Bureaucracy

People almost always behave with the best of intentions. We create rules and regulations and procedures because we want to help make things right. We create systems and put people in administrative positions, because there are important things that need to be done. It is all with the best of intentions. Of course, the best of intentions often go shockingly wrong, which is why we say that the road to Hell is paved with them.

The creation of administration is the creation of bureaucracy. The people who work in administration, who work in the resulting bureaucracy, are bureaucrats. The connotation of bureaucracy and bureaucrats is not good.

There is a reason that so many bureaucrats act the way they do. They are bound by all those rules that were put in place with the best of intentions. There are procedures that have been established, guidelines that have been laid down, and a whole lot of paperwork that must be filled out and filed. We must have a paper trail. Bureaucrats are not permitted to color outside the lines. If they do, they will get in trouble. Zero tolerance laws are in place. Their hands are in cuffs. They must do things in a certain way and in only that way. Or else. Because of all our good intentions.

And so, as a result, though the bureaucracy was created to make your life better, in the end, the bureaucrats are prohibited from actually helping you. In fact, they have no incentive whatsoever to help you. Their only incentive is to follow the guidelines they have been given and if you are not acting within those guidelines, all they can do is tell you “no”—and send you away until you manage to fit yourself into the same cuffs that they must always wear for our benefit. Until then, you are simply in the way and they have no procedures in place to help you figure out what it is you need to do to follow the rules that constrain them. Rules that they must follow and if they don’t then they will lose their jobs. Too often, their choice is between helping you, a stranger whom they will never see again, and keeping their job. Guess which they will choose? The rules ensure it.

The government, businesses, and organizations of every sort from charities and church denominations to universities both public and private are bureaucratized. Bureaucracies are nothing new. They have been around since civilization began and they will be here as long as civilization endures. They are like cockroaches. The bureaucratization of government is why so many people believe the government is part of the problem, rather than the solution. Obviously, the government actually does many good things: roads, traffic lights, police and fire protection, and the GPS system, among others. The government of the United States mostly helps rather than harms. But on occasion, the minions of its bureaucracy simply mess everything up. Not necessarily because they are malevolent, but simply because that’s what inevitably happens with a bureaucracy. It is essentially unavoidable, despite the best intentions of all involved.

And so, a personal story of a bureaucracy at work:

Last summer my wife had the unpleasant experience of dealing with the bureaucracy of the local school district for which she teaches. Her paycheck that she receives each month is split between our regular bank account and a credit union account. Three fourths of her paycheck goes to our regular bank account and one fourth goes to the credit union.

Last year, on June 24th my wife’s father passed away. From then, through July 5, we were mostly with her mom, taking care of arrangements and dealing with various paperwork issues. My wife gets paid at the end of the month. As expected, three fourths of her paycheck was automatically deposited electronically into our regular bank account.

But the school district did not deposit the remaining one fourth in the credit union account. We did not realize this until after we returned home on July 5. We first contacted the credit union. The manager there was able to determine that the school district had never sent her paycheck to them.

While the money is electronically sent to our regular bank, the accounting department at the school district, for whatever reason, prints a check and then hand delivers it to the credit union. Something that hadn’t happened yet.

My wife attempted to call the school district, but no one answered the phone. So we drove to the district office on July 6. The person in the payroll department said that the accounting department was going to give them the checks that very day and once they did, they would take them to the credit union. Not entirely trusting this, we then went and found the person in the accounting department. She explained that, “well, there was the holiday coming, and so we had the Friday before the holiday off, and then of course we had the holiday on Monday, Independence Day, off–and we’re working on it now”–this was Wednesday–“and so we might have the check delivered today or perhaps tomorrow.”

My wife is supposed to be paid on the last day of the month–in this case, June 30th, a Thursday–the day before they had their day off. And now it was almost a week past that. There had been no communication ahead of time from them to the teachers that they should expect a delay.

My wife was crying, explaining how her father had died and wondering why they were making her worry about getting paid, too. Neither the woman in payroll nor the woman in accounting seemed the least bit concerned. Neither expressed any sympathy–or any emotion whatsoever. Simply: “you must understand that there was a holiday and we had days off.” No “sorry,” no, “we’ll get right on it.” But what was worse, our conversation with them was like talking to brick walls for all the common human decency, emotion or concern they showed. They expressed not the least concern for the fact that my wife’s father had just died. They did not react to her tears. They did not even offer a “sorry for your loss.” They were completely emotionless, straight faced, and unhelpful–in fact, they were annoyed, projecting the attitude of “why are you here and why are you bothering us.” They were, in every way, the stereotypical bureaucrats who had failed to fulfill their actual purpose, but who had, as they wanted us to understand, fulfilled and followed all the “proper procedures” and “how could you expect anything else?”

The next day–the 7th of July–more than a week past the day she was contractually obligated to get paid–the money finally arrived in her credit union account.

Accounting and payroll departments were created to make sure that teachers get paid. Now they exist merely to keep the accounting and payroll staff employed. They serve as an example of the ultimate fate of all bureaucracies.

And I suspect that their paychecks are never late.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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