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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.

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