Derek Lowe recently touched on a topic I’ve been noticing for all of my adult life, and for which I’m only starting to develop a general theory. Bureaucratic and governmental solutions tend to work in the near and medium term, but usually degenerate into a mess that is either worse than the original problem, or that ultimately fails to solve the original problem, usually within a decade.
Derek was pointing out a paradox in safety regulations in the Industrial Chemistry lab that I have also observed firsthand:
I’ve worked where the safety culture was limited to occasional warnings not to blow yourself up, and I’ve worked under intrusive, no-sparrow-shall-fall regimes. Neither of those, as far as I could see, kept me safer than the other. The problem is, if you’re going to aggressively document every possible incident and near miss, to be entered into the massive database and discussed in detail at the mandatory regular safety meetings (attendance taken and computed into the year-end bonus formula). . .well, people are going to sit on most of the ones that they think that they can get away with. The harder you work to log every lapse, the more of them you’ll miss.
You think he’s kidding right? Nope. Take a gander at one of the comments:
Interesting post. It actually happened to me once when we were trying to kill off a old THF* still. Safety people will not allow you to take the sad still-remains out of the building and dump it in a lake, which would by far be the safest solution (maybe not for the fish). So after spending a week with iso-propanol, followed by absolute ethanol, followed by 96% ethanol, followed by careful addition of small quantities of water, followed by large quantities of water we achieved a beautiful sodium bonfire in the hood. I was standing shoulder to shoulder with two other guys right next to the fire extinguisher but we didn’t want to pick it up due to the paper work and safety interview nightmare we would be facing. Eventually, we decided to tip some sand on the damn thing but before we managed this the fire fortunately went out by itself.
So what we have here is failure to communicate. What we also have here is a breakdown in the rule of law caused by too many rules. Before I went to the USSR, I probably would have thought that adding rules to safety regulations would make things safer, because I was acculturated to obey rules, and also predisposed to believe that most rules were instituted with good reason.
However, in the USSR, even people I considered to be decent and good, and – if they were given a chance to live in America – law abiding, regularly talked about breaking laws to me in the USSR. Not just talk – they used to break them, and quite frankly help me break them as well. A couple of my good friends and I used to go out into the woods around Kursk to work out because non-Military martial arts training was illegal. Now the woods around Kursk are still full of unexploded ordnance from the tank battle, so the odds of us damaging society by blowing ourselves up (most of my friends were engineering students, and so should have had at least some worth to society) or by bringing home a souvenir and blowing up an apartment building, were infinitely greater than the threat posed to Communism by private martial arts training.
Even the good guys in the USSR used to make a horizontal blade out of their hand and undulate it in a sinusoidal fashion while evoking the image of a driver weaving in and out of heavy traffic when they were talking about official rules. The word they used was obxodit’:
3. обходить III, обойти
1. (избегать) avoid, leave out
2. (о законе и т. п.) evade, circumvent
The everyday use of that word is one of the reasons that I agree with Lex that Ivan is not yet ready for prime time when it comes to participatory democracy – and will not be ready for generations to come.
But let’s not kid ourselves with our Anglosphere talk – we in the English speaking world can destroy the unique legacy our culture has bequeathed us by burying individual initiative and the entrepreneurial spirit in a morass of laws. Indeed, much of the West, even Britain by all appearances, is already close to that point.
I’m trying to formulate a theory that describes and explains the mechanics of why bureaucratic solutions gradually fail over time. It’s one of the topics that should be included in MBA Organizational Behavior classes instead of the useless Meyers-Briggs claptrap we feed to business school students. But I’ve never seen a general theory. If any of our readers who are better read in organizational theory than I can point me to some resources, I’d be grateful.
In the absence of source material, I’ve tentatively drawn up some terms for my mental model of bureaucratic failure. The first term is that lawyers and bureaucrats want reams of paperwork. It gives them power, it gives them an excuse to expand their staffs (and hence their influence) by asking for more personnel to handle all the paper work, and it gives them an avenue to CYA. But normal people want to avoid paperwork. As Derek said:
I was talking here the other week about lab safety, and how it’s a good thing to know where the fire extinguishers are. But what if you’re working in a place where discharging one of those extinguishers sets off an avalanche of paperwork and committee meetings? Do you use the thing, or does the vision of all that wasted time give you pause, while the flames leap around your glassware?
