I have had a bit of direct experience with bureaucracies. Years before this, working in a “mixed” machine shop (some of the workers were union, some — including me — were not), I had been exposed to union attitudes. If I worked hard and produced a large number of good quality aircraft parts, I was lectured that I was making other workers look bad. I offered to teach others, for free, the techniques I had worked out. I was threatened with being fired. But the shop itself was not too laden with hidebound bureaucrats, and I worked out how to make Space Shuttle and jet parts and enjoy the process.

Years later, I got a snootful of bureaucracy:These agencies, the VA as well as the DEA and EPA and DOJ and so on, are all part of the executive branch. Their motivations as a consequence of the way the system works are to increase their budgets, power, and general “turf” by failing. It is perverse, but if they don’t accomplish the mission, the proposed solution is always “throw more money at it.” Few administrative government workers can resist that siren call.

I was a consultant to the government in the 1990s. This was the Social Security Agency (SSA), one of 15 agencies using my software tools but the only one who hired me to come out and teach them. I was flown out on a red-eye flight one Sunday night every month, then rolled off the plane and into their headquarters to start the class, and flew back Friday night. This went on for something close to two years, and I met all sorts of interesting folks on the trips to and from Washington DC from Los Angeles. That was the good part.

But overall, the experience was very off-putting. A couple of the “developers” on the SSA team I felt could have been salvaged if placed in a private sector environment. Most could not. One team member on the small group working on a key project sat in her little office reading magazines all day. I was told not even to speak to her, as “she doesn’t work, and has her lawyer on speed-dial.” She was there the whole time I was, and participated in nothing at all but still collecting her taxpayer-funded perk-laden paycheck.

Others simply had no clue about software design, despite being on the payroll as the SSA’s best developers. Fortunately, the development system that I and my team had created had lots of flexibility, and we did fast redesigns to salvage some bits and make the project work after a fashion. It was then rolled out to 60,000 offices. Knowing the process behind this was a bit like watching sausages being made.

But the employees were incentivized by the administrative bureaucracy to not work, to avoid work, to feel no need to work. They worked for me only because I showed them things that were new and different and offered a chance to show their stuff. This turned the worthless ones into not-quite-zero worth, and some others actually became adequate performers. But for “Tony,” their supervisor, they still did nothing when I wasn’t there.

Tony had the big cubicle, a “boss office” where you had a little hallway in the cubicle itself, an extra layer before you saw him. But in this hallway, right in front of you before you turned the corner, was a big (and amateurish) poster. It said, in bold letters,

If at first you don’t succeed,
get a government job
and you don’t have to try any more.

Turn the corner, and you were presented with another poster over Tony’s desk:

If assholes could fly,
this place would be
an airport.

I was not impressed in any favorable way. But I did learn that no one above him who had come to visit had ever commented negatively on the posters, and a few had asked for copies.

To prevent the employees from ever getting too much done, they had fire drills at least once a week that would have all 27,000 employees in the building pour out in a mass into the parking lot for hours at a time. I estimated from these exercises that 80% or more of these Baltimore-area workers were black. And I wondered about the cars there, as just down the road was the Security Square Mall, which had the highest auto-theft rate of any place in the United States.

Bureaucrats and their minions tend to be big-government types, as that feeds them. President Obama has added to this a new vision: Make America what it should be by forcing “good behavior” through regulations. We are breaking records for new Executive-branch originated (read: bureaucrat-originated) regulations, as we break the country’s economy.

It is no wonder that businesses with cash are not investing it right now, as this administration decides which businesses will be allowed to win.

I, too, will be glad when this president is gone. But what comes next seems like little improvement (Trump) or even worse (Clinton or Sanders) in their own ways.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  • Large companies, big governments, major churches — all tend toward the same problem. I fought hard against this even when we were at only a couple of hundred people.

    In the case of the companies, they could never have gotten so big if they’d acted that way when small. Perhaps Jones has the best observation about the phenomenon:

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  • JeffR

    I have extensively seen firsthand most of what you’re talking about, Keith. I’d like to add a different kind of observation, that I’m sure you have seen lots of. It’s not so much a political or sociological observation, as one about human nature:

    I work in a large engineering company (to remain unnamed) that isn’t lazy or corrupt, and 90%+ of employees are quite competent and motivated — either “highly” or “adequately.” These engineers care about their reputations and about their “business mission.” They care about serving their customers that buy their complex & expensive products. They care about providing support services after the customers have bought and started using the products. There is a passion for excellence among my coworkers, something you alluded to in your article too.

    However, there is a different form of “bureaucracy effect” in any large organization, distinct from the classic government “bureau” origin of that word. What I’m referring to is what happens to human enterprises when they become large and distributed. It is amazing how you can observe a group of hundreds of gifted & hard-working INDIVIDUALS that collectively get wrapped around every possible axle, due to lack of cohesion and lack of creative/decisive leadership — at the top and through the mid-level ranks. I frequently mutter the following cynical observation to the person next to me during chaotic meetings: “No ONE of us is as stupid as ALL of us put together.”

    Now I will steer this back towards politics: EVEN IF the rank and file of the Executive Branch agencies, administrations, and bureaus could be purged of the lazy & corrupt people — they STILL will be large mobs of workers operating in an environment devoid of the free market motivations of competition. So ANY “big” solution devised and run by government is either doomed to failure or cursed with perpetually low operating efficiency levels. Often the government agencies are so inept at understanding competitive motivations in a free market, they can’t even conduct a competition to hire and manage private contractors to get a job done (if that job takes more than a short time). Look at HHS’s fumbling of the ObamaCare website, the VA’s fumbling of the Aurora Colorado hospital complex for vets, the California high-speed bullet train, etc etc.

    Government cannot be BIG and be GOOD. Even if “fraud” and “abuse” could possibly be eliminated (which they can’t), there will always be “waste” in big organizations. Federalism and local community solutions are the best solutions — or more correctly, the LEAST BAD solutions.

    – Jeff

  • Thank you, sir.

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  • Dear Mr. DeHavelle: In the event you might find a desire to communicate privately here is my e-mail: You have to fix the (dot) and make it into a real “.” for it to work: (john.liming783@gmail(dot)com