Rick has a lovely piece on defending bureaucracy as a Good Thing. It starts off like this:
Gus O’Donnell presented a thought-provoking programme on Radio 4 this morning, In Defence of Bureaucracy. He presented two arguments. Firstly, you can’t get much done without basic organisation. Secondly, bureaucracy, with its formal rules, offers protection from the arbitrary whims and prejudices of those in power.
I suggest you read it in its entirety. It’s not just a piece about bureaucracy in government. It’s also a piece about bureaucracy in the private sector. This paragraph, for example:
Bureaucracy is the corporate equivalent of the rule of law. It protects people from arbitrary decisions inside the organisation. Rules and procedures give people clarity about their roles, their scope for decision making and their boundaries. Like the rule of law, they protect employees from random and vindictive treatment by their bosses. It has become very fashionable to deride bureaucracy but working in organisations with fewer rules and procedures can be just as unpleasant. Trying to second guess the whims of a maverick autocratic boss can be every bit as energy draining and innovation stifling as working in a bureaucracy.
In essence, as a set of democratic societies, we could not have arrived at where we are if it hadn’t been for the law-engendering instincts of overarching rules, processes and procedures.
It’s clear, therefore, that our impulsive perceptions of bureaucracy need a makeover. We need to perceive it with a greater sense of its complex contribution to latterday civilisation. Therein the rub, of course. There’s plenty of evidence that bureaucracy – and its fairly widely independent relationship to political masters – makes it a perfect vehicle for doing ill too. Just because a bureaucracy religiously ensures that rules, processes and procedures are followed to the letter doesn’t mean that only good may necessarily spring forth: if the rules, processes and procedures in question are malignant in nature, the result will be unkind. What’s more, pretty consistently – even remorselessly – unkind.
The most obvious example is how the Nazis appropriated the Weimar Republic’s institutions. But we also have an example much closer to home:
Patient interests were neglected for years by NHS mangers as hospitals concentrated on cutting waiting times at the expense of good care, the head of the service admitted today.
Sir David Nicholson accepted that he was “part” of an environment where the leadership of the NHS “lost its focus” and which indirectly led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of patients at Stafford Hospital.
Now it still seems the latter case is being the subject of much political football – the Tories have recently blamed the previous Labour government for, I assume, its attachment to targets (perhaps, in this case, the wrong ones – that is to say, the easiest ones to measure); meanwhile, the Labour opposition is calling for Nicholson to resign his current responsibility as driver of highly unpopular government-organised change at the NHS.
As I’ve said on a previous occasion:
If you think about it, the pyramid which reaches pointy-headed to the sky is actually totally absurd. As the work gets more complex and challenging, we use fewer heads to decide what needs to be done. The chances of committing errors, of stressing oneself into illness, of failing to achieve one’s targets … these are all bound to increase with the traditional pyramid we are all used to.
Surely this is madness.
Surely we need if not a cylinder, at the very least a pyramid without a considerable part of its upper superstructure.
And as Shuggy concisely points out:
From the Hootsmon:
“Excessive hierarchy must become a thing of the past. Upward communication must be encouraged and constructive criticism should be positively received.”
The remedy for this is, apparently, to give those at the top of the hierarchy more power:
“Headteachers should be seen as the chief executives of largely autonomous organisations…”
Kier Bloomer being desperately stupid in a way that only intelligent people can be. I’ll make this my last post on education for some time because this stuff makes me so depressed I can’t stand it.
Again as I’ve said on other occasions, where we currently find ourselves is here:
Where managerialism takes over, and where hierarchies reduce the number of people involved as the tasks get more complex, we get the big-hitter striker syndrome: a man or woman at the top on whom everyone is focussed. A man or woman on whom everything depends. A man or woman who will one day fail; or perhaps, over time, frequently fails – but has the physical presence to convince us they are, even so, actually succeeding; and so deserve the massive salaries they command. […]
Bureaucracies and top executives – or corporate law and CEOs, if you wish – are complicated relationships, after all. It’s true, of course, that bureaucracies can act as a dead hand on individually dangerous and maverick leaders. But as the Nazis showed us, and as the concept of charismatic leadership more widely demonstrates, a stratospheric leadership structure can just as easily use a bureaucracy to escape conviction and control as that very same bureaucracy can serve to ameliorate the former’s wilder instincts.
If we want to continue to believe we can use bureaucracy as a force for good, we need – first and foremost – to sort out the ever-growing dysfunctionality of pyramidal structures, as well as the inefficient concentrations of wealth that accompany it.