Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Bureaucracy and Community Resilience

As you might imagine, I’ve had way too much experience with bureaucracies in my almost forty years working with the federal government.  In this post, let me look at bureaucracy through the lens of community resilience.

First, a word of disclaimer.  My view of bureaucracy is well summarized in some of Moore’s laws of bureaucracy:

  • Bureaucracies have no heart (As an example, think Spirit Airlines’ refusal to refund the price of a ticket to a dying veteran.).
  • Bureaucracies are perverse (Here in South Carolina, over 200 people have been kicked off the ballot because the bureaucracy responsible for candidates’ filing gave incorrect directions on how to do it.).
  • Bureaucracies will thrash about, causing much cost, pain and destruction (see the above!).

If I (and so many others) feel this way, why do we still have bureaucracies?  Two reasons:

Bureaucracies tend to be self-perpetuating.  As formulated in Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:  In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.  In other words, in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

More importantly, though, bureaucracies exist to carry out routine functions efficiently and in a consistent manner – bureaucracies are the wheels that keep organizations (governments, businesses…) running more or less smoothly.  But this also implies a more fundamental role for bureaucracies.  Their rules, regulations, and procedures encapsulate the organization’s corporate memory of what works, at least within a bureaucracy’s domain.  The more rigid this procedural structure, the more resistant the bureaucracy is to change.  In addition, larger organizations tend to be more bureaucratic because they tend to do more things on a routine basis.  This implies that they house silos of specialists skilled in some routine function.

But resilience is all about managing and adapting to change.  Achieving resilience thus means tearing down the walls between balkanized bureaucracies that are busily making their silos into fortresses.  This leads to a paradox:  if a community is working to become more resilient, it will try to take action through its tried and proven bureaucratic channels, the ones least prone to change.  Further, since adapting to major disruptions (e.g., hurricanes, recessions) generally does not neatly fit into a single bureaucracy’s purview, it forces bureaucracies to interact with one another in non-routine ways.  If the community’s bureaucracy is flexible, the community is likely to be more resilient; if not, any efforts to enhance the community’s resilience become much more difficult.

Of course, these are general thoughts.  However, they lead to some specific things to consider in determining whether a community’s bureaucracies will help or hinder efforts to become more resilient.

  • History.  If a bureaucracy is a sort of corporate memory container, then look at the challenges the community, esp. the bureaucracy, has faced.  Were they varied?  Were some of them relatively recent?  Were they successfully met?  “No” answers may indicate that the bureaucracy is too rigid.
  • The age of the bureaucracy.  Just like people, a bureaucracy can get “hardening of the arteries” with age.  It can accrete documentation requirements, for example, that continue on long after the need has disappeared.  In a crisis, these will sow frustration in both the public and the bureaucracy and slow down recovery.
  • Collaboration.  Has the bureaucracy worked with others outside their domain to solve crosscutting problems?  City governments such as San Diego and Baltimore that are managed in a fashion that forces bureaucracies to work together toward common crosscutting goals are likely to be more resilient than ones that are managed in a more stovepiped manner.
  • Leadership.  Is the leadership of the bureaucracy open to new ideas?  Does the leadership have experience working outside the bureaucracy?  Has any of the leadership come from outside the bureaucracy?  Again, “No” answers raise red flags.
  • Innovation.  Has the bureaucracy periodically changed how it does business?  Is continuous improvement a part of its culture?
  • Number.  More bureaucracies imply more organizations that must be aligned to actually make something happen.

Thus, bureaucracy can be a boon or a bane to community resilience.  In a following blog, I’ll try to provide a few examples highlighting both.