The Problem of Bureaucracy

How did bureaucracy become synonymous with legitimacy? This question merits much attention and research especially as it concerns the way our government operates and delivers. In many ways, the two concepts (bureaucracy and legitimacy) seems to be very intimately tied; bureaucracy exists to legitimize any processes, so that decisions are not haphazard. So that projects are not driven by powerful personalities, but instead accountable to the system.

Or at least it ought to be in principle.

The irony of the Bhutanese system seems to be that, bureaucracy has become the very tool for the ego-sensitive, fragile, narrow-minded, person who has somehow found his/her way in the position of power by all other criteria except competence.

Photo by Alexa Clark/Flickr

It isn’t uncommon to hear stories like the one I am about to narrate below concerning a colleague of mine who works for a ministry. It was after stages of conceptualizations, planning, review, drafts and re-reviews that a proposal was eventually at its final stage. Needless to say, with most things concerning such matters within the bureaucracy, the process took months requiring the neat signatures of the entire ‘chain of command’ signed with all the confidence and without the critical reflections pertaining to the implications of the proposal.

The final deadline at her doorstep and my colleague running from departments to departments chasing after each person whose schedules were little more reliable than our ATM machines in times of need,

the only missing field before she could submit the proposal was the Director’s signature to legitimize the document. She tried to find the PA to the Director who is normally the one who submits any documents that need signing to the Director, but in vain. So, she went into the Director’s office directly to receive the signature from him.

But he refused to sign it!

Instead scolding her for daring to come to him directly to concern him with such a small task. ‘Small’ he called it: months of time and energy that his own staff put into it! She pleaded and made her case regarding the deadline, which was today to which he put the blame on her squarely for having come to him at such a last minute. He signed it after a long lecture on proper planning and erosion of respect for superiors with the younger generation, of course without the slightest consideration of the enormous leisure he took at each stage to sign. My colleague told me this story at a bar after downing one tall bottle of 11,000.

Photo by Christian Schnettelker/Flickr

After carefully listening to her outpour of frustration, I simply remarked “Is his sense of security in his authority really as fragile as matters concerning who comes to him to receive his signature?” Of course I couldn’t believe that someone couldn’t just simply see that to submit the document on time was more important than the fact that it was a lowly staff who was handing it to him in his top floor suite with leather furnished chair and grand teak wood table. If this is any indication, then I really am not surprised at the enormous funds that are reported to have been spent on extravagant displays of power which are only proportionate to the level of incompetency in the one demanding such elaborate preparations.

As we say in our folk wisdom tradition: “It is the small stream rushing down that makes more noise than the vast calm ocean”

That night driving back home, I got a deja vu because I had recently read a book, ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins where they had a passage that seem to resonate this very idea. As soon as I had some time to myself, I searched for that specific passage and found it to great delight:

“The purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for the incompetence… a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people in the first place. Most companies build their bureaucratic rules to manage the small percentage of wrong people… which in turn drives away the right people… which then increases the percentage of wrong people… which increases the need for more bureaucracy to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline, which then further drives the right people away, and so forth.”

Photo by Dominic Milton Trott/Flickr

It is incredible how some pieces of insights and wisdom can defy the boundaries of geography and culture to allow us to see a picture with such clarity and focus. As I then thought about our system here, many incidents and stories came rushing to the forefront; experiences with incompetent staffs who could almost be mistaken for transfer channels and not people who actually contribute:

“Please go to to this floor; get the signature of this person before you come here” only to be sent back with the same mantra.

Those who get to a position with some level of responsibility and power take on an incredible aura of arrogance and distance that are only held up by the complacent, bending heads of the beneficiaries who don’t realize that they are in no position to act like they are doing you a free service while they enjoy their monthly government salary.

We really need a very thorough look at the layers and formalities of the bureaucracy. What is the end goal? Does this step contribute to the goal in any meaningful way? Or is it unjustified given the time and energy it sucks up when it has been put into practice? I believe that we need to ask these questions at each step. Without a doubt, such an audit into the administration of the system will help reveal the dead weights and loop holes. More importantly, there won’t be much jargonized technical terms, paperwork, suspiciously long lunch hours, to hide behind for ‘transfer channel’ staffs who are more concerned with the scores they get on their mobile games than actually being responsible to the public whom they claim to serve.

Photo by paulsingh/Flickr

The aforementioned book has its own answers to this problem:

“Avoid bureaucracy and hierarchy and instead create a culture of discipline. When you put… a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship – you get a magical alchemy of superior performance and sustained results… Hire self disciplined people who don’t need to be managed, and then manage the system, not the people.”


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