One of the happy accidents of my life is that I’ve worked in a variety of jobs in a variety of organisational types. I’ve worked in retail, government, agriculture, hospitality, call centres, small manufacturing, large manufacturing, volunteer organisations, university, legal offices, startups and large corporates. I’ve done all kinds of work from backbreaking manual labour to production line box stacking to cushy office jobs. So, it’s from some depth of experience that I can say that the worst job I ever had was in a government bureaucracy.
I accidentally found myself inside the belly of the beast when the consultancy I was working at started chasing the sweet smell of government money. The project we were working on was completely pointless. I know this for a fact because, not only did it appear to be completely pointless to anybody with two functioning brain cells, but I got to meet the people who were going to use it and they told me straight up that it was completely pointless. That was the first problem. But not only was it pointless, we were building according to a specification that some other company had written. Like all specifications, this specification was wrong but we didn’t have the power to change it. Nobody did. So, although everybody more or less agreed it was wrong, we had to build the software according to the documents. The result was going to be pointless and wrong but government employees were going to be forced into using it. That’s the way things work in government bureaucracies.
To be made to follow rules that you know to be absurd causes a peculiar kind of existential angst. It took me all of two weeks to start looking for a new job and, fortunately, I was able to find one pretty quickly so my stay was short-lived. Years later I ran into a couple of government employees at a random social event. They told me they were both on extended mental health leave and apparently that’s common in their line of work. Doesn’t surprise me much after having seen what goes on there. If there is a hell, it probably looks like a government bureaucracy.
Since that time, I’ve had experience in different kinds of bureaucratic organisations. Based on this experience, I define three types of bureaucracy according to the type of market they are in and the corresponding culture which arises from the interaction of the bureaucratic structure and the market type. Government bureaucracies are the most pure type whilst others differ in interesting ways. Here are the three types:-
|Primary Type of Employee
|Strict adherence to rules
|Lobotomised Rule Nazis
|Follow the rules because you can’t change them. Heroes save the day
|Freedom at technical level but not the mission level
My thesis here is that a pure bureaucracy can really only happen in a government monopoly and the further you get from that context the less a nominal bureaucracy functions as one. The reason government is the purest form of bureaucracy is precisely because it has no competition and therefore has no real need to respond to the real world beyond the vague signals that come from political manoeuverings. The primary type of employee in a pure bureaucracy is the Lobotomised Rule Nazi. The characterisation of the Lobotomised Rule Nazi is Kafka’s great addition to our literature. I had read Kafka prior to working in government but I had no idea that such a person could exist in real life. They do and they are among the strangest people you can hope to meet. The Lobotomised Rule Nazi follows the rules no matter what. When you try to point out that a rule is nonsense, illogical or actively harmful, the Lobotomised Rule Nazi looks at you with big, blank eyes and simply doesn’t understand the question. A rule is a rule. It must be followed. No correspondence shall be entered into. Have a nice day.
In a private corporation that has a monopoly, things work differently. Such companies still need to be relatively responsive to their customers because, unlike with government, their customers usually have the option not to use the service. This minimal need to satisfy the customer changes the internal structure and culture of the bureaucracy. There are still rules and regulations in place and people are not free to question them. However, the need to get the product to the customer at a reasonable standard creates the need to get around the rules. This is done through heroics and so the Hero is the primary type of employee in Type 2 bureaucracy. These are people who work long hours and pull all-nighters to get projects over the line. They do this because the rules of the bureaucracy hinder effective work. The sociologist Max Weber once said bureaucracy was the most efficient form of organisation. I’m not sure what he was smoking because bureaucracies are hopelessly inefficient. For all but the most simplified activities, following the rules doesn’t work. Trying to explicate and then follow rules is like a centipede counting its feet. The Hero overcomes the crushing inefficiency of following the rules by simply working harder. The Hero doesn’t attempt to question or change the rules, they just persevere in the face of them. In Type 2 organisations, a hero culture arises which rewards that perseverance.
