Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Bureaucracy gets a bum rap. A lot of the time it's just another name for things like checks and balances, and the processes of accountability, the kind of thing you take for granted while bemoaning their cost, the way people whine about taxes while they drive on safe, paved roads.

But there's a good reason bureaucracy has a bad name: so much that is done in its service is mind-bogglingly stupid and wasteful. It gets lumped in with the potentially useful kind, because of superficial similarities in the type of procedures involved. But the differences are more telling than the similarities, even if they're less obvious.

The worst kind of frustrating, pointless bureaucracy is the kind that focuses on internal efficiencies. At this point in my job I probably waste about 1/4 of my year in mandatory "planning" or "streamlining" committees or projects, and their associated data gathering and oversight procedures. It's similar to the useful kind of bureaucracy that focuses on accountability because it's about covering someone's ass, but the key difference is it's covering a bureaucrat's ass, not that of the people who the bureaucracy is meant to be serving. That's not a trivial difference, any more than it's a trivial difference between collecting for a charity and embezzling from a charity. But it tends to get lumped together anyway.

Obviously, the best way to improve my efficiency is to abolish the runaway train of efficiency-improvement efforts and let me get back to work. I am not saying there aren't ways that efficiency in my office could be improved, and I'm not even saying that there aren't ways that haven't occurred to me that some process might help me find. But this process is not doing it. It's just dragging me down.

Today, at a three-and-a-half-hour training session about how to fill out some mind-bogglingly stupid data collection spreadsheets, while the presenters droned on and on reciting directions that they could have written down in two hours (and then I'd have them to refer to, while saving myself half the time), I was imagining how if this were a movie, the next thing would be me standing over the presenter bludgeoning him with a chair, shouting "shut up!" over and over. There would be a camera angle from below up at my face, which was getting spattered with blood. Behind me, the rest of the "audience" would be picking up their chairs to join me. Then there'd be an abrupt camera cut to me daydreaming while the guy kept blathering on with Office Space-level inanities. So I guess I can't just have the usual daydreams, I have to have a meta-daydream, a daydream about how I would film the daydream I should be having. That's what these meetings drive me to!

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