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Bureaucracy 
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Heinlein Nexus
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Post Bureaucracy
A 1991 book of this title by James Q. Wilson, is an interesting and probably unique study of what makes bureaucracies tick, or fail to. It's easy to take potshots at institutions like the DMV, but figuring out why they fail is trickier and potentially useful. Compare them with the MacDonalds next door. It's not autonomy: the burger flippers are operating with a manual far more restrictive and prescriptive than their DMV brethren. Why is MacDonalds effective and the DMV a snarling nightmare? If you're a process wonk like me, this is a fascinating dissection.


Mon Oct 29, 2012 12:23 pm
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Post Re: Bureaucracy
I'll look it up, having a similar fascination for the workings of complex operations, but... your followup comments don't quite mesh.

McD's operates because it is run according to an endlessly polished playbook that emphasizes identical setup, ingredients, training, service... and customer demand. Everything including the customer conditioning is optimized to move the process along as fast and smoothly as possible. Friction only occurs when a customer makes "unreasonable" demands (outside the narrow range of offerings) or when a store crew fails to follow the playbook.

DMVs and similar gummint offices, for all their narrow individual focus, have to handle each transaction according to its characteristics, which are going to vary greatly. For every form-plus-check; here's-your-sticker robo-transaction, there's going to be one or more messy, complicated, multi-paper, missing-pieces, arguable-points one. Even if you discount the inherent irritation and hassle of going to stand in line at a gummint office, the transactions usually involve someone who is angry at some portion of the deal because they do not understand the laws, the rules, the assumptions or the reasons. It's all just "bureaucratic BS" wasting their time, even when the fault is 100% theirs for not bringing something essential like a vehicle's pink slip... or a checkbook. But mostly, the "customer expectation" is one of fear, complication and denial, because most people don't deal with DMV often enough to learn (or care to learn) the rules.

McD's can also serve only those they choose and turn away anyone they like, through menu and presentation or even the "We Refuse" policy. DMV, like all government agencies, must serve everyone who walks through their door, regardless of how unprepared, ignorant, and demanding they may be.

Really, it's an apples and oranges comparison. There's no way to give DMV McD's level of ease and efficiency, any more than you can otherwise - gag - "run government like a business."


Thu Nov 01, 2012 6:28 am
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Post Re: Bureaucracy
An interesting theory, but requires considerable study to validate it. There really may not be as many special cases as you think. Besides, how often have you heard of someone being turfed out of a McDonalds for demanding something not on the menu?


Thu Nov 01, 2012 6:40 am
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Post Re: Bureaucracy
PeterScott wrote:
An interesting theory, but requires considerable study to validate it. There really may not be as many special cases as you think. Besides, how often have you heard of someone being turfed out of a McDonalds for demanding something not on the menu?

It's not a theory; it's well-established by decades of studies. Which is why the "run government like a business" trope is so damned irritating, whether it comes from a politician or the angry contractor standing in a DMV line. It doesn't take much thought or insight to see the difference, and only a little more to review the considerable literature on the subject.

Fast-food restaurants select their customers through a half-dozen gates; it takes an unusual (read: deliberately provocative or functionally impaired) person to exceed their ability to cope with such a selected customer base. In many cases, if they can, they will go "beyond the book" to be accommodating, not get bad press (or attention from the regional HQ) and get rid of the person... but they do have limits. They serve who they choose to serve, and not one person more. No government agency has that option.

(Which is the primary difference between public schools and any private school - public schools are required, almost without exception, to serve every student in their geographical area of responsibility. Private schools can, at a minimum, even under public funding, exclude the severely disabled, disruptive and underperforming and move that hurdle up to admit only the most select.)


Thu Nov 01, 2012 6:52 am
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Post Re: Bureaucracy
You're right, James. At the same time, a lot of government services are run by people who are notoriously unconcerned with either saving money *or* providing good customer service. A friend's older daughter was in foster care for eighteen months. The situation was painful all around, and might have dragged on longer except that the series of indifferent and none-too-bright social workers assigned to the case (most of whom made things worse) finally came to an end and somebody with an IQ above room temperature finally got the case. I've also seen public schools that did no teaching, in some cases because of bad teachers, but more often because of policies that created an environment in which learning simply did not take place. :/

At least a business that must satisfy its customers, creditors, and investors has *some* incentive to run itself well. It's a low standard, but reasonably solid. That is usually what people mean by "run as a business".

There are some very good books out there about running public services effectively, and some people who have done it. We desperately need to duplicate what they know and do, but the current political environment is making that difficult or impossible in many places because of partisan gridlock, lack of funds due to poor spending control *and* stupid unthinking anti-tax measures and sentiment, etc. The public needs to get over its unthinking frustration with the situation and start supporting candidates who don't fit their litmus tests because they aren't unthinking adherents of any ideology, just people who want to make government *work*.

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Thu Nov 01, 2012 9:43 am
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Post Re: Bureaucracy
sakeneko wrote:
At the same time, a lot of government services are run by people who are notoriously unconcerned with either saving money *or* providing good customer service.

I'll disagree strongly with "a lot."

Every government agency runs, and has increasing run, under stringent budgetary limits and cost-saving programs. I won't argue any overall success rate for the latter or economic sense for the former, but I'd say you'd be hard-pressed to find a single federal, state or major city worker who is not 100% aware that their department is working without endless limits on hiring, spending, etc.

There's also a long ways between "providing good customer service" as if you're Target slugging it out with Wal*Mart, and "providing adequate constituent service" as is appropriate to a governmental agency. I've heard too many tales of someone transacting government business and treated absolutely fairly and with reasonable efficiency... who then bitched for the rest of their life because they weren't treated like a Tiffany's gold card customer.