A correlated second term is the fact that filling out this paperwork becomes the main measure of performance in the bureaucracy. Employees are trained to complete forms before any other qualification is stressed or judged. I ran by a great example the other day in a daycare center. There was a sign posted on one of the classroom doors:
“We are glad your back Jeremy”
I can forgive the lack of a comma, but this program emphasizes how well it prepares kids for school. And at least one of its teachers is only semi-literate. But I’ll bet she fills out the state-mandated forms right on time. And I’m sure she has whatever degree is required for that job. The fundamental flaw in our educational system is that it can’t or won’t separate the fakers from the real thing.
The next term in my model, closely associated with the mismatch of performance and reward in most bureaucracies, is that rent-seeking, ambitious “articulate intellectuals”, in Shannon’s excellent phraseology**, who got nothing of substance out of their education, but believe that they deserve a position of authority by virtue of their ability to use words, gravitate towards bureaucracies. They especially gravitate towards positions of regulatory authority. To use Derek’s comment thread again, safety officers move into that job because they are not qualified to do anything else (sort of the scientific equivalent of an HR department):
My favorite safety officer story was when the fresh faced new safety officer met the med chem department for the first time. Her goal was to have every reaction run in water by the end of the year.
After the laughter died down she couldn’t understand why she wasn’t taken seriously by the chemists.
On the other hand her replacement, who had a BS in chemistry, was the best safety officer I’ve ever worked with and totally understood you don’t make things safer by asking for ridiculous conditions or burying your scientists with paper.
To which another commenter responded incredulously:
Wait. You don’t need a BS in chem to be the safety officer at a chemistry oriented research facility?
What sort of credentials do you need? Apart from a monocle and a German accent, of course.
Hey, hey, as an American of (recent) German descent, I resemble that remark. For those of you who don’t remember your Organic Chemistry (and Lord knows I’d like to forget it) – most organic reagents do not dissolve well in water, because they are oily compounds – in chemical parlance, non-polar. This safety officer did not understand the basic science that is usually taught in the first week of sophomore high school chemistry. Oh, I’m almost certain she’d been exposed to it, and she had probably regurgitated the “like dissolves like” rule on a test more than once. But she had not understood it. As the Chinese say, she gave her education back to her teacher. Yet still she managed to land a job as a safety officer in a chemistry lab. A faker in a position of authority.
The third term is ossification and misapplication of innovative ideas. Take, for example, a writing program that was probably designed to help middle school kids become better writers (via David Foster) :
Once upon a time there was a thoughtful educator who raised some interesting questions about how children were traditionally taught to read and write, and proposed some innovative changes. But as she became famous, critical debate largely ceased: her word became law. Over time, some of her methods became dogmatic and extreme, yet her influence continued to grow.
Dogma leads to idiocy in the hands of school administrators who would have flunked out of graduate school if they had been enrolled in anything except an Education program:
A kindergarten teacher reported how she was instructed to ask her students, on the third day of class, “to reflect on how they’d grown as writers.” She explained that the children were still preoccupied with missing their mothers and felt the assignment was “ridiculous.”
The final term in my inchoate mental model is that interest groups see existing bureaucracies as a lever to foist their pet programs on the unwary. When a critical mass of competing agendas is reached, it becomes nearly impossible for workers to to prioritize their various directives, and, well, excrement happens, as described by another of Derek’s commenters:
At one of these other facilities, a decomposition of still residues in a 2,000 glass-lined reactor progressed to an explosion which killed one man. One of the contributing factors was the fact that when the condenser on the reactor began to be overwhelmed (due to accelerating decomposition), one of the operators actually closed the vent- to prevent an emissions, thus converting the reactor to a 2,000 gallon autoclave.
This facility had a very comprehensive safety and training program, and was (and still is ) a very good company. However, their emphasis on being environmentally responsible, certainly contributed to this incident.
Having employees that think for themselves, and understand what they are doing, rather than follow procedures blindly seems to me to be more conducive to a safe workplace.
That last line hits the nail of the core human behavior issue right on the head: bureaucracies stifle individual judgment. And nothing is going to save your sorry behind in a novel and dangerous situation better than a knowledgeable, empowered person in charge. Diminution of human judgment is the main design flaw in a bureaucracy, and along with from incomplete information in the hands of decision makers, it is the twin flaw that makes Hayek’s Fatal Conceit fatal. As Derek said:
Once people have reached a certain level of competence and experience, lab safety is largely a matter of thinking about what you’re doing, realizing what you know and what you don’t know, and planning ahead. These are all highly desirable qualities, both in and out of the lab, and they cannot be expressed by decree. No safety committee is going to make people smarter, and no multi-page web form will make them more alert. In this world, actually, the opposite is much more likely. . .
So, anyone else have some more terms for the model?
** Although the above teacher could not even be charitably described as articulate in the written sense, I’ll bet she can talk a blue streak.