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Bureaucracy in Public and Private Institutions

Dahlen          10 May 2015 06:40 PM

I just finished David Graeber's book The Utopia of Rules: on Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, which in its first chapter reminded readers that, while in the collective mentality bureaucracy lies in the domain of public administration, big companies can and do use a similar approach in the administration of their own affairs, and customers as well as employees are affected by it -- hence the wide relatability of Dilbert and the endless parodization of corporate speak in pop culture.

Bureaucracy is sure as heck annoying to deal with as a citizen or customer, can nip small businesses in the bud as inexperienced owners struggle to deal with all the forms it takes to establish and run a legitimate company (big businesses just hire a specialist or fifty to take care of the paperwork), creates all sorts of stupid inefficiencies, and fills up employees' days with basically nothing of value. I wonder whether Weber would still praise its rationality, had he lived in the 21st century.

So why isn't everybody more committed to cutting red tape, in both the public and the private sphere? As time passes, paperwork just seems to inflate more and more, as if to spite the previous decade's complaints of bureaucratization.

As always, the obvious retort would be who stands to gain from cutting red tape. Does this not work as a campaign talking point because people simply don't care about the matter, or because elected officials don't have much say in what unelected civil servants do? In the private sphere, doesn't a smoother, less bureaucratic administration of the inner workings of a corporation contribute to increased efficiency and profitability? Do different levels of management actively oppose such changes because they would make their job appear unnecessary? Startup culture usually, well, starts out as opposed to high degrees of rigid formalization of the company's activity, but does this remain a commitment as the company grows, as they all aspire to, into a billion-dollar behemoth?

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FrameBenignly 10 May 2015 10:33 PM

Technically, regulations aren't the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy enforces regulations, but they don't control them. This can make a huge difference. The bureaucracy can often have a great deal of leeway in how they apply regulations. The World Bank Group has an annual report comparing countries by ease of doing business. This year, the top 5 were Singapore, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Denmark, and South Korea, in that order.


melian 11 May 2015 05:56 PM

Startup culture usually, well, starts out as opposed to high degrees of rigid formalization of the company's activity, but does this remain a commitment as the company grows, as they all aspire to, into a billion-dollar behemoth?

A startup begins with few people which allows its leaders to have personal and informal relationships with the employees. The workers can be motivated by stock options and interesting projects.

As the number of workers grows the company unavoidably develops a long chain of command and ordinary workers become far removed from the company leaders. The competitors eventually begin to catch up eroding the profit margins, so it is no longer possible to motivate workers with above the market salaries. Informal leadership style no longer works in such environment, and out of necessity the company develops formal procedures and a large bureaucracy.

The same thing happened to Romans. :)


ChristianKl 11 May 2015 04:34 AM

The unfortunate answer is that nearly nobody values cutting bureaucracy when it's not in the abstract but comes to concrete examples.

Instead people care about the symbolic value of policies and who profits from them.
On LW's facebook wall I had a discussion with a person advocating a ban for counseling with the intent of getting people straight. The linked to a petition.
They argued that it should be banned because it drives kids to commit suicide. I do think that it's bad but if you think through the kind of law you need to ban it, that's complex regulation simply not worth the price.

The other person didn't really understood my position. For them the debate has about helping persecuted homosexual people and that was way more important then technical policy issues.

If you are a lobbyist and want to get a amendment passed that wouldn't pass if a journalist understands what the amendment does it's important to write the amendment in a way that the naive reader doesn't understand it's meaning.

When it comes to law writing there a process called Burocrat's Mikado. During law making there are two sides who want different things in the law. On side has to give up their position. The first side that moves "loses". As it get's later in the evening everybody wants to get home and someone makes a policy concession. Obviously that's not the kind of environment that leads to effectively written policy.

You also can't change the policy a day later when people aren't tired anymore because that means having to renegotiate the whole thing.

I think there are two solutions:
1) Values. Care about bureaucratic impact. Talk more about the policy implications of political position and which one's increase the complexity of the system.
2) Build better tools to manage the writing of complex legislation. Programmers have tools like version control and bug-trackers. Build distributed version control for law and regulation making with commenting facilities.

What doesn't work? Putting expiration dates on policy. That just means that when the expiration date comes up the policy get's renewed. Quite often the renewed version is longer.


VoiceOfRa 10 May 2015 08:57 PM

> In the private sphere, doesn't a smoother, less bureaucratic administration of the inner workings of a corporation contribute to increased efficiency and profitability?

Yes, and there exist consultants who specialize in doing just that.


ChristianKl 11 May 2015 03:44 AM

This forum doesn't use markup for formatting but html tags. That means you quote with <blockquote > instead of >.


ChristianKl 11 May 2015 04:28 AM

Are their success stories of big corporations who managed to cut their bureaucracy in a meaningful way via outside consultants?


Fwiffo 26 May 2015 09:20 AM

Bureacrasy is how organizations form their sensory systems. If you can't sense something you can't affect it. It's kinda bad to have everything in a key persons head (what if you lose them (to sickness etc)?). And still if you rely on key persons then the division of areas of responcibility come up.

It could be important to develop better organizational information processing. Many of this could be smooth enough that it would not register as bureacrasy to the average person. But it's a question of information logistics. Providing the people that need to know the relevant information that they can do their jobs. If one doesn't form organizational methods for this this means information flows however indidual employess decide to shuffle it around. If this happens to be what you need, great. But if there comes a need to make changes to it (ie somebody had wrong information, somebody didn't have adequate information, somebody makes decisions without information etc) it can be next to impossible to even discuss it.

In general people don't utterly care about organizations. People tend to care about people.

But you don't make this mess any easier by severing information lines. If you do that it will just find its way around other more problematic ways. If you would take away interrogations from the police they would just find out who did it in a more informal way (with usually problematic side phenomena (not the least of which issues of lack of due process)). You have to make the organizational instrument (interrogation here) as real enough that it is usable to real needs (ie instead of doing "facade interrogations" to please the gods of bureacrasy they actually use them to find out the information).


Xerographica 14 May 2015 06:50 AM

When I added code to the phpbb forum code to facilitate micropayments... I got the rough feeling that I was adding to "bureaucracy". I think it's easier to simply add code than it is to go through and remove unnecessary code.

Maybe it's also why we use such a relatively small percentage of our brains. The rest of the percentage is just old bureaucracy.

There's a word that's kinda relevant... "kludgeocracy". I tried to create a Wikipedia entry for it once... but it was in violation of some rule so it was removed.

Tax choice would solve everything.


Fwiffo 26 May 2015 08:58 AM

Tax choice would need for a lot more peoples choices to be recorded and handled. That is a lot of bureucrasy.