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Inefficiencies and Ineffectiveness are Inevitable in Government Programs--
They're Implemented by Bureaucracies

July 15, 2003

I began writing in the last edition www.rightturns.com (see Archives) on the research that says government bureaucracies will NEVER grow into efficiency and effectiveness. Looking at the other side of the issue, it is empirically supported that the bureaucracies will actually become more inefficient and more ineffective over time. This is not just conservative thought based on gut feel, but on some little known research from back in the 1970's and 1980's when government was expanding as fast as in the FDR heydays.

The research I refer to is summarized in the article "The Limits to Complexity: Are Bureaucracies Becoming Unmanageable?" from the December 1977, The Futurist. The authors of the article, Duane Elgin and Robert A. Bushnell (E&B), were commissioned by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, a division of SRI, Inc., Menlo Park, California. Duane Elgin does not agree with the inevitable failure argument I make (I have never communicated with Robert Bushnell), but they both do say, "The power (i.e., using updated technology and management structures) to create large, complex social bureaucracies does not automatically confer the ability to control them." Politically, I believe their statement is too soft. Last edition I described (from the research) eight of the sixteen key characteristics of why government bureaucracies will undermine representative government. (If that does not ring a bell to you, please go into the archives and review them. It will make the rest of this article more sensible.)

Now let's look at the last eight characteristics of the threat to our way of life as described in the article:

9. As bureaucracies grow, simple solutions only create more problems. Government agencies are created to "solve" problems. The problem is that as bureaucracies grow the solutions have to become more complex. Simple solutions do not work. This in turn creates more alienation and more unsatisfied citizens.

10. "The passion for size, reach, and growth is the soul of all bureaucracies." This tendency will force the bureaucracy to seek an enduring, predictable form and then threaten any creative structure focused on providing better "solutions" with destruction. E&B describes creative management in bureaucracies as swimming in progressively hardening concrete.

11. The effect of failures becomes greater. As any agency grows and solidifies its structure to provide a few complex solutions, the number of "bad" decisions grows (see #9 above). The impact of a bad decision is much greater because of the size and reach of the bureaucracy.

12. The diversity of innovation will tend to decline. As mentioned above, the bureaucracy will tend toward a rigid structure. This rigidity does not allow innovation because it threatens its very existence.

13. The legitimacy of leadership declines. The power to manage comes from the consent of the employees. As the bureaucracy grows, managing it becomes more and more impossible, due to size and complexity. Poor agency performance is inevitable, so the managers become the focus for the reasons for poor performance. Employees lose confidence in poor performing leadership and grow more disillusioned and more detached from the goals of the organization. (I see this in my management consulting work in for profit companies!)

14. Bureaucracies become very sensitive to slight disruptions. We saw this in the September 11 attacks. Only nine hijackers changed the course of history and caused global confrontations.

15. The performance of the bureaucracy will decline. We have already addressed this in previous points. What also happens is that the decline accelerates over time. Consider the continuing deterioration and ineffectiveness of public housing. We have known since the 1950's that public housing does not work. It does not work even worse now 50 years later.

16. The declining performance is not recognized. Go back to the public housing example in #15 above. Despite the failure of public housing the bureaucrats have ignored it and even learned to perpetuate it.

E&B explain that these sixteen characteristics all fit through the common thread of a four-stage life cycle of bureaucracies.
Stage 1: The bureaucracy is created and grows through excitement and creativity.
Stage 2: The bureaucracy becomes more complex, yet still appears to be effective and efficient.
Stage 3: The bureaucracy becomes too complex to understand; alienation sets in; and skepticism in its effectiveness grows.
Stage 4: The bureaucracy goes through crisis after crisis; becomes out of touch with constituents; and nothing seems to work.

Re-read the four stages and substitute "The Department of Homeland Security" for "bureaucracy". I am willing "to bet the farm" that we are witnessing Stage 1 in The Department of Homeland Security. Why our conservative leadership set us up for this inevitable failure is a question to be answered.

I believe that "solutions" can be legislated that will give our society a better chance at problem solving than the inevitable failure of bureaucracies. They entail giving each citizen the authority and power to devise the solutions to his own individual problems. That will be the topic for a future article.

Sam T. Harper graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University.  Following a tour in the US Navy and a stint as Operations Manager at Roadway Express, he earned his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He was a contributor to “In Search of Excellence,” the best selling business book of all time.  Sam was also Manager, Economic Planning & Analysis at Sohio Petroleum, Partner and Chief Financial Officer at investment-banking firm Bridgemere Capital, and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank and international publishing firm that specializes in self-governing and entrepreneurial public policy.  Sam was a chairman of the San Francisco Republican party and the GOP co-host of California Political Review on KALW-FM in San Francisco.  Sam is currently the co-owner of the Tennessee based Institute for Local Effectiveness Training, LLC – a management consulting, training, and coaching firm.