Two Cheers for Bureaucracy

‘So, you love bureaucracy,’ said the researcher from the BBC. ‘Can you tell us why?’

She’s calling in response to my response to a BBC blog piece entitled ‘Are there too many bureaucrats in the UK?’, where I had indeed admitted to loving bureaucracy.

‘Well,’ I reply, ‘“love” would be putting it a bit strongly. But I do think bureaucracy is the most important thing humanity has ever invented.’

I see. Not content with loving these crushing administrative behemoths – he thinks these embodiments of all that is wrong with the modern corporate world are our greatest achievement. What will the funny man say next – that toothache is a much undervalued pleasure?

But it’s true. Bureaucracy is the nervous system of society, and has been for five millennia. It puts electricity in the wires, food on the supermarket shelves and controls business and government’s every move. It puts these words in front of you right now.

So what does a bureaucracy do that society finds so invaluable? It controls the flows of information and decisions an organisation needs to carry out its activity. Different bureaucracies do this more or less well, but as long as society includes lots of different individuals doing lots of different things, and they need to collaborate across wide spaces and long periods of time, then something has got to organise them, and it’s hard to imagine any alternative that won’t be bureaucracy by another name.

But why does bureaucracy have such a bad name? Why does so much of it seem to degenerate into red tape? Why are politicians constantly planning to cut it?

The full answer is complicated, but the first part is simple. Contrary to popular feelings of frustration – feelings I share whenever they break down on me – bureaucracies rarely go wrong. A past colleague of mine, Melissa, had a useful analogy: bureaucracies are the brains of society. But, she would add, like the brains that control our bodies, ‘we only notice society’s bureaucratic nervous system when it stops working. Any idea what your visual system is actually doing right now? Me neither. But we’d all find out soon enough if it stopped doing it’.

Hence the ease with which a bureaucracy gets a bad name. Most work just fine practically all the time, but who gives thanks for the good old bureaucrats when the lights go on or our salaries arrive on time? When it goes wrong, though – the wrong tax demand, the double booking, the failed delivery – who doesn’t automatically curse the idiots who made this mistake? And if it it’s only when it goes wrong that we notice bureaucracies, how can we help but have negative feelings about them?

Actually it’s astonishing that bureaucracies work as well as they do. Even to professionals, it’s quite intimidating how much information and what a complicated process you need to come to what seems a simple decision. It takes careful thought, a strong sense of purpose and a great deal of effort to design, build and manage a bureaucracy of any size, let alone having it perform note-perfectly. And as soon as its parent organisation starts to change – which can well happen unintentionally – the bureaucracy also has to change. Given that change is increasingly a way of life for organisations, it’s not a recipe for easy success.

On the other hand, the fact that bureaucracies are as imperfect as any other human creation is no argument for less bureaucracy. That would be like saying that, because cars sometimes break down, we should have fewer of them. Now, there are lots of reasons for having fewer cars, but that isn’t one of them. And just like your car, bureaucracies need occasional maintenance – which, in my professional experience, they seldom get.

Not that I’m complaining. Most of my living comes from fixing management systems that have been allowed to wither – just recently one of the biggest UK supermarkets, a major player in the City exchanges, a healthcare company. They’re all equally lax about keeping themselves sharp – which is, after all, what even they say their administrations are for. Rather worryingly, though, I haven’t had to learn much in the course of two decades advising companies – there are still plenty making the same old mistakes.

And every time I hear about some big consultancy or software company building yet another huge IT system for the government – often to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds – I just remind myself remember that an IT system is simply an electronic bureaucracy. Given how badly we handle the paper variety, it is small wonder that so many major IT programmes – private as much as public – turn into a ‘bureaucratic’ quagmire. Years late, millions over budget, and few happy with the final result.

In fact the way these huge government projects have so often failed illustrates what is wrong with the way bureaucracies – paper and electronic – are often treated by their owners. No one is quite sure what they are for, and executives are often allowed to make endless new demands for new information, new reports, new updates, without thought for the cost and disruption this entails. They’re also often allowed to change their minds in midstream. In fact the stream of fundamental mistakes seems to be as endless as it is easily repeated.

Middle managers and staff then have little option but to turn their administrations into all things for all men: saying ‘No’ is too often a definite Career Limiting Move. And from then on, many bureaucracies face a constant demand for more and more, frequently with little budget or resource to do more than kludge together a jerry-built ‘solution’, which its ‘stakeholders’ then expect to have at their disposal forever. And if you add to this the number of reports that bureaucracies dutifully prepare and are then never read, you can perhaps imagine the disillusionment felt by many bureaucrats.

So what is the end result? Ask the people at the sharp end. Call centre staff – the modern face of faceless bureaucracy – are quite routinely the butts of public scorn. Usually paid little more than the minimum wage, they are expected to answer perhaps 60 calls a day, day in, day out. Could you do that? I’m not sure that I could. And then there’s the abuse – not least the racial abuse routinely received by Indian call centre workers.

As one anonymous call centre worker put it on The Weekly Gripe website, ‘It’s shocking how badly these people are treated. First of all they are blamed for a multitude of sins by the customer about things that are completely beyond their control. As if that isn’t bad enough, next they are treated like cannon fodder for the company to blame when it all goes wrong’.
Or perhaps it’s in the nature of call centres: ‘I am sure a lot of people have the kind of mind set that means if they cannot see the person they are talking to, it is somehow perfectly acceptable to be rude, abrupt and patronising’.

Do the staff deserve it? Of course not – and no doubt most abusive callers know that. But faced with delays or not being able to get what they need, who else is there to explode at but the anonymous, faceless innocent at the other end of the line?

All in all, it’s astonishing how pleasant and polite the average call centre worker remains – but less than astonishing that the industry as a whole has staggering turnover rates. Industry figures suggest about 20% each year – which in turn suggests that the average call centre worker stays for five years. Hard to imagine. But research by George Callaghan of the Open University has challenged the official figures, concluding that the average worker stays only eighteen months.

‘Many employees expressed extreme frustration with their jobs. They were under the impression they were employed for their great people skills, but then not allowed to use those skills’, Dr Callaghan observes. ‘This is one white collar environment where employee performance is measured by the second.’

It’s a familiar accusation: bureaucracies crush the life out of professionals through their constant demands for risk assessments and reports and the constant micro-management of every aspect of their work. The public services especially seem to be prone to this – scrutiny of them is so much more intense.

Yet this is not really the result of bureaucracy as such. It is perfectly possible to design the rules that govern an organisation to include great latitude for personal discretion. They can also be built to be extremely flexible and adaptable and to be responsive to change, personal experience, unique circumstances and individual needs. It’s not bureaucracies that are at fault, any more than word processors are to blame for bad novels.

Bureaucracy as such requires only that information and decisions are designed and organised well enough to get the larger job done. In a public service organisation like a hospital, a school or a social services department, it would be perfectly possible to treat broad sweeps of professional activity as ‘black boxes’, leaving precisely what is done and how to the professionals.

The bureaucracy might also need to know a little more about how the job is carried out – who actually did the work, what resources were used (for inventory purposes only), and so on – but more than that? Only if there was a compelling reason. These people are, after all, professionals. You have employed them because they know how to do the job better than you do.

So what counts as a compelling reason for more bureaucratic control? Well, one thing shouldn’t: a media frenzy. Because even where tragedy strikes, it’s hard to imagine a better recipe for creating the wrong answer than covering your back.

After the Baby P tragedy, ‘The front-line professionals – teachers, health visitors, doctors – took fright’ recalls one healthcare worker, who prefers to remain anonymous ‘and started to make far more referrals to their local social services department. But at the same time, our own local social services department started to block direct calls between outside professionals and their staff. They even changed their telephone numbers so we couldn’t call them personally. Then we’d have to go through a long Q&A session – who we were, the child’s name and address, a lot of other details – when all we wanted was to have a quick chat, professional to professional, about whether they needed to know more about our cases. Mostly they probably wouldn’t have wanted us to refer them, but we had to go through the same rigmarole every time.’

A typical bureaucratic response to a crisis. It’s hard to see how this sort of control over professional communications made a child any safer, but very easy to see how it protected the organisation.

‘Of course, when we finally got through, we just exchanged our direct phone numbers anyway, so the system was side-stepped almost as soon as it came into existence’, added my informant.

But this isn’t really the result of bureaucracy. It’s the result of managerial paranoia. Well, perhaps not paranoia – after all, a social services department’s fear of another media feeding frenzy is well founded.

So the answer is, not more bureaucracy or less, but getting bureaucracy right. But this is not something that is likely to be achieved by politicians and business executives who understand little about their own organisations’ administrations beyond the a priori assumption that it must be a bloated monster.

So the first step is to take a serious look. No, don’t hire a consultant to do it for you – go and look yourself. Martin Long, founder and ex-Managing Director of Churchill Insurance, insisted that every single Churchill employee spent regular mornings doing someone else’s job, including a turn on the call centre phones, and then suggesting three things to improve the work. Nor was he above taking a turn himself – indeed, pictures of Martin on line to customers were familiar to everyone.

I have often thought that every MD and CEO should spend some time anonymously taking a closer look at their own organisation. Like King Harry before Agincourt, a stroll past the foot-soldiers’ tents might teach them a thing or two – a very surprising thing or two – about the organisations they imagine they understand. (They just need to avoid the shameless logic chopping Shakespeare puts into Harry’s mouth.)

It’s not hard to do better than most organisations are doing right now. In fact there’s a bit of a vogue these days for so-called ‘lessons learnt’ systems that actively prompt a bureaucracy’s operators and users to feed their experience – good and bad – back to the managers who can do something about it. But it’s too early to get excited – this is only the latest of many rounds of self-improvement technique that have not quite solved the problem. Or rather, quality circles, kaizen, ‘lean’ management, Six Sigma have all helped to make bureaucracies more efficient, but whether they have made them better for their workers, customers or even the organisations that own them is a question that remains to be answered.

Still, lessons learnt systems need to be tried, if only because, unlike many other improvement tools, they ask the fundamental question of what the bureaucracy is ultimately for. It’s a bit fiddly and for many organisations deeply counter-cultural. But it’s a lot cheaper than the millions they dole out every year to consultants like me to dig their existing bureaucracies out of the pits they have created by years of poorly thought-through initiatives, weakly managed change and simple neglect.

In sum… One cheer for the general idea of bureaucracy, though it’s seldom carried out well. Another cheer for the poor bureaucrats, the butts of everyone’s scorn. But no cheers at all for the many organisations – private as well as public – who just don’t get it.

By |2018-01-18T15:42:55+00:00Wednesday, April 21 2010|Categories: All, Bureaucracy|0 Comments

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