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Bureaucracy: The Devil of Small Details?

When was the last time you heard anyone say, “Gee, what an excellent bureaucracy we have in our Department of Motor Vehicles. It only took me fifteen minutes to get a new driver’s license.”

Probably never.

In fact, the word “bureaucracy” is most frequently used as a pejorative.

Consider this from President Donald Trump: “Getting things done in this country, if you want to build something, if you want to start a company, it’s going to be virtually impossible with all the bureaucracy and all the approvals.”

Along the same lines, author Franz Kafka said, “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”

The list goes on and on. But from our perspective – after covering state and local government for decades, the bureaucracy is little more than the apparatus that keeps government running; it consists of men and women who tend to work very hard and take the idea of public service seriously Without them, we’d be left with a bunch of policies and programs, without any progress on implementing them.

There are, of course stifling bureaucracies as well as hugely efficient ones. But we take umbrage at the idea that the thousands of men and women who labor at getting the real work of government done are in league with the Devil of Small Details.

We posed this opinion on LinkedIn and Twitter a few weeks ago and were startled at the overwhelming – if not universal support for our perspective, The LinkedIn post got thousands of views, leading us to believe that we had struck a very responsive chord.

A few sample comments:

Michael Jacobson, deputy director of performance and strategy at the King County Office of Performance, Strategy and Budget, wrote, “I like using the word bureaucrat as a positive concept, as in a rational long-term thinker and as a counter to the ephemeral and political. Bureaucracy, alas, retains a negative vibe even to me, despite its potential to ensure equity, consistency and thorough application of rules and regulations.”

Yves Genest, vice president of products and services at the Canadian Audit and Accountability Foundation, added his thoughts: “Bureacracy. . . is just a word to describe how we organize purposeful activities. It was first invented by the military 10,000 years ago. It wins wars, builds roads and schools, manages the justice system, provides social services . . . It gets things done. Like democracy it's not perfect, but after 10,000 years, it's the best way we've found to make our life better.

The former Kansas City auditor and mayor and recent publisher of Governing magazine, Mark Funkhouser, was compact: “I am a bureaucrat,” he wrote, “and proud of it.”

One theory for the reason why the bureaucracy has gotten a bad rap was set forth by Christopher Tyler Burks, a Ph.D student at American University and an ASPA Founders’ Fellow, who offers this thoughtful theory: “Public bureaucrats have been maligned for partisan reasons. There is no amount of performance improvement amid decreasing resources that a bureaucrat can achieve to satisfy a partisan who views the bureaucracy as the problem and enemy ("Starve the Beast").

Of all the responses we received, one of the most interesting to us came from Kil Huh, who leads the Pew Charitable Trust’s much-praised work on fiscal and economic policy,

He wrote, “Max Weber a German sociologist once argued that [bureaucracy] was the most rational way to organize society. He wrote at a time when government was doing cutting edge stuff. Now things like hierarchy, division of labor, rules, [and treating] people like widgets seems so tired.

“That said, I still believe in government and bureaucracy to be careful, thoughtful and fair. But what Weber loves about it seems antiquated. Just my two cents.”


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