Yes Minister, we're trapped by bureaucracy

Opinion Article

2013 July, 20

I am one of those condemned to waste too much of one's meagre allocation of time on this earth brooding and muttering about bureaucracy. The great German sociologist Max Weber was on to the bureaucratic dilemma a century ago, but we don't need to get too academic about it. Bureaucratic behaviour is a most pernicious thing. 

The existence of bureaucracy may be necessary and can be harnessed to good ends. The evil here is bureaucratic behaviour. 

Evil is a strong word and not used lightly. For all the sharp satirical insight of the BBC's classic series Yes Minister, I no longer find humour in bureaucratic perversities. People's lives are ruined, entire communities deprived, too much misery prolonged, for satire to assuage outrage. 

In a democracy the social and economic costs of bureaucratic behaviour should induce revolt, not head-shaking resignation. Too much of this waste is unnecessary and avoidable. Structures and hierarchies are inescapable in modern society but the tendency to bureaucratic behaviour when people occupy governmental structures must be confronted. 

It is the gap between the ostensible and the real rationales of bureaucracy that is most appalling. Structures provide countless hiding places and opportunities for surreptitious dealing. The bureaucrat can disguise his real reasons and her real motivations behind a vast choice of alibis. Using structures is the great power of bureaucracy. 

In open society we all are prone to disguising our real reasons behind ostensible ones - this trait is not peculiar to bureaucrats. It is just that in bureaucracies these traits and their consequences are about power, and they have great consequences. 

Among the troops, the perverse effect of bureaucratic power is mostly unconscious. Underlings inherit established cultures, behaviours, procedures and mindsets. Unfortunately, the default setting in the public service in my experience is where the dial is stuck on the mediocre reproduction of the existing state of affairs. Low productivity and waste are routine. The point is, among the troops perversity is cultural more than Machiavellian. 

Then you get the Machiavellis. Those who are conscious manipulators of the system, who know what structures to hide behind, the secret corridors and one-way windows. There are two kinds of these princes. One seeks to do good and the other indulges his or her own prerogatives, wielding structural power for a wide repertoire of ill-usage: from disguising their own lack of ability or failure to perform to self-serving personal aggrandisement. All behind the fig-leaf of public service. 

The honest bureaucrat who seeks to transcend the default culture is a pleasure to find. They do indeed fulfil the best ideals of public service. 

The good prince who is adept at manoeuvring the structures for the public good is like a diamond in a slag-heap. They are the most precious thing and their power for good is extraordinary. They know the system, its dormant strengths and live weaknesses, but their dials are not on the factory settings. They are entrepreneurial and imaginative, problem-aware and solution-seeking. They retain an overarching perspective that the point of structural public power is to do public good. The problem is these gems are rare. 

Recently, I referred to the honest admissions of failure by former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission chief executive and secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet under John Howard. Peter Shergold was in fact one of those rare gems who sought to deploy the power of government for good. 

I fondly recall the late Tom Popp, an obscure regional manager of ATSIC who served in Cairns. A good man who seeks to serve the public good can do much good. 

The par-excellence bureaucrat was former director general of Queensland's department of premier and cabinet, Ross Rolfe. Schooled in bureaucracy, Rolfe was agile, entrepreneurial and creative. Rolfe's dial was set diametrically opposite to the traditional settings of public service. Therefore, he did more good for blackfellas in his role than anyone before or since. 

This week I travelled in the Cape with former Liberal senator and one-time minister for Aboriginal affairs, Fred Chaney. We wanted to share our frustrations and we gnashed our teeth about bureaucracy. Chaney has long worked closely with the people of the Western Desert and knows the challenges intimately. 

My involvement in these issues is across two decades and my senior colleagues have been on the scene for more than twice as long.

Chaney told me he has been supporting indigenous causes for 50 years now. It was sobering to reflect this is almost half the time since the Australian nation was born. 

We all lament the miserable progress in structural reform of governmental dealing with our people, even if Chaney is right when he says we should recognise our gains.

As we drove from the small town out to the mission I recognised an Aboriginal woman sitting at the front of the shops. Her face is terribly disfigured and she has lived a sad life, the details of which are all too common. That she has lived as long as she has is a wonder. People walk past her. She is so familiar and inevitable that they do not see her as a human being worthy of love and care and who should have been entitled to a good life. Her life instead has been one of tragic suffering with little amelioration. I feel ashamed that I have not done anything to make her life better. She is after all kin. Whenever I see her she will greet me with the same great affection she held for me when I was a boy. Her own children, now adults, are following the same road as she has. She is why I can't laugh at Yes, Minister.

Surely we have to get on top of what was called the Aboriginal Problem soon? We will not do so if we don't fundamentally reform the bureaucratic structures of government that so entangle us.

Yes Minister, we're trapped by bureaucracy