This brings us to the third market type: the oligopoly. In these markets a bureaucracy has at least one competitor to deal with and even this modicum of competition substantially increases the need to be responsive to market signals. The hero culture of a Type 2 bureaucracy can work in these environments as long as your competitor is also Type 2. But if your competitor discovers that productivity gains can be had by hiring skilled people and giving them the autonomy and responsibility of managing the technical demands of their work rather than imposing rules on them, they will beat you. This dynamic creates a third type of bureaucracy which has the basic bureaucratic structure but which does not impose unnecessary rules on its workers. Such companies attract skilled technicians who are able to think strategically. They are system builders, not heroes. Within the technical sphere of the business, they are given significant freedom but this freedom is bounded and does not extend to questioning the mission, the project goals or the business strategy. This leads to problems which are captured beautifully by the SNAFU Principle. Without honest feedback from the lower levels of the organisation or customers, the upper levels cannot respond to problems with the direction of a project. Thus, even Type 3 bureaucracies, although technically competent, never produce anything innovative and rarely much of any value beyond their core offering. They are structurally incapable of questioning the product direction and responding to feedback in a meaningful way. Like every bureaucracy, they cannot learn.
Although Lobotomised Rule Nazis, Heroes and Autonomous Technicians are the driving forces within each bureaucratic type, they are not the majority. Rather, they are the most important type within each organisation because they define the culture that is needed for that organisation to survive. Accordingly, the types are not transferable between the three bureaucracies. Lobotomised Rule Nazis can only survive in a government bureaucracy. In a Type 2 organisation they would stop things getting done and in a Type 3 they would remove the autonomy of the technicians. Heroes do not work in Type 3 bureaucracies because the emphasis there is on fixing the system not working harder to perpetuate it. For the opposite reason, Autonomous Technicians cannot work in Type 2 organisations where they will be endlessly frustrated that the system cannot be fixed. And neither the autonomy of the Technician nor the drive of the Hero can find a home in the bloodless, robotic environment of a pure bureaucracy.
What about all the other people who work in a bureaucracy? The ones who are not, by psychological predisposition, Lobotomised Rule Nazis, Heroes or Autonomous Technicians? Well, they are people who just follow along with the prevailing culture. They might be happier elsewhere, but for whatever personal or circumstantial reasons, they simply learn to fit in. Dostoevsky once said that the human is the animal which can get used to anything. This is, of course, true in an evolutionary sense. We humans have been able to survive in almost every natural environment on the planet. It’s also true in a social sense. As the Stanford Prison Experiment showed, people can learn to fit in to any role. We also don’t like to rock the boat. In another famous psychological experiment, the researchers set up a room full of actors and a screen. On the screen in the room were shown three lines: A, B and C. Line A was clearly longer than line B which was clearly longer than line C. The test subjects were brought into the room one at a time and the experimenter asked each person to say out loud which was the shortest line. Each of the nineteen actors answered B. Then came the test subject, the last person to answer. The test subject must have known that line C was the shortest but to say so would be to publicly contradict the nineteen people who came before them. In the overwhelming majority of cases (I think from memory it was about 80%), the test subject also answered B. That’s the psychology of man as herd animal. We prefer not to stand out from the crowd and, all else being equal, we will sacrifice the truth to do so. It’s this psychological fact which allows the cultures of the different bureaucratic types to work. Margaret Mead once said that the only thing that has ever changed the world is a passionate minority. That’s true but it’s also the passionate minority that continues to drive the culture while the majority just follow along.
Taking all this together, you have bureaucracies in economic or political niches which attract certain personality types who have what it takes for the organisation to survive in those niches. Because the survival of the organisation requires these types of people, they are celebrated within the organisation and determine the prevailing culture. The historical rise of the bureaucratic organisational type brought the Lobotomised Rule Nazis out of the dungeons and into the light where they found a niche for themselves running government agencies. The Hero psychological type and the Autonomous Technician also gravitate to where they fit in best and where their natural disposition is rewarded most.
Despite their differences, what all bureaucracies have in common is the removal of personal autonomy and the replacement with rules. It is this which most explicitly separates bureaucratic work from, say, small business or self-employment. Let me give a quick concrete example from my experience.
When I was backpacking in Europe, I got a job working for a bank in Glasgow, Scotland. The bank was a Type 2 corporate: a private enterprise with no meaningful competition run according to a strict bureaucratic model. My job was to call small business customers and try and sell them new credit card machines. This is what is known in the call centre world as ‘warm calling’. You’re not just calling somebody trying to sell them a random thing that you have no idea that they want. Rather, you’re calling existing customers and selling them a related product. All in all, it wasn’t a bad job. For most of the people I was speaking to, the product was going to save them money and therefore they were grateful to get the call.
