Bureaucracy: Smart not stupid-making?

I had two responses to the introduction of The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by David Graeber (2015): 1) Articulate design rules for bureaucracy that might be smart, not a way to make us stupid (as Graeber describes); and 2) Examine the forces that come into play that subvert such designs or, conversely, lead me to fantasize that such a design could be implemented. This post tackles 1) while recognizing the need for 2).

Rational limits to bureaucracy, first step

A unit in an organization subject to higher-level direction and funding:

1. Identifies objectives, including ones shaped in response to previous evaluations; and

1a. Revises objectives to align with objectives of organization or higher-level administration.

1aa.  Expects objectives at higher-level to include making changes in response to evaluations of lower level unit.

2. Takes action and evaluates performance in relation to objectives.

3. Makes objectives and evaluations visible.

3a. Produce reports or documentation on #3.

4. Brings evaluations into next round of action, starting with objective revision #1.

1, 2, 3, 4 can be pursued by the unit as part of the self-reinforcing process of reflective practice and lifelong learning.

The rational limit comes in as follows:

    Resist #3a if higher level administration shows no evidence of doing its own 1-4 other than setting an objective of requiring lower-level units to do 1-4.  
    Instead of insisting on #3a, the higher-level admin. might do spot checks on whether lower level is doing 1-4.  Even better, so that absence of documentation and reports is not a cause for anxiety, higher-level admin can develop its own objectives related to cultivating culture of reflective practice and lifelong learning.  
    It is not consistent with cultivating that culture for higher-level admin to require reports that it does not have the capacity to process.  Indeed, it takes away time and energy that the lower-level unit could be using to do 1-4.

Could an analogous principle could be developed for any paperwork or process proposed in a bureaucratic organization? Perhaps not.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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