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How did we arrive at the point of defining a bureaucracy by wrong doing?

By Tom Glendinning
Posted Monday, February 4, 2013

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Pittsboro, NC - Bureaucracy - 1. Government by bureaus; also, the group of officials so governing. 2. The undue extension of bureaus in the extension of government, or the use by them of undue influence and authority. Funk & Wagnalls, 1963

The first definition defines the purpose. The second is its distortion by common usage and understanding.

How did we arrive at the point of defining a bureaucracy by wrong doing? A question was raised at a meeting of a county commission. One official asked in amazement, “How can we do that?” meaning how in good conscience can we ask this concession from the applicant. Maybe the answer lies in the comment of another county commissioner by saying, “We just did, because we can.”

In this essay, the topics covered on bureaucracies will be defensiveness, incomplete and incompetent communication of rules, self protection from job loss, dishonesty, and illegitimate behavior. They describe how these bureaus deserve the second definition. There is nothing wrong with having enough manpower and resources to do a job. Our governments employ people to serve the public will and perform the tasks charged to the particular body. Departments have certain responsibilities. They are charged by charter or regulation on how these are performed. The larger the bureaucracy, the more gets done. That is the assumption, as it is in the private sector. GE gets more done than the local TV repairman. So a larger government does more than a smaller one. There are, unfortunately, exceptions to the general rule.

One drawback to this model is defensiveness that becomes ingrained in bureaucracies. Removal of personal contact by citizens from the process of governing by bureau and practices adopted by poor management and supervision is the result. No direct oversight of performance exists. This distance created in large bureaucracies is not simply logistical or location related. Because the bureaus depend on political support for their existence, and that support changes regularly, they perceive threat to their very existence. With poor management, a defensive barrier grows. With incompetent supervision, it is expanded. Unreasonable regulation and enforcement becomes the primary mode of defense against the citizenry it serves.

When financial stresses effect the economy, many people are hurt by loss of income, jobs and prospect for employment. Personal finances are cut. Businesses suffer. The public seeks means to reduce spending, cut liabilities and survive until recovery. The government is vulnerable during these times. The federal and state government, depending on income tax, receive lower revenue. They can raise taxes and cut programs to balance loss of revenue from income sources. Local governments, on the other hand, depend on property taxes, which are stable in value by comparison. Thus, a county, city or town will get the same tax revenue regardless of economic stresses, in the short run.

In recessions, the public looks to local leaders to cut taxes, just as they have reduced household spending. The bureaucrats worry about their jobs, and rightfully so. One county in Ohio had to drop its police protection purely due to budget constraints. Local governments have some leeway in reducing budgets. North Carolina tax law regulating valuation of property values only require revaluation every seven years. Setting the property tax rate happens every year at budget time, but the bureaus want to continue to exist, so the budget is maintained with “must haves” and “that’s the way it has always been done” defenses. In this scenario, the bureau employees devise methods to convince elected officials to hold the budget sacred and protect their jobs.

Distancing the public is a means to that end, though both bureaucrat and citizen are neighbors in the same community. The more defensive a bureau is, the more citations of the laws and regulations are heard from it, the more references to process, referrals to higher bodies and evasion of basic responsibilities are observed. The wall is slowly constructed and accepted by the public. Self preservation overcomes the concept of service.

One example of this strategy is a case in which a county employee was discharged without sound reason. The employee appealed the case. The employee contract required mediation before the case could be heard in court. When the mediation board was appointed, from within the ranks of county employees, the members were chosen to favor the supervisor. The board ruled in favor of the supervisor. No persons outside the county were appointed to the board, and none with legal or mediation experience.

A common defense in prosecuting laws and regulations is incomplete communication of standards, rules and interpretation of them. Expectations can be dashed by a permit applicant on the mission of creating a business, building a house or simply using the land assumed to be his, hers, or its. When the laws and regulations are incomplete, have unclear definition or left to the judgement of the official, they may be ineffectively applied. When a department does not publish its process, the applicant can not guess what to do or how much time and money to spend. The process becomes infeasible. This problem can be cured by publication of clear pathways to permits and approvals and adherence to the rules.

When the government places personal liability on its employees, it shirks its duty. One state official called in by the local agency said that he would not grant a permit under appeal because the state held him personally responsible for all decisions he made. The evidence for approval under the appeal was undeniable. The local official and agency denied any responsibility for processing the information and making judgement. The state official would not risk his job or retirement to grant the permit, no matter how obvious the evidence was in favor. The evidence was produced by a state department. It demonstrated that the impact of the permission would not effect the environment which the department was charged to protect.

Another agency, not involved with that permit process or directly connected to it, changed its opinion of property rights by saying it wanted no transfer of property until it had finished its study. The study began two years before the proposed transfer. That agent said that she would consider allowing the transfer when the study was complete, several more years in the future. Two years before the incident, when questioned about sale of the property, that same employee said that only notice of the sale was required. That department study was determining whether the state had any responsibilities for clean up, not the owner.

