Thursday, April 30, 2009

How Organizations Remain Bureaucratic

When people mistake efficiency for effectiveness (means for ends), there is a pointless adherence to the administrative rules (i.e., bureaucracy in its pejorative sense.) To avoid making this mistake, what has to happen in organizations is a cultural change around the reporting requirements, because people will do (and generally restrict their attention to) what they are measured on.

If the measurements are all about either efficient transactions (e.g., in purchasing, staffing) without reference to context and objectives, or an assessment of the value of the objectives, then nothing has been measured. How can you measure efficiency without some reference to a strategic, big picture, generally not-easily-measured end, especially in public sector and non-profit organizations?

When bureaucratic controls slide from being necessary evils to being just plain counterproductive , something is dreadfully wrong. Controls need to be aligned with goals.

A very crucial element in remedying such a situation is to help people understand that reports are not results, they are just means of getting information, which might be more or less (but is quite often less), helpful to broader planning and information sharing.

A report is information subset covering some aspects of what happened. It is not identical to the concrete events that actually happen. Neverthlesss, some people seem to spend more time bean  counting  than doing, following procedures, rather than innovating, challenging, and leading change. Their efforts need to be undertaken with a view to deep, quality results. Quality and depth of results is important, and that does not mean pulling out an army of accountants immured in a quantophrenic vision of quality control. It means having inspiration, courage, and support to use one's own judgement and discretion in assessing how to best align one's activities with the organization's goals, or even to question the broader social value of the ends being sought.

So it's not just a web of institutional regulations, it's the stifling amount of reportage that is not aligned to anything other than short term means and efficiencies that makes an institution overly bureaucratic (and therefore less efficient). And this adminstrative kind of bureaucracy eventually becomes an entire focus, even a way of life, providing some (i.e., the uninspired and officious) expediencies and a sense of power and accomplishment, having done everything "by the book".

The rest just wither away, eventually.

And thus bureaucracy sustains itself.


  1. Well stated. Metrics in the private sector and gov't are mostly with an eye to saving money, and in gov't the added necessity of accountability (to ensure we're not flagrantly wasting money). I think sometimes we are so bound by the necessity to always prove that we are not wasting money that we end up wasting money doing it.

  2. Thank you for your comment not convinced.

    I'd like to add to your comment the idea that, while profits correspond to the objective in business, saving money (a.k.a. fiscal responsibility) is only a methodology for governments, not the objective. The objective is the conserving/enhancing the public good.

    There is a previous post called "The Irony of the Audit" that elaborates on the idea you expressed that might interest you.