I’ve been thinking about bureaucracy recently so I dug out this photo I took in Tokyo one evening a few years ago.
It’s an office block and there are many like this in most cities I expect, but two things struck me when I saw this one. The first thing was how it looked like a cage or a prison, and the other was “what does everyone DO in there every day?”
I’ve been thinking about bureaucracy partly because last week was the deadline to submit a “declaration de revenus” (declaration of income) at the local tax office in France. I’ve only been in France since November last year so I hoped I’d manage to escape the tax forms until next year. On Monday I joined the queue at the tax office at 0830am (a queue which snaked out of the office, down the steps and along the pavement by the time I got there), and patiently waited until it was my turn. I explained in my best French that I was “Ecossais” and had arrived to live in France in November, so did I need to complete a tax return now, or could I leave it until next year? (Of course, I hoped the answer would be “next year”) The answer was “maintenant”. Yikes!
The second reason I’ve been thinking about bureaucracy recently is I’ve just read David Graeber’s new book, “The Utopia of Rules“. It makes a lot of sense to me. His book is a collection of three essays in which he explores the seemingly unstoppable rise of bureaucracy around the world. He does a good job of explaining how it’s happened. I think what he describes is a kind of “road to hell” – you know the one which is “paved with good intentions”? He makes the case that creating rules, regulations and standards partly arises from the desire to break “arbitrary power” – to produce common “transparent” rules which will be applied in all circumstances regardless of who the people are. Another source is the human desire for certainty and predictability which produces a preference for numbers and the simplification of complex situations.
So what does all this form-filling do for us? What kind of world do we get when give precedence to what can be measured and when we substitute figures for values? What happens when we try to run our institutions and our societies by applying algorithms?
We end up de-humanising our lives.
Whilst bureaucracy might have had the intention of taking away “arbitrary” power from individuals to produce something more “transparent” and “equitable”, it merely shifts the power up to the rule-makers and their enforcers. And this shift away from individuals who can be known, and with whom we can develop relationships over time, to faceless, nameless bureaucrats simply increases the alienation which we all experience in society.
I think the practice of Medicine is sadly de-valued by protocols, algorithms, “guidance” and rules. I preferred it when we trained professionals who developed their knowledge and their wisdom over their years, and who could flexibly adapt what they knew to deliver holistic, compassionate care always in the interests of the individual they were working with right now.
We see reports of teachers saying that working life has become unbearable under the constant auditing and “performance reviews”. We see health care workers suffering from stress from overwhelming amounts of paper-work, audits and bullying. We see doctors heading for the retirement door at the first possible opportunity as decisions are taken out of their hands and placed into those of bureaucrats who create “referral guidelines” and “treatment protocols” – Medicine by numbers.
One of the key themes of my blog is “heroes not zombies” and it seems to me that bureaucracy is one other way to create zombies – in addition to the tried and tested “bread and circuses” techniques.
Do we need more rules, more regulations, more “standards”, more monitoring, more surveillance, more audits, more “performance reviews”, more “elimination of variation”?
Or are we building ourselves cages to live in?