It may be old-age or being locked down by Covid-19, but I’m feeling rather grumpy. As soon as I had finished my previous blog on the dangers of so-called ‘best practice’, I heard myself saying “and another thing!”. So here are my thoughts on something else that irritates/worries me.

Everybody hates bureaucracy. There are endless dismissive quotes:

  • “Bureaucracy is a giant mechanism operated by pygmies” – Honoré de Balzac
  • “Bureaucracy is the death of any achievement” – Albert Einstein
  • “The US has government of the people, by the bureaucrats, for the bureaucrats” – Milton Friedman.

Bureaucracy seems to mean anything that gets in my way. Any process or procedure which is even mildly inconvenient. We hear that bureaucracy:

  • Crushes innovation, creativity, and independence of thought.
  • Slows down decision-making.
  • Wastes time and money.
  • Creates rigidity where you need flexibility.
  • Takes power away from the individual and gives it to an impersonal system.
  • Strangles initiative in layers of red tape.

Nobody has a good word to say for bureaucracy. Gary Hamel, a leader in management thinking, even wrote a piece called “Bureaucracy Must Die”.

But where does bureaucracy come from?

Well, I want to say something about the positive benefits of bureaucracy!

At heart, the practice of bureaucracy is about codifying and standardising processes and procedures. It helps us to go faster without making mistakes. It enables us to compare what is happening at different times and in different places. It helps us transfer the knowledge of how to carry out a specific task from one person to another quickly and efficiently.

If I go into hospital for a procedure, a lot of bureaucracy is involved. Among other things, a checklist to make sure that the right operation is being carried out on the right bit of the right patient. Those checklists exist because experience has shown that fallible humans can make mistakes. And if it is me on the operating table, I am profoundly grateful that past experience has been converted into a stable process.

The same is true of the checklist used by aircrew before a plane takes off.

Sumerian tablet recording beer rations

Codified procedures and processes played a key role in developing civilisations. Some of the earliest writing is Sumerian, dating from around 3000 BCE. A lot of what they wrote down was about taxes and trade. Being able to record and manage a surplus harvest released human effort for other specialised activities, contributing to innovation and expanding human thought. Writing enabled ancient civilisations to capture and share information on astronomy, mathematics, war and society. They were able to administer empires and develop long range trade and sophisticated financial structures.

Modern society is impossible without laws and standardised procedures. It would be a massive waste of resources if everybody started from scratch for every task. Yes, it would maximise individual creativity and innovation, but twith be serious costs.

When I’m cooking a new dish, I find a recipe real benefit. It tells me what to do, how to do it and when to do it. After a few times, I might tweak the recipe to suit my preferences, but if I am wise, I will note the changes to the original. If I don’t, at some point I will get cocky and try to cook entirely without the recipe. I usually then forget some critical ingredient, process or timing and end up with a dish that is a lot less than I hoped for.

In “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman talks about how we make decisions, particularly at speed and under pressure. Heuristics are the mental models and shortcuts we use to make most of our decisions. They prevent us collapsing under the weight of options and information. When faced with the new problem we call on memory and look for similar situations to see whether we can use a similar solution. The point about heuristics is that they are usually quick and mostly right. However, they can lead us astray. A codified process helps us access the heuristic experience of others and encourages us to make checks on the major sources of error.

As a simple example, think about filing a tax return. In the UK, I must do that every year, but only once a year. It is not something where all the details at the front of my mind. It is complex and changes as the law changes. Within living memory, it was such an awful process that it was worth hiring a professional to do it for you. Now it is online. The website asks you questions to work out what category you are in and then prompts you for the information it needs to work out your tax liability. Its internal model cuts out most of the questions irrelevant to your situation. Internal checks make sure you are filing all the information required, and that the information is consistent.

It is still not a joyful process. There is still cursing as you scrabble around in the shoebox that passes for your financial records system for some piece of paper. But this is what I want from bureaucracy. Taking an unfortunate and complex situation and making it painless and fast for me.

