How to sort good bureaucracy from bad

Bureaucracy can include new announcements, edicts, regulations, rules, standing orders, protocol, gatekeepers (individuals and departments), committees, requests for statistics, forms to be completed. It also includes work structures such as requirements for checking work quality and completion, the role of targets, the monitoring of productivity, the design of IT solutions, and taken-for-granted norms such as X decisions need to be referred to Y.

There are examples of both good and bad bureaucracy. It can be essential and positive. It may be self/locally generated to meet a perceived need. But much ‘bad’ bureaucracy results from a hierarchical/power relationship, often between the centre (e.g. head office, government) and the periphery/local/front line. Sometimes the ‘parental’ role (how it best adds value) has not been discussed, thought-through and agreed; instead it may happen by default and may be self-serving. Bureaucracy may be a source of abuse inflicted upon the organisation (often from within), and it may itself be abused and become a convenient scapegoat for those seeking to defer taking responsibility.

Besides spawning and imposing bureaucracy on others (e.g. local councils), the ‘parent’ (say a government department) may claim to have bureaucracy imposed on it (e.g. responding to new legislation). It will necessarily have its own internal bureaucracy. It may even create more bureaucracy for itself and be distracted and weighed down by it.

Take, for example, the Commission for Human Rights and Equality’s processes for dealing with legal claims against it by its own staff. Or the regulator Ofcom’s using an internal leadership competency framework out of a wish to clarify internal standards for those seeking promotion opportunities rather than for obtaining leadership from managers to meet business needs. Or Birmingham City Council having a gatekeeping/clearing unit that processes, prioritises and then decides whether to authorise requests from line departments that want to obtain advice from the HR department (they are not allowed to make direct contact). Such ‘machinery’ takes the focus/time/budget away from the customer-focused purpose of why such bodies were set up. An imbalance between the external and the internal is part of the bureaucratic mindset.

In instances like these there are usually good reasons why the systems, procedures, stuctures and protocols were first set up; i.e. a solution for some problem at some time past. But the need may have gone away, or the solution may be worse than the original problem, or it may simply be too expensive.

A cull may be in order. The table below offers some criteria by which each example of bureaucracy may be assessed. Is it good or is it bad?

Good bureaucracy Bad bureaucracy
Is pulled by users as a result of their having needs. Is pushed onto users by others who think they know best what users need.
Serves users’ needs. Serves the bureaucrat designer’s needs.
Strengthens the periphery. Strengthens the centre.
Is introduced only after discussion with users. Takes people by surprise.
Meets many people’s needs. Meets one person’s needs.
Takes account of variations in users’ needs or preferences. Insists on uniformity.
Includes prior consideration of what may be unintended consequences. Is surprised when unintended consequences arise.
Takes prior account of any additional cost implications. Does not take account of additional cost implications.
Has minimal effect in taking people away from front-line/customer-contact work. Takes people way from front-line/customer contact work.
Passes the ‘public commonsense’ test. Fails the ‘public commonsense’ test.
Passes the ‘unwelcome additional burden’ test. Fails the ‘unwelcome additional burden’ test.
Passes the ‘health and safety’ test. Fails the ‘health and safety’ test.
Passes the ‘media criticism’ test. Fails the ‘media criticism’ test.
Passes the ‘just box ticking’ test. Fails the ‘just box ticking’ test.
Appears to trust users. Appears to distrust users.
Does not undermine managers’ ability to manage. Saps managers’ energy and their ability to manage.
Takes account of the effect on the wider system. Assumes that the effect on a part of the system can be isolated.
Encourages honest behaviour. Leads to artificially contrived behaviour and cheating.
Makes life easier. Makes life more difficult.
Provides a reassuring safety net, frees, assists fairness or supports transparency. Stifles creativity and individual initiative. Constrains and controls. Slow things down.
Is free from party political motives. Is in furtherance of a biased/idealistic political agenda.
Is likely to be robust enough to withstand a change of government. Is vulnerable to repeal by a new government.
Is undertaken proactively, free from pressure to react. Is undertaken reactively in the face of criticism.
Is not undertaken to protect people’s backs. Is undertaken to protect people’s backs.
Is mindful of impact on ends (versus means) and outcomes/outputs (vs. inputs). Whatever the merit concerning means, has a negative impact on ends/outcomes.
Is piloted/trialled whenever possible before being rolled out widely. Is rolled out universally before checking its workability first in a pilot/trial.
Has a built-in review date to check its effect. Contains no plan to review how it is working in practice after a period in use.