Nobody seems to like bureaucracy very much, and yet somehow we always seem to end up with more of it. One can see its effects in every aspect of our lives. Indeed, bureaucracy has become the water in which we swim. It fills our days with paperwork. Application forms get longer and more elaborate. Ordinary documents like bills or tickets or memberships come to be buttressed by pages of legalistic fine print.
At least since the 19th century, the idea that a market economy is opposed to and independent of government was used to justify laissez-faire economic policies designed to lessen the role of government, and yet they never actually have that effect. Nor, for example, did English liberalism lead to a reduction of state bureaucracy; instead, we ended up with a ballooning array of legal clerks, registrars, inspectors, notaries and police officials who made the liberal dream of a world of free contract between autonomous individuals possible. And there is little doubt that maintaining a market economy requires a thousand times more paperwork than a Louis XIV-style absolutist monarchy.
I’m going to call this the age of “total bureaucratisation”. I’d like to ask why that is and, particularly, to consider the possibility that many of the blanket condemnations of bureaucracy we hear are, in fact, somewhat disingenuous. Does the experience of operating within a system of formalised rules and regulations, under hierarchies of impersonal officials, hold a kind of covert appeal?
There is a school of thought that holds that bureaucracy tends to expand according to a kind of perverse but inescapable inner logic. The argument runs as follows: if you create a bureaucratic structure to deal with a problem, that structure will invariably end up creating other problems that seem as if they, too, can only be solved by bureaucratic means. In universities, this is sometimes informally referred to as the “creating committees to deal with the problem of too many committees” problem.
A slightly different version of the argument is that once a bureaucracy has been created, it will immediately move to make itself indispensable to anyone trying to wield power, no matter what they wish to do with it. The chief way to do this is always by attempting to monopolise access to certain key types of information.
As Max Weber, one of the greatest German scholars of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, writes: “Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret . . . in so far as it can, it hides its knowledge and action from criticism.”
One side effect, as Weber also observes, is that once you do create a bureaucracy, it’s almost impossible to get rid of it. The very first bureaucracies we know of were in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and these continued to exist, largely unchanged, as one dynasty or ruling elite replaced another, for literally thousands of years. Similarly, waves of successful invaders were not enough to dislodge the Chinese civil service, with its bureaus, reports, and examination system, which remained firmly in place no matter who actually claimed the Mandate of Heaven. The only real way to rid oneself of an established bureaucracy, according to Weber, is to simply kill them all, as Alaric the Goth did in Imperial Rome, or Genghis Khan in certain parts of the Middle East. Leave any significant number of functionaries alive and, within a few years, they will inevitably end up managing one’s kingdom.
The second possible explanation is that bureaucracy becomes not only indispensable to rulers but holds a genuine appeal to those it administers as well. The simplest explanation for the appeal of bureaucratic procedures lies in their impersonality. Cold, impersonal, bureaucratic relations are much like cash transactions: on the one hand they are soulless; on the other, they are simple, predictable, and treat everyone more or less the same.
And, anyway, who really wants to live in a world where everything is soul? Bureaucracy enables you to deal with other people without having to engage in all those complex and exhausting forms of labour. Just as you can simply place your money on the counter and not have to worry about what the cashier thinks of how you’re dressed, you can also pull out your validated photo ID card without having to explain to the librarian why you are so keen to read about homoerotic themes in 18th-century British verse. Surely this is part of the appeal.
Of course, there is a possibility that all this goes much deeper. It’s not just that the impersonal relations bureaucracies afford are convenient; to some degree, at least, our very ideas of rationality, justice and freedom are founded on them. Consider a moment in human history when a new form of bureaucracy actually did inspire not just widespread passive acquiescence but giddy enthusiasm, even infatuation, and try to understand precisely what it was about it that seemed, to so many people, so exciting.
One reason it was possible for Weberto describe bureaucracy as the very embodiment of rational efficiency is that in the Germany of his day, bureaucratic institutions really did work well. Perhaps the flagship institution, the pride and joy of the German civil service, was the post office. In the late 19th century, the German postal service was considered one of the great wonders of the modern world. Its efficiency was so legendary that it casts a kind of terrible shadow across the 20th century. Many of the greatest achievements of what we now call “high modernism” were inspired by the German post office. One could indeed make a case that many of the most terrible woes of that century can also be laid at its feet.
