In Defence Of Bureaucracy

In my arguments with the neoliberal/anti-government/anarcho-capitalist types the same refrain comes up repeatedly: bureaucracy must be reduced.

Historically, bureaucracy was government administration managed by departments staffed with non-elected officials. Today, bureaucracy is the administrative system governing any large institution. — Wikipedia

Every institution, whatever its size, requires a degree of records management so that people have a way of keeping track of what is going on. We actually need bureaucracy and my argument is that a well-run bureaucracy is essential to the smooth running of any business, charity, or government department. Don’t hit the back button yet, let me show you why I think I’m right.

We need to keep accurate records

In my job, keeping accurate records is essential. One of the main reasons it has proved impossible to automate my job is that the data is only as good as the person who enters it. And most people don’t like filling forms in. The trouble is, our clients want to know what our workers have been doing and why it takes so long. Why does it cost that much? Someone has to enter that data, process it and act upon it; the computer can’t engage a sub contractor or ask why the roof is still leaking despite several visits. It’s my job to chase these things down to completion and make sure all the purchase orders match up with the invoices. If there’s a discrepancy I have to resolve it. I need a paper trail and reference numbers to get my job done.

Private enterprises rely on effective administration. When the records are not up to date, service provision — and the company’s reputation — suffers. Yet the admin staff are often the first to have their jobs outsourced when a company needs to make economies. This can result in a downward spiral as efficiency is lost due to new members of staff overseas not fully understanding the information they are processing.

We need to act on information appropriately

In the UK our government takes a census every ten years or so. The idea is to take a snapshot of the state of the nation, to get an idea of where people live, how many people per household, how old they are, etc., etc. Why do they do this? Well in theory the statistics produced are distributed among the various government departments and used to provide information to the government in order to set policy. Decisions on whether or not to invest in infrastructure, building schools and hospitals, and housing projects, are based on the information provided to the census takers.

This is just an example but you can see what I’m getting at: service provision, whether private or public, depends on the information being acted on appropriately. When something goes wrong, it’s usually the result of poor record-keeping or someone not acting on the information provided.

The roots of dysfunction

While dysfunction can and does occur in organisations, this is not due to them being governmental, corporate, or anything like that. Dysfunction occurs when a toxic workplace culture is allowed to grow and thrive. When I worked for an SME near where I live they had a lot of dysfunction due to an entrenched culture of bullying and poor inter-departmental communication. It was so bad the local jobcentre wouldn’t send candidates our way. Over-regulation, poor staff retention, and micro-managing added to the general malaise and when an opportunity to work elsewhere came along, I took it. The point is, dysfunction can occur anywhere it is allowed to and when it does, it affects performance and public perception.

Administrators need love too

Any attempt to automate an administrator’s job is likely to affect the quality of records compilation and processing, the reason being that it’s only as good as the system used to gather and act on the data. When I see discussions about the evils of bureaucracy I hop in and talk about the need for proper record-keeping. Unless the system you espouse requires that data collection and compilation is kept to a minimum and empirical evidence is ignored (don’t get me started!), you need a proper system of administration or you’ll lose the information you need to make your new system work — unless the idea is to replace it with nothing. Any attempt to impose a pared-down system must take into account that the quantity and quality of information required to run it will also be reduced, limiting the scope and flexibility of the service on offer as algorithms can only do so much. This will then become a system that exists to perpetuate itself because it can’t really do much else with what it’s got.

Administrators need to be free

No system should ever be run on theory alone; administrators need room to manoeuvre, to adapt to the needs of the people they serve. When they’re fettered by rules imposed by people who don’t understand the job they have to do, the resentment that builds up as a result creates the dysfunction that causes the failings people rail against. And who makes those rules? Usually idealists without a background in administration. I’ve always performed better when I’m free to move around than when I’ve got to account for every minute of my working day for no reason that makes sense to me.

The purpose of bureaucracy

Bureaucracies can only ever be as good as the people running them and working for them. To distrust them on principle is to fail to understand their true purpose: to collect, record, and process data. When you truly appreciate what we administrators do, you will understand that though bureaucracy can be burdensome at times it really is necessary.

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