First, let me say these are my views only, not my employer’s. I faced repercussions for not saying so in a different commentary once, being unaware of obscure requirements to say so, mistakenly believing that what obviously goes without saying might instead have precise coverage somewhere in the monstrous labyrinth of rules controlling all I may do.
But that exemplifies a main point behind writing this.
Bureaucracies become the way they are in no small part based on their institutionalized belief that if enough rules address all that may happen, all will somehow be perfect because every situation that arises will be covered by rules that achieve perfection. And should things still go wrong, at least the institution’s leaders can say they had rules, but somebody simply failed to follow them correctly.
What’s not seen by many behind the madness — call it bureaucracitis — is we are failing because we already have way too much procedure, review and approval to accomplish even simple tasks. Sane people realize you can’t compartmentalize all that is conceivable and cover it with more rules, which includes all the required documentation showing you followed the rules. That instead leads to more chaos since no one can navigate it all, let alone address its countless interpretations.
Here are just a few examples of how micromanaging through bureaucracy has gone way too far in my organization:
* One of our important procedures for financial transactions and associated documents required about 300 pages of instruction until 2011. Its successor consists of 78 instructions totaling more than 6,000 pages, reportedly to attain a much higher degree of precision in the actions.
* What was once a simple letter to assign specific oversight responsibilities to someone and required only one person to execute now requires at least three people, multiple certifications and additional reporting requirements to document the oversight. Such letters, which once took 10 minutes of effort, now take a week or more.
* Routine actions to complete a financial obligation had 12 reviews before 2010. Now, there are more than 40 reviews.
Through all this, policymakers attempt to achieve perfect results by dictating even the tiniest of steps within steps, and checks upon checks. But the results are opposite of what was anticipated — conducting even routine actions can take an eternity, customers are appalled, employees find their jobs hopeless, and sensible fixes are nearly prohibited.
Yet it just keeps getting worse. In my team-leader role, which includes both executing and reviewing actions through the bureaucracy, I find that in less than a decade, the process to achieve the same results as before has more than doubled.
Why is there so much more procedure for the same, or even fewer, outcomes? More reactionary laws are passed, each bringing a vast body of implementing regulations that are always changing. Mistakes are still made, usually for reasons unrelated to regulations. Yet the only response is more regulations to prevent those mistakes.
We lost any sort of balance between bureaucracy and true, cost-effective results many years ago. Federal employees, despite most being capable of creativity and innovation, are instead expected to strictly find and execute what is specified somewhere down to the tiniest details, usually by others who have not performed the job they are controlling.
So can bureaucracitis be treated? Let’s hope so. First, major process reform must be taken seriously. All levels of govenrment have to focus on the end game and look back from it objectively, removing or at least reducing all that is not supporting the result. Meaningless work done to perfection is still meaningless. Here are a few suggestions:
* Require only that essential tasks be done, not each and every imaginable step along the way. Granted, people will accomplish things in different ways, which may be the toughest concept for entrenched bureaucrats to understand. But most will be fine; they will probably flourish. Yes, there will be interpretation issues to be sorted out for the necessary rules that remain, but that is still far better than interpreting countless minute steps within them.
Also, only change the rules once a year, in an organized way, so people can know what is expected. As it is now, rules are changed all the time, and it is virtually impossible to know whether the rules you think you know are still in play.
The result should be that there is a more sensible, organized and stable amount of process to be concerned with. And the resulting reviews and documentation will necessarily be more streamlined — focused only on whether the essential tasks are covered.
Streamlining the bureaucracy also should assist in streamlining the excess management layers. And that could help agencies make do without painful furloughs. Adopting even modest fixes to how we operate would readily draw down our bloated institutions simply through attrition.
Joe Bednar works for the Defense Department’s Defense Logistics Agency and lives in Battle Creek, Mich. The views expressed are his own.