Tuesday, April 28, 2009

When Bureaucracies Get Crazy

Max Weber provides the classic understanding of modern bureaucracy. As an 'ideal type' bureaucracy is characterized by a hierarchical division of labor directed by clear mandates impersonally applied, staffed by full-time, life-time professionals. The aim is to bring rationality and efficiency into complex organizations by reducing as many transactions as possible to routines governed by explicit rules. He recognized that actual bureaucracies could be dysfunctional. Later critics have suggested that they can really screw things up sometimes, e. g. Robert K. Merton and Michael Crozier.

We all have had experiences of how the "red tape" we encounter can be anything but rational and efficient. My worst came about like this. In 1961 I bought a car in Georgia with a loan from my hometown bank, then shortly after moved to Pennsylvania and in 1964 moved to Delaware with the loan paid. I went through the routines of getting my Delaware license but was thwarted because Delaware rules insist that the loan must be marked "paid" on the outside, because that is the way it is done in Pennsylvania. I had every legal document the state of Georgia provides to show that the car was fully mine with no lien, but it was not marked "paid" on the outside. I appealed to the supervisor, but he merely restated that rule and refused to grant me a license, although he admitted that I had a legal and lien-free title, but rules are rules.

I had to send the loan document back to my hometown Georgia bank, explain my problem, request that it be marked "paid" on the outside. The banker kindly did and now in accordance with Pennsylvania practice and Delaware rules for cars coming from Pennsylvania, I got my license.

This was neither rational nor efficient, but with no provision for legitimate exceptions, it became a nightmare of frustration, not to mention extra work for me, the banker, and the Delaware license bureau organized on bureaucratic principles.



No comments: