COLUMN: Lessons from a failed bureaucrat

Sometimes the rules need to be applied with reason

A lifetime ago I was a civic bureaucrat.

I was very bad at it.

Not that I didn’t have the expertise to fulfill my role, I was actually quite informed on all of the many aspects of my portfolio and could, at the drop of an administrative report, recite the rules and regulations of my department, chapter and verse.

My problem wasn’t that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do; it was that I had a nasty habit of questioning the blind application of rules and regulations. It seemed to me that we should always consider the impact of our actions on the poor souls who would feel the brunt of those rules.

I also liked reducing the number of silly rules or not applying them when they didn’t make sense.

That’s not the way bureaucracies work and my propensity for common sense drove my superiors into apoplectic fits and resulted in my eventual resignation ( I may have been fired, but this is my column and I’ll remember it as I choose.).

In a bureaucracy, I was told, principles and processes are based on rational, clearly understood rules and those rules are applied in a manner that is never influenced by interpersonal relations, politics, or personal feelings.

Right.

It also means that bureaucracies are often bereft of common sense.

(I’m pretty sure that’s what I was muttering to myself as I walked out, carrying a cardboard box of personal items.)

But let’s admit it, bureaucracies are prone to some systemic problems.

Parkinson’s Law states that work creates more work, usually to the point of filling the time available for its completion. Bureaucracies always grow, creating pressure to create more rules — more hurdles — for the very people that bureaucrats are meant to serve. That creates more work for the bureaucrats and the cycle repeats.

The phenomenon led one economist to note that bureaucracies gives birth to themselves, and then expect maternity benefits.

Another problem is found in Laurence Peter’s assertion that, too often, people tend to rise to their level of incompetence.

Now that principle is not universally true – I’ve met lots of senior CAOs who are quite competent – but, unfortunately, it’s at least a little bit true. In any bureaucracy, there are folks who create more problems than they solve.

Finally, there’s the problem of leadership.

Bureaucracies are strictly hierarchal, with each layer getting its direction from the next higher level.

Put incompetent or less than effective leadership in place and the entire system breaks down. Soon the system drifts from being a well oiled machine to something resembling the bar scene in Star Wars.

And that brings me to Sooke.

It’s been a very long time since the bureaucracy in the District of Sooke has had stable leadership.

It’s resulted in a lot of acting positions and unfair expectations as some dedicated staff did their best to fill the breach.

But the impact has been that a culture has developed in which some bureaucrats have made mistakes – serious mistakes that have affected real people.

And that culture has dictated that, instead of apologizing and working to resolve issues caused by those mistakes, regulations are cited, staff ducks for cover, and the chips are allowed to fall where they may.

Fortunately, the district now has a competent CAO.

But that does not mean it’s all fine now.

RELATED: Mix-up could close daycare

At the risk of overworking metaphors, bureaucracies are like oil tankers. Once they go off course it takes a long time to correct the their path and, in the meantime, they blunder along in the fog and may run over any number of poor souls in the process.

A course correction is happening now but, while it does, it’s incumbent for Sooke’s council to keep watch on what their bureaucracy is doing to ensure that no one else is hurt.

For a price, I’ll even agree to give a staff seminar on how to be a less bureaucratic bureaucrat. It couldn’t hurt.

•••

Tim Collins is a Sooke News Mirror reporter. His email is tim.collins@sookenewsmirror.com.



editor@sookenewsmirror.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Column

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Truck smoking profusely on the Malahat, no reports of traffic being affected

Shawnigan RCMP say they are on route to the incident

CRD wants closer relations with First Nations

Committee recommends the CRD board open the door to representation

Police watchdog looking for witnesses to arrests in Victoria’s inner harbour

One male left injured after arrests near Red Fish Blue Fish

Speaker ‘will not tolerate illegal activity’ on B.C. legislature grounds, says chief of staff

Chief of staff to the B.C. speaker Alan Mullen says situation with demonstrators appears ‘fluid’

Fashion Fridays: Tammy’s big makeover

Kim XO, helps to keep you looking good on Fashion Fridays on the Black Press Media Network

Ryan nets hat trick in return as Senators beat Canucks 5-2

Ottawa winger received assistance for admitted alcohol problem

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs meet with provincial, federal ministers

Neither party speaking on the groundwork laid for tomorrow’s talks

MPs to examine privacy implications of facial-recognition technology used by RCMP

The MPs will look at how the technology affects the privacy, security and safety of children

Dates back to 2009: Calgary police lay charges in fraud involving semi-trucks

Three people from Calgary are facing charges that include fraud over $5,000

Gandhi featured at Sooke’s Intermission Film Series

Epic historical film won eight Academy Awards

Comox 442 Squadron carries out two sea rescue missions north of Vancouver Island

Submitted by Lt. Alexandra Hejduk Special to Black Press 442 Transport and… Continue reading

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs optimistic ahead of talks with feds, province

Discussions with provincial and federal governments expected to start later today

Most Read