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On bureaucracy

It may sound laughable after a lifetime of filling out forms, but bureaucracies are a step up compared to what came before. However, even though desk jockeys are better than barbarians, they’re not exactly a force for progress. We can’t go back and we can’t go forward because they’re the only way we know to organize anything, whether it’s a democracy or a dictatorship, a government or a corporation, an army or a university. Somehow we have to find a way to stop stasis from becoming rigor mortis.

The first stumbling block when thinking about bureaucracy is the desire to run off and do something more interesting, like pick bubble gum off an old pair of shoes. Nobody wants to be remembered for designing the perfect committee when what we need are cures for poverty and war. And yet, I think we’re making a mistake by ignoring the small stuff. We’re like people trying to build a house, but we’re too busy to find hammers so we’re pounding in the nails with soup spoons.

Boring inventions can be essential to major social advances. Double entry bookkeeping enabled capitalism, which unleashed a torrent of energy compared to feudalism. Padlocks enable secret ballots, and hence democracy, which releases the energy that’s buried under the Big Man model of government. I suspect that structuring bureaucracies to facilitate work rather than obstruct it will unleash a similar quantum leap in human energy. That’s why this boring question is important.

At least one step can be skipped when pondering bureaucracy. There’s no need to detail the symptoms. We know them by now. Anyone who’s managed to sleepwalk through their own life can read Scott Adams’ Dilbert [1] for reminders. It’s all there.

The question is what to do about it. And that depends on where the real source of the trouble lies.

The answer, it seems to me, is staring us in the face. To find a culprit, ask the old policeman’s question: who benefits? The people in control have the leverage to arrange things to suit themselves, and what suits them is the same thing that suits everyone else: job security, followed by increased wealth, power and prestige. Nothing too startling there. Nothing too startling in the insight that size confers prestige. Therefore there is nothing mysterious in the way bureaucracies everywhere always grow.

The people in control want to stay in control. The old, dictatorial methods of management squelched innovation and ended in bankruptcy, but that doesn’t mean newer, gentler methods lead to any actual improvement. They just lead to committee meetings.

If the issue of power is faced squarely, then maybe we can figure out how to bring the controllers under control. Maybe we can arrange things so that people can actually get their work done instead of spending most of their time on the care and feeding of the boss.

The first task is to tame growth. Even when that is an explicit goal, I think we go about it the wrong way. The limits are externally imposed, either as freezes on hiring or budget reductions, or they consist of after-the-fact consequences. The incentives that lead to the growth in the first place are never touched.

To really tame growth, the people who control the rate of growth need to have negative personal consequnces when they go beyond the optimum. The two big mysteries are what, exactly, is the optimum in any given situation, and which disincentives at which level work to maintain that optimum. One of the hallmarks of any solution that works is that it will be unpopular with bosses because it works. Maybe the solutions are already out there, but judging by the current state of bureaucracies, it’s going to take some research and field testing to find them. And then will come the really hard part, mustering enough will to force their application against the vested interests of the few people who stand to lose by them.

Finding solutions is unlikely to be easy. For instance, if each new hire led to a cut in pay for the head, that would definitely make him or her think twice before hiring, but self-interest would probably lead to no hiring, even when it was necessary. Technology might help matters by making it easier to get honest and anonymous feedback about how well an office was doing its job, but then it would still be necessary to figure out how to bring that information to bear directly on the person running the place. The real point I’m trying to make is not to dictate what the solutions should be, but to stress that whatever they are in any given situation, they have to affect the decision-maker personally, directly, and at the same time as the behavior that needs modifying.

The second task is to tame meetings. The original idea behind them was a good one, as is so often the case. It’s supposed to work like it does on Star Trek, where the loyal officers waste no time, present all the facts, give each other the benefit of their varied perspectives, and the best decision emerges.

Real meetings are not about facts. They’re about power. So it’s unsurprising that the powerless rarely speak up independently (when they do, they’re generally soon looking for other work), and that facts take a back seat to whatever the powers-that-be wanted in the first place. Rubber-stamping foregone conclusions saps the time and energy of workers, but it does achieve distributed responsibility. From the bosses’ point of view, this is even better than a dictatorship. They not only get their way, but when it goes wrong it’s the committee’s fault.

None of this is good. Decision-making by committee has to be scrapped. Single individuals must always be identifiably responsible for decisions, and they must always be the same people who actually made the decisions. They can and must get input and criticism (more on this below), but the destructive freedom to shirk responsibility has got to stop.

