Originally posted on July 8, 2014, tuned up, and worth a second look nearly a decade later.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. No bureaucracy in public service or private enterprise ever starts out as anything but a step towards fairness and excellence. Yet, time and power jointly contrive to pollute legitimate ordering principles. Under these conditions, bureaucracy produces neither equity nor excellence. P.J. O’Rourke quipped that, “Government proposes, bureaucracy disposes. And the bureaucracy must dispose of government proposals by dumping them on us.”
People are averse to excellence. It is hard to define, difficult to maintain, impossible to expect from everyone, and causes division within organizations. Those who can and those who can’t, those who have and those who don’t, those who will and those who won’t, those protected and those exposed. Wisdom and experience alone guide organizations to their full potential.
Accountability to processes rather than people, although critically important, is a sorry substitute for excellence. The thinking goes that if there are enough signature lines on a form, numerous offices that the form has to flow through, and people low enough in the food chain required to approve the form, leadership is alleviated from identifying and recognizing excellence. This perspective leads to bloated bureaucracies and the exasperation of nearly everything important in any organization of human beings. Process becomes purpose.
The desire for excellence and the need for accountability lead to the development of organizational bureaucracies. While well intentioned, these bulwarks often fight progress and effectiveness in various settings, but “a tree is known by its fruit.” Here are some signs of management and leadership structures run amok where the pursuit of purpose is replaced by seemingly legitimate processes.
Dense bureaucracy is the undoing of many cities and municipalities according to a story in The Economist. Small businesses fear high regulation even more than high taxes. Over-regulation chokes initiative and stymies risk-taking. All healthy organizations seek risk as a means to innovation while sick organizations cherish bureaucracy as a means to hide fear of risk-taking behind procedure.
Complex bureaucracy allows for the uneven enforcement of regulations while providing the appearance of fairness. In addition, such regulatory rat warrens protect existing business owners in the case of the market, and incumbents in the case of office holders, according to the Institute for Justice, a law firm committed to fair regulatory practice.
Broken bureaucracy mandates that things are done in writing because we can’t trust people. E-mails and text messages become favored means of communication; an indelible record is created. Of course, some federal entities like the IRS have unreliable hard drives and nonexistent backup. The problems are not managerial you see, but technological.
Over-stepping bureaucracy uses “accepted practice” to create decision-making structures that go beyond the intent of the canon and code intended to guide decision-making. The American Thinker carried a post that addressed the increasing use of ultra vires acts, actions by bureaucrats that exceed the authority of the laws that should guide behavior. Over-reach occurs at many levels of local, state, and national government, as well as the public agencies empowered by them.
Independence-robbing bureaucracy, especially those in educational institutions, smothers free thought. Philip K. Howard opinion in The Atlantic suggests the single biggest improvement that could be made to America’s primary and secondary school bureaucracy: “We need to destroy it.” He continues, “America’s schools are being crushed under decades of legislative and union mandates. They can never succeed until we cast off the bureaucracy and unleash individual inspiration and willpower.” Systems intended to stimulate excellence, ideas like No Child Left Behind, end up teaching teachers learned helplessness rather than empowered and passionate service to students and families.
Cumbersome bureaucracy shrinks productivity and increase costs. The Wall Street Journal reported in late 2012 about the then new University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler and his efforts to reduce administrative and managerial red tape as they were causing tuition and fees to increase with few benefits to those paying ever-rising costs. Road blocks and potholes continue to occur all along the way as the status quo’s best friend is bureaucracy.
Self-perpetuating bureaucracy grows because it is there, and the power structures of workers and leaders tend to increase the growth without check. According to Larry Fedewa’s recent post, Bureaucracy: The Fourth Branch of Government, “The United States Code (of laws) fills 35 volumes with about 45,000 words (up from 400 pages when first published in 1913)…” Administrative growth in public and private enterprise, including universities, is without bounds and asphyxiates creative, responsible thinking and action. Our universities, and other institutions of public benefit, need to focus on first purpose – mission achievement—and the means to get there—process—simultaneously but distinctly. When process becomes purpose, organizations falter.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at https://walterwendler.com/.