Friday, April 20, 2012

Peak Bureaucracy: Perhaps it's time we considered alternatives

The Atlantic published a great piece last week by Eric Garland entitled Peak Intel: How So-Called Strategic Intelligence Actually Makes Us Dumber, here's a particularly powerful excerpt:

"Hierarchical organizations have a very different logic than smaller firms. In less consolidated industries, success and failure are largely the result of the decisions you make, so intelligence about the reality of the marketplace is critical. Life is different in gigantic organizations, where success and failure are almost impossible to attribute to individual decisions. Though a given conglomerate might have hundreds or thousands of "executives," each is much more beholden to a complex culture of bosses. Even if people mean well, they're living and dying by a system where the incentives are to seek advancement by pushing responsibility downward and pulling credit upwards. In large, slow-moving bureaucracies, conventional thinking and risk avoidance become paramount, irrespective of how many times a day people at that organization use the word "strategy" or "innovation." It is far more preferable to fail conventionally than to make a daring but uncertain decision without the full backing of the entire organization. Because massive bureaucracies are so much more common than they were even a few years ago, decisions are simply not in vogue right now."

While Garland, a (private sector) strategic intelligence analyst, is speaking mainly about large privately held companies the same could easily be said about public sector bureaucracies. In fact, it is probably one of the reasons why federal public servants in Australia prefer working in micro-agencies over larger departments. According to the Canberra Times, the recent Public Service Commission (of Australia) Survey found:

"... significantly higher levels of employee engagement than in the rest of the federal bureaucracy, suggesting micro-agency staff feel more involved with their work, their colleagues, their supervisor and their workplace."

And that:

"Micro-agency employees also rated their leaders more highly on every measure tested, such as whether the agency was managed well, and whether senior executives engaged with staff and communicated effectively."

Size, it would seem, acts as a force multiplier. The larger the organization the greater distance the work needs to travel for feedback and approval, the more consensus building needs to take place, the less likely any single person or decision is to be linked to success or failure. Even my rudimentary analysis of the (Canadian) Public Service Employee Survey seems to support similar conclusions.

So what does it all mean?

Well it could mean that public sector organizations could be more effective if they were smaller; and to be clear, I don't mean that in the "cut jobs" sense but rather in the "perhaps departmental mandates are too wide" sense. Theoretically one could divvy up existing mandates into smaller more manageable chunks and split resources accordingly to deliver on those mandates while leveraging administrative support solutions on a model of shared services. In practical terms, I'm not sure how much of that could be accomplished given established legal and policy frameworks. Surely there is a robust set of rules and conditions that must be satisfied before one can start rearranging the entire apparatus. That said, if the real problem is a disconnect between individual decisions and outcomes than perhaps we can pursue measures that make upstream decision-making more frequent (Note: by "upstream" I mean further down the hierarchy).

If Garland is right (and I think he is), this should free up decision-makers to make decisions in a more timely manner and generally cut the distance between those in the trenches and those directing the troops; and if the survey results are to be believed, then faster decisions and closer proximity should generally lead to better employee engagement and performance. Sadly, my sense is that pushing decision-making upstream would be incredibly hard to accomplish given the tendency for even the most straightforward request to get caught up in the hierarchy.

That said, many bureaucratic bottlenecks arise from the system itself, not the people within them. You could call it a design flaw of command hierarchy, scalability at the cost of efficiency (at least with respect to complex and interdisciplinary knowledge work). If you need proof, I suggest you speak with any of the system's Directors General who have more staff than a first year psychology class at a major Canadian university. You will quickly realize the predicament that they find themselves in. It's not that they don't appreciate your effort or want to get you comments on your work, its that she simply doesn't have the time to get her hands dirty with everything her employees generate. Add to that her fiduciary responsibilities, human resource issues, management meetings, interdepartmental meetings, and the list goes on. As Garland said, even the most well intentioned and hard working individuals (of which I know many) are to a degree stuck in the system.

As we continue to move forward within the confines of austerity there clearly remains an opportunity to design a better system. Perhaps we have not only reached the period of peak intelligence as Garland argues but also the point of peak bureaucracy.  The point where governments couldn't possibly become any more bureaucratic, the point where bureaucracy (the slow process, not necessarily the number of people) starts to decline in absolute terms.

The point where we have to start seriously considering the alternatives.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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