Obstructionists: Bureaucracy and the Root of Its Problems

Paperwork and other types of accounting-for what gets accomplished in any organization is an unfortunate necessity in most types of work. As an organization gets to a certain size, or in some cases, due to its close relationship with organizations at or beyond that size, a certain type of employee is able to survive and even thrive, where a smaller organization simply couldn’t afford to sustain them.

For this type of employee, accounting-for is not an unfortunate necessity, but the purpose and main function of the organization. Paperwork and its bureaucratic accompaniments become the goal and not an accompaniment to whatever the organization is supposedly organized to accomplish.

Since in modern states, due to their size and complexity, a majority of government departments fulfill the size requirements for this type of person to thrive, the plausibility of the ‘less’ or ‘smaller’ government proposed by libertarians and other right wing types is based on the simple situation that the majority of people have some dealings with government departments, and therefore experience the inherent frustration caused by these people.

Unfortunately the notion that this is caused by the public nature of government departments is false. Private organizations of the same size are just as prone to the issue, and even smaller organizations that do a majority of their business with these organizations have a tendency to start to see reality through the same warped glasses.

An ex of mine’s grandmother, having worked for decades in government, referred to these people (in a heavy Montego Bay accent), as obstructionists, which is the best term I have heard to describe how they go about things. Generally incapable of accomplishing anything substantial themselves, they justify their continued employment by preventing anyone else from accomplishing anything substantial. Incapable of actual judgment or decision, everything has to be stamped and accounted-for.

The result is the radical inefficiency seen in most large organizations, combined with the lack of personal accountability – it can always be said that it was nobody’s decision, because in a very real sense it’s true. The rules of the organization have always already taken away the ability to make a real decision or perform a true action.

So called ‘economies of scale’ barely exist today. In most industries the flexibility and adaptability of modern technologies makes small runs of products as efficient as large. What is seen as an intrinsic advantage of larger organizations is generally no more than their ability, as large and therefore with significant financial resources, to buy advantages from the state. Smaller automotive manufacturers, for instance, can turn a profit while charging the same for an automobile on runs that the larger manufacturers could never profit from, because the inherent inefficiencies of scale outweigh any leftover economies of scale.

While the problem is less difficult to diagnose than economists would have people believe, the solution is not as easy to project. Splitting up large bureaucracies doesn’t fundamentally change the way they operate or the people that work there, it simply creates more interfaces and therefore more locations to block accomplishment. In a similar way to modularity in software systems, problems don’t go away by simply cutting systems into chunks, and evidentially the most reliable software systems we have remain monolithic, since more interfaces creates more opportunity for required prerequisites to be mysteriously missing at runtime. We have historically created the most reliable systems, at least in the world of software, by simply fixing problems as we find them in the most open manner possible.

So how do we fix the inefficiencies caused by obstructionists in both public and private organizations? A hint might be found in the ‘open manner’ required to effectively fix complex software. ‘Big iron’ monolithic systems such as VM and MVS (or Z/OS in current terminology) were made as reliable and efficient as they are by the code being open and therefore fixable by anyone involved. The more recent fashion of regarding open code as free code arises from an assumption that if the code is open, it can be easily emulated. Yes it can be copied, but copied code is fairly easy to demonstrate as breach of copyright. The ideas embodied in the system can be copied legally, so long as the implementation is different. This is where the fallacy lies: a new implementation of the same idea will not have less issues. By the simple virtue of its being new, it will generally have more issues than an older system based on the same ideas, since the older system has had more time for problems in the implementation to be solved, and therefore the apparent ease of copying the system as it actually functions is just that.  Most problems are not in the general ideas but in the specific implementations.

This insight can be applied to large organizations, in that most problems are not structural or conceptual, they exist in the way specific things are done, and specific things are done the way they are done due to the people that do them, not the organization they are part of. Part of what makes large organizations susceptible to obstructionists is that a lack of real accomplishment is much easier to hide, and since large organizations have a tendency to become more closed, hiding becomes that much easier.

How then do we make large organizations more open, and prevent the inefficiencies that currently plague them? Firstly the huge gap between top management and people that do the work needs to be cut, and that significantly includes reducing the income and power gap that currently separates them. Gaps between other levels also need to be reduced, although the specifics of what can be done will differ from organization to organization to a greater degree than the top to bottom gap. In some organizations, for instance, lower level ‘supervisors’ often don’t require any particular skills, in fact the best skills they can have are exactly those of the people they supervise. Since skills fade without use, the best way in this type of organization to both keep supervisory people on board with actual work that needs to be done is to make being supervisory a temporary thing. Aside from limiting the ability of a supervisor to behave in an obstructionist way (the best way to prevent someone from getting in someone below them’s way is the knowledge that the tables will be turned relatively soon), this also prevents the creation of new obstructionists in the positions where they both cause the most harm and are safest from criticism, a tendency created by the fading of skills from disuse in the first place. In the middle management tier the problems tend to be very specific to the goals of the organization as a whole, particularly in those areas that only exist in order to account-for, primarily accounting itself and HR. In the latter case, having HR as a department in the first place is the biggest problem. What used to be known as employees that deal with personnel issues can neither properly do what they are supposed to be doing if they form a separate department since personnel issues occur in every department, nor can the tendency to rigidify rules and structures designed to provide for things like diversity and flexibility into precisely what prevents those things.



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