Behind the Curtain:
By George Lightbourn
The only thing that saves us from bureaucracy is inefficiency. An efficient bureaucracy is the greatest threat to liberty.—Eugene McCarthy
Over the past year, newspapers throughout Wisconsin ran story after story about this mid-level bureaucrat who was convicted of skewing the process of selecting state government’s travel agent. Most of the stir around her story was due to the impact it might have on the governor’s race. What did Governor Doyle know, and when did he know it?
Yet beyond the headlines, the Thompson story provided a rare view of the inner workings of government. In this case, the focus was on purchasing, one of hundreds of functions that occur behind the brick façade that has been built around government. Frankly, no one relishes those times when we get close enough to government to smell the cologne. We all bring our biases and predilections to shape our view of government. But how does this industry function? What makes it tick? Why is it the way it is?
Students of government know that bureaucracy, widely recognized today as impeding effectiveness, originally came into favor in the 19th century to enhance the efficiency of large organizations like government. Max Weber, the originator of the term described it this way:
“The fully developed bureaucratic mechanism compares with other organizations exactly as does the machine with non-mechanical modes of production. Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs—these are raised to the optimum in the strictly bureaucratic administration.”1
Bureaucracy fit the times. Early in the twentieth century, during the height of the industrial economy, there was a premium placed on efficiency. As a rule, the most efficient businesses were the most successful. Industry was bureaucratic and so was government. It was a simple management model for a simpler time.
As society increased in its complexity, government’s responsibilities grew and became multifarious, for better or worse. Where the poor once looked to the family and the church for assistance, government was asked to play an increasing role. Further, America came to expect government to provide the poor with access to many of the same necessities as the wealthy such as health care, child care, education, housing, transportation, etc. The emerging ills of America including drug abuse, environmental degradation, and unequal treatment came under the purview of government. Huge programs were instituted that transferred money from one level of government down to another level. Tax codes became increasingly Byzantine, professional licensing required more scrutiny, and schools were required to file comprehensive reports on student performance. Government was bigger, more complex, and more expensive. Where the public sector consumed 7 percent of the nation’s GDP in 1929, in 2003 it consumed 31 percent.2
Through all of the changes that government has gone through, its bureaucratic foundation remains largely intact. That is not to say that government is unchanged. Offices are now choked with computers, all aspects of government are subject to public scrutiny, and nearly every management improvement technique has taken root somewhere in government. Government workers are exposed to a wide array of seminars, training courses, and strategic planning efforts. Yet, through it all, the methods and the psychology of the bureaucracy endure.
The basic bureaucratic elements that once proved innovative in improving efficiency today seem antiquated. Yet they are the life-blood of most governmental organizations. While it is difficult to find anyone to defend bureaucracy, many people in large organizations actually enjoy the precision and predictability that bureaucracy engenders. There is something about the symmetry and neatness of organization charts and position descriptions, and even purchasing forms with multiple signatures, that puts many people in their comfort zone. Yet that comfort is rendering government incapable of dealing with the complexities and fiscal challenges facing contemporary government. Worse, it is stifling much of the creativity needed to meet the needs of the American public.
The barriers to accomplishment can numb even the most enthusiastic government manager. Energy and eagerness are dulled by elastic project schedules and unclear accountability. Vestiges of old-line bureaucracy are especially pronounced when money is scarce. During tight budget times government has a tendency to turtle, falling back on the safe and secure, hoping that things will eventually return to “normal.”
As the public, politicians, and the media have come to expect less from government, the people within government likewise have lowered their expectations of themselves. Successful private sector business leaders scratch their heads in wonder as to how government accomplishes anything. They see the barriers facing the government leader as immensely debilitating.
Outlined below are the six traits that define government. Consider how each of the elements stifles innovation, keeps organizations inwardly focused, and prevents government from arriving at flexible solutions to the complexities of today’s problems.
Value system: smooth and steady
Like the factory floor, bureaucracy thrives on predictability and discourages anything or anyone that makes waves. In spite of frequent remonstrations to think outside the box, government leans heavily on mainstream thinkers. Radical new ideas rarely emerge from within government because it has been drilled out of the government worker over several decades. Government has low tolerance for both risk and inventiveness. How many ranking government leaders, while encouraging their staff to think outside of the box, also point with some pride to the fact that their projects are always on time and on budget.
A veteran sage was heard to say, “If you are always on time and on budget you are probably padding both the schedules and the budget, and, more insidiously, are never taking risks.” He was right. Until an organization recognizes that smooth sailing usually belies sluggishness and predictability, it will be hamstrung in addressing the problems of today.
The chain of command is a hallmark of bureaucracy. Everything of significance is coordinated from at least one level up in the organization. The ubiquitous organization chart with its pyramid-like symmetry exemplifies government.
How does hierarchy shape the organization? It means that someone up the ladder bears responsibility for every action. Low and mid-level workers are rarely assigned ultimate responsibility for even mundane tasks. Only up the food chain can someone implement ideas and authorize changes. Ultimately, there is one person somewhere up the line who must give approval. That is the person who will be held accountable. In this way hierarchy causes organizations to mask individual responsibility and thus stifles innovation. Human nature dictates that we put more effort into endeavors when our name is associated with them, when we have skin in the game. In a hierarchical organization, only the person up the line truly has skin in the game. People at the bottom have less incentive to take risks and to make a difference.
In hierarchical organizations the information flow is always up. Only at the top is there an ability to look across the organization for innovations and solutions to problems. This is in stark contrast to most successful private-sector organizations today which have shattered the barriers to horizontal communications. But then hierarchical organizations don’t see themselves as being in the innovation business. As though mired in the Max Weber age, they are in the production business where a premium is placed on the tried-and-true and on smooth sailing.