When bureaucracy goes bad

“These bureaucratic processes are like a reverse pearl. Instead of a tiny piece of grit covered by beautiful glistening layers of calcium carbonate, you get the tiny pearl of a useful process covered by layers of crud.”

Having made the case for bureaucracy, I must acknowledge that it can go badly wrong. Human behaviour causes most of the problems. For example:

Process history – Anyone involved in process mapping will know that you find redundant and irrelevant steps in any process that has been around for a while. Things that were included for a good reason, but never removed when the situation changed. My favourite example is a chemical company that made a particular product in a batch reactor. They added half of one ingredient at the start of the process, and the other half at a precise point in time later. This extra bit of complexity was causing all kinds of logistics problems, but no one could remember why that was the process. Eventually, we found the answer deep in the company archives. When the process was first developed, a couple of decades previously, the factory only had a small reaction vessel available. The reaction tended to bubble and foam, causing a messy overflow. By adding the reactant in batches, they could solve the problem. The original reaction vessel was scrapped years ago and replaced with a much larger one, but since no one remembered the original workaround, the recipe never got changed.

Process accretion – In complex situations, such as tax and procurement law, people keep finding loopholes that need to be closed, or exceptions that must be handled. The usual solution is to slap a patch onto the existing process as a quick fix. Over time, the process can become so overwrought that it fractures. These bureaucratic processes are like a reverse pearl. Instead of a tiny piece of grit covered by beautiful glistening layers of calcium carbonate, you get the tiny pearl of a useful process covered by layers of crud.

Bureaucracy used as a defence – The lazy, fearful and incompetent often use bureaucratic processes as a defence. “Don’t complain to me, it’s the system”.

Poor exception handling – In my experience working in the corporate world and with government agencies, if a process is blocking an action, there is a process owner you can discuss it with. I have been amazed and delighted by how often I have been able to find a way round a bureaucratic blockage, just by talking to the relevant process experts. Once they have grasped what you are trying to do, and agreed that it is ‘legal, truthful and honest’, there is often an exception precedent or an alternative process. Unfortunately, I have not had the same positive experience dealing with utilities and telecoms providers. There is often no practical way to escalate a problem, and both you and the customer service agent are frustrated by the limitations of their script.

Applying a standard process in the wrong place – It is sensible to reuse proven procedures where possible. It saves time and energy. However, you need to check that the process you plan to use covers the specific risks and challenges of your problem. A spreadsheet designed to calculate the ROI of investing in a new piece of manufacturing kit, will not let you work out the potential ROI of a strategic entry into a new market. And yet I have seen this done. In one case you understand the risks, costs and benefits, in the other it is a series of intelligent guesses.

Used wisely, bureaucracy is a boon

  • Bureaucracy helps us go faster with fewer errors, by codifying knowledge and expertise.
  • Use checklists, standard processes, and business rules wherever you can.
  • There are assumptions built into every process that create a safe space where it works most of the time. Be very wary of using a process outside the known areas of validity.
  • Document your processes. I know it is boring, but you or those who follow will forget why you made the choices you did. I have seen so many people trapped by a process they don’t understand and are too scared to change.
  • Watch out for the gradual inclusion of new exceptions and special rules. Accretion kills valuable processes.
  • Don’t use bureaucracy defensively. If you or your colleagues are using the ‘rules’ to avoid hard decisions or divert blame, your co-workers, suppliers and customers will hate you.
You Hate Bureaucracy, But What is Your Alternative?
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One thought on “You Hate Bureaucracy, But What is Your Alternative?

  • 22/12/2021 at 7:42 pm
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    I’m a bona fide civil servant and bureaucrat. As such, I can attest to the reality that how bureaucracy should work and how it actually works are often two very different things. Bureaucracy, at least at the governmental level, most often functions in a way that practically runs counter to how it should work. If I was a betting person, I would put my money on this being a trend inherent within the principles and structure of bureaucracy itself. Why? As you point out, it’s run by humans, and humans are (very) imperfect, even down to the most basic level.

