Bureaucrazy is not bureaucracy is not governance is not structure

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.





While working tonight on an assignment for one of my classes, I was inspired to adopt the German approach to smashing words together. A quick google search just revealed that such words are called (no surprise) komposita, which means compound words.

I didn’t read enough about komposita to know if there’s a strict process to the creation of such gargantuan words. I only know that (1) my mind and (2) my sleep schedule would benefit from the practice.

First, if I just rattle off the adjectives and nouns associated with a given message, my mind will stay on-message rather than reflexively considering the interpretability of the message.

Second, I spend more time editing than I do writing. I understand that formal writing requires adhering to conventions. However, not all meaningful writing is formal (hello internet!).

So, in today’s email-slack-instant-message-communication world, komposita are valuable.

Did you see what I did there?

I hereby adopt komposita as a sometimes-appropriate-and-helpful-practice.

English language, komposita. Komposita, English language. I think you’ll get along just fine.

Because life’s too short spend editing.

Prioritizing public sector IT projects

On November 1, Barry O’Reilly – author of Lean Enterprise – joined our Thursday night IKNS discussion. He had a ton of interesting things to say.

I asked him about using the cost of delay divided by duration (CD3) in government. He describes the value of CD3 as an economic-decision-making-framework for projects. The idea is that if you calculate the revenue lost or not earned by waiting to complete each project, you can compare the relative value of projects and use that to prioritize the projects.

Unfortunately, the public sector isn’t driven by revenue, and so a strictly economic model isn’t going to work.

I suggested using time-saved and constituent-impact as public-sector-analogs for revenue.

I wish I had a more defined solution, but that’s all I have right now. The truth is that even estimating time-saved and constituent-impact might be unattainable. For two reasons:

  1. Public-sector-baseline-maturity
  2. Constituent-impact-complexity

First, people say “good enough for government work” for a reason. And it’s not because there aren’t any hard-working, butt-kicking government-workers. There are. But, despite those workers, there is a legacy of inefficiency (and some inefficient workers who take advantage of the legacy of genuine bureaucracy). Part of the legacy is a lack of baseline awareness. How much should we get done per day? Per week? Per year? Government (at least local government, where I work) is famously squeaky-wheel. That is, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The loudest voice gets the attention.  The guns and gavels carry the day. The legacy of a pre-data world is very much alive.

I won’t say anything about the fact that lots and lots of government organizations are making the shift to measuring outputs and targeting outcomes.

Second, how do you measure constituent impact? The number of people? The kind of impact? The kind of person impacted? Is an hour of an impoverished-I-work-two-jobs-to-raise-my-two-children-as-a-single-mother’s time worth more or less than the real-estate developer’s time? Technically, on an hourly basis, the developer’s time is worth more. But saving an hour of a busy single-mother’s time seems pretty impactful to me.

Even if we decide the mother’s time is more valuable, how much more valuable? And that’s to say nothing about estimating the potential number of mothers who will be impacted by a project. Let alone the actual number of mothers who will be impacted by a project.

You get the idea.

The reason I loved Barry’s CD3 recommendation is that it takes me one step closer to creating an I-can-abide-by-that portfolio-management methodology in the land of a thousand cooks. And, as they say, one step at a time.