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What's Up Magazine

What Do You Think? Bureaucratic Abuse and the Processes That Enable It

Feb 13, 2017 12:59PM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Ellen Moyer

A friend recently mentioned to me the “Bureaucratic Abuse” that he described as rife in our city. I scratched my head, “What did he mean?” Bureaucracy is the organization governments use to preserve continuity and the status quo. Theoretically it is a non-partisan implementer of even-handed policy that strengthens the rule of law and resists innovation and initiative. Bureaucrats are employees of government. They are regular people like you and me who take their job seriously. And there is the rub. Their job is to protect the institution from harm and they do it by rigidly following the rules, perpetuating the status quo even when according to Lawrence Peters (of the Peters Principal) “the quo has lost its status.” This application of procedural correctness for obtaining permits for government services has earned employees the identity of the faceless, uncaring attitude, humorless stern robot that wields procedural power over everyone that comes to them for help. In fact, Bureaucrats are not problem solvers; they are professionals, schooled in the value of the importance of the rules on issues they are sworn to protect.

Contenders for public office vow that they will decrease regulations and revise the permit process that provokes builders, businesses owners, and people in general. After the election nothing changes. How could it? Most rules are set in federal or state standards to protect insurance companies, as well as the quality of life we prefer. There are building codes to insure that buildings do not collapse around us, critical areas codes to protect clean water habitat, fire codes to prevent disaster, storm water codes, unemployment and food stamp procedures, and on and on for protection against every would-be fraud of the public trust.

Bureaucrats are in a position of power. They are the first face encountered as a representative of government. A rigid demeanor does not radiate a good feeling about Government. They are also in a position to reward friends of those in elected positions. Rather than a first-come first-served basis, good friends can be moved to the front of the line for the lengthy permit process. Likewise, retribution can be meted out to unfavorable people who go to the bottom of the pile for service. Bureaucrats are in a position to intimidate, intentionally withhold information, violate elementary fairness and good faith, and, sometimes, they have an undisclosed conflict of interest. Political administrations have at least one overbearing stringent gate-keeper who basks in the glory of their own power and self-importance, whom is disparaging to a government that thrives on perceptions of fairness.

Author Brian Cook writing in Bureaucracy and Self Government says, “The faceless bureaucrat, the rigidly rule-bound and unresponsive public servant, the long customer service wait times…are all part of the imagery of public bureaucracy deeply imbedded in American Culture.” This imagery may have much to do with the diminished appeal of representative government and rising anger against government institutions. While still adhering to the rule of law and the need to protect our safety in an increasingly populated and complex urban world, we need to find a way to put on a smiling face and facilitate customer-friendly operations while we move through fair and timely permitting procedures. Perhaps a first step would be training those in government employment in aspects of power and its abuses that undermine good government. Another step would be to periodically evaluate and reset the stultifying regulatory processes. Power is, after all, one of appearances. Bureaucrats, ordinary people, are on the front line for creating perceptions of government. In a Democracy, power resides “of, by and for” the people. Does enslaving us to entrenched processes make “government of and by the people” meaningless, and eventually destroy democratic representative government? 

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