As I read the Washington Post article on Top Secret America, I was reminded of how governments, large and small, tend to deal with bureaucratic issues by reorganizing. It’s easy to poke fun at the federal government because it’s so large that it’s bumbling efforts at streamlining through reorganization take on a comedic dimension, or at least it would be if it didn’t cost so much.
Legislators, desiring to show the folks back home that they are on the ball, offer all kinds of bills reorganizing this or that as if moving something around or changing its name would accomplish anything. Their usual performance includes emotionally charged attacks on whatever form of organization currently exists followed by the promise of a salvific Eden under their proposed reorganization. They mean well, for the most part, but legislatures are not very good managers, they are policy setters, and when they dictate management decisions masquerading as policy, they are usually wrong.
I have some sympathy for them. I have served as a commissioner of local government agencies in several communities. Small though we may be, the fact is that we lay commissioners are limited in what we are able to know about the intricacies of the agencies for which we are expected to set policy. Having also had some experience trying to influence decisions made in DC, I have an inkling about how hard it is to be one of 535 legislators trying to find a way to arrive at a majority vote on important matters about which only a few have any in depth understanding and the underlying strategy is to make the other party lose regardless of what might be best.
Senior managers in the executive branch don’t fare much better. For one thing, they are both limited and directed by legislative authorizations. For another, it is just so tempting to engage in empire building, which is most easily done by acquiring, hoarding and brokering information. Finally, as I wrote to a friend the other day, I think DC is the most seductive place in America. It is there that otherwise decent human beings are seduced by power: having it, getting close to it, influencing those who have it, and basking in its glow. Adam, Eve, the serpent and the fruit of the forbidden tree are in the minor leagues compared to Washington.
Lest we be misled to think that this is a modern problem, or even an American problem, I offer one of my favorite quotes;
We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn that later in life we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.
6 thoughts on “Bumbling in DC”
My sister reports that my Petronius Arbiter quote was actually written by Charlton Ogburn Jr. in the 50's and related to his training in WWII. Perhaps it's true. I've had that quote in my book of lecture notes since the late 1970s and have no idea from whence it came to me.CP
66 AD – Petronius Arbiter or Charlton Ogburn Jr. in the 50's – oh is there no hope????? And I thought it was just my personal problem – this organization business!!xo
Dear SS,I remember a friend who once worked in corporate management for Montgomery Ward – remember them? He joked that every year or so they would tear down all the office walls to create an open environment so that people could work together more efficiently. A year or two later they would put them back up so that people could have the privacy needed to work more efficiently. What does that tell us. We're doomed!Yours lovingly, and I promise to reorganize nothingCP
Yes, I was puzzled by the attibution of your quote to the witty Petronius of the time of Nero (made famous by the 1950s movie, Quo Vadis); I had read the Satyricon of Petronius in Latin years ago, and nothing in the quote sounded familiar, so I was relieved that your sister caught it. Dr B
So I guess I'll have to use that quote as \”anon\” since it seems to be attributed to more than a few authors. I always wondered about Petronius since, as I understand it, he was more well known for his erotica than his management philosophy.CP
Yes, but satirical erotica, not really porn, more social satire. Dr B