Too Big To Function

Go back to early Chinese history, the Roman Empire, the writings of Karl Marx or Max Webster and you will find that bureaucracy has always existed. It exists at the family level with parental hierarchy. It exists in military regimes through command and formation. It exists in manufacturing plants with process and controls. And it exists in public service organizations through rules and risk management.

And it exists for good reason.

Traditionally, a bureaucracy establishes the most efficient and rational way to organize human activity through a series of standardized rules and processes deemed necessary to maintain order, control risk, limit irreverence and control messaging. It has been the administrative system that governs pretty much every large institution in our country. And until about 30 years ago, it was a relatively effective organizing mechanism and management structure.

But then our population curve and our technology adoption curve started to turn upwards, and our bureaucracies expanded to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracies instead of meeting the need of their customers.

And the criticisms heightened. Bureaucracies were frequently blamed for longwinded processes, slow decision-making, unnecessary approval steps, inflexible procedures, absence of creativity, lack of organizational personality, lack of individual empathy, convoluted practices, political interference, and the inability to empower front line staff to solve problems.

Bureaucracies are a control-based and rules-based operating system, like Microsoft, when really the whole world just wants to be working with Apple.

Don’t get me wrong, Microsoft will always exist and bureaucracies will always exist. Microsoft had its day in the sun, and bureaucracies have had their day in the sun. Microsoft loosened its control, and bureaucracies must loosen their control. Microsoft underwent an excruciatingly painful and costly re-inventive change process, and it is time for bureaucracies to do so as well.

Yes, it is time.

The fundamental tenants of bureaucracy are rules, process, hierarchy and control – the very essence of centralized conformist management theory – and the antithesis of creativity, innovation, customization and flexibility demanded by today’s informed customers.

Most bureaucracies follow a standard formula: policy gets announced by politicians, strategy gets set at the top, directors control risk, managers supervise a portfolio of projects, tasks are given to front line workers who deal with the customers, and administrative coordinators schedule and record the activities. The whole bureaucratic system is set up to control power and authority, centralize knowledge and decision-making, eradicate all risk and invention, trickle down responsibility without authority, govern through processes and rules, and discount any accountability for results.

No wonder bureaucracies are riddled with ego, drama, politics, blame, turf and a large dose of CYA (cover your arse). Although bureaucracies are the most rational means for carrying out imperious control over human beings, left unfettered, bureaucracies create a work environment where tremendous human emotion is channeled toward internal energy-draining survival activities as opposed to toward external facing services.

Control environments have the ability to completely emasculate public service motivation.

This background needs to be understood by our elected officials that want change to happen, but are stumped as to where to start. Change cannot start from within, from someone who grew up in the bureaucracy, as that is all they know. Perpetuating the status quo is in their best interest, especially if they are nearing retirement, and culture will always suffer.

This is the unfortunate reality for some of our cities, government departments and institutions these days. And that is why I am writing about it. The system needs a leadership and cultural overhaul – and we have a generational window to start making it happen.

More to come …

7 thoughts on “Too Big To Function

  1. To my knowledge, front line politicians tend to complain about bureaucracy in public but quietly, behind the scenes they endorse it because they are scared to death of getting cross threaded with public administration.

  2. You nailed it Brad. Where do we start to make the change needed? I think,by having the conversation across departments and inside our outside governments.

  3. It is a tough message to bring to our province…as it is not popular with the elites and existing bureaucrats ….one can get shot down and isolated
    Glad to see you championing this mission to save our society.

  4. I was just saying this at a dinner down here in Silicon Valley two days ago. You said it so much better. I view this as the number one reason why start-ups and tech industry in Alberta has been held back. The very infrastructure meant to help them is what’s killing them.

  5. Most bureaucrats are afraid to discuss big new ideas. They are not paid to lead only to follow the exact procedures outlined in their employer employee contract when they are hired. If any bureaucrat wants more power than what is available in the Public service, then they can run for office in the municipal or provincial elections and become an opinionated politician.

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