Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Bureaucracy vs. Democracy

Your small businessman is a veritable superbeing. He or she does the work of the  HR department, payroll office, accounting, procurement, logistics, FM, PR and advertising specialties before breakfast - saving design and production, warehousing, sales and strategic management for the rest of the day. In many businesses, the entire back-office structure is a lady called Joyce. 

The public sector, in contrast, needs at least two people to carry out each separate function, no matter how small the operational end. Thus a single roadsweeper needs the 'support' of 22 managers and administrators before he swings a broom. It's not unusual to find a ratio of 1:2 - those 22 staff can provide 'support' for up to 44 roadsweepers before they have to start expanding their own numbers. In some bureaucracies such as the MoD, the ratio is as low as 1:1 - one civil servant for each soldier. And in the NHS and at the BBC the ratio becomes negative; it can take 44 managers and administrators to 'support' 22 doctors, nurses, radiographers and pharmacists. 

I think in this morning's Guardian Simon Jenkins fails to realise just how entrenched bureaucracy is in western democracies. You can't just take-out chunks of bureaucracy - it's not structured to be resilient, as is the internet. If you take the Payroll department out, the rest of the organisation not only won't be paid, they won't know what to do about it. They'll have meetings to discuss pooling their pocket-change before they'll take over the function. 

Bureaucracy has been hailed as the stability behind democracy; bureaucracy is what ensures that despite sudden political swings and changes of government, change comes slowly and manifesto policies are watered-down. Without bureaucracy, the agenda of forced inequality - more favourable treatment of certain people - would be unrealisable. Bureaucracy has a hive-mind and functions independently of any individual, so the brilliant and gifted have as little effect as the indolent and stupid. 

This is all, of course, exactly as Max Weber foresaw. He imagined bureaucracy as the most efficient form of administration in an increasingly complex world, the triumph of rationality. There may even have been a brief moment, perhaps in England between 1942 and 1944, when this was true. But Weber also foresaw the dangers of bureaucratic growth - and of the need always for democracy to dominate if we were to remain free. 

And as for Simon Jenkins' point that managers are next - yes, I think that's right. It's time to re-balance.

11 comments:

Scrobs... said...

It doesn't matter now, to the types of people in jobs like this.

The average timescale of a working life dictates that after learning some sort of skill up to the age of - say 24 years, from then on, the person involved in a bureaucracy only has twenty or thirty years max, to end up with the promised pension.

That time can be spent doing absolutely nothing of any worth, but the die is cast, and as long as that person doesn't actually kill anyone, he or she can live off the state forever.

A BBC manager is roughly the same sort of individual, probably managementally illiterate, possibly once a bright spark in a children's afternoon programme, certainly a time-server.

right_writes said...

Yes Raedwald... According to Christopher Bokker and Richard North, The EU concept was devised by two civil servants in 1923... Jean Monnet and Arthur Salter.

...Admittedly, WW2 interfered with the usual rapid progress, but by as early as 1993 (a mere 70 years), the EU had already taken shape following Maastricht.

So, with that in mind... perhaps we should stop worrying, the instruction has already gone out that we are going to leave the EU...

..We just have to wait for another 70 or 80 years for it to happen.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

Simon Jenkins seems to have noticed that Parkinson's Law is true (or Pournelle's Iron Law if you like), but has no clue how to avoid it. What he presents is an argument that refuses to draw its own obvious conclusion.

This is not suprising as he is at heart a Statist, like the rest of the Political Class.

"Privatise them and sack them all" simply isn't in his mental lexicon; he cannot conceive of the only possible solution - so he just waffles.

FrankS said...

Roadsweepers with brooms?
Round here they only use petrol driven leafblowers - noisy and useless, but they confer upon the hi-viz-clad, ear-protector-wearing, wielder that essential self-important para-military air.
Of it must be a fertile growth area for H&S goons too.

Budgie said...

I have known about the inefficiencies of government for decades, but had never experienced it directly. Then I did. It was far worse than I had been told.

It was like there was a black hole for sense, intelligence and experience that sucked out all initiative and creativity. A bit like Starship Troopers where the arachnid sucks out the brains of the helpless human.

Playing the game and internal politicking were the main occupations. I was literally told that completing the paperwork was more important than the job itself. It was unbelievable, demoralising and stressful.

Anonymous said...

And when the money runs out and its time for the cull, its the front line service people that get the bullet, not the middle ranking pen-pushing prod-noses.

Coney Island

Anonymous said...

We usually blow the leaves onto the road for the sweeper truck to brush/suck away....we wear the hi-viz, the eye-screens and the ear protection because otherwise we could end-up in a road accident because the blind mobile-phoning car drivers do not see us in time, the eye screens are to stop stones/twigs blinding us and the ear protection so we can get to the end of our lives still being able to see (and because the LAW says it must be provided AND worn. Or we could refuse to wear it and then go the route of two verbals one written, then goodbye. I like being able to see and hear. As for small biz....worked for one...office staff, 6. Shop floor workers 15. 2 directors got 6 pay cheques between them....the pay for the 6 office staff worked-out to be more than for the 15 shop-floor workers.
I am now working for an offshore based agency, self employed. the agency is offshore to avoid NI contributions and tax. Wish I was.

Demetrius said...

Whilst certainly agreeing with the thrust of your argument, there is one incidental quibble. My personal memories of the period 1942 to 1944 are that rationality was not entirely the case. I recall the phrase "But there's a war on.." used to explain one or other of the many oddities.

Mike Spilligan said...

Some years ago I worked (rather to my lasting shame) for a couple of years in the Civil Service. We had a pyramid structure, but it was unlike most in that we had 4 people to decide what was to be done, who had reporting to them 2 people who implemented and supervised that, who in turn had one person reporting to them who actually carried out the work.

Anonymous said...

No matter how poor the ratio it can't be negative.

Small organisations tend to be 'bottom up', extra layers being added as a last resort. Big organisations, like the Civil Service are 'top down' so the Minister and the his PUS are 'responsible' for everything, which is clearly impossible, so they 'delegate'. And those delegated tasks are too big so they get delegated and so on. By the time they get to the level where things must get done (about 13 layers down in the MOD) they are deemed to low to be 'responsible'. Besides there is the need to show that the 'correct' decisions are made so that will be farmed out to a contractor or a contractor brought in to do an audit. All that of course needs staff to 'manage' the contracts.

As a 22-year old engineer working in the private sector it was quite frightening/exhilarating to realise you were the company's 'expert'. As a 44-year old engineer working for government as an 'expert' it was quite frustrating to realise that you weren't trusted/expected to make a decision but had to refer it out to contractor(s) to satisfy the 'audit trail' procedure.

Anonymous said...

When the state takes charge of all human activity, as the USSR did, what you have in the final analysis is state bankruptcy.

The collapse of the USSR was welcome to the West, but it left a wrecked Russia - wrecked environment, wrecked industry, and wrecked human beings so wrecked that Russians saw no reason even to reproduce.

Such is where we are headed unless this Medusan monster is slain.

DP111