Is there waste? Are there departments who try to solve problems by throwing (budgeted) money at them? Are there indifferent civil servants? Are there actively hostile and uncaring civil servants? Are there government agencies overwhemed by their task load? Are there agencies who accomplish a lot less than they should? Yes to all, of course.

But are "a lot" of government agencies overfunded, money-wasting engines overstaffed with nasty, unhelpful drones? I think it's self-proving that they're not, and it's counterproductive to keep voicing such sweeping opinions. It just angers the vast multitude of those who are doing their best amid a dozen conflicting imperatives and serves to deepen the us-vs-them, gummint-iz-eevil divide.

Everyone's had a shitty run-in with a government agency. Sometimes the gears do grind up the unsuspecting or the unable. I've heard very few such tales that did not, on further examination, show the someone to be a contributor to the poor outcome... but on first tell it's always a poor, humble innocent chawed up and spat out by a rampaging government monster.

I'm not defending government here, or waste, or indifference, or hostility. But I will object to all "everybody knows" sweeping accusations that a moment's sober thought will disprove.

And I will actively tromp on any attempt to compare business and government or insistence that one live up to the requirements and expectations of the other. They are not the same thing, and not subject to the same evaluation.


Thu Nov 01, 2012 10:22 am
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Post Re: Bureaucracy
The book is more thoughtful than your take on my posting would imply; it never asserts that government should be run like a business and only brings up MacDonalds as a Socratic tool.

I've worked for or contracted to a government contractor for decades, so I am keenly aware of what it's like to be the scapegoat of the government-is-evil mob. I know that there are a zillion petty rules about financial practices, for instance (read: FAR) that greatly obstruct getting the job done, mostly having no counterpart in private industry, and they exist for one reason only: to prevent waste. It is a cosmic joke. Every time some scandal comes to light, such as the GSA bacchanalia in Vegas (which was in any case on a scale that private industry would have considered tame), there's a righteous outcry for more governance and another fifty pages get added to the FAR and another fifty auditors get added to the various inspectors-general departments. The net effect of which is to make life even more difficult for the grunts trying to get the job done while not impeding the malfeasance of the highest levels one whit - after all, who's making the rules?

I do, still, see the effect on people of years of trying to do the right thing and getting beaten down for it. There are plenty of Retired In Places. When you're in an environment that demands that you spend your entire budget by the end of the year or you will get less the next year, what does that do to your fiscal compass? I've had to remind people over and over about basic economic principles after they've been corrupted by this financial looking-glass world.

And yes, government has to deal with the downside of being a monopoly - they have to serve everyone who comes into the DMV, and everyone has to deal with the DMV. But government is also a place where innovation goes to die. Even in information technology, the fastest-moving side of government, they lag private industry enormously. You can see this quite starkly by picking up a few of the government IT magazines like Government Technology Today or Public CIO, and comparing their tech with what you'll find in the equivalent public sector rags. It's like a time machine. It's getting better, but still 5-10 years behind on average I'd say.

So to take an example of how things could be improved, how about those lines in the DMV? How often does someone get to the end of one only to be told they're in the wrong one and have to go to the back of another line? Is that really the best they can come up with? Sure, they have to deal with people who can't spell their own names, but so does Wal-Mart. I bet there's a better solution for the DMV, but change is painful in bureaucracies, as anyone who's tried knows. Now, the live-free-or-die crowd would clamor that the solution is privatization, but I'm not going there. The answer is more complex than that, and this thick book goes a long way toward unpacking the complexities.


Thu Nov 01, 2012 5:16 pm
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Post Re: Bureaucracy
PeterScott wrote:
Even in information technology, the fastest-moving side of government, they lag private industry enormously.

This was brought home to me most starkly when I learned that the early Space Shuttles used magnetic core memory! Any time reprogramming of the onboard computer was necessary, they had to pull the core memory racks, reprogram them in a lab somewhere, and reinstall them. The astronauts were so hampered by the limitations that they famously took Grid Compass laptops with them to do the lion's share of the computing work they needed to do. I was first told this by a programmer working on the Shuttle simulation software in the early 1980's, so his individual perception of the motivations behind these choices may reflect his opinion more than reality.

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Fri Nov 02, 2012 1:26 pm
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Post Re: Bureaucracy
Spacecraft require computers that meet standards irrelevant on Earth. At the time the Shuttle was flight-ready, there were no memory chips that were guaranteed safe against high-energy radiation. So it wasn't just lag and techo knuckle-dragging that put mag-core memory in orbit; it was a desire to use tech that could withstand the environment.

If a RAM chip in an auxiliary laptop got fried, it meant the astronaut would have to find something else to do on his down time besides play FreeCell. :)

There's a story - not sure it's 100% true - that a Soviet MiG landed in Japan ca. 1970, in the hands of a defecting pilot. As much as the US wanted to keep the plane, they couldn't... but they could sure search it for contraband vodka and caviar. One of the things learned about it was that most of its critical electronics used micro vacuum tubes... which provoked snickers until someone realized it meant the plane was highly EMP-resistant as a result.


Fri Nov 02, 2012 3:04 pm
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Post Re: Bureaucracy
I don't think Dan's example makes the point. The shuttle architecture is the result of relatively state-of-the-art design being frozen many years before implementation, and that was the late '70s. Whereas I am saying that you can look at current IT projects and services in government and see that they're 5 years behind the private sector.


Fri Nov 02, 2012 7:13 pm
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