Bureaucracy & Chocolate
A Story of Bureaucracy
Anyone who has ever worked in a large organization – education, business, the military, or government – has encountered the occasional satisfactions and overwhelming frustrations of bureaucracy. It is the modern, literate antithesis of the traditional, oral way of handling interactions. In traditional societies everything is based upon personal relationships. Your status is based on your family, clan, village. When you seek a new relationship – marriage, employment, advancement – you turn to friends and relations. Arranged marriages, nepotism, old-boy networks, letters of recommendation, all sorts of go-betweens, extend this personal network. If you come from the wrong side of the tracks, the wrong clan, tribe, race, or other out-of-favor group, your personal achievements can be trumped by your inferior personal connections.
Bureaucracy, on the other hand, was developed to supersede these limitations. An action was to be judged on its merits, not on who desired it. All applicants, transactions, decisions were to be treated impartially. An individual no longer had the personal ability to decide: the “rules” were the final arbiter. The new era of equality was to ushered in on wings of logic and fact. However, deals could no longer be sealed with a handshake.
In reality, of course, the old system never died. A friend from Indonesia, after waiting for six months to have a visa to the U.S. processed, finally drove across town to have high-ranking relative expedite the process. In some countries nothing gets accomplished without a gratuity, a personal recognition of the transaction.
In the U.S. it may not be quite as obvious but there are still, as Tolstoy observed, circles within circles. When I worked for the Welfare Department the situation was infinitely worse than anything I had experience in business, education, or even the military. As in all organizations, the people in the trenches knew what was going on because they did the work. Their supervisors had different priorities currying favor with their bosses. And the policy makers, even when they had risen through the ranks, were living in a different world, breathing different air. No one familiar with this world was surprised when the FBI and CIA were caught flat-footed on 9-11; the field agents knew what was going on but no one cared what “the little people” thought. This is the (non-fictional) world of Dilbert.
In San Diego County, the Welfare Department is overseen by the Board of Supervisors who have been routinely re-elected for over twenty years by a somnambulant public. The members of the Board constantly complained about the aid programs we oversaw. Their feeling was that those on aid had somehow betrayed the American dream by failing and we were complicit by assisting (enabling) them. Case sizes grew, wages were idled, additional programs and requirements proliferated, reorganizations and redefinitions became a parlor game. Good supervisors were transferred and promoted while mediocrity, indifference, and corruption ruled. CYA was the mantra.
I enjoyed helping my clients, most of whom were genuine casualties of the failures of our educational and economic systems. And I liked most of my coworkers, mutually trying to fend off collapse with inadequate time and resources. I reported a coworker to Internal Security who was running an illicit business out of his office and carrying a .45, while ignoring his actual job. Nothing happened to him; I was threatened. After I was transferred I reported continuing unsafe working conditions to our Safety Office (including mold and non-functioning thermostats) on behalf of most of the workers who feared retribution. When I put up a makeshift deflector above an aged coworker who had continually complained about frigid air blowing down her neck, I was disciplined. Nothing else changed. During my last year at that office I wrote the following story; it was a big hit among my fellow workers. When I left, I reassured them any resemblance was fictional.