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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Worth of a Bureaucracy

Organizations inevitably do what organizations do. When that's good, it can be very, very good. The lights stay on, paychecks arrive on time, good works get done.

When organizational behavior is not good, you can wind up with an unobstructed terrorist boarding a flight to Detroit, no matter how many protective measures are supposedly in place.

This is not to jump in on either side of the current discussion of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed bombing attempt, but to take the occasion to comment on organizational reality.

Bureaucratic organizations are the bone and sinew of civilization. A bureaucracy is established as a structure for delivery of products and/or services. The government of the United States is such a structure. So, for that matter, is El Qaida, although it apparently is kept extremely loose.

The worth of a bureaucracy is determined by how efficiently and reliably it produces the desired results. "Efficiently" means using the least possible amount of resources (including time) consistent with the pre-established nature and quality of the outcome. "Reliably" means high predictability in response to following the defined steps of the organization's process.

Because of its nature, a bureaucracy attracts, rewards and perfects the skills of efficiency and reliability. It hates and avoids uncertainty and risk, because those are the antitheses of what it values. If its leadership is not careful, the bureaucratic organization can go too far in the direction of eliminating disruptions of its routine.

One bad habit can be the bureaucracy's avoidance or denial of uncomfortable realities as the people in the organization tend their beloved process while their focus on the ultimate purpose gets cloudy.

This problem boils over when something bad happens. The bureaucracy acts to make sure the undesirable thing doesn't happen again, sometimes by layering over with perceived added protection rather than disrupting things by digging out the cause of the aberration. The bandage, not the surgery, is more in the nature of the organization.

In my opinion, that's what happened after the unspeakable catastrophe of September 11, 2001. Some observers believe the attackers could have been caught before acting if the existing agencies of government had done what they are supposed to do, including act effectively across bureaucracies to share information and coordinate their work to protect the nation.

Instead, disparate bureaucracies operated on their islands of turf, allowing pieces of related intelligence to remain separated from each other and from proper analysis.

Sound familiar? Aren't we having the same conversation now about the attempt to destroy the airliner on Christmas?

Part of the reason we're still dealing with the same issues is that no one shook the barnacles off the encrusted bureaucracies back then. After all, they had failed to keep alert to their risk-management purpose, and had lapsed into comfortable internally defined bubbles, indulging in the luxury of cutting off communication with partners they chose to see as competitors.

It is the nature of organizations to do so. Mao Zedong understood that truth in Communist China, and so he blew up the entire national bureaucracy every five years or so, to horrifying effect. Mao's philosophy was flawed and his governance was abhorrent, but at least he recognized the problem.

Admittedly, it's very difficult to create a standing organization -- a bureaucracy -- to serve a purpose such as constant total alertness to great threats buried daily in countless bits of information. It's a purpose very close to impossible for a continuing organization, but we're stuck on the point of that spear, and we should act as if we understand that.

What might have happened in the U.S. after 9/11 if the top three layers of management at the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency, etc., had all been fired in September 2001 and people brought in to lead the organizations according to a clear commitment to their vital purpose? If the political leadership of the government were complicit in the failure, the appropriate people should have been axed there, too.

Instead, everyone stayed in place at the agencies, and a gigantic additional bureaucracy (the new Department of Homeland Security) was spread over the lot. A classic bureaucratic solution to a nonbureaucratic problem, with a thoroughly predictable result.

It would be very reassuring if the matter were settled properly this time. This is no longer a bureaucratic matter.

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