Thursday, March 8, 2007

In Praise of the Inefficient Bureaucrat

Recently, I saw a college classmate. He’s a law school grad and now works for a big government department. For all his education, though, he still complains about the “inefficient bureaucracy.”

I hear this all the time, being a member of the inefficient bureaucracy. My job is to marshal paper through the bureaucracy. I help get policy, guidance documents, and regulations published. And so, I deal with complaints about “bureaucracy” all the time. Too much red tape. Too many hoops to jump through. Too many levels of approval. Why can’t we just do it? Just publish it without all the nonsense? We waste so much time. Why can’t it be simple?

Some coworkers and higher level officials I work with go out of their way to circumvent the bureaucracy. They want to get a policy “out” as soon as possible. So, they try to skip what they consider “extraneous” levels of review. Just get the Office Director to sign it and it’ll go out, they’ve told me. But they usually end causing more problems than they solve, and publication is usually delayed as a result. Someone has to clean up their messes.

I’ve always considered this a cowboy attitude. These people are rebels. They think they are smarter (or at least wiser) than all the GS-9s, 11s, 12s, 13s who hold up their projects.

After dealing with this phenomenon for 7 years now, I’ve come to a different conclusion. There’s a fine line between a rebel and fascist. What these people really want is the power to do anything they please. They don’t want to be constrained by rules. They want to be dictators.

But the bureaucracy is inefficient by design. And the inefficiency is good. The inefficiency is there specifically to stop such mini-dictators from wielding too much power.

(Let’s not confuse inefficiency with corruption. Corrupt governments seem extremely inefficient. That is until you pony up the correct amount of cash. Then they become amazingly efficient.)

The most efficient government is by decree. And government by decree is, of course, a dictatorship. The Nazi’s were quite efficient. So were the Soviets. But democratic government is not efficient. Everyone loves to complain about Congress and how long it takes them to do anything. But is the alternative better?

The executive departments also take forever to do anything, being hamstrung by statutes and policies that require such things as “public input” and “hearings” and levels of review, all there to protect the American citizen from government abuse.

Even if the mini-dictators in my department are nice people and what they want to publish as soon as possible is the best thing ever, the cure for cancer, the solution to world hunger, I still say they shouldn’t have that power. One person alone should not have the power to implement something that may effect hundreds of millions of people, even if it is a great thing. If it’s so great, it will get through the bureaucracy and see the light of day. The world has done without the great idea for all this time; what’s another month or two?

Complaints about the “inefficient bureaucracy” point to a larger problem that plagues so much of American society: time. The world is a complex place with complicated problems. It takes time to study and digest issues, and it takes time to think about them. At my job, whenever we rush to get something “out,” invariably, almost without exception, we have to reissue it because of mistakes, simply because we didn’t take the time to do it right the first time.

We have a saying at my office: “Do you want it done right, or do you want it done right now?” It’s trite, but I like it. So here’s to the GS-11s who make sure forms are filled out properly, and the GS-9s who give things back because all the signature blocks are not signed. Because when our bureaucracy becomes efficient, it’s time to start looking over our shoulders and searching our homes for bugs.

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