Hierarchy can also dull the ability of an organization to generate ideas. Bureaucratic organizations strive for a single solution to problems. A great deal of effort is put into finding that single solution. Along the way, diversity of thought is sacrificed in favor of compromise and modification.
Maybe worst of all, hierarchy dulls ambition. In a hierarchical organization workers understand that they can only get things done either through their boss or someone even more remote up the organizational ladder. Government workers learn quickly that to make a difference themselves, they must move up the organizational ladder. Yet, a survey of most governmental organizations reveals few young people in positions of leadership. The implicit message to energetic young workers is that they must wait their turn to move into a job of influence. The enthusiasm and naiveté that fuels cutting-edge industries is rarely found among the leaders in government.
The roots of specialization lie in manufacturing. On the shop floor different units could specialize in one process, thereby maximizing their expertise. The development of expertise and the elimination of duplication resulted in efficient production. Specialization was then transferred to government and, for some functions, yielded positive results. Collecting taxes, issuing car registrations and dispensing fishing licenses have all benefited from specialization.
However, many challenges presented to government today do not benefit from specialization. The complexity faced by government today would stand to benefit from cross-collaboration and competition.
Yet, cross-collaboration remains the exception. There are numerous opportunities for cross-collaboration within agencies, between different agencies, between different levels of government, and with private-sector companies. These collaborations would allow government to gain from a different perspective and different experiences but remain the exception rather than the rule.
For the individual worker, specialization runs the risk of eliminating whatever innovative spirit they might have. The unstated message to workers is that they should become proficient at their specialty and, if successful, will move up the chain of command. This is quite different from the typical career model today where people experience multiple career changes.
At the same time, up the block in another department, a group of budget analysts took it upon themselves to independently look for an answer to rising health care costs. Their analysis was unencumbered by the literature of the day and their approach was very different from that of the experts. They landed on an approach that used the enormous purchasing power of government to extract lower rates from providers and the insurers. While they were bright analysts, they were hardly experts in health care. But they were enthusiastic and naïve.
Specialization would have suggested that they were out of their league. Yet because of their initiative, the governor had the benefit of two very different ideas of how to address this pervasive problem. By the way, he chose the ideas brought forward by the budget staff. In this case, the competition of ideas was healthy and productive.
Uniformity and rules
Bureaucracy cannot exist without an elaborate set of rigid rules. Rules are the fuel that allows government’s engine to run since bureaucracies require uniformity, predictability, and a way for managers up the chain of command to manage by remote control. Rules meet all of these needs.
Schoolchildren learn early that America is a nation of laws. Government at its core operates under laws and rules, a value that exerts a powerful influence over the way government conducts itself. Further, because laws are so important, at any level of government, it is difficult to change laws. This simple concept goes a long way toward explaining the stability of our government. The stability of our laws has served us well as a nation.
However, the fascination with rules and the resulting stability has seeped into the operating side of government as well. What provides stability to the principles of government often renders the operation of government rigid and resistant to change.
For the employee, uniformity and rules removes discretion, innovation, and accountability. Rules tell them how to discharge their duties, providing a safe harbor for the government worker. People who were expected to use their brains in college are told to fly by automatic pilot once they sign on with government. Rules rather than judgment often determine what they should do and how they should do it. While there is certainly a need for some rules of conduct to prevent improprieties, if government is to adopt a new model for management, workers must be expected to maximize their talent, especially discretion, innovation, and accountability.
Positions not people
Bureaucracies thrive especially well in very large organizations. To help manage human capital, large organizations have simplified personnel management by developing job titles. Unlike small businesses that manage with Sally and Henry and Dennis and Martha, large organizations, both government and non-government, use job descriptions. So Martha and Dennis give way to maintenance mechanics and clerical assistants.
Job descriptions and head counts are what managers must use to implement their programs. But what is a job description or job classification? It is a way of categorizing people in a manner that suggests that all people in that classification are alike even though we know that is not the case. People have different talents, different work ethics, and different personalities. People are different—everywhere except in the bureaucratic organization.
Listen to the farewell speech at any retirement party and you will hear, “the thing I will miss most is the people.” But bureaucracies treat all people in a similar classification as though they are all the same. While this is done under the guise of fairness and professionalism, smart management must begin to recognize the differences between people and to take advantage of those differences.
Knowledge a valued commodity
In a bureaucratic organization, the higher a person is in the organization, the more they know. This is partly the result of the hierarchical nature of bureaucracies where all conflicts are resolved at least one step up the organization. Knowledge is the power base of the bureaucracy.
Sharing knowledge or information is not common in bureaucracies in part because it represents a sharing of power. Communication tends to be one-way with those on the lower rungs constantly straining to learn what the higher-ups already know. In nearly every organization, this leads to complaints about inadequate communication. It also is the wellspring of a very active grape vine.
Non-bureaucratic organizations realize that leaders and workers depend on each other for success. So they have implemented systems of regular, two-way sharing of information. These organizations understand the importance of sharing information and power throughout the organization.
This is a truncated look under the hood of government. Many of the elements will seem familiar to anyone with experience in government. It might seem an overly daunting portrayal, but as any reformer will attest, the culture of the bureaucracy runs deep.
Of course nearly every government organization has made strides to reduce the bureaucracy. However, most improvements have been incremental and only a handful of government organizations have understood the benefits from changing all of the traditional rules of the bureaucracy. Quite a few elected officials and agency heads have lamented that the bureaucrats always win because they can outlast you. It is the lament of someone who had an incomplete understanding of what they were up against.
George Lightbourn is a Senior Fellow of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, and is a former Secretary of Administration for the State of Wisconsin.
©2007 Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Inc. P.O. Box 487 Thiensville, WI 53092