170 – ‘The Utopia of Rules – On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy’ by David Graber.

Posted by Whistler                                                                          620 words

Utopia of Rules cover

Every so often I come across an interesting book that challenges orthodox thinking. This is one of those books. Published earlier this year to a mixed reception, as a bureaucrat I found it rewarding reading. It was also reassuring – maybe we aren’t the half-wit brethren of private sector management. Perhaps the private sector is a poor emulator of public sector bureaucracy?

There are too many interesting and thought-provoking passages in the various essays making up the book to mention them all. I have reproduced some favourites below.

“The rise of the modern corporation, in the late nineteenth century, was largely seen as a matter of applying modern, bureaucratic techniques to the private sector – and these techniques were assumed to be required, when operating on a large scale, because they were more efficient than the networks of personal or informal connections that had dominated the world of small family firms.” (p.11)

This is an intriguing thought when you consider Peter F. Drucker’s observation that by the 1970’s public sector organisations were unsuccessfully copying private sector business management ideas. He described the public sector, in response to public criticism and recognition of the absence of management, as attempting to become more ‘businesslike’ to its own detriment.

“It was a cultural transformation. And it set the stage for the process whereby the bureaucratic techniques (performance reviews, focus groups, time allocation surveys …) developed in financial and corporate circles came to invade the rest of society – education, science, government – and eventually, to pervade almost every aspect of everyday life. One can best trace the process, perhaps by following its language. There is a peculiar idiom that first emerged in such circles, full of bright, empty terms like vision, quality, stakeholder, leadership, excellence, innovation, strategic goals or best practices.

Now imagine it would be possible to create a map of some major city, and then place one tiny blue dot on the location of every document that uses at least three of these words. Then imagine that we could watch it change over time. We would be able to observe this new corporate bureaucratic culture spread like blue stains in a petri dish, starting in the financial districts, on to boardrooms, then government offices and universities, then, finally, engulfing any location where any number of people gather to discuss the allocation of resources of any kind.” (p.23)

I can see it happening as I read these words.

The passage that struck a real chord with me was about ‘a particular type of double standard in bureaucratic systems everywhere’. He is referring to something that ‘turns on the very nature of bureaucratic systems’ – a culture of complicity.

‘It’s not just that some people get to break the rules – it’s that loyalty to the organisation is to some degree measured by one’s willingness to pretend this isn’t happening.”

It is a version of the consensual lying described by thinkpurpose.com.  He goes on …

“Sciologists since Weber always note that it is one of the defining features of any bureaucracy that those who staff it are selected by formal, impersonal criteria – most often some kind of written test. (This is bureaucrats are not, say, elected like politicians, but neither should they get the job just because they are someone’s cousin.) In theory they are meritocracies. In fact everyone knows the system is compromised in a thousand different ways. Many of the staff are in fact there just because they are someone’s cousin; above all, it’s based on a willingness to play along with the fiction that career advancement is based on merit, even though everyone knows this not to be true.” (p. 27)

I definitely couldn’t have said it better myself.