A failure to bureaucratize sufficiently

I have been … what? intrigued? dismayed? ... in the past few days to hear the blame for the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina placed on “bureaucracy.” In an interview today, the Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore tried to split blame between general bureaucracy at the federal level and very specific bureaucracy at the local level1. Much more prominently, the President today announced more relief funds and admonished bureaucracy for getting in the way of people who need help. It seems that everywhere I look the failures of planning and acting are being designated as failures fundamental to bureaucracy.

But the one just doesn’t imply the other. Duties in functioning bureaucracies are assigned according to ability in a process intended explicitly to depart from charismatic management. Further, effectively managed and executed bureaucracies may not be nimble, but in their lack of flexibility is a stability meant to employ specialized skills in an orderly way, in order to accomplish well-defined sets of tasks. All week I have been thinking of Charles Perrow’s Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay, in which Perrow sharply criticizes uninformed attacks on bureaucracy by arguing that “the sins generally attributed to bureaucracy are either not sins at all or are consequences of the failure to bureaucratize sufficiently.”

The key here, as Weber laid it out way back in the day(some observations on Weber via Nathan Newman, via Making Light), is that bureaucracies are only as good as the separation of the politics from the practice, the charisma from the capacity. When we allow the very term “bureaucracy” to become a diry word we don’t move any closer to doing a better job next time.

1 Which I think is sneaky: He suggests that locals failed in very particular and identifiable ways, while the feds failed because, hey, government is big and makes mistakes.