Why are bureaucracies so dysfunctional?

Discussion in 'Politics, Religion, Social Issues' started by ElectronGuru, Mar 7, 2014.

  1. ElectronGuru macrumors 65816

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    #1
    Something happens when people gather together in a group to get things done. Some of it is obviously good, I mean why even bother if more doesn't get done than working individually. But much of it is bad, where members spend as much or even more time and energy managing the needs and the threats of and from the organization itself than with those things the organization is supposed to be solving.

    Examples: 1) you want to be recognized and rewarded for getting something done. Instead of working on something that has important benefit to the organization but that few can see, you develop a minor solution to minor problem but that is easily seen, presto. 2) you spend so much time focused on threats to the organization, that you miss the person down the hall who's been working to make you look bad, because it will make them look good. 3) you develop alliances with like-minded people to protect yourself from other like-minded people who are out to get you.

    The obvious example is government, where politics is written in by law. But having spent my life in the private sector, politics seems to be a universal phenomenon, the result of social structures and procedures. I was even going to say human nature but such dynamics also seem inherent with non human groups. I've also noticed it to be less prevalent in organizations with flatter structure, fewer layers. But in all cases, it's those most adept at cultivating power, who end up with the most of it. And these are invariably the ones least likely (even if able) to make decisions to the benefit of the very organization that rewards and promotes them.
     
  2. Technarchy macrumors 603

    Technarchy

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  3. vrDrew macrumors 65816

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    Strangely enough, you can learn a lot about human politics and behavior by studying the way individual insects behave in a hive or nest.

    Taken individually, any particular hive member may not necessarily be contributing particularly much to the collection of nectar, defense, or raising of young. But taken as a whole - the entire hive works collectively.

    And I think this may be useful in understanding behavior in bureaucracies.

    Seen in a totally objective light no bureaucracy - be it your State Department of Motor Vehicles; General Motors; or even Google or Apple - actually seems really necessary. Except that it is. There is no means other than a bureaucracy that we can focus the efforts of tens of thousands of individual humans towards, for instance, organizing a search engine. And so seemingly toxic behaviors on the part of some "hive members" (ie. the cubicle politician quietly backstabbing his boss) actually serve a purpose.

    The secret for our individual success is not necessarily to fight against the toxic behavior. Instead, it is to learn not to fall victim to it.
     
  4. citizenzen macrumors 65816

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    I'm glad you didn't start this off with the typical government baaad / private sector goood rant.

    As someone who's worked in both—and currently work for a state university—I've seen the good and bad in each sector and value both.

    Are there problems that arise because large groups of people can't be a nimble as individuals or small groups? Of course. But on the other hand, large bureaucracies can and do function and provide valuable services that can't otherwise be accomplished on individual or small group levels.

    It seems to me that you have to take the bad with the good, while always striving to improve—both on a bureaucratic and personal level.
     
  5. alent1234 macrumors 603

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    people love to blame someone for a real or perceived failure so when you have a large organization no one wants to to do anything without permission or the consent of others. you get bureaucracies

    look at what happened at target or any similar story where the media reports on some failure by the government. everyone starts calling for heads to roll
     
  6. ElectronGuru thread starter macrumors 65816

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    #6
    This reminds me of a technology example.

    Back in the 90s I wanted to explain why companies were buying DOS, despite the Mac being way superior at the time. It became particularly burdensome with the transition to windows, when a given company had to buy new hardware and software regardless. Why not go mac I would think. And time and again, they would not. The scenario went something like this:

    IBM was the trusted name in business machines. Because of their licensing deal, even with IBM no longer involved, Microsoft assumed the same mantle of trust. So the typical middle-manager buying an office full of computers had two options. 1) Buy a Microsoft-based product and if something goes wrong it's not my fault. Microsoft is supposed to be the safer choice.

    2) buy Apple products and if something goes wrong it is my fault. Apple was not supposed to be the safer choice so choosing them is higher risk - to the company and the decision maker. So the middle managers (bureaucrats) at thousands of companies across the country and across the world, made Bill Gates rich by avoiding risk. By making the safer choice, over and over again.

    Larger companies are admonished all the time for being to risk averse. But the decisions made by the company are in fact decisions made by the people in the company. People operating inside bureaucracies, keeping their heads down, for fear of losing them.
     
  7. VulchR macrumors 68020

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    I've had my fair share of our-of-body experiences in administrative meetings (like a 45-minute committee meeting at my university in which it was debated whether the words 'with distinction' would fit properly on our diplomas). In my opinion the problem is that the most conniving, but not necessarily the most inspiring, people assume the roles of leadership in an organisation. Add to that the summed total of laziness, selfishness, pride, and anxiety of all the people in the organisation, and the result is a bureaucratic nightmare.

    In my experience there are only two solutions to this: first, inspiration from the top; and second, a sense of professionalism and duty.
     
