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We’re All Bureaucrats!

2011 July 3

Some time ago, I wrote a post about the bureaucracy myth.  My point was that whenever a company starts to have problems, the blame tends to be laid unfairly on “bureaucrats” rather than on management.

I got passionate responses, some in the comments section, but especially on social media.

Some were supportive, others derisive, but I still stand by the original point that blaming bureaucrats for systemic problems is a cop-out.  One comment by a former government bureaucrat, however, helped me to see the problem in a new light.  The reason that “bureaucrats” tend to be nameless and faceless is because they are, in reality, ourselves.

The Bureaucrat’s Response

The former government bureaucrat who responded to my post worked with the public.  It was his job to help regular people work within the system to get the best results.  He didn’t create the system, but was merely a practitioner.

He pointed out that since people assumed that bureaucrats like himself were the problem, they brought in managers from the private sector or, in some cases, merely privatized services.  The results were often demonstrably worse (and in some cases disastrous).

Yet what really intrigued me was how he concluded:

In short, a good bureaucrat uses their knowledge of the system to present solutions; only a bad one uses that knowledge to throw up problems.

Two things stand out.  First, you can replace the word “bureaucrat” in his statement and have a good rule for success in just about any field.  Second, he acknowledges that systems create problems and that we need people to help us with them.  Who creates the systems?  We do, of course!

We create systems that are beyond our control and are frustrated when they fail to bend to our will.  As with any problem, defining it is half the solution

A System Beyond Our Control

We humans tend to see conscious design everywhere or, in Aristotle’s parlance, an unmoved mover who is the primary cause for the systems that oppress us.

Nobel prizewinning economist Thomas Schelling took on this sort of problem back in the late 1960’s.  He was playing with some coins on a checkerboard and realized that the arrangements that emerged could help explain racial segregation, among other things.

He posited that if every person was content to have black and white neighbors in precise 50/50 proportions, you could have an integrated society.  However, once preferences deviated even a little, you got instant clustering.  This resulted in exactly the patterns that were assumed to have been designed by bigoted bureaucrats.

He wrote up this and similar weird consequences of simple behaviour in his book Micromotives and Macrobehavior, which has since become a classic in emergence theory. In reality, the systems we love to hate are often the result of little idiosyncrasies in our own behavior quirks which, taken in the aggregate, run amok.

Social Selection and Filters

Our society is relatively new and we’re not particularly well adapted to it.  As Robin Dunbar pointed out, evolution has equipped us with the ability to form stable relationships with about 150 other people.  That was fine when we roamed the savanna in tribes, but it’s not so well suited to relating to the millions in our cities and thousands in our companies.

Christakis and Fowler have found that we learn to cope by taking in information through our social networks, which are, of course, largely self-selected.  We use that information to form opinions about much that we think and do.  Then, as shown below in the graphic of the Iranian blogosphere, we seek information that reinforces our opinions as do our friends.

Just like on Schelling’s checkerboard, the people have sequestered themselves into tightly knit communities.  Each community has their own conventions, organizing principles and philosophies that get more cohesive over time.  As I wrote in an earlier post, we have much less control over our thoughts than we’d like to believe.

So it’s not hard to see why we blame bureaucrats.  They are people who have learned to work within a system that is not our own.

To new media people, traditional media seems archaic.  If we work in the private sector, civil servants seem hopelessly out of touch.  Up-and-comers become senior managers and can’t understand why all of the sudden everybody think they’re full of shit.

The rules that we live by, of course, are just there to create some order.  And that’s a good thing, right?

No Exit?

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous play, No Exit, the characters were stuck in hell.  The method of torture?  Each other.  They were caught in a cycle of endless bickering and pettiness which made their existence misery.  The work is the source of Sartre’s famous quote: “Hell is other people”

In a similar vein, blaming bureaucrats is essentially blaming the systems which we, albeit unintentionally through our micromotives, create.  We sequester ourselves into groups of designers, UX people, marketers, salespeople, developers, journalists and so on.  Those from outside our circle become “bureaucrats” who want to impose their rules on us.

So there’s a simple solution to the problem of bureaucracy.  Learn more than one job, one set of protocols and acronyms, one way of doing things.  Adapt to a system that is not of your own making.

Because, whether you like it or not, you’re a bureaucrat.

– Greg

note: The former bureaucrat, a man named Robert Day, has retired and become an accomplished photographer. Please visit his site at Robert Day Images

4 Responses leave one →
  1. July 3, 2011

    Ha.. you are so spot one with this one! Businesses are no better than governments, and non-profits are no worse than for-profit organizations.. We people are just not that good in designing systems that work for all involved with the system…

    Your argument of people clustering is likely one of the reasons, another one could be that we are just not intelligent enough to oversee the consequences of our actions in it’s full spectrum.. We know what’s the root cause of that.. and even if “we” do, “we” do not hesitate to act like “we” don’t..

    Bureaucracy – in essence – is about selfishness, and you’re right.. whether we like it or not – and some more than others – we all are selfish..

  2. July 4, 2011


    Yes, but I don’t think it has anything to do with intelligence, but more to do with our emotive drive to form tribal alliances. Anyway, we’re strange creatures, that’s for sure.

    – Greg

  3. July 10, 2011

    This post is at once controversial and fluid.

    I think the least you talked about was bureaucracy. But the way you depicted it, sounds like Barbars of Greeks or Zizek’s the Other.

    I think also your point of thinking of a bureaucrat as someone out of our circle – I am oversimplifying your argument here while hopefully not missing a point – is a bit too simplist, I think. Bureaucracy, to me, is more a mode of thinking then association with structures, systems or perhaps projection of our subconscious/unknown into the world. This by the way reminded me of Kant’s “each of us creates our own world rather then world creates us” approach.

    You also seem to somewhat equate, or this is what I understood at least – bureaucracy to systems or rules. Human societies are build on foundation of social, ethical, cultural and other rules and regulations, whether written, official or unwritten. Does this mean that anyone who sticks to some or all of rules is a bureaucrat?

    As mentioned above, for me bureaucracy is more a certain mode of thinking, that of compliance with regulations, rules and standards without much room for questioning, deviating or improvising.

    And lastly, there is the question of outliers. Who are they? I consider myself one of them, not because I am a genius – cheers Gladwell – or somehow distinguished from others by skill, intellect or experience.

    I am in the world but not that much of the world – to somehow paraphrase Osho and others …

  4. July 10, 2011


    I think you hit on an important point. The word “bureaucrat” is very poorly defined and is all too often used as a term who imposes rules that we don’t like.

    Strictly speaking, a bureaucrat is simply someone who works in administration. However, it is commonly used as an epithet to describe someone who mindlessly follows rules. Of course, that’s a matter of perspective. What might be a mindless rule for you might be important for me to get my job done right and vice versa.

    – Greg

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