bugs remain.

Finally, this effect is all the worse for larger bureaucracies with broader missions.  If the mission is narrowly defined – “put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth” or “build an atomic bomb” for instance – a bureaucracy can be quite effective in delivering on its mission. In smaller bureaucracies, even with a broader mission, there is the very real potential to create an effective and efficient organization – if the person at the top has the right drive and determination to do it.

But rarely do such people get to the top of bureaucracies.  Referring back to the Prime Directives, individuals in the bureaucracy are not rewarded for innovation or excellence; they are rewarded for toeing the line.  For an organization to grow (not in terms of size but in terms of the quality and value of the products and services it provides), it must, at some point, take risks.  But risk is anathema to the Prime Directives.  Innovation and creativity invite the possibility of failure.  Rarely is a person with true drive and determination willing to operate under the Prime Directives long enough to get to the top with his or her drive and determination still intact.  Such a path is much longer for a large bureaucracy than a smaller one.  Consequently, the rewards of leadership go not to those pushing the envelope of innovation and change but to those who can quietly work within the confines of the system under the thumb of another long-surviving bureaucrat.

Ludgwig von Mises’ 100-page book Bureaucracy is an excellent source for a deeper understanding.


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