To understand how this could be, we need to understand a little of the real origins of the modern social welfare state, which we now largely think of — when we think of them at all — as having been created by benevolent democratic elites. Nothing could be further from the truth. In Europe, most of the key institutions of what later became the welfare state — everything from social insurance and pensions to public libraries and public health clinics — were not originally created by governments at all but by trade unions, neighbourhood associations, cooperatives, and working-class parties and organisations. Many of these were engaged in a self-conscious revolutionary project of gradually creating socialist institutions from below.
In Germany, the real model for this new administrative structure was, curiously, the post office — though when one understands the history of the postal service, it makes a great deal of sense. The post office was, essentially, one of the first attempts to apply top-down, military forms of organisation to the public good. Historically, postal services first emerged from the organisation of armies and empires. They were originally ways of conveying field reports and orders over long distances; later, by extension, a key means of keeping the resulting empires together. Hence Herodotus’ famous quote about Persian imperial messengers, with their evenly spaced posts with fresh horses, which he claimed allowed the swiftest travel on earth: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” still appears carved over the entrance to the Central Post Office building in New York, opposite Penn Station. The Roman empire had a similar system, and pretty much all armies operated with postal courier systems until Napoleon adopted semaphore in 1805.
One of the great innovations of 18th- and especially 19th-century governance was to expand what had once been military courier systems into the basis for an emerging civil service whose primary purpose was providing services for the public. It happened first in commerce, and then expanded as the commercial classes also began to use the post for personal or political correspondence. Before long, in many of the emerging nation-states in Europe and the Americas, half the government budget was spent on — and more than half the civil service employed in — the postal service.
In Germany, one could even make the argument that the nation was created, more than anything else, by the post office. Under the Holy Roman Empire, the right to run a postal courier system within imperial territories had been granted, in good feudal fashion, to a noble family originally from Milan, later to be known as the Barons von Thurn and Taxis (one later scion of this family, according to legend, was the inventor of the taximeter, which is why taxicabs ultimately came to bear his name). The Prussian empire originally bought out the Thurn and Taxis monopoly in 1867, and used it as the basis for a new German national post — and over the next two decades, the sure sign that a new statelet or principality had been absorbed into the emerging nation-state was its incorporation into the German postal system.
The sparkling efficiency of the system became a point of national pride. And indeed, the German post of the late-19th century was nothing if not impressive, boasting up to five or even nine delivery times a day in major cities, and, in the capital, a vast network of miles of pneumatic tubes designed to shoot letters and small parcels almost instantly across long distances using a system of pressurised air. Mark Twain, who lived briefly in Berlin between 1891 and 1892, was so taken with it that he composed one of his only known non-satirical essays, “Postal Service”, just to celebrate its wondrous efficiency.
Nor was he the only foreigner to be so impressed. Just a few months before the outbreak of Russian revolution, Vladimir Ilych Lenin wrote: “A witty German social-democrat of the seventies of the last century called the postal service an example of the socialist economic system. This is very true. At present the postal service is a business organised on the lines of a state-capitalist monopoly. Imperialism is gradually transforming all trusts into organisations of a similar type.
“To organise the whole national economy on the lines of the postal service, so that the technicians, foremen, book-keepers, as well as all officials, shall receive salaries no higher than ‘a workman’s wage’, all under the control and leadership of the armed proletariat — this is our immediate aim.”
So there you have it. The organisation of the Soviet Union was directly modelled on the German postal service.
A vision of a potential future paradise emerging from within the post office was not confined to Europe. It was only with the rise of corporate capitalism after the civil war that the US adopted something closer to the German model of bureaucratic capitalism. Again, the forms of a new, freer, more rational society seemed to be emerging within the very structures of oppression itself. The term “postalisation” emerged, a unique American coinage for nationalisation (and one which has since completely disappeared from the language). Yet at the same time as Weber and Lenin were invoking the German post office as a model for the future, American progressives were arguing that even private business would be more efficient were it run like a post office, and scoring major victories for postalisation, such as the nationalisation of the private subway, commuter, and interstate train systems, which in major American cities have remained in public hands ever since.
All these fantasies of postal utopia now seem rather quaint. Today we usually associate national postal systems with the arrival of things we never wanted in the first place: utility bills, overdraft alerts, tax audits, one-time-only credit-card offers, charity appeals, and so on. Insofar as Americans have a popular image of postal workers, it has become increasingly squalid.
Yet at the same time that symbolic war was being waged on the postal service, something remarkably similar to the turn-of-the-century infatuation with the postal service was happening again. Let us summarise the story so far:
1. A new communications technology develops out of the military.
2. It spreads rapidly, radically reshaping everyday life.
3. It develops a reputation for dazzling efficiency.
4. Since it operates on non-market principles, it is quickly seized on by radicals as the first stirrings of a future, non-capitalist economic system already developing within the shell of the old.