Reducing the time wasted in meetings would mean there’s more time for another essential ingredient of productive work that’s increasingly missing. People need “alone time” to get work done. Workers need time to actually work rather than interact. Meetings are far from the only culprits here, since all the various forms of mailing, messaging, and talking take time. There are so many of them that offices these days need anti-meetings instead of meetings. Some portion of each work day, such as half, should be understood as time when others can’t be reached. Imagine if a three hour time limit on interaction, with no overtime allowed, actually forced people to limit themselves to those communications necessary to get work done.

The idea of working alone as a Good Thing flies in the face of received wisdom about the value of many heads as opposed to one. Well, the received wisdom is just plain wrong about this. Many heads are notoriously poor at accomplishing anything, and they’re even worse at original or creative work.

But there is some truth in the value of group thinking. It is good at presenting different perspectives that allow problems to be identified much more easily. Furthermore, differing perspectives can often see problems before they occur, which is much the best way to see them.

Unfortunately, the useful, critical function of many-headed thought usually runs smack into power politics. Very few people want to speak up at the cost of losing their job, so people don’t speak up. Criticism is essential, but it’s not going to happen unless the critics have nothing to fear, and the only way to guarantee that is to guarantee anonymity. In effect, that’s the bureaucratic equivalent of the secret ballot. Bureacracies desperately need mechanisms for anonymous input from a broad enough pool of knowledgeable people.

That need for “knowledgeable people” is also a sticking point. Informed input depends on information, and that’s another way the current system fails. Not only are the critics identifiable, but the most important facts behind a decision are generally concealed. In the military, in hospitals, and in airplane cockpits, people have made a study of how to be sure that necessary information reaches the right people, and that their input is heard. Lives depend on correct decisions in those cases, and yet even they still have lots of room for improvement in information flow and feedback. However, at least they’ve made a start on the problem, and the lessons learned now and in the future need to be applied everywhere, not just in those places where people will be instantly killed by the ignorance at the top.

So the quintessential bureaucratic function, the meeting, is terrible at generating new ideas, evaluating old ones, or coming to rational decisions, but that doesn’t mean meetings should be scrapped. They do have a useful social function. People see each other. They talk. They feel more comfortable. Those functions can be far more effectively achieved when they’re the purpose of the meeting, not some unspoken contraband to sneak in around the edges of the “real” purpose.

The British have the great institution of tea time. The whole office, from the lowest to the highest, gathers in a common room for twenty minutes and swills tea (or coffee, for the backsliders). It doesn’t take up a whole lunch hour, and an astonishing amount of both social and work-related communication takes place in a relaxed environment. It’s like the proverbial water cooler or coffee machine, but raised to a more useful level. TGIFs can work the same way.

Unfortunately, the useful functions of meetings run smack into the Protestant work ethic. Socializing is defined as “fun,” fun is not “work,” therefore any socializing is not work. That is another piece of obvious nonsense that has got to stop. Office Christmas parties are very much work, and should either happen during work hours or be banned. Socializing that happens during work, within reason, is not some kind of rip-off. It needs to be supported. (Within reason, of course. I’m not talking about catered pastries.)

The bureaucratic landscape would look rather different if ways were found to implement the points above. Higher-ups would be affected by their own decisions in ways directly related to what they did to those lower down. Decisions would be made by identifiable individuals, not committees. Bosses would not be able to avoid criticism from their workers. Immediate feedback loops would bring home to the decision-maker any bad consequences of ignoring criticism.

The principle of making sure that the consequences of decisions affect those who make them could also help solve an array of issues tangential to the effectiveness of bureaucracies. I think I remember hearing that the French once had a rule that factory owners had to live next to their factories. It was, not surprisingly, effective by the standards of the time at preventing the worst sorts of pollution from those factories. Similarly, Hawaii had (has?) laws on the books requiring State legislators to send their children to public schools. It didn’t affect school choice for private citizens, and kept public schools well-funded and focused on learning.

Imagine laws that require everyone in an organization to be given the same benefits as the people who decide on benefits for others. Taken to its logical conclusion, that means that when Congress votes to have good medical coverage for federal employees like themselves, they have to give the taxpayers the same sort of single-payer, hassle-free insurance. Imagine laws that say any increase in compensation for the higher ups has to be mirrored proportionately to the lower downs. The downside, of course, is that CEOs couldn’t be quite as free with stock options as they have been. One of many upsides is that the growth of income disparity would slow down.

Throughout, at all levels, the important point is that the individuals who actually make decisions should feel enough personal impact to align their interests with the real functions of their offices and with those of the workers they control. The idea that the responsible party should, in fact, be responsible and therefore accountable, is not exactly new. Implementing the rather obvious idea of feedback loops, however, is always a struggle for the same reason that replacing tyrannies with democracies is a struggle. People will always fight any change that reduces their personal benefits. But when their benefits are everyone else’s detriments, it’s way past time to get them off their thrones.

Technorati tags: bureaucracy, management