In both cases, the local and state agencies refused to take responsibility for their actions, judgements and opinions. How does a citizen, a taxpayer, make plans for his life if the government is so capricious and irresponsible?

Another brush with a local department left a taxpayer in awe of how officials transmit information. The local agency processed an appeal of taxpayer application for a common tax reduction allowed for senior citizens who fit certain criteria. The citizen fit the criteria. Since the state law was changed in a certain definition, the local supervisor denied the first application and recommended the appeal process to the state board. Half the counties polled on their translation of this law said that they allowed the applications per the old tradition and translation. Half said that they did not allow them per the new interpretation.

When that appeal was lifted to the state board, a pre-hearing conference was held to make sure that all materials and evidence were prepared. The supervisor, then, offered a deal to approve the application if the appellant removed the right to be heard by the state board in charge of those decisions. The local supervisor said that the board and its office were actively pursuing a change in the definitions of the amended law to clarify its meaning. The appellant withdrew his appeal based on that promise.

When the appellant talked to the state board supervisor, he said that the board and its employees were not making recommendations to the legislature for changes in the law or planning to do so. The state board department head was emphatic about not hearing the case and said that the scheduling for it was cancelled. He further said that his department did not make legislative recommendations. It was their job to hear appeal cases. He mentioned the Association of County Tax Assessors as a means of changing the law. The association was active in lobbying. Very possibly, this group was the agent to reword the law in its recent amendment, making clear judgements impossible.

Which bureaucrat was telling the truth? Who knows?

The local government said that it would have to prepare another appeal and reschedule the date of the hearing. It was not interested in supporting a solution to the lack of clarity and avoiding the problems caused by the previously amended law.

At a commissioner’s meeting, one bureaucrat quoted the law to obtain local approval of a board policy. The law governing this board was passed in 1939, with amendments until 1993. The amendments were not specified as to section or paragraph of the law. So the wording could be either eighty-three years or nineteen years old. The recommended policy was that the commissioners appoint a chairman to the appointed board. When the law is not known or practiced except at the convenience of the bureaucrat, it is ineffective or inappropriate. However, such is the option left to bureaucrats. They can inform their governing body with such information as is convenient and serves their purpose. Given that there are volumes of procedures and laws governing departmental behavior, providing information on demand is reasonable tactic for educating elected officials who may serve only two or four year terms.

On the other hand, the law should not be the handmaiden of the bureaucrat. Unfortunately, this tactic is standard practice in bureaucracies.

In a department, several years ago, a very ambitious employee wished to gain the supervisor position. The head of that department had problems with personnel management and judgement, but also had twenty years experience in the field. With promises and cunning, the ambitious employee pitted others in the department against the target and induced them to witness against the department head one by one with the county manager. The county manager, acting as a personnel director, informed the commission and had the supervisor fired. The new appointee was the ring leader. She had only a few years experience in the department and fewer leadership skills. The former supervisor had no hearing before the employee grievances board.

This story was repeated within the department for years afterward without modification. It belies the confidence placed in bureaucratic management by bureaucrats. It demonstrates the insularity of bureaucracies and how they may perpetuate incompetence and dishonesty. Although these tales are testimonies, they are not sworn as in a court of law. It would be hard to find a government employee willing to risk job or bureaucratic correctness to be a champion of justice or, at the least, competency.

This same supervisor conducted operations considered illegitimate, if not criminal. Terms like self dealing, conspiracy to defraud, and fraud were applied to the same actions in another county.

That county filed suit against the supervisor. The bureaucrats in the previously mentioned county said and did nothing during the reign of the chosen one.

Another example of a department’s dishonest actions is the removal of a will filed in the clerk of court’s office by a citizen. The elected clerk witnessed the will and notarized it. She said that it would be on file in department records until it was replaced with a new one. This procedure created a self-proving will. Some years later, the citizen wished to change the will. It was no longer in the possession of the clerk’s office. When asked why, the clerk had no answer. It simply disappeared.

In a government funded educational system found in each county, the provost denied prompt payment to a former employee. The reason given was that she could not find records of home phone and email address to contact the employee for a correction on the time sheet. The provost had previously emailed and phoned the employee at home. The paycheck was delayed three weeks, causing late payment and penalties for the employee.

These examples demonstrate the bureaucratic insularity, self protection and self perpetuation, lack of respect for law, lack of decency and poor service to the citizen when performance is unsupervised and misdirected by poor leadership. They are examples of how some bureaucracies exhibit defensiveness, incomplete communication of rules, incompetency, self protection, dishonesty, illegitimate behavior. Most certainly, these tales are not an indication that all bureaucrats are incompetent or sleazy. They are meant to inform the reader of the subculture and its habits when improperly directed and managed. Many citizens experience these types of interaction with government officials and departments. They are found everywhere and at all levels, but may not be pervasive and ubiquitous. Hopefully, the experiences are limited. The examples beg the questions what is being done to correct problems. Who takes responsibility for them? How will they be corrected? How will the taxpayers and citizens of these governments receive just treatment? And when?

"Beware how you take away hope from any human being." ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

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How did we arrive at the point of defining a bureaucracy by wrong doing?