5. Despite this, it quickly becomes the medium, too, for government surveillance and the dissemination of endless new forms of advertising and unwanted paperwork.
This mirrors the story of the internet. What is email but a giant, electronic, super-efficient post office? Has it not, too, created a sense of a new, remarkably effective form of cooperative economy emerging from within the shell of capitalism itself, even as it has deluged us with scams, spam and commercial offers, and enabled the government to spy on us in new and creative ways?
It seems significant that while both postal services and the internet emerge from the military, they could be seen as adopting military technologies to quintessential anti-military purposes. Here we have a way of taking stripped-down, minimalistic forms of action and communication typical of military systems and turning them into the invisible base on which everything they are not can be constructed: dreams, projects, declarations of love and passion, artistic effusions, subversive manifestos, or pretty much anything else.
But all this also implies that bureaucracy appeals to us — that it seems at its most liberating — precisely when it disappears: when it becomes so rational and reliable that we are able to just take it for granted that we can go to sleep on a bed of numbers and wake up with all those numbers still snugly in place.
In this sense, bureaucracy enchants when it can be seen as a species of what I like to call “poetic technology” — when mechanical forms of organisation, usually military in their ultimate inspiration, can be marshalled to the realisation of impossible visions: to create cities out of nothing, scale the heavens, make the desert bloom. For most of human history this kind of power was only available to the rulers of empires or commanders of conquering armies, so we might even speak here of a democratisation of despotism. Once, the privilege of waving one’s hand and having a vast invisible army of cogs and wheels organise themselves in such a way as to bring your whims into being was available only to the very most privileged few; in the modern world, it can be subdivided into millions of tiny portions and made available to everyone able to write a letter, or to flick a switch.
This is an edited extract from David Graeber’s book ‘The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy’ (Melville House), published on March 12; his radio series on debt is currently being broadcast by BBC Radio 4
Slideshow photographs: Courtesy of Carl Hammoud, Galleri Magnus Karlsson and Lora Reynolds Gallery
To hear David Graeber discuss both the stupidity and secret joys of bureaucracy with the FT’s Martin Sandbu and Lucy Kellaway, go to ft.com/redtapepodcast
Letter in response to this article:
Kalo taxidi! / From Thomas V Czarnowski
Mysterious workings of German postal service / From Indermohan Virk
An expensive luxury whose day is over / From Jan Manning
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American society appears to be undergoing a crisis in trust. Most of the major organizations that we depend upon, including governments of all types, corporations, our health care system, our financial institutions, and our schools all seem to be failing us. Indeed, I do not believe it is an exaggeration to claim that our society is actually undergoing a disintegration process whereby the fundamental premises and values supporting our institutions are all being called into question. While such disintegration is of course very painful to experience, it is also a tremendous opportunity for genuine transformation. My essay will attempt to outline some of the most important values and strategies necessary for the creation of, and the transformation to, high trust organizations.
Virtually all of our societal organizations seem to have either forgotten or have never really known why they exist and what their higher purposes are. Instead, they have often elevated narrow individual and institutional self-interest into the only purposes that they recognize as valid. Our governments all too frequently serve the politicians and the public service unions rather than their citizens. Our schools too often serve their educational bureaucracy and teachers’ unions instead of their students and their parents. Our health care system too often seeks to maximize the profits of pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, doctors, and insurance companies rather than the health and wellness of patients. Many of our corporations primarily exist to maximize the compensation of their executives, and secondarily shareholder value, rather than value creation for customers, employees, and other major stakeholders.
The single most important requirement for the creation of higher levels of trust for any organization is to discover or rediscover the higher purpose of the organization. Why does the organization exist? What is it trying to accomplish? What core values will inspire the organization and create greater trust from all of its stakeholders?
While there are potentially as many different purposes as there are organizations, I believe that great organizations have great purposes. The highest ideals that humans aspire to should be the same ideals that our organizations also have as their highest purposes. These include such timeless ideals as:
The Good: Service to others—improving health, education, communication, and the quality of life. Southwest Airlines, Nordstroms, The Container Store, Amazon.com, and Joie de Vivre Hospitality are examples of this great purpose.
The True: Discovery & furthering human knowledge. Google, Intel, Genentech, and Wikipedia all express this higher aspiration.
The Beautiful: Excellence & the creation of beauty. Apple and Berkshire Hathaway share this ideal in their own unique ways.