From the customer’s point of view, getting a call from somebody at their bank is the perfect opportunity to raise whatever other problems they might have been having with the bank’s services. People I spoke to would often ask for help with such problems and, as I got to know the people who worked in the bank better, I was usually able to solve the problems for customers quite quickly. One day, my manager heard me solving somebody’s problem on the phone. You might think he would have been happy at the initiative I had shown. Not at all. When the call was finished, he told me that I was no longer to ‘waste time’ with such things. I was to sell the credit card machine to the customer and that was all. If they asked about other problems, I was to refer them to the bank’s customer service department. The small window of autonomy I thought I had was slammed shut. In a small business, you are incentivised to solve customer’s problems because good will is good for business. In a bureaucracy, you are incentivised by whatever rule or metric somebody has come up with. It’s the same mindset that leads bureaucracies to block people from browsing certain websites, or installing software on their computer or even taking “excessive” bathroom breaks.
Given that lightning overview of types of bureaucracy, the environmental conditions they exist in and the culture that results from the tension between the organisational structure and that environment, we can now tie this analysis in with our present circumstances.
With the corona event, we have all been sucked into a Type 1 bureaucracy. This makes perfect sense given that it is government bureaucrats who have been running the show. All of the Type 1 elements are there. Removal of personal initiative and autonomy? Check. Follow the rules or else? Check. Contradictory rules and rules that violate common sense? Check. No way to question the rules or get an explanation for the reasoning behind them? Check. Be treated like a cog in a machine instead of a fully fledged human being? Check. Complete change in mission without any explanation why (“2 weeks to flatten the curve”)? Check. The list could go on. As the events of 2020 unfolded, it was like I had been taken back to my time working for the government but, unlike with a crappy job, there was no way to quit.
We are all now living in a Type 1 bureaucracy because that’s what government is. Thus, we are all now indelibly sucked into the Kafkaesque world of a pure bureaucracy where we are nothing more than potential carriers of a virus to be lumped into groups based on a test result or a vaccination status. The Lobotomised Rule Nazis are in charge now. The Queensland Chief Health Officer gave what I consider to be one of the perfect examples of that mentality late last year. Tom Hanks and his entourage had been allowed into Queensland to shoot a movie. This happened at exactly the same time that news came out about grieving relatives who weren’t allowed to cross the border to attend a funeral and another family unable to visit a dying family member in hospital. The CHO was asked how it was fair that a Hollywood movie star was allowed in while Australian citizens were not. With a straight face, she stated that Tom Hanks brought in millions of dollars for the economy. That’s the kind of bloodless response that only a career bureaucrat can give.
For those of us horrified to now be caught up in this Kafkaseque nightmare, the good news is that Type 1 bureaucracies are hopelessly incompetent so none of these schemes is going to work. More specifically, the one thing a bureaucracy can do arguably better than other organisational types is move objects around; shipping things from Point A to Point B. For that reason, a bureaucracy is exactly the type of organisation that can handle a vaccine rollout. During the wars, when bureaucracies came into their own organising supply lines, the soldiers were subject to numerous vaccines. We know bureaucracies can handle that and can expect that part to get done reasonably well. But I would expect the vaccine passports and assorted other pipe dreams are going to flop spectacularly, not just in their implementation but in the second order effects they cause. That’s also the bad news because politicians need things to appear to have ‘worked’ so they can get out of this mess intact. They will continue to allow the Lobotomised Rule Nazis to run things until it’s politically safe to stop. When will it be safe to stop? That’s a question that nobody knows but one thing to bear in mind is that all the problems that will be caused by these ridiculous bureaucratic schemes will at some point become a political fact and will give politicians the incentive to stop.
There is one other glimmer of hope. Government bureaucracies are used to having no competition. They get away with incompetence because their customers cannot go anywhere else. But, at least in the USA, the different states have already started to go their own way. Florida governor DeSantis came out explicitly against vaccine passports this week just like he has eschewed the rest of the accepted ‘wisdom’ in the last six months. A number of other states in the US have followed suit. Just like with Sweden in Europe and, to a lesser extent, NSW in Australia, there is now a point of difference and the ability to compare outcomes. There is also potentially freedom of choice. Don’t want to live somewhere where you need a piece of paper to go about your life? You might be able to move somewhere where you can. Will that state of affairs hold? Will it deliver us into a Type 3 situation where the competition forces government to allow us to retain some of our autonomy? Only time will tell.
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