Wednesday, February 27, 2013


"The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies." Robert Conquest's Third Law of Politics
At its peak, the Roman Empire (population: circa 80 million) had 10,000 civil servants. Just past its peak, Ireland (population: 4.6 million) has 40,000 civil servants. Modern societies seem to need bigger bureaucracies (in the private sector as well as the public sector, I might add).

People are beginning to notice. Take a recent poll on people's values in the UK. Asked what they see as the most important values in the personal lives and communities, the most common value is 'family' (alongside 'caring'). But asked in the same poll which value appears to be most common in the nation as a whole, the answer is 'bureaucracy' (by a long shot):

I have to admit I was surprised. Bureaucracy is hardly popular, but it rarely grabs the headlines either. Still, something is going on, and it isn't just the Brits who are feeling uncomfortable with 'Big Bureau'. In the United States, a majority of American citizens (for the first time ever) feel that the Federal Government threatens their personal rights and freedoms. That includes 4 in 10 Democrats, by the way.

I don't think we're there yet in Ireland. A recent visitor from America remarked to me that he had been in Dublin three days and hadn't seen 'a cop'. So we're not quite a police state yet... But the issue of bureaucracy is about something more big government. It's about a world increasingly shaped by a left-brain dominant culture, as described by Iain McGilchrist in a recent RSA paper:

All these are features of the way the left hemisphere conceives the world, not the way the whole brain would have seen it... I could point to the mass of petty legislation, and the obsession with accountability and audit in all walks of life, designed to fill the vacuum left by trustworthiness and merely serving further to erode trust; a litigious culture, which imposes a heavy burden on the economy and saps morale; the bureaucracy and micromanagement that stifles originality in research and ensures mediocrity; the narrow-minded obsession with economic gain here and now that attacks educational institutions and the world of scholarship; the managerial culture that is destroying professionalism in medicine, and substituting machine-like ‘decision trees’ for skill and judgment; the neglect of practical hands-on, embodied experience and common sense, that turns nurses and policemen into office-based paper pushers with degrees; the exploitation of the natural world as if it were just so much resource to ‘go get’; and so on.
There's more:

The left hemisphere focuses on detail at the expense of the bigger picture, and on procedures at the expense of their meaning. This loss of proportion and preference for the forms of things over any real world content, lend themselves to a ‘tick box’ mentality, which is also an aspect of its risk-averse nature. Since its purpose is control in the service of grasp or manipulation, rather than understanding of the world, it is anxious and even paranoid if it senses loss of control. This makes it prone to bureaucracy, and indeed one could see the bureaucratic mind as an epitome of the left hemisphere’s take on the world, prioritising not just control but procedures that are explicit and that favour abstraction, anonymity, organisability and predictability over what is individual, unique, embodied and flexible. In the process justice gets re-interpreted simply as equality.

What we're seeing in the UK and USA are belated manifestations of a revolt against the bureaucratic world-view, the box ticking, form filling and micro-management.

Will we avoid a similar fate in Ireland? It's probably too late (too many new taxes, charges and levies to administer after all). Though 'peak welfare' is but a precursor to 'peak government', we know from the history of the Roman Empire that bureaucracies change but slowly, and very, very reluctantly.

1 comment:

  1. In my own industry (IT) I see increasing 'commoditisation' of skills (in Ireland - read 'skills shortage' at least partially as 'shortage of skills that can be deployed with zero effort'. The goal is a conveyor-belt process (ostensibly to assure quality) but that then requires increased 'line management', rinse and repeat until you have bureaucracy.

    McGilchrist rightly makes that argument in the medical field - where repeatable, automatic processes are often seen as the holy grail.

    'Scuse me... must freshen up on my Aldous Huxley (" ordered universe in a world of planless incoherence" #BNW)


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