Sean Moncrieff: ‘I can write an article giving out about bureaucracy because of bureaucracy’
The aim of civil service bureaucracies is not to make things better, the aim is to keep things the same
In most civil services, doing nothing brings about incremental pay increases and even promotions. The only thing to avoid is blame. Photograph: iStock
Everyone hates government bureaucracy. Dull little people in shabby cardigans, all of them with the singular aim of smothering your creativity, of making you queue or sit in a grey waiting room or fill out yet another pointless form. It can feel like revenge. You look like your life might be a bit interesting or have someone at home who loves you or you have the confidence to wear jazzy socks. They are going to make you pay for that.
It’s amazing anything gets done at all. Or that we live in a free society. Except that one of the reasons things do get done and one of the reasons why I can write an article giving out about bureaucracy is because of bureaucracy.
It’s always been there, at least as long as there have been organised societies. Five thousand years ago, there was somebody with a clipboard and an ancient version of a hard hat telling people that they couldn’t build their pyramid there. Every time a proto-state invaded some other place there was someone keeping a tally of what was worth stealing and who to tax. But it was in the last couple of hundred years that civil service bureaucracy really flowered.
The establishment of government bureaucracies was a fundamental part of the development of nation-states with market economies. The bureaucracies wrote the rules and (theoretically) installed fairness in how the state operated. It’s why, for instance, when you bring your car for an NCT or queue up to get a passport, you are so often confronted with a zombie-like stare from the other side of the counter. They don’t see a human; they see another applicant.
But this is a good thing. Civil servants are supposed to be blind to gender, colour, sexual orientation or even sock design. They are supposed to treat us all the same, and – most importantly – not ask for a few quid to speed the process up.
It becomes a culture of blame and blame-avoidance, where doing nothing is better than taking a risk and bringing about an improvement
At their best, bureaucracies act as a buttress against corruption and influence-peddling. If the national bureaucracy doesn’t tolerate that kind of thing, then wider society won’t either. This in turn also promotes meritocracy. In a rules-based system, what you know and what you can do become more important. Of course, we still live in a world where going to a posh school and having rich parents is enormously helpful, but at least it’s not the only way to get on in life.
The downside of all this wonderfulness is that running a bureaucracy can be soul-sapping. All too often, to ensure fairness, the aim isn’t to innovate or make things better, the aim is keep things the same. Imagine what effect this has upon the individuals working there. There is no push towards excellence or betterment: the push, such as it is, is towards sameness. The internal cultural pressure is on not making things worse. It becomes a culture of blame and blame-avoidance, where doing nothing is better than taking a risk and bringing about an improvement. Indeed, the benefits of doing the latter do not outweigh the risks of doing the former, as in most civil services, doing nothing brings about incremental pay increases and even promotions. The only thing to avoid is blame.
“Transparency” is often prescribed as a treatment for this, but transparency can magnify the blame culture – and increase the bureaucracy of the Bureaucracy. Now the civil servant, as well as doing their job, has to fill out a form about doing their job.
The process becomes bunkered and dehumanising: for them and for the people they have to deal with. And that can mean curt treatment in the car tax office. Or officialdom neglecting to inform a woman that she has cervical cancer.