Thursday, 24 June 2021

A loss of bureaucratic integrity

The autonomous moralist differs from the sophist or ethical sceptic in this: that he retains his integrity. In vindicating his ideal he does not recant his human nature. In asserting the initial right of every impulse in others, he remains the spokesman of his own.

George Santayana - The Life of Reason (1905-06)

I worked in the public sector for almost all of my working life. People may or may not realise how significant it is, but there is such a thing as bureaucratic mendacity as well as bureaucratic integrity. Not that this is some kind of revelation, but the media have a regrettable tendency to ignore the mendacity. It suits establishment narratives to keep it away from inquisitive eyes.

Bureaucrats are human and when their plans, systems or processes are thwarted they often take it personally, especially if it appears to threaten their role in the organisation. It doesn’t necessarily matter how remote the threat is. Precautionary principle antennae are exceedingly sensitive in bureaucracies.

Often enough bureaucrats are in a position to cause problems for those who could thwart them in some way, so they frequently do. This is merely human nature, especially where there is no personal downside. Engineered problems may vary from pettifogging niggles to loading viable reforms with hopelessly impractical burdens or costs. It can occur at a surprisingly low level within the hierarchy.

In these cases, mendacity becomes part of the bureaucratic armoury. Its driver is the protection of self, family and clan – the clan in this case being the bureaucracy itself. At a high level it may suck in major political actors and the media as senior stakeholders. These people are human too, they see how the currents are flowing, they identify with the bureaucracy because that is the easier course. Naturally any mendacity is ignored.

The point to be made is that bureaucracies are inherently well suited to totalitarian politics. Even bureaucracies within a stable democracy. It suits the bureaucratic ethos to have only one way of doing things, to deny failure, pump up success and build predictability into everything. This is the problem we face now and it is not a minor one.

After several centuries of industrial, technical and economic progress the essential nature of bureaucracy has become a vast and decidedly negative feature of our lives. Bureaucrats do not have a special integrity gene.


Sam Vega said...

Weber thought that one essential aspect of bureaucracies was their impersonal nature; that bureaucrats were guided by rational decision-making and clearly-defined purposes.

That was in an "ideal type" bureaucracy; one that may not even exist. Weber used the "ideal type" as a way of highlighting theoretical principles rather than reality.

The "ideal type" bureaucrat would be able to downgrade their own post in response to changing business and social environments; to make themselves redundant, and even wind up the whole organisation. Maybe some might have been able to do that, in early 20th Century Germany. But that's presumably why he used the heuristic device of the "ideal type". Here, it ain't gonna happen.

DiscoveredJoys said...

So true. Even the fairest, most publically minded bureaucrat still (or especially) has to defend themselves from the schemes of others. Because if you don't then others will tread on you on their way up.

I don't believe private industry is any different - except the 'successful' usually leave before their lack of integrity comes to light.

A K Haart said...

Sam - I never came across an "ideal type" bureaucrat. The only way to shake up a bureaucracy or close it down seems to be via a change manager brought in from outside who has that job and once completed will move on.

DJ - that's what I found, you have to defend yourself from the schemes of others. Often personal advancement schemes with no real merit.