Over the weekend, I completed an assignment for the MS program I’m in. While working on the assignment, I found myself putting to paper what I’ve perceived for at least the last five years: the relationship between governance and bureaucracy.
As someone who likes structure, I struggle with this relationship. Several people with whom I work are “good government geeks.” They have MPAs and love, love, love government. They happen to work in IT, but that’s just where they happened to make a difference. Their true passion is government.
And they do not like bureaucracy. And — unfortunately for me — when I say “governance” or “structure,” they hear “bureaucracy.”
So, my weekend creation is a big deal (for me). It’s a basic model that I’m sure will change over time. Here’s what it looks like:
Again, it’s simple, and I’m sure it will change, but it’s important. For a few reasons.
First, anytime more than one person is working on an activity, you have politics. That is, you have people with ambitions that inevitably compete with one another. That doesn’t mean working with people is a profoundly negative experience. It just means it’s complex. And the more people, the more complex.
If lots of people are collectively executing complex tasks, and they work without structure, they will experience conflict and chaos. Civilized life requires rules — streetlights and taxes. Social contract — and its benefits and drawbacks. And so it is inside government.
The most pointed response to the notion that governance is bureaucracy (and one I can’t recall ever using) is:
‘How would you propose managing a multitude of complex, repeatable processes at scale?’
Put another way,
‘Why wouldn’t you use processes to manage repeatable activities that must be performed in large quantities by many people?’
Typically people answer a question I didn’t ask. They say something like this,
‘Well of course we need structure, but it’s not going to solve all our challenges.’
Or maybe they say,
‘I think there’s room for creativity and independence despite the complexity.’
Neither of those responses answers my question.
The first response answers the question, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had structure because it would solve all of our challenges?”
The second response answers the question, “Don’t you think we should just turn everything we do into a process because it’s so complex?”
I work with a like-minded colleague who pointed out that the value of structure is that it frees you up to be creative and influence the things that actually require focused, thoughtful attention. The things that require innovation. He understands that I’m not suggesting that we write a recipe for painting the Mona Lisa. That’s not possible. But we certainly should invent a printing press to share some books.
I might not need to note that I believe that bureaucracy is the sour milk of governance. It resembles governance, and it might have been governance at one point, but it’s not anymore. It turns out that when red tape was first used it was an innovation. Of course, that was before it was twisted and used for power.
I suppose, at the end of the day, I’m with Weber on this one. Any good thing can be twisted into a sickly image of itself. And when that happens, it doesn’t matter if it’s governance or something far more profound.