The Heroic: Courage to do what is right to change & improve the world. Grameen Bank and the Gates Foundation express this higher purpose in their actions.
Organizations that place these higher purposes at the very core of their business model tend to inspire trust from all of their major stakeholders: customers, employees, investors, suppliers, and the larger communities that they exist in. Higher purpose and shared core values tend to unify the organization behind their fulfillment and usually act to pull the overall organization upwards to a higher degree ethical commitment. Higher levels of trust are a natural result of this unity of purpose, shared core values, and greater ethical commitment.
CONSCIOUS LEADERSHIP—WALKING THE TALK
Next to the power of higher purpose, nothing is more important for creating high levels of organizational trust than the quality and commitment of the leadership at all levels of the organization. It doesn’t matter if an organization has a higher purpose if the leadership doesn’t understand it and seek to serve it. The various stakeholders of an organization, especially employees and customers, look to the leadership to “walk-the-talk”—to serve the purpose and mission of the organization and to lead by example. It is especially important that the CEO and other senior leadership embody the higher purpose of the organization.
As the co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, I’m the most visible person in the company. One of the most important parts of my job is touring our stores and talking to our team members, customers, and suppliers. I know that in virtually everything that I say and do, our team members are always studying me, trying to determine whether they can trust me and the mission of the company. I’m always on stage. So walking the talk is very important. I try to communicate the mission and values of Whole Foods at every opportunity and I try to live those core values myself with complete fidelity. Fidelity to the mission and values builds trust, while any deviance undermines it. High trust organizations and hypocritical leadership are mutually exclusive.
Human beings evolved in relatively small tribal bands. Many scientific studies have indicated that our ability to maintain close trusting relationships with family, friends, and co-workers is constrained to probably not more than about 150 people. We can, of course, know many more people than this, but it is hard to know them well enough to develop close bonds of trust based on actual experiences. At Whole Foods we recognize the importance of smaller tribal groupings to maximize familiarity and trust. We organize our stores and company into a variety of interlocking teams. Most teams have between 6 and 100 team members and the larger teams are subdivided further into a variety of sub-teams. The leaders of each team are also members of the Store Leadership Team and the Store Team Leaders are members of the Regional Leadership Team. This interlocking team structure continues all the way upwards to the Executive Team at the highest level of the company.
It has been our experience at Whole Foods that trust is optimized in this type of smaller team organizational structure. This is because each person is a vital and important member of their teams. The success of the team is dependent upon the invaluable contributions of everyone on the team. Trust is optimized when it flows between all levels within the organization. Many leaders make the mistake of believing that the key to increasing organizational trust is to somehow get the work force to trust the leadership more. While this is obviously very important, it is equally important that the leadership trust the workforce. To receive trust, it is usually necessary that we give trust. Organizing into small interlocking teams helps ensure that trust will flow in all directions within the organization—upwards, downwards, within the team, and across teams.
EMPOWERMENT = TRUST
While small teams are essential to optimizing the flow of organizational trust, equally important is the philosophy of empowerment. The effectiveness of teams is tremendously enhanced when they are fully empowered to do their work and to fulfill the organization’s mission and values. Empowerment must be much, much more than a mere slogan, however. It should be within the very DNA of the organization. Empowerment unleashes creativity and innovation and rapidly accelerates the evolution of the organization. Empowered organizations have tremendous competitive advantage because they have tapped into levels of energy and commitment which their competitors usually have difficulty matching.
Nothing holds back empowerment more than the leadership philosophy of command and control. Command and control (C&C) is actually the opposite of empowerment and it greatly lessens trust. C&C usually involves detailed rules and bureaucratic structures to enforce the rules. Such detailed rules almost always inhibit innovation and creativity. People get ahead in the organization not through being innovative, but by following the rules and playing it safe. C&C may produce compliance from the workforce, but it seldom unleashes much energy or passion for the purpose of the organization. Empowerment = Trust. C&C = Lack of Trust.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRANSPARENCY & AUTHENTIC COMMUNICATION
A very important measurement and condition of trust is transparency. If we want to optimize trust then we must seek to optimize transparency. When we decide to keep something hidden the motivation is almost always a lack of trust. We are afraid that the information that we wish to hide would cause more harm than good if it were widely known. While of course, some discretion is usually necessary to protect important organizational information from migrating to one’s competitors or to outsiders who wish to harm the organization, such discretion can easily be overdone. Transparency is a very important supporting value for empowerment. Indeed, it is difficult for an organization to be empowered if it lacks transparency.
