why are bureaucracies bloated?
April 3, 2017 4:22 AM   Subscribe

I'm in Indonesia trying to finish up all the paperwork necessary to conduct research here for a year. The process is a nightmare — each step requires more letters, more signatories, caverns of formalities and stamps, photocopies of previously-acquired documents. But it's fascinating -- how do such bloated, inefficient systems come about?
posted by mrmanvir to Law & Government (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Parkinson's law explains this phenomenon very well!
posted by machinecraig at 4:34 AM on April 3, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: When I first started traveling to all sorts of random countries I used to find it baffling. Why are there 10 people just waiting around in this and that office for something to happen? Why do three people in one room need to pass my visa application between them? Everywhere I went seemed hopelessly overstaffed. But I slowly came to think that having bureaucracy was a good way to have lots of people employed in a secure job who otherwise would be in the informal economy or out of work. And given the desire for 'efficiencies' and eGovernment in other countries that can be just code for layoffs, I don't think that's such a bad thing in the end.

Though yes it's really annoying if you get the wrong stamp in the wrong place and have to start over...
posted by wingless_angel at 5:22 AM on April 3, 2017 [5 favorites]

I agree with wingless_angel, it's full employment. Most are paid a pittance anyway.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:06 AM on April 3, 2017

Best answer: (full disclosure: am bureaucrat.)

I have worked for one organisation that was horrendous for this, and a couple of others that were often believed to be (and often looked like they were from the outside) but weren't. I have no idea about which category yours falls in, so I'll briefly cover both.

The place that was terrible for this I used to compare to Gormenghast. It was many hundreds of years old, it had turrets and spires, and it built up increasingly complex and ornate rituals that had to be followed because That's Just The Way We Do Things Here, even if nobody could remember why. When new developments meant that new approaches were needed, they got bolted on to what was already there rather than replacing them. After a while, that in itself becomes the institutional culture: you do the rituals you need to do.

A lot of things were going on there: veneration of the good old days and distrust of change, lack of communication and transparency within the organisation, lack of confidence (why volunteer to change stuff if you don't understand why it's there or what else it might change or what'll happen to you if you do?) and ironically a lack of documentation ("no of course there isn't a manual - we have to do it this way, because Jean told Emma that when she started and Bob told Jean when she started, and..."). Sometimes people were protecting their own roles, although that was usually less of the mendacious "this is pointless but I insist you still pay me to do it" way and more "enforcing and carrying out this particular possibly-pointless procedure in this particular way helps me feel competent, valuable and sure of myself, because This Is My Job."

On the flip side though, sometimes what looks bloated and inefficient from the outside is actually the least worst way of getting the actual job done. I once had a role where I was dealing with a lot of smaller organisations who'd got public money to carry out some projects. The government tightened up what those organisations needed to pass on to us for that money, and there was SO MUCH protest. Why do we have to give you all this paperwork saying what we did with the last grant? Why do we have to show you ID in this various form? Why do we have to show you our accounts for that thing? We haven't done anything wrong and this is a huge waste of our time! And for 95% of them, then yes it maybe was. But the time and cost spent there was saved about five times over, from the government's perspective, by not letting the other 5% slip through the net.

(Although that too can go both ways - sometimes organisations, especially but not solely governments, will require you to jump through hurdles to show that they are Tough On [Thing] even though the cost of setting up the hurdles outweighs the money lost to [Thing].)

And sometimes it's just because the scope of what they have to do is huge, and complex, and procedures that cover everything are always going to be huge and complex in return. It has ever been thus - it's how Rome ran. But it's the often/necessary work behind the scenes to run massive organisations and governments that doesn't make the headlines. (You think of Julius Caesar, you probably don't think of regulations passed about road maintenance and traffic management - but those are some of the bureaucratic decisions he made.)

(Worth a final caution that bureaucracies often get a bad rap for political (small- and large-P politics) reasons too. Depending on where you're standing, one particular set of regulations could be suffocating red tape that exists as a make-work scheme for officials - or it could be all that stands between you and a beach full of raw sewage where you wanted to swim....)
posted by Catseye at 6:08 AM on April 3, 2017 [26 favorites]

I think Catseye has said many true and useful things above!

Any organization that wants to do things fairly and systematically despite turnover in staff has to set up rules and processes that will likely tend, in the long run, towards excess, and thus needs counterbalancing. There need to be forces that have the power to resist additional layers of process, or the power to say "let's simplify this" and then actually get consensus for that change (or to impose the simplifications unilaterally). What I think you're seeing is pretty common in places where a lot of individuals or topic/area managers have the ability to add process but it's very hard for anyone to veto or resist new process, and inter-agency communication has low trust.

Also: bureaucracy is a potential means for reducing discrimination in hiring and in administration.
posted by brainwane at 6:13 AM on April 3, 2017

how do such bloated, inefficient systems come about?

Perhaps the system isn't intended to efficiently serve the needs of researchers, but may do a decent job serving other goals. E.g., afaik, there is no central clearing house/one-stop shop for people doing research in the US, so if you were conducting research here and your work required approval from agencies in several states, the Federal government, and/or various public institutions, you would no doubt have to send multiple copies of the same document to multiple agencies, etc, because each agency is serving other goals and/or reporting to different funding sources.
posted by she's not there at 6:26 AM on April 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Catseye said it much better than I did.
posted by she's not there at 6:30 AM on April 3, 2017

At least in government, much of bureaucracy comes from law makers making new rules to make sure no one is cheating the system by passing new rules and regulations on top of ones they don't readily understand. I lost count of how many new laws were passed that made us make yet another form to say pretty much the same thing as three other reports and send it to someone else. So in this case, it's rule makers being far removed form rule implementers. I could see how that grows as organizations grow.
posted by advicepig at 6:40 AM on April 3, 2017

In China when I was there, it was for sure for full employment. Also at the time (I'm sure they've caught up by now, but many other developing countries haven't yet) what I used to assume would be done with a computer was done on paper by hand and that does require a lot more steps and stamps and things because there's only one piece of paper that everyone has to look at while it's sitting in front of them, rather than a bunch of bytes that anyone in the system can look at at any time. (Also, China invented both government bureaucracy and paper so there's some national pride at stake here.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:26 AM on April 3, 2017

It's easier to raise money through taxes and use it to employ people than to create profitable industry. The political situation is many places is such that it's easier to employ people in the government for mostly unnecessary jobs than to just give them money to live on.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:41 AM on April 3, 2017

Best answer: Also keep in mind that you can't just pause a bureaucracy's work and redesign it for efficiency whenever you want. The local DMV can't stop issuing licenses for a month while it transitions onto the new computer systems required to support the new organizational scheme, etc. Most of the time, you are looking at bolt-ons of bolt-ons. That inevitably gets unwieldy.
posted by praemunire at 11:06 AM on April 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You can find out by reading The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by David Graeber, which is a very nice summary and history of how bureaucracy came to be and why it persists despite all the inherent flaws.

I purchased a copy of this book when I moved to a full-time mid-level government administrative position. I have since convinced my boss to also purchase and read a copy. It's a good read (and supports a small publisher!).
posted by caution live frogs at 11:59 AM on April 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

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