Since we are deciding whether government should be bigger or not so big this election, it may be useful to think about how well government works. I should know. I’ve been on the inside, and I’m going to sing like a canary.

Any organizational structure functions according to certain dynamics. Government bureaucracy is characterized by three things—rule multiplication, extensive coordination and constant re-organization. These dynamics drive how business is conducted within the government and how the government impacts everyone else’s business.

Rule multiplication is the first and by far the dominate dynamic. (By “rules” I mean all laws, directives and orders that are extrapolated and executed by the bureaucracy.) Obviously there must be rules. And the rules must be enforced or there is no point in having them. But bureaucracy attempts to endlessly apply rules to every detail in every situation. In theory this should result in clear and consistent government, eliminating the need for messy interpretation by the civil servants. But in practice it becomes more like a zombie apocalypse, with all of the rules overrunning civilization. The problem is not just the sheer volume. It is the complexity and ambiguity of all the overlapping and sometimes contradicting rules upon rules.

I thought it would be clever to find a preposterous example to illustrate this point. So I looked for material from the European Union—that bureaucratic utopia. Facial tissue seemed promising. Do they make the Greeks blow their noses the same way as the Swedes? After a simple internet search, I was soon lost in a bewildering trove of tissue standards, studies, commissions, tests and goals. Is this all really necessary for a nose wiper? It is if every detail must be defined to the nth degree.

The civil servant’s job is beset by legions of rules. Unless you are one, you will probably have little sympathy for us unfortunates. “Serves you right. If you don’t like rules, you shouldn’t have become a bureaucrat.” Fair enough. But the rules are not contained within the borders of bureaucracy. Our rules tell us how to impose rules on you.

The shoe was on the other foot for me, so to speak, when I traveled to Sydney, Australia. After waiting in the customs line for half an hour, I handed my carefully filled out form to the official. He took one look at it and shoved it back at me, stating the regulation that prohibits the form from being filled out in pencil. Then he ordered me to re-accomplish the form in ink. I thought, “What difference does it make?” But I realized that there is no point in arguing with a civil servant. We are just following the rules.

Sometimes rules are nitpicky like this, but at other times compliance is required even when a rule does not fit a situation. Why does this happen? Because applying a rule broadly is always safe for a civil servant. We do not get in trouble for caution and extra scrutiny. Besides, catching infractions is good for the annual appraisal. I imagine it was for that Australian customs officer. “What did you accomplish this year, Mr. Dundee?” “Well, I stopped 1,938 foreigners from illegally entering the country.”

There is a cost to rules. Sometimes it is paid for in irritation and time, but often it is paid for in cash. Much of my job was to oversee contractors who developed and sustained systems for the government. Contractors try to keep all the rules in order to keep doing business with the government. This requires hiring scores of accountants, lawyers and square checkers. Since the government will pay for the compliance it requires, the contractor does not suffer loss. But the same thing cannot be said for you the taxpayer.

The result of rule multiplication is cost that seems unreasonably expensive to the public. The bureaucracy costs a lot and so does everything purchased through the bureaucracy. Even we civil servants are often enraged at how much the government pays for products and services, but we should not be. Here is what happens. We drive up the cost with compliance requirements, and then we blame contractors for bilking the government. This results in…wait for it…even more expensive compliance requirements.

This is not likely to change. Why? Because someone always benefits from compliance regulation. It is not difficult to generate numbers showing that the boss’s new initiative is a rousing success. This is a career enhancer. It may actually cost a dollar to save a dime, but all that matters is that someone can hold up the dime. Of course the dime is usually “cost avoidance,” which means that the dime is not a real dime. But the cost of compliance is very real.

Rule multiplication also contributes to the second bureaucratic dynamic—extensive coordination. Not only are there more levels on the organizational chart than the Tower of Babel, the process of coordinating through these levels is often maddeningly long and complicated. It is not unusual to have documents become obsolete before they are approved. The approver cannot simply read and sign the document. No human on earth could keep track of all of the rules, policies and goals that must be satisfied. That is what staffs do. Unfortunately staffers often do not understand the nuances of the particular project or decision. But regardless of whether they are right or wrong about some detail, a lowly civil servant ends up re-coordinating changes to changes to changes as the document moves up and down the bureaucratic ladder.

The third and final dynamic is actually a tacit admission of the inefficiency of bureaucracy. This is continuous re-organization. Surely things should run better than they actually do! Improvement may be found, it is assumed, by redrawing the organizational chart. There is some merit in this. Every structure has strengths and weakness. Weaknesses remain painfully obvious, while strengths are soon taken for granted. So to address the weaknesses a new order is tried—except the “new” is never really new. Old codgers like myself have seen it before…or perhaps three or four times. Swapping weaknesses for strengths and vice versa is a zero sum exercise once the dust settles, but a lot of time and energy is expended making the change.

These dynamics create a rich target for talk of reform, especially around election time. But here is the irony. Reforming the bureaucracy requires pulling the levers of bureaucracy—resulting in more rules, more coordination and more re-organization, which is the problem in the first place.

The nature of bureaucracy cannot be altered. As we weary civil servants often say, “It is what it is.”


By Robert L. Franck (recently retired from the United States Air Force)