Pandemic VII: Bureaucracy - We Are the Dreamers of Dreams

Published: 2021-02-06
Tagged: essay pandemic

Bureaucracies envelop us thoroughly. They are to us what water is to fish–an invisible, sustaining medium. When they work well, they help us coordinate among ourselves. They guard us against exploitation, help us manage risk through insurance, and resolve our conflict by tracking and enforcing ownership of things like cars, houses, or mail. At a high level, they allow us to live longer, more meaningful lives. However, when they fail, their awesome power is turned against us.

We were made aware of the water by the pandemic. The stress it put on bureaucracies, especially public institutions, forced us to confront their irrational inefficiencies in full glory. Normally, long lines at the local DMV or cryptic letters from the IRS make us laugh and shake our heads. But when a pandemic rages across the world, these things increase the likelihood of getting us awfully sick. That sucks, but we must remember that it was people like us who created these systems, which means that people like us can change and improve them.

Before we get to changing anything, let's think why bureaucracies fail the way they do. Here's a completely arbitrary sample of recent failures:

I don't know anything about managing a pandemic, but my gut tells me that doing the opposite of any of the above actions would have led to more people vaccinated and more lives saved. Because the right thing to do seems so obvious, I am boggled by how any sane human being could wake up one day, drive to the office, sit down at their computer, take a sip of coffee and think, Time to figure out how to make getting a vaccine extra hard for the elderly, weeee!

My understanding of why things like this happen comes mostly from Robert Jackall's 1989 book "Moral Mazes." It's a summary of his research into the irrational behavior of employees of two large American corporations. Three concepts he described feel relevant to the failures described above:

  1. Bureaucracies organize themselves into multi-layered hierarchies. Doing so creates a chasm between the decision makers at the top and the implementers at the bottom. The more layers there are, the harder it is for the two groups to communicate, leading to often parodied situations where those at the top have no clue what those at the bottom actually do and vice versa.
  2. Vague, unclear communication makes actions and consequences less legible, giving employees more opportunity to pursue private agendas. Front-line workers slack off, middle managers compete with one another instead of solving problems, and those at the top choose risky, short-term gains over stability.
  3. The less legible a bureaucracy becomes, the easier (and more tempting) it is for its members to skim off something themselves, hence the name "moral maze." For example, stating project goals in unclear, ambiguous terms, ie. "Increase the velocity of cross-functional team value generation", makes it easier to spin stories that create perceptions of success or that shift blame somewhere else. (The latter maneuver is called CYA - cover your ass). For real life examples, pick up any external PR material and enjoy confusing and meaningless phrases. Now, imagine that internal memos are written in the same meaningless language.

The forces described above create a fake reality for bureaucrats. Decisions that appear crazy to us on the outside seem completely normal to those inside–they are simply focusing their efforts on the most rewarding actions, which in this case means managing perceptions. Any real work like bridge inspections or medical claim processing is merely a necessary evil, a distraction from the actual game.

When I think about how institutions have failed under the pressure of the pandemic, I can't help but think about moral mazes. Barring people over 65 from getting vaccinated? That's Cover Your Ass. Vaccine appointment management systems that don't actually work? That's creating a perception of work to transfer money and promote some employees. Reducing the rate of vaccination? That's about signalling political alignment within the organization. Although thinking this way feels bad, I remind myself that the bureaucrats making these decisions aren't stupid nor are they monsters. Instead, they are executing a program designed to impose order on a confusing and nebulous reality, a program written by people long gone.

These institutions-bureaucracies-systems were created with the best intentions. They were to be powerful tools for redistributing scarce resources in a fair way to improve individual safety and liberty. And despite all the bugs and inefficiencies, and despite focusing on the terribly difficult problems of coordinating huge groups of people of different ages and creeds, they mostly succeeded. Look up from the screen for a moment, if you will, and notice how awesome everything around you is: houses made safe thanks to building codes, roads that are accident-resistant thanks to driving laws, and a system of laws and its enforcement that keeps defectors from stealing our stuff. It's beautiful.

We can do better though.

Our ancestors built these institutions and what human hands have wrought, human hands can improve. Don't worry–we don't have to demolish anything and start with a clean slate. We can tweak, par down, build up, and move things around. We're better equipped than ever to take on this challenge, to take this gift from the past and turn it into something even better for those who come after us.

Because, as one confectioner-engineer once said, We are the music makers, we are the dreamers of dreams.


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