April 12, 2005


The Beast That Feeds on Boxes: Bureaucracy (SCOTT SHANE, 4/10/05, NY Times)

"I've been studying bureaucracy for 40 years," said James Q. Wilson, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University, "and I can't remember a single commission that proposed cutting back."

Little surprise, then, that after two independent commissions and multiple Congressional committees studied the shortcomings of the 15 intelligence agencies, they proposed more bureaucracy.

Much, much more bureaucracy.

This paradoxical result worries Richard A. Posner, a federal appeals court judge and the author of a coming book on intelligence reform. "Every time you add a layer of bureaucracy, you delay the movement of information up the chain to the policy maker," Judge Posner said. "And you dilute the information, because at each step some details are taken out."

Yet adding layers appears to be in the DNA of bureaucracy; it is what bureaucracy does, according to Paul C. Light, who has spent years studying the phenomenon he calls the "thickening" of government.

Through Republican and Democratic administrations, in response to any kind of crisis or failure, in every field from education to national security, and often in the face of stark evidence that it will be counterproductive, the federal government has grown layers, said Dr. Light, a professor of public service at New York University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The layering can scramble communication and accountability, he said, and it lies at the heart of many government failures. In the Columbia disaster, NASA engineers' worries never reached top officials. Commanders in Iraq have said that word of abuses at Abu Ghraib did not reach them.

One of the first great students of bureaucracy, the early-20th-century German sociologist Max Weber, saw a lot to like in this form of organization, particularly as a replacement for clan-based or patronage systems. Bureaucracies were made up of people with expertise, operating under consistent rules and keeping precise records. But Weber may not have imagined the scale of bureaucracy at the top of a 21st-century superpower, or its relentless growth.

In 1960, according to Dr. Light's study of federal phone directories, there were 17 different executive titles in the 15 cabinet departments he tracks. By 2004, that had ballooned to 64 titles, as new positions were wedged between existing jobs, creating such choice appellations as "chief of staff to the associate deputy assistant secretary" and "principal deputy deputy assistant secretary" (the repetition is not a typo).

High-level career posts have proliferated as fast as political appointments. "It's a stalactite-stalagmite problem," Dr. Light said. "The politicals drip down, and the career people drip up."

Each of us goes about our work secure in the certainty that our job is worthwhile but that of whoever supervises us is superfluous and so on up the organizational chart...

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 12, 2005 1:52 PM

In certain professions, we go about our work secure in the certainty that the lot of us could disappear tomorrow and the Republic would endure, probably even thrive. Nevertheless the mortgage must be paid and the oleaginous scumsuckers on the other side must be put in their place.

Posted by: Random Lawyer at April 12, 2005 10:39 PM

Nothing wrong with the practice of law except for judges, clients and other lawyers.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 12, 2005 10:54 PM