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National Association of Counties • Washington, D.C.      Vol. 34, No. 15 • August 5, 2002

The H.R. Doctor Is In

The Anti-Bureaucrat

Imagine having dinner with the 19th century Prussian political scientist Max Weber, who described and defined the concept of bureaucracy. At that time bureaucracy was a modern and scientific advance in the way governments and companies organized to be more productive. The connotation was a positive one.

The defining characteristics of a bureaucracy include a hierarchical organizational in which instructions and directions flow from the top down and information flows up. Another characteristic is the presence of impersonal rules. In other words, the rules, regulations, ordinances, civil service provisions and job classifications are designed to transcend the service of any one individual. Prime ministers may come and go, county commissioners may start and end their careers, but the rules keep rolling along, applying to everyone in the organization.

These impersonal rules include civil service selection rules. The idea being that hiring criteria for public employees should be based on merit and fitness rather than social class, race, gender, political affiliation or other criteria.

So our mythical dinner with Max Weber (probably schnitzel with apple strudel for dessert) would be a time to celebrate and honor the concept of bureaucracy. That is, if the dinner was held in the year 1870. However, if we fast forward the dinner and Max was invited to my house the definition and common meaning of bureaucracy would have altered significantly.

Dinner would likely be rather depressing for all of us, even the government employees, who most probably would be grousing and whining about bureaucracies as uncaring, plodding, inefficient and wasteful examples of all that is wrong with the modern world. Bureaucracy has come to be a metaphor for evil and waste in our lives.

New definitions
The updated, emerging redefinition of bureaucracy might better be called anti-bureaucracy or counter-bureaucracy. It is a notion in public service that an impersonal set of rules produces robotic rather than human outcomes and that hierarchy stifles innovation and accountability.

It is a special sin of larger organizations that the number of layers in the bureaucracy tends to grow, and the flexibility in speed of communications and responses to changing the circumstances tends to slow down, perhaps eventually becoming paralyzed. The HR Doctor points out that organizational paralysis is not a covered disability under the Americans with Disability Act.

Impersonal rules prevent an organization from responding to circumstances that may be unique to a particular group of people. Instead, bureaucracies may breed decisions made by Stepford Wives in a one-size-fits-all environment. The public administration environment of an agricultural community in the foothills of Mississippi may be treated in the same manner as urban and more densely populated areas of the Silicone Valley in California.

A more responsive system
The main point the HR Doctor hopes to convey in this article is that it can be fun and productive to be an anti-bureaucrat and to deliberately seek out ways to make a system more flexible and more responsive, often despite itself.

For example, civil service rules and eligibility lists often result in a selection outcome very, very different than the one envisioned by 19th century reformers. Inflexible rules take so long to apply and are so complex, that even if the best candidates top the eligibility list for hire, they have moved on by the time the organization offers them jobs.

Subsequently, instead of impersonal rules producing the best outcome, the rules often produce mid-range or satisfactory candidates rather than superstars.

This applies beyond civil service. In states with extremely zealous open records laws, the resumes or applications of every job candidate, including county manager, department director, or others, are at risk of exposure even as the mail is opened. The potential invasion of privacy stops many strong candidates in their tracks.

The result is that an agency and the taxpayers may lose out on a talented superstar leader. This is not necessarily an indictment of something very important to ethical and successful government, namely, accessible and accountable government decisions. Rather, it is a suggestion that, in our zeal for all things being open, we actually close the door to potential greatness or potential improvement.

An anti-bureaucrat in the recruitment setting for example, would search for qualities of strength and leadership, for people who can develop a vision of the future and articulate it in a persuasive way. Anti-bureaucracy means honoring and demanding innovation and supporting risk taking. It means fostering organizations that respect the contributions of the newest employees and the one with the least amount of earned salary as well as the highest paid officials.

It also means considering and understanding that the decisions being made in the county administration building often have serious effects on the lives of individuals. We accept as normal the conduct of an environmental impact relative to our decisions on land use. Isn’t it logical to also demand a “human impact study” when we make a decision about funding or organizing services in different ways?

It is very hard and growing harder, to make innovative decisions using bureaucratic traditions of the 19th century. That explains, in part, why there is a growing chorus of support for rule flexibility, re-organizations which reduce hierarchy and compensation programs which reward risk taking instead of risk avoidance.

Public Administration of the late 19th century was exciting because it meant experimentation and discovery of what power could emerge from successful administrative organizations. Fun in the 22nd century will be derived from success in amending or chipping away some of the cement and plaque which have come to tarnish the title of bureaucrat.

Sit back for a moment, over a fresh apple strudel in honor of Max Weber, and ask yourself how your county government rates on the scale of “über-organization.”

Here’s hoping you enjoy the apple strudel and the exercise of becoming an anti-bureaucrat.

All the best,
Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •