Search This Blog

Nov 28, 2013

The tale of two bureaucracies

Here is the highly unscientific and subjective comparison of the two styles of bureaucracy in Russia and America.

The causes and manifestations are exactly the same. Bureaucracy is an attempt to regulate the unregulatable and to govern the ungovernable. Every little rule is an attempt to solve or prevent a particular problem/ But every rule is written by a fallible human being, to the best of his or her abilities. And usually it is done in isolation from all other fallible human beings who write parallel, conflicting, and unnecessary rules. The other source of the disease is that rules are born often, as problems arise, but they have a hard time dying, like cancer cells. Bureaucratic rules have no natural enemies, nor do they experience strong evolutionary pressures from better, fitter rules. So they persist even when no one can remember the reason for their existence. And finally, the third source of bureaucracy is the pre-existing bureaucracy. If you closely examine the body of rules in your organization, you will see right away that the majority of rules exist to cope with compliance with other, pre-existing rules. Sometimes it is law, more often – regulations, and sometimes – bureaucratic folklore (that is a rule that people believe exists, but it actually does not).

Those were the common causes. The manifestations are also similar – certain requirements look not only excessive, but grotesquely absurd. The rules begin to hamper the very activity they intend to help.

Now the differences: In Russia, bureaucrats are the ruling class. Some of the best people are involved in regulating. They always think of themselves as someone smarter and better prepared than people who are complying with the rules. Therefore, the rulemaking becomes an art form on its own, with its own professional logic and even the sense of beauty. There is very little effective opposition to the bureaucratic activities, and very little participatory rulemaking. As a result, ever more complicated rules are often thought not to limit and regulate, but rather to initiate and enrich the work. On more than one occasion, I’ve been in meetings where people actually demand more prescriptive rules. I am happy to see the vacuum in regulations. It means I can do things the way I see fit. Fewer rules mean more freedom. There is a whole generation of professional Russians who think that if the job is not spelled out in detail, they cannot do it all. It is sad to see people yearning to be regulated, which is to say, told what to do. Darn it, I am turning into a Republican here.

In America, bureaucracies are often held in check by opposing powers. For example, in universities, faculty governance makes sure the rulemaking is not stifling creativity. Faculty of any university would revolt if someone tried to impose too much of a bureaucratic burden on them. Well, it does not always happen. In America, faculty will also take a lot of demands from bureaucracies, and the trend with the growth of accountability is not good. But it is all relative. I was reading what passes here for official syllabi and was shocked by the length and the level of (wholly unworkable) detail. I am pretty sure people don’t teach what those syllabi say.

Yet in certain regards, the lack of democratic participation makes an organization a better fit for innovation. My school is certainly innovative, to a large extent because the top leadership can just override almost any regulation if they believe it is a good idea. Sometimes bureaucracy itself can be used as a vehicle for change. It is a poor instrument, but it is better than none. American universities are well-organized and well-functioning, relatively democratic organizations. This makes them very conservative and fairly rigid. Only catastrophic external situation may move them to change. In Russia, it is always a catastrophe one way or another.

Nov 12, 2013

О доверии

В метро слушаю разные подкасты – This American life, BBC, Economist, HBR, Эхо Москвы. Последний очень полезен мне для восстановления лакун понимания. Хоть я и следил за происходящим в России, как мне казалось, довольно внимательно, но конечно не в той степени, в какой это делает человек, постоянно живущий в стране.

В Эхе меня привлекает независимость суждений, да и личное мужество комментаторов. Они довольно разнообразны и далеко не все одинаково либеральны. Но у либералов меня несколько настораживает тотальное недоверие к институтам власти. Например, Евгения Альбац неоднократно повторяет, что власть насквозь коррупционна. Это просто не так. Большинство из нас могут назвать людей, работающих во власти но не коррупционных. Например, мне трудно поверить, чтобы нынешнее руководство МОНа было коррупционным.

Проблема ведь в том, что демократия, за которую борются либералы, невозможна без доверия к институтам власти. См. например ставший классическим труд Путнама. Конечно, можно и нужно быть критичным к партии, стоящей у власти. Но если постоянно подтачивать доверие к самим институтам – всем без исключения институтам, то мирный переход к настоящей демократии становится ведь просто немыслимым. А немирный переход редко, очень редко бывает удачным. Ведь если Единая Россия уйдет из власти, то кто бы ни пришел им на смену будут использовать те же самые институты. А институты работают в той степени, в которой им доверяет население.

Еще меня раздражает глубокая конспирологичность как либералов, так и правых. Ну с правыми понятно – они всегда видят заговор, даже в плохой погоде. Такова природа ультраконсервативного мышления. Но та же Альбац всегда задает вопрос – А что власть имеет под эти в виду? А чего добивается власть? Как будто есть какие-то тайные нити, и Путин с несколькими друзьями за них постоянно дергает. И что тысячи бывших КГБэшников сидят по всей стране и на эти ниточки совершенно послушно реагируют. Представление о какой-то единой «власти» - ужасно наивное. Все кто кем-то и чем-то когда-либо управлял, знают, что управляемость любой социальной системы имеет свои границы. И что во власти множество людей со своими интересами со своими тараканами в голове. Путин, так же как и Обама, оперирует в довольно узких пределах возможного. Даже в такой достаточно авторитарной стране, нет отлаженного аппарата власти. Можно конечно соглашаться или не соглашаться с решениями первых лиц, но нельзя повсюду видеть их решения. Это тот же наивный монархизм, только вывернутый наизнанку.

Кстати те же вещи работают и на несравнимо более мелком уровне. Если вы думаете, что организацией управляет один человек, и что в его действиях (как они дошли до вас) есть всегда какой-то план и смысл, то вам обязательно примерещится заговор, рано или поздно.

Nov 2, 2013

The world is simpler than you think

Some complex problems can be explained by very trivial conditions. For example, I was struggling to understand why would a federal research institute create a monster of a professional standard with 16 pages, single-spaced, including 54 competencies. The last one is the ability “to plan and conduct negotiations with Russian and foreign counterparts.” And this is for a master’s degree in education. Why would anyone do this? There is absolutely no way to check for all of these competencies. The fairly important task of building a coherent program is impossible to do with the numerous competencies in mind. The standard reminded me of the first generation of NCATE standards, just as clumsy and worthless. Why would the Russian government wish to make the same mistake as Americans made some quarter century ago?

The answer is simple – the institute that writes those standards is paid good money for the job. President Putin has decreed to create 800 new standards by 2015 – what a silly idea in the world of constantly changing jobs and shifting competencies! Regardless, writing the standards has become an industry. And people who write them want to make sure the documents are long and dense enough to justify the money.

By the way, the clumsiness of American standards probably was rooted in a different simple explanation. They were all written by committees of volunteers, and anyone who tried the game knows how it usually ends. People are exhausted by negotiations, and they begin including each other’s points not because they agree, but simply to preserve some semblance of peace within the writing committee. So the points keep being added.

Yes, these simple conditions that everyone knows and yet no one notices, are usually at the very root of ugly bureaucratic things we suffer from. We accuse each other of evil intent or stupidity, both of which may sometimes be true. However, more often than not an invisible small mistake at the origin of an idea creates a very complicated and sometimes very harmful consequence.

I am not sure what to do about this. Perhaps we must learn these lessons one by one: do not write standards by committee. Do not pay people by length of the document if you want simplicity. The most important lesson is to look for simple explanation; it is usually true.