Bloody Bureaucrats

Are we paying enough attention to bureaucracy? Are the current bureaucratic pressures changing the nature of society — and are they doing so for the public good?

David Graeber may be best remembered for coining Occupy Wall Street’s ‘We are the 99 percent’. In the literary world the LSE-based anthropologist is well known for his Debt, the First 5000 Years, but his just-published The Utopia of Rules; On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy may be more important when it argues that we underestimate the importance of bureaucracy in our lives.

While bureaucracies have been around for five thousand years, Graeber’s argument is that they have become increasingly pervasive in our lives, citing the rising demands to fill in forms – both paper and electronic. He provides no data, but that is my impression too, although he has much better anecdotes.

An important aspect of Graeber’s thesis is that bureaucracies exist in the private sector as well as the public sector (and various agencies between them such as hospitals and universities). I probably fill in more forms for private bureaucracies than for public ones.

Many will connect the rise with phenomena like the GCSB, but my interest is their impact on the economy and our lives more directly. I became aware of their increasing importance following the changes made to the public sector in the late 1980s.

They increased the phenomenon of the generic manager, someone who knew little about the activity they were managing but knew lots about management – or it least knew lots about the current fashion in management jargon, for many of them seem to manage very badly. A repeated feature has been that once appointed they restructure the agency, in effect saying their predecessor was such a dodo they could not establish a decent organisational structure. When they move on, their successor relegates them to dodo status too.

It was not just the waste of resources and the human pain that each redisorganisation generated. Generic managers can be positively dangerous in their ignorance. A very senior one in the health redisorganisation of the early 1990s announced that a city as large Wellington could afford competing Intensive Care Units. He had confused the highly specialised service with the more routine Post-Operative Recovery Unit. One was so glad he never had a heart attack.

Ignorance and waste was not confined to the top. The doctors at one hospital discovered a unit deep in its bureaucracy which promulgated medical ethics. Had it consulted them – bureaucrats rarely do, if at all, until after they have made the main decisions – they would have discovered that the medical professions had a long history of ethics going back to Hippocrates which made the bureaucrats look like first-year students. Insulted, the medics dismissed the set of proposed rules as platitudinous and irrelevant.

It was a visiting American professor of public administration, Alan Schick, who pointed to the tension between professionals with an ethic of responsibility and managers who demanded accountability. He ‘suspected’ – his is a very discreet report – that the managerialism squeezed out professionalism.

The consequence has been the development of complicated systems of accountability with a bureaucracy to manage it. Any university academic will tell you stories of how their professionalism has been limited by rules, and rules, and rules. The most bizarre case they tell me of is that they have to spend days of research time filling in forms setting out their research achievements. The universities even provide bureaucrats to assist them, although uniformly, I am told, they know nothing about research – but they do ensure the forms are filled in. Some of the university bureaucracies have got so enthusiastic about the idea that they require the forms to be filled in even in years when the Performance Based Research Fund is not being assessed. What would the bureaucrats do in an off-year?

Graeber’s laconic summary is 

“A timid bureaucratic spirit has come to suffuse every aspect of intellectual life. More often than not, it comes cloaked in the language of creativity, initiative and entrepreneurialism. But the language is meaningless. The sort of thinkers most likely to come up with new conceptual breakthroughs are least likely to receive funding, and if, somehow, breakthroughs nonetheless occur, they will almost certainly never find anyone willing to follow up on the most daring implications.”

There was a strange seminar in the early 1990s in which a senior public servant propounded the importance of ‘trust’. It did not occur to him that both the Lange-Douglas and Bolger-Richardson administrations had destroyed public trust by reversing major election promises in office. No doubt he went back to his office and continued imposing controls. If you don’t trust professionals you need accountability mechanisms; if you don’t trust people you need more and more rules to regulate their behaviour – rules which need to be checked by forms issued by bureaucracies.

And so the bureaucracy grows, using more resources for inputs without generating additional outputs. I bet that failed venture into medical ethics cost, say, a dozen hip replacements. The funding for one Vice Chancellor’s office exceeded that for the university library. We have come a long way from Erasmus’s ‘when I get a little money I buy books: and if anything is left I buy food and clothing.’ (The VC’s successor reduced his office – by setting up other administrative units; no reduction in staffing.)

The implication is that the growth in bureaucracy absorbs resources but doesn’t actually do anything for economic welfare – other than employ numerous people with a clerical bent. One would like to think they could be deployed for more useful purposes but that would require a system with a great reliance on trust and responsibility. Perhaps we cannot go back.

Graeber’s concern is that public and private bureaucracies have a life of their own, accumulating power and resources for their own purposes rather than for any public good. They have to increasingly destroy trust and responsibility to increase their power.

He cites academics who over coffee discuss neither teaching nor research (and certainly not contributing to the public good). Instead they moan about the university bureaucracy. One is reminded of the bon mot that once the function of a university registry was to raise funds to enable academics to teach and to do research. Today the roles are reversed. The academics’ purpose is to raise the funds to employ those in the university administration, a far more elaborate organisation than the old-fashioned registry.