  8. zin macrumors 6502

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    #8
    An important point to note that you missed from your post is that this is a political theory.
     
  9. citizenzen macrumors 65816

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    This has been my experience as well.

    In my department there was one employee who would stick their nose into everything. Any issue, any question, any problem would find them right there, personally trying to resolve it despite there being many other people capable of doing so. As a result, their own work suffered. They had difficulty focusing on the tasks they were responsible for and constantly had to stay late in order to get their own work done.

    Guess who's my boss now.

    :rolleyes:

    Needless to say, their "leadership" has been less than inspiring.
     
  10. ElectronGuru thread starter macrumors 65816

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    #10
    Well put. The conniving are the most successful from each tier, so the higher up you go, the worse it gets. And once you have that skill you rarely need any others, so actual abilities are relegated to mear coincidence. Which reduces organizational decision making, so everything suffers.


    I've seen this too many times myself. And we're not even talking about 'failing upwards' when incompetent people are promoted to reduce the damage at their present station. However, in googling the term, I landed this rather apt description:

    http://www.nation.com.pk/international/27-Jan-2012/failing-upwards-living-in-a-bureaucratic-world

    "Contemporary management culture operates on two key principles. One is bottom line efficiency conceived in terms of dollar value. The other is the use of “KPIs” - key performance indicators. These are meant to help organisations achieve their purposes effectively at the least cost. They systematically separate means and ends, to the detriment of the latter.

    A KPI is a proxy, usually a quantitative measure, for effective performance of a task. But it is not the task itself. What it actually measures is how good you are at scoring high on the KPI. That is, you excel at some indicator of what you really are supposed to be good at."

    So what we've done is create a bunch of systems that are supposed to increase efficiency and end up doing the exact opposite. And the harder we try, the more we push the same tests and procedures, the worse it gets.
     
  11. citizenzen macrumors 65816

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    Follow-up ...

    This person who couldn't do their previous job because they were always too busy trying to do other people's jobs—even though the other people were quite capable of doing their own—is now on so many committees, attends so many meetings and is so involved with matters outside our department that they don't perform their assigned task of actually managing the department they are charged with managing.

    :rolleyes:

    Who could have seen that coming?
     
  12. ElectronGuru thread starter macrumors 65816

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    #12
    That's a big part of the problem, there's never enough. I mean why stop at level 4 when judiciously applied techniques will put them in charge at level 7. Nothing in their experience has shown them that fulfilling their job responsibilities will pay nearly as well as a well timed promotion. Which they already know how to get, so why bother doing anything else?

    Btw, I was thinking about these ideas in a political context. An organization made up entirely of people for whom the establishment and cultivation of power is more important than being able to even use that power. Congress, what it looks like when no one is left to do actual work. The means really has become the end.
     
  13. Technarchy macrumors 603

    Technarchy

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    Playing out daily in the real world.
     
  14. Eraserhead macrumors G4

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    Sounds like the person who runs your organisation is incompetent.

    Bureaucracies can get stuff done. See China's central planning on high speed rail as an example.
     
  15. deluxeshredder macrumors 6502a

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    Good bureaucracies provide reliabilty and security.

    Bad bureaucracies are dysfunctional and serve as corruption warrens.

    Period.
     
  16. citizenzen macrumors 65816

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    #16
    I totally agree. My example notwithstanding, bureaucracies can get stuff done.

    I'm a part of a large institution. I live it.

    You jump through a few hoops sometimes, but it's never unmanageable. IMO, the hoops are there to standardize practices and procedures coming from a number of different directions and needs and I can see why they were put in place. So long as someone is always looking to improve and streamline procedures ... to have an eye on efficiency and good service, then the system runs well. And that has been my experience for the most part.

    I was just griping about my boss. And I've had bad bosses in both the private and public sector.
     
  17. Eraserhead macrumors G4

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    I agree. We all whine about our bosses sometimes :).
     
  18. alent1234 macrumors 603

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    #18

    i bought my first PC in 1997 and i remember 90's era Mac's. Trust me, they wren't better. i still remember someone i used to know at the time asking me to look at their Mac and i laughed when they had to manually assign memory to a process.

    windows 3.1 had its issues, but windows 95 was awesome for an OS at the time. and even then the reason you bought a PC was for MS Office and the MS Exchange email functionality along with the NT Domain or Novell client. I don't think the Mac had either one.
     
  19. Zombie Acorn macrumors 65816

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    #19
    One of the reasons I am looking to move into more of a startup company culture. Being managed by non-technical people in a multi-billion dollar corp is like slamming your head into concrete.
     
  20. Huntn macrumors G5

    Huntn

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    #20
    I disagree with your characterization. Bureaucracies are established to enable functionality/human interaction in a system of regulation. There is nothing that keeps them from being for the people other than the people running and constructing the rules. It's a matter of priority. There is nothing that would preclude efficiency if it is a priority.
     

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