The Cause of Bureaucracy

March 29, 2019

What is bureaucracy?

It is an organization with plenty of rules and procedures, but with meagre or undesirable deliverables; The organization is not effective; it does not satisfy its clients’ needs in a timely manner.

Here is a joke which illustrates how a bureaucracy behaves.

A man was going to Paris. His friend told him of an incredible jewellery store he knew in Paris, and he insisted the man go buy something there.

When the man arrived in Paris, he went to the jewellery store and approached a guard in a beautiful blue uniform, stationed at the entrance. The guard asked the man if he wanted high-priced or mid-priced jewellery.

“High-priced,” the man said.

The guard directed him to the third floor.

The man went to the third floor and found another guard, this time in red uniform.

“Do you want coloured diamonds or clear diamonds?” he asked.

“Coloured,” was the answer.

“Third door to the left.”

Beside the door, there was a third guard in a green uniform.

“Yellow, red, or blue diamond?”

“Yellow,” the man said.

“Downstairs, on your right.”

He descended the stairs. On the right, a fourth guard in a black uniform stood by the door. The guard opened the door, and the man found himself back on the street.

When the man returned to his hometown, the friend asked him, “Did you buy anything?” “No,” the man replied, “but, boy, they sure have an incredibly organized system.”

Bureaucracy appears very well-organized, with systems and procedures, but if you analyse how functional those systems and procedures are, you might find out that a number of them do not serve any functional purpose.

How did it happen?

In civil service, by design, no one has control over the organization, like a CEO of a company has over the corporation he or she leads (1). The less control the leadership of an organization has, the bigger that organization’s bureaucracy will be because it is difficult for leadership to implement change, and when systems do not change, procedures become obsolete and cease to serve the functions for which they were created.

Making change happen requires the cooperation of people who don’t necessarily report to you. In civil service, the authority to approve change is with politicians and the power is with the trade unions and the media, making leading change a horrendously difficult process; it means political manoeuvring. That requires time and more energy than normal.

In a changing environment, an organization must change. Because in civil service it is so difficult to change it will go through the motions, developing more and more procedures, as if more forms will produce a better function. The contrary is the truth.

We need to rethink and redesign what we have. In all countries where I consulted the leaders of those countries, I have recommended to establish a ministry, the strongest of them all, whose role is to lead change, to de-bureaucratize government machinery. Continuously. And all laws must have a date by when they become obsolete thus requiring a new legislation or renewal of the existing law. Otherwise they just accumulate and suffocate society.

Just thinking,

Dr Ichak Kalderon Adizes Founder and CEO, Adizes Institute Worldwide

(1) To me, this explains why Business CEOs and military generals feel lost and usually fail when they enter politics. They are used to having significant control over the organization they lead, definitely more than the control they will have leading a democracy or a civil service organization. The new environment confuses them.

Written by
Dr. Ichak Adizes