Saturday, 13 June 2015

Healthy bureaucracy

This post relates in some ways to my previous one about NHS management, but is both more specific and yet with a wider import. In the current issue of the satirical magazine Private Eye the Medicine Balls column discusses one of the consequences of recent NHS reforms (the column is not available on the Private Eye website, but appears on p.17 of Issue 1394). These reforms, like most or even all public sector reforms, purports to reduce bureaucracy. Yet the column describes how the new rules mean that whereas a doctor’s surgery seeking to run community health services from its premises used to have simply to make a contract with the local health trust, now it involves a negotiation between four different bodies with multiple convoluted procedures.
This is a story that could be repeated endlessly across both private and public sector organizations. Bureaucracy is the enemy above all others (see p.81 of the book) and yet in the name of defeating it ever-more complicated bureaucracies are developed. What sense might we make of this? I think that one answer is that ‘bureaucracy’ has ceased to mean anything very precise (and certainly nothing like Max Weber’s meaning), but instead has become a catch all terms for ‘things we don’t like in organizations’. It takes a brave person to argue, as Paul du Gay does in a book I refer to several times in my book, in praise of bureaucracy (by which he does indeed mean Weberian bureaucracy), and for a practicing manager, civil servant or politician it would be simply unthinkable.
The irony of this, though, is that it is not just thinkable but necessary for managers, civil servants and politicians to devise systems which conform not to Weberian bureaucracy but to precisely its everyday sense of inefficient red-tape. We thus have the worst of all worlds: a crusade against the praiseworthy features of bureaucracy (accountability, impartiality, clarity) in the name of an anti-bureaucracy that embodies the most deleterious features of bureaucracy (complexity, sclerosis, proceduralism).
There are so many examples that it is difficult to know where to start in naming them but they range from the impossibility of switching internet service provider without a ‘key’ from your current provider to allow it, through to the chaos caused in courts because of ‘efficiency savings’ to interpreting services. But to take one recent example, last week a new system for driving licences was introduced in the UK. According to the government minister responsible this would “reduce unnecessary red tape” (aka bureaucracy). The result? Chaos.
Of course any one example can be dismissed as both minor and specific. But the cumulative effect is general and major. A huge array of transactions, both economic and civic, are becoming all but impossible. Weber would have found this completely understandable because it is emblematic of some of the problems to which bureaucracy was as a solution. He might also have observed, had he been alive, that bureaucracy would be the best way of addressing the FIFA corruption scandal. Or, at a more local level, a way of controlling free-wheeling head teachers, freed from bureaucracy to do their own thing.
The association of bureaucracy with ‘something bad’ goes back many decades but it’s a misnomer. It’s difficult to imagine an effective campaign for bureaucracy. Yet a good dose of bureaucracy, in its healthy sense, would make all our lives better.
Du Gay, P. (2000). In Praise of Bureaucracy. Weber, Organization and Ethics. London: Sage.

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