Whole Foods Market strives to optimize transparency to all of our stakeholders. Authentic communication with honesty and integrity are essential attributes of both transparency and trust. This is the exact opposite of what many organizations do, which is to try to “spin” their messaging to tell people what they believe people want to hear so that people will think well of them. This lack of honest, authentic communication and transparency usually boomerangs, however, and undermines trust and creates cynicism. One of the main reasons why Americans don’t trust many political leaders, including the various Presidents that have led us, is that we discover that they routinely lie to us. They don’t tell us the truth and we come to understand that they don’t trust us and feel that they need to manipulate us. We tell the truth to people that we trust.
The high-trust organization takes the risk of revealing too much information. We must be willing to take the risk that some valuable information may fall into the wrong hands because our commitment to empowerment and trust necessitates taking that risk. Creating transparency and authentic communication is an ongoing challenge that every organization faces. We must continually strive to remove the barriers that prevent it, knowing that we can’t maintain high levels of organizational trust without it.
FAIRNESS IN ALL THINGS
Nothing unravels trust more quickly in an organization than either the reality or the perception of unfairness. Another important virtue of creating a culture of transparency is that it helps ensure that unfairness is clearly seen and can therefore be corrected quickly. It is essential that the ethic of fairness apply to all key organizational processes such as hiring, promotion, compensation, discipline, and termination. Favoritism and nepotism undermine organizational trust. They cannot be tolerated. People are often prone to envy and any perceived unfairness exacerbates this tendency greatly, giving it the energy of justification.
CREATING A CULTURE OF LOVE AND CARE
Ultimately we cannot create high trust organizations without creating cultures based on love and care. The people we usually trust the most are the people that we also believe genuinely love and care for us. All too often, love and care are not qualities that we associate with organizations. We tend to look for love and friendship with our families and friends, but not from our work. Why is this? Many people believe that love and care in the organizational setting interfere with efficiency and get in the way of making the “tough but necessary” decisions that the organization requires for success. This type of thinking reflects our own lack of integration of love and care in our own lives. We have created an artificial barrier that is holding back our own personal growth and the full potential of our organizations.
Fear is the opposite of love. When fear predominates in the organization, love and care cannot flourish. The opposite is also true—love and care banish fear. How can we create more love and care in our organizations? To answer this would require another essay and perhaps even an entire book. After discovering the higher organizational purpose, nothing is more important than encouraging and nurturing love and care. Here are a few suggestions that will hopefully stimulate further thinking on this incredibly important goal of creating more love and care in our organizations:
- The leadership must embody genuine love and care. This cannot be faked. If the leadership doesn’t express love and care in their actions then love and care will not flourish in the organization. As Gandhi said: “We must be the change that we wish to see in the world.”
- We must “give permission” for love and care to be expressed in the organization. Many organizations are afraid of love and care and force them to remain hidden. Love and care will flow naturally when we give them permission and encourage them.
- We should consider the virtues of love and care in all of our leadership promotion decisions. We shouldn’t just promote the most competent, but also the most loving and caring. Our organizations need both and we should promote leaders who embody both.
- Cultivate forgiveness rather than judgment and condemnation. Too many organizations believe that judgment of others and criticizing failures are essential for creating excellence. While striving for excellence is important for all organizations, this can be done at a higher level of consciousness without condemnation. Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning mistakes and failures. It simply means that we help the other person to learn from their mistakes through non-judgmental feedback and encouragement.
- End all your organizational meetings with “appreciations”. This is something that Whole Foods Market has been doing for about 25 years now with wonderful results for spreading love and care. Give everyone participating in the meeting the opportunity to voluntarily appreciate and thank other members in the group for services they have contributed or qualities that are admired. This one simple cultural practice of appreciating our fellow team members moves us out of judgment and fear into the consciousness of love.
We have the opportunity to create more conscious and higher trust organizations in the 21st century. To do so will require three major changes. First the organization must become conscious of what its higher purposes are.
Without consciousness of higher purposes organizations will not reach their fullest potential because the creative energy within the organization will not be fully expressed.
Secondly, we’ll need our leaders to evolve to higher levels of consciousness and trust themselves. We will not be able to create high trust organizations without more conscious and high trust leaders. Less conscious leaders will tend to hold their organizations back.
Thirdly, we will need to evolve the cultures of our organization in ways that create processes, strategies, and structures that encourage higher levels of trust. These will necessarily include the important ideals of teams, empowerment, transparency, authentic communication, fairness, love and care.