IS STREAMLINING THE BUREAUCRACY THE ANSWER?
President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will lead a new White House office tasked with ways to reshape the federal bureaucracy to make it leaner and more effective. Mr. Kushner has said he wants to update the technology in every federal department and agency. “Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens,” Mr. Kushner said. Streamlining the federal bureaucracy, which has become sclerotic at the hands of a succession of uninspired leaders in Washington, is a worthy objective but such an action requires much critical thinking.
The approximately three million civilian workers in the federal government, for all intents and purposes, constitute a permanent human resources organization unlike anything that would be tolerated in private enterprise. [Note that less than one-half of 1% of federal employees are fired from their jobs in any given year]. Streamlining the bureaucracy per se will not improve worker performance nor ameliorate waste and inefficiency so much as an overhaul of the civil service system so that it behaves as a true meritocracy.
The embarrassing performance of the Department of Veterans Affairs with its lethal consequences for so many veterans is not the result of outdated systems or technology. The dysfunction that pervades the VA – despite the heroic efforts of many physicians, nurses, and staffers – is more the result of a culture where incompetence, negligence, backbiting, and obstructionism have become the norm. In a corrosive environment such as this, integrity is hardly a key performance indicator.
TECHNOLOGY IS NOT A PROXY FOR SERVICE
There is a mythology that the next logical step in dealing with the bureaucratization of work is the substitution of technology for the human element. Self-checkout retail store registers, hotel check-in kiosks, self-check-in airline ticket kiosks, hospital admission check-in kiosks, ATM’s, IVR’s all are meant to disintermediate the service person. This trend does not bode well, however, if the principal motivation behind these efforts is to displace the worker not so much to improve service but to reduce cost and to enhance operating efficiency. In fact, the result of these technological initiatives, might be less effective service. If service implies flexibility, understanding, responsiveness and an ability to communicate, then I know for sure that this technological imperative has set us back immeasurably. Keep in mind, two thirds of the consuming public changes suppliers for reasons having to do with poor service. Clearly, the Government’s monopoly of many of the nation’s vital services precludes citizens from voting with their feet as they might if they were dealing with a commercial enterprise. More creative approaches such as privatization, downsizing, if not outright dismemberment of certain government agencies and departments will have to be brought to bear to deal with especially stubborn cases of an entrenched bureaucracy.
WORKERS NEED TO COME OUT OF THEIR CAGES
The great German sociologist Max Weber referred to an “iron cage” to describe the condition in which workers were hemmed in by the bureaucracy with no freedom of motion but to follow rigid standards of efficiency and control. With few exceptions, workers in business and government have been relegated to their iron cages. And, unless and until workers are able to break free from their cages, their skills, expertise, and sensibilities will not be brought to bear to serve the public.
Service performance to customers and citizens has been made impotent by an inexhaustible supply of inane policies designed to control the behaviors of workers. As a result, the average worker has become an automaton: inflexible, devoid of resourcefulness, helpless, and obligated to follow stultifying scripts.
FREEDOM OF ACTION: GOOD FOR THE ORGANIZATION, GOOD FOR THE SOUL
Workers serving the public are witness to an increasingly eroding freedom of action. And, with that loss of autonomy comes a diminished ability to do what is right. So, it is no wonder that tales such as that of the technical support worker at Hewlett Packard who refused to help an American soldier slogging through the desert in Iraq repair his inoperable printer – that is, until the company got paid first – have become commonplace. There is no telling but that a heroic action by this technician to ignore company policy and help the GI in distress might have earned him a reprimand if not a termination. On the other hand, a courageous leadership would have celebrated his action and then moved to correct the offending policy.
THE MOTHER’S MILK OF SERVICE IS A TRAINED, MOTIVATED WORKFORCE
Bureaucratization was spawned by the industrial age: an age with very different fundamentals from those of the service and information age in which we live. The industrial age emphasized regimented labor, hard assets, and efficiency as the primary factors of performance. Industrial age models of economic behavior focus on short term thinking, production efficiencies and uniform behavior. Conversely, human potential, creativity, communication, information, and other intangibles are the primary resource strengths of the service and information age organization.
These two views offer a graphic contrast of the deep philosophical and cultural divide that has been with us far too long and which will take courageous leadership to eventually bridge. To paraphrase Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman, morality and responsibility are characteristics of people – not of systems. Reliability, responsiveness, service, and integrity, are values that we, as humans, seek to find in those who serve us. Doing the right thing is not a measure of efficiency of motion but of effective behavior.