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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
instead of impersonal rules producing the best outcome, the rules
often produce mid-range or satisfactory candidates rather than
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.
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
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. Isnt 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.
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
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
you enjoy the apple strudel and the exercise of becoming an