Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bureaucracy Truisms

Janet's list of bureaucracy truisms.
  1. Never blame conspiracy when incompetence will do.
  2. A leader who has achieved perfect obedience will never see the group exceed her intelligence.
  3. Those in charge are no smarter than you or I.
  4. Competency is rendered powerless in an incompetent structure.
  5. The primary goal of government is to avoid embarrassment. The primary goal of bureaucracy is to sustain itself.
  6. In a culture of scarcity, hoarding will occur.
  7. The gears of bureaucracy grind slowly.
  8. Fear of embarrassment hinders change.
  9. In an incompetent structure, embarrassment is inevitable.
  10. Incompetent structures transcend governments

The public service here in Alberta is so lean, so hard working, so invisible to the average citizen. It has sustained significant cuts to it's work force and maintained services in the face of growing demand. Yet public perception is decades behind the reality. Government is seen as too big, too bulky, too slow, unresponsive. Why is this?

Obama suggests a few reasons in his book, "The Audacity of Hope". "I am convinced -- although I have no statisical evidence to back it up -- that antitax, antigovernment, antiunion sentiments grow anytime people find themselves standing in line at a government office with only one window open and three or four workers chatting among themselves in full view." (p. 73) and "Just as too many corporate managers, shielded from competition, had stopped delivering value, too many government bureaucracies had stopped asking whether their shareholders (the American taxpayer) and their consumers (the users of government services) were getting their money's worth." (p. 185)

I like also Jim Diers' perspective in his book, Neighbor Power. "Voters are reluctant to approve additional resources because they feel a sense of alienation from their government at all levels...This deep sense of alienation is often misdiagnosed as apathy...This analysis, I believe, blames the victim. Citizens don't vote because they have seen little evidence that their votes matter...I quickly realized that public officials felt as powerless to address these issues as did the citizens." (p. 18-27)

So here we have an endless catch-22 (or catch-44). Citizens won't spend more if they don't see value. Politicians won't approve more without public backing. The public service can't offer more as they are constrained in the bureacracy they are in. The bureacuracy can't change in a culture of scarcity.

I refuse to end here because I believe that improvement comes from positive action. The way out is for each stakeholder; citizen, politician, public worker and bureaucracy, to take inventory of what is in their power to do towards positive change. Then each must build trust towards the other toward our common goals.

Obama's administration has matured in it's first year, and has collected it's share of detractors. The complaint that bothers me most is those who criticize Obama for not doing enough to bring the nation out of  financial crisis. Those who followed Obama's campaign and the hope he gave the nation should remember that he never claimed any superhuman power. A nation must save itself. The hope comes from everyone pulling together. "This nation's founders, who somehow rose above petty ambitions and narrow calculations to imagine a nation unfurling across a continent. And those ... who ultimately laid down their lives in the service of perfecting an imperfect union. And all the faceless men and women, slaves and soldiers and sailors and butchers, constructing lives for themselves and their children and grandchildren, brick by brick, rail by rail, calloused hand by calloused hand, to fill in the landscape of our collective dreams.

It is this process I wish to be a part of." (p. 427)