    You provide a definition of bureaucracy as “codifying and standardizing processes and procedures”. In the interest of precision, it should be pointed out this is the end toward which a bureaucracy should be and proposes to be oriented, but it is not bureaucracy proper. Bureaucracy, or a bureaucracy, as its etymology implies, is a structure of power and authority that subdivides (often regressively) responsibilities into many discreet units, or bureaus. I work in what is effectively a bureau within a government agency, and I can assure you that the majority how this bureaucratic subdivision works falls into the category of “reasons people hate bureaucracy”. To understand that, let’s first come back to this stated end of bureaucracy as “codifying and standardizing processes and procedures.”

    Sometimes codifying and standardizing processes and procedures is simple and straightforward. This is usually when something is either obvious or already well established such everybody, or nearly everybody, involved with making an executive decision is on board. You would think that an executive decision would be easy because executive roles are usually few, but in a bureaucratic structure, executive decisions are often made by entire bodies or comittees, or even if there is an executive authority, deferred to these bodies and committees.

    Most often, things are not so obvious or well established. So because humans are imperfect, these decision makers or decision influencers will not always agree on how to move forward with codification and standardization. This plays out through either prolonged negotiation and formulation, or in actual ad hoc, trial-and-error, me vs. you implementation. For instance, I’ve been continuously (and indefinitely) working on a gov’t. project that provides benefits to certain classes of people affected by the pandemic. It’s a multilateral effort that starts at the federal level and is distributed down to and through the state level, and within each state, there are multiple acting agencies and authorities involved with the different moving parts for ensuring the distribution of this benefit.

    In the year that I’ve been almost solely focused on this project, it has become clear that no two agencies or authorities can agree on how to codify and standardize the processes and procedures for issuing these benefits and reconciling discrepancies. One agency (my agency) is supposed to gather and supply the demographic data while the other is supposed to take that demographic data and merge it with their benefit system and issue the benefits. Making this complicated system even more complicated is that within my agency, different offices—or bureaus—are individually and independently responsible for gathering different types of demographic data. And if that wasn’t enough, said data has to be gathered individually from the thousands of institutions across the state through which benefit recipients qualify, and each of these institutions has different offices out of which the different categories of demographic data are being fed to the different bureaus within the agency to which they’re reporting. Are you dizzy yet?

    As one can begin to see, the simple act of sending someone $300 in relief funds becomes a bit like a live human re-enactment of having too many folders with subfolders on your desktop. There too many steps, too many opinions, too many instances of miscommunication, both intentional and unintentional, and too many emails… at a certain point, you begin to wonder if it’s worth spending millions of dollars in government salaries just to get this one person their $300.

    I won’t share than that, as it’s much more involved, more political, and gets more petty the closer you get to the source of the myriad problems that have been had in issuing these benefits, but suffice it to say, what should have been a three-month project is now on its seventh month with no known end in sight, and when a benefit recipient calls in with questions about a benefit error, they’ll spend at least a month getting sent in circles in which they’re told by one agency that they need to contact the other agency, and the other agency tells them they need to contact the first agency. The buck gets passed constantly. And I have it on good authority that there’s a substantial amount of intentional dirt being swept under the rug on the other side… which means, inevitably, that dirt is being piled under the floorboards on our side.

    I’ve worked for several different agencies and bureaus within agencies in my tenure as a civil servant, and big or small it’s always the same problem. So if you ask me what bureaucracy is, I’ll tell you: it’s not actual codifying and standardizing processes and procedures. It’s the act of working toward codifying and standardizing processes and procedures. You’re always making progress, but you never arrive. It’s an infinite regress of reiteration carried out in parts, each part itself locked in its own regressive reiteration.

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