A Short History of Bureaucracy (Excerpt from the Encyclopedia Gigantica, 2945 edition)

Est melius facere nihil quam facere iniuriam rei.
(“It is better to do nothing than the wrong thing.”)
–Ancient bureaucratic proverb

Bureaucracy is an organizational property that can be used to determine the energy not available for work in a business process.  All organizations must devote a certain amount of activity to tasks that, while not directly related to the work the organization is intended to accomplish, must be completed in order for the work to be accomplished at all.  Organizations invariably have a maximum operational efficiency when converting activity to work.  During this activity, bureaucracy accumulates in the system, manifesting itself in the form of red tape.

In classical organizational dynamics, the concept of bureaucracy is expressed in the 2nd Law of Organizational Dynamics, which states that in a fiscally constrained system, bureaucracy always increases or remains constant.  The 3rd Law of Organizational Dynamics states that in a fiscally unconstrained system, bureaucracy grows exponentially to consume whatever resources are allotted to it.

While some experts on the subject suggest a similarity between bureaucracy in organizations and entropy in thermodynamic systems, there are striking differences between the two.  While entropy is often described–in popular literature, at any rate–in terms of increasing disorder and chaos, the goal of bureaucracy is to increase the order and structural integrity of its host organization (sometimes regardless of whatever chaos might be unleashed by doing so).

The underlying philosophical basis of bureaucracy is the attempt to standardize outcomes by setting up standardized methods.  The notion rests on the concept that, if insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then it can’t be unreasonable to assume that doing identical actions will produce identical results.

The growth of bureaucracy in an organizational system can be demonstrated in the history of a widget factory.  One person may start out by making widgets.  As workload grows, the original person may hire others–providing guidelines to the new employee on how widgets are to be made.  As more people are hired, the founder of the organization may wind up devoting more time to making corporate decisions (staffing levels, how and where to acquire resources, what to do about staff interactions, etc.) than actually making widgets.  Finally, the organization becomes so large and complex that the founder can no longer afford the time to decide everything on a case-by-case basis.  Rules are drafted that attempt to preclude the need for individual decisions, and other staff members are charged with ensuring the various rules are carried out.  A bureaucracy is born.

Bureaucracy, then, is the manifestation of delegated authority within the context of a large organization.  In other words, one person makes the rules and then hires somebody else to carry them out.

This disconnect between the party making the rules and the parties enforcing them creates a haze of uncertainty.  Not only must the junior members interpret what rules apply when, but they also must interpret the intent behind the rules if a literal interpretation appears to result in an absurd outcome.  The inevitable result over time is that some junior members’ interpretation of the rules will create outcomes that are either unpredictable or undesirable to the senior members.  This in turn leads to new rules which are more specific than the old rules, take more effort to implement, and also must be interpreted by subsequent staff members.  Thus the cycle repeats itself until junior members are allowed no flexibility at all and must implement the rules, as written, no matter how absurd the outcome.  This is known as the von Mises Threshold.

In some cases the rules are determined by a committee of people rather than an individual.  Counterintuitively, this committee-based approach has the effect of increasing the rigidity of the structure, since many of the rules are likely to represent a compromise of some sort.  Any potential change in the rules must be debated and calibrated to reach a new compromise before the changes can be implimented.  The threshold at which it is simpler and less expensive to keep the existing rules than pursue changes is known mathematically as the Hacker Limit.

In some extreme cases, the committee that establishes the rules is appointed by the members of the bureaucracy itself.  This is known as Representative Bureaucracy.

The pattern of decreasing flexibility and increasing rule sets explains the tendency of bureaucracy to grow over time at a rate proportional to the complexity of the rules being administered (which, as we have just seen, also varies over time–hence the growth rate tends to be exponential rather than linear) and the amount of funding the organization is willing to devote to the bureaucratic structure.  The growth of bureaucracy within an organization can be measured using the Corporate Mass Maturity Index (CMMI).  This system, which was first developed in a slightly different form during the 20th century, assigns a score to organizations based on the level of bureaucracy during a particular review cycle.  The possible scores range from “1” for new organizations with few internal controls to “5” for organizations that have become completely paralyzed.  Usage of the CMMI gradually fell out of favor during the 21st and 22nd centuries following the discovery of Heisenberg’s Bureaucracy Principle, which stated that it was impossible to measure the amount of bureaucracy in a system without accelerating its growth.

One of the most controversial elements of bureaucracy is the customer/member interface, where those outside the bureaucracy attempt to gain access to the services that the bureaucracy in question purports to provide.  This interface provides a high potential for conflict, since outsiders may not be aware of the arcane rules dictating the actions of the bureaucracy members.  This often creates the impression that the bureaucracy members are being deliberately obstructive, even when they are not.  For their part, members are faced with the task of finding a way to meet the demands of customers in various stages of frustration within the constraints of the rules, or at least explain why the demands cannot be met–over and over again, for each different customer.

This interface may occur not only between outsiders and members, but also among members of the same general bureaucratic structure:  for example, between the accounting staff and the human resources staff, or between a satellite office and corporate headquarters.   That is to say, any member of one bureaucracy will inevitably be the customer of another.  Interestingly, the same tensions have the potential to exist along intra-bureaucracy boundaries as along the customer/member interface.

The most prominent work in the field of bureaucratology was performed in the 21st century by sociologist Ross Keebler-Tolhaus.  In his book On Bureaucracy and Bureaucratizing, Dr. Keebler-Tolhaus described a series of five stages that people tend to pass through during their bureaucratic careers.  The progress is not necessarily linear:  some may pass rapidly through one or more stages, regress through earlier stages, or never reach some stages at all.  These stages are listed below.

  • Bemusement:  Newly-hired employee is perplexed but mildly entertained by the baroque structure of rules accompanying his or her position.
  • Frustration:  Employee finds that, amusing though the structure may be, they are increasingly likely to halt employee’s progress toward necessary goals.
  • Reformation:  Employee attempts to modify the bureaucracy to be less formidable.
  • Resignation:  Employee reaches the Hacker Limit and realizes, to get on in his or her career, he or she will have to work within the existing structure.
  • Entrenchment:  Employee has learned how to work the system and realizes the key to maintaining one’s current position is inextricably linked to the preservation of the status quo (cf. the Appleby Tipping Point).

(copyright 2012)

Also from the Encyclopedia Gigantica, 2945 edition:  Overdoing Environmentalism