metbiz5.jpg (8549 bytes)  Bureaucracy and inefficiency are actually about as prevalent in corporations as they are in government (and for similar reasons).


In our current age of "privatizing" functions that have more traditionally been performed by public agencies, policy decisions tend to be framed as simple choices between ever-efficient Metabusiness and some government agency like, say, the Department of Motor Vehicles.  

Of course, the Department of Motor Vehicles is an institution we love to hate.  Most of us experience it as a messy and chaotic place where nobody seems to know what they’re doing, a bewildering array of rules supersedes all reasonableness, and the process is agonizingly slow. "If this were a business..." we find ourselves saying.

But what if it actually were a business?  A real business, that is—not just abstract Metabusiness?

The conditions at the archetypal Department of Motor Vehicles aren’t actually all that different from those at a numder of real-life business bureaucracies I’ve known.  Yes, businesses do tend to cope a little differently with such problem organizations.  But probably the most common response among real businesses (as opposed to Metabusiness) is just to find a way to hide a department like this from general sight.

Some businesses I’ve known have actually created a second organizational unit that was more presentable to the outside world, and charged it with dealing with the problems that the first department shouldn’t have created in the first place.  And of course, almost any halfway-solvent business would spring for a few more dollars to make the workplace at least look a little more shipshape. 

(Businesses have the latter two options because, unlike public agencies, they don’t have to wheedle and plead with somebody else for every nickel they propose to spend, and perhaps more important, they don’t have to provide exhaustive documentation on actual, objective need for the expenditure.)

As for the course of action that businesses would be least likely to pursue, this isn’t all that different from the government approach—i.e., they’re not really much more likely to ascertain the underlying reasons why a problem department is the way it is, and deal with them.   This is because problem departments all too often embody the unpleasant but natural consequences of a decision maker’s own budget choices, as well as the limitations of what can be accomplished simply by issuing orders and ultimatums.

An extremely common reason why any organization, public or private, becomes like the archetypal Department of Motor Vehicles is that it simply has too much work for the staff positions that have been funded.   This creates a harried, falling-behind, perpetual-crisis environment that the employees hate just as much as the customers do, which in turn generates a high turnover rate.

As for the don’t-know-anything, rule-bound behavior that we find so frustrating, this is often just a function of employees being too new and too untrained in anything but the most pressing simple tasks to be aware of other ways to handle more complex situations.

Given this background, it is in no small measure ironic that when the classic bureaucratic pattern develops in a public agency, nobody criticizes it louder than politicians.  Who actually has the authority and fiscal resources to fix the problem, if not politicians?  And when they fail to use this authority in reasonable and responsive way, who is truly responsible for the problem?

The pattern tends to repeat itself with remarkable similarity in private industry.  Many executives will deplore the inefficiency and bureaucracy of a problem department, and carry on as if it were somebody else’s problem.


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