27 Jul 2009

Weekend Discussion: Bureaucrats!

NOTE: This post will stay here until Sunday night. Posts for Saturday and Sunday morning go below this post.

Dear Aguanauts,

Discussion posts allow you to discuss a topic among yourselves -- exchanging views, learning and teaching. (I only read the comments.)

If you are interested, take a moment to check out (and add to!) last week's discussion on better blogging. After that, please give us your thoughts on...

Bureaucrats. Do they have an incentive to do a better job (faster, cheaper) or put themselves out of business? Does that matter? Stories and international comparisons welcome!


  1. The term "bureaucrat", like "salesman" or "lawyer" carries a negative connotation these days; yet we rely on these people, and can be very very well served by them. I just returned from 3 days touring the Hetch Hetchy system in a group largely composed of what would be called bureaucrats. I came away very impressed with their dedication, pride, and professionalism. Theory dictates that monopoly agencies staffed with civil service employees should become stultified backwaters. Yet, many people in government or agency jobs really are driven by a commitment to lead a useful life, and to serve society. That sounds corny, but I think it is what makes the difference between agencies that succeed, and ones that fail. The top leadership has little to do with this, as they are generally political appointees, blowhards, who come and go. Somehow a culture evolves within an agency that either attracts and retains good people, or does not.

  2. I think that Mr. Kurtz pretty much nailed it here. He mentioned the similarities between salesmen, lawyers and bureaucrats. Let me add bean counters to the list. This person is in the form of an economist or accountant type.

    What I have seen is a mix of these types and the interaction of between them when dealing with a typical problem.

    The lawyer type is always focused on the legal side of decisions made by the group. The bean counter looks at the money angle. The salesman type looks for general consensus in the group.

    On a more serious side, Mr. Kurtz was spot on in his comment, "I came away very impressed with their dedication, pride, and professionalism."

    David, Your intro: "Do they have an incentive to do a better job (faster, cheaper) or put themselves out of business?"

    Considering the situations we see today with the demand verses supply problems with water, the goal of the manager is, "How can we maintain the same level of service that the customers are accustomed to?"

    Our lawyer bureaucrat would say, "Provide the same level of service or we may be sued if a customer of ours has a financial hardship due to changes we have done!"

    The bean counter bureaucrat would caution on the long term availability of the resource. The salesman bureaucrat tries to keep harmony within the group.

    One thing you learn about bureaucrats is that they all clearly understand the need to make changes gradually. They can ill afford to make abrupt changes on the way things are done.

    Radical changes happen with pricing and supply. Reduce supply or raise prices and someone down the line will lose on the deal. Case in point - Abrupt supply reduction: Kalamath River farmers. Abrupt price changes: Housing and energy costs...

    As much as I would love to say that things should be run differently - I understand that bureaucrats have to run things the way it's being done presently.


  3. I’d generally agree with Messrs. Kurtz & Grady too. The question on if they have incentives to be efficient isn’t really the right question. (The answer is both yes and no, in my opinion.)

    As a "bureaucrat" myself, I am certainly not unbiased, however I can see the motivations of countless people who work in my agency precisely because they believe in its mission, and have stayed for decades trying to do their best despite changing external priorities and pressures.

    One thing that must be recognized is that bureaucrats aren’t working based on an incentive of personal gain (i.e. "maximize profit") but rather on directions from legislators or executives to apply a certain mandate for some social benefit, which may or may not be “efficient.” People work hard when they believe in our cause, but performance awards certainly don’t hurt either and do help drive innovation.

    But if you want to know the source of inefficiency, it’s mostly deliberate in our system. Congress, for example, was set up to be slow and divided in order to thwart anyone seeking dictatorial power or radical change. Bureaucrats are subject to many more constraints and administrative procedures than private industry. These require adhering to standards of transparency, fairness, accountability, etc. All these slow down the processes but were instituted to pursue various socially desirable goals.

    While this can have negative consequences too, the goal is to do things "right" more than to just do it "efficiently." This is particularly important, because (at least in my domain) almost no matter what we do, advocates on one side or the other will likely sue us over our decision. Quick work risks garnering public criticism and that work being thrown out the courtroom window. Being human too, we don’t like our efforts being wasted.

  4. I am now a "bureaucrat" myself, and I have to admit that I prefer the term "civil servant". 2+ years ago, I hesitated to accept the post. I grew up in a family that had frequent and colourful utterances against the inefficiency, stupidity, etc. of bureaucrats and politicians and basically everybody in "the system". It is obvious that I also saw and still see some much needed improvements as urgently necessary in the way "the system" works. Then I accepted the challenge of "trying to improve things from the inside"... and to "think it possible that [I] may be wrong"... And, lo, surprise, I did indeed discover that "many people in government or agency jobs really are driven by a commitment to lead a useful life, and to serve society" and I am proud to say - for corny as that may sound - that there are quite a few impressive, intelligent, hard-working and committed people in civil service, and I have found this extremely true in the European Commission.

    Now to answer the original questions:
    - yes, those of us who are committed to making the planet a better place have indeed "an incentive to do a better job (faster, cheaper)". I have found out that with limited resources and large workloads, if I still want to do a good job, I'd better do it faster, and limit my very long hours in the office...
    - I would be delighted to "put myself out of business" as it would mean I would have solved huge problems and could rest with peace of mind... It would be already wonderful if I indeed actually managed to put myself completely out of business by the time I shall be 65 anyway. I deal with issues of energy security and of climate change. Unfortunately, I am not so sure we will be out of business very soon.

    I have found the comment by Spencer on why "slow" processes are socially desirable very interesting. However, I still believe we should in some cases be bold enough to pursue "radical change". This would not be against the values of transparency, fairness, accountability, that are to be upheld. It only would in most cases require courage and be risky. Examples of radical change brought about by "bureaucrats" exist. They are as rare in history as figures such as the first Nobel Peace Prize laureat, Frédéric Passy (http://www.ipu.org/strct-e/passy.htm), but they exist. For me, and I know it is a personal perspective, it is the only valid reason to work as a civil servant.


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