Friday, March 13, 2009

Putting the B in Bureaucracy

How to get tangled in a "web of rules":

  1. Make sure that the point for which the rules and administrative procedures are implemented is obscure. (This is made that much easier by the prevailing assumption that the desired result is simply whatever is produced by fastidious adherence to a process, methodology or technique.)

  2. Maintain a strict hierarchy and ensure that people blindly follow the rules even though doing so in certain instances runs counter to the objective that they were supposed to ensure.

  3. Rather than solving administrative problems with a systemic view, make enough ad hoc adjustments in the system to appear to to have a sincere interest in remedying flow problems. That way, the very logic of the system in relation to the objective is completely lost and there is no way a reasoning person can determine why the rules exist in the first place.

  4. When it reaches the point that no one knows where the rules came from or why they’re following the rules, develop business metrics to prove compliance (here creativity is a bonus, but only here) and carefully post them framing them as achievements of results and outcomes, thus ensuring "transparency"). Then make heavy investments in technical systems to ensure that compliance (a.k.a. achievement of results) is easy to monitor (in principle, anyway).  
In today's complex environment, to possess the foresight necessary to map out administrative and reporting processes so that they never run counter to the strategic objectives would need more genius and ingenuity than any person alive on the planet today. While perfection is not in the cards, there have to be ways of identifying and remedying the administrative blockages and obfuscations that lead to loss of meaning and employee disengagement, let alone inefficiencies. Learning should be ongoing.
The solution is to make sure that the policy objectives are always clear (and meaningful) to people and that bureaucratic processes are always up for examination. The administrative rules should not be absolute but treated as heuristics used judiciously by intelligent and ethical managers and leaders.
Today, it is said that a relevant public service is a flexible public service.
Those who are firm and inflexible
are in harmony with dying.
Those who are yielding and receptive
are in harmony with living.*

*From verse 76 of the Tao te Ching, translated in the book, The Tao of Power by R.L. Wing.

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