If it Works, Kill it: How Bureaucracy Stops Progress


I have been reading a lot recently about two issues – shared services and the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA). Shared services are in the news because they offer a way for agencies to reduce costs and potentially improve the quality of support services. Both the Partnership for Public Service and the Office of Management and Budget are talking more about them. FITARA is in the news because it requires significant improvements in the way the government budgets for and buys IT. Both shared services and FITARA are getting a lot of push-back from people who argue both can do more harm than good.

People who provide services that can be considered for shared service providers (generally in HR, IT, Financial Management and Procurement) often believe it is not in their interest to move to shared services. Self-interest is also driving some of the opposition to implementing FITARA as it was intended. That should not surprise anyone. Bureaucracies may be good at some things, but they always excel at one – self-preservation. The people who live and work in the bureaucracy may not be consciously aware that they are engaging in bureaucratic behavior. They most likely have convinced themselves they are acting in the interest of their agency.

Here are a few responses we always hear when the interests of a bureaucracy are threatened:

  • “We need to be able to control this process. Having someone else do it creates too much risk for the agency.” Control is the ultimate need of a bureaucracy. For services such as human resources, many agencies are unhappy with what they have now, but fear another provider that they do not own (i.e., control) could be worse. When we were consolidating all of the Defense Logistics Agency’s HR services, one General told me he would rather have a bad HR provider that he owned than a better one that he did not control. That is unfortunately not an uncommon view.
  • “This is a great idea, but we are undergoing a lot (or too much) change right now. Let’s look at it again when there is not so much going on in the agency.” This one is used to fight virtually anything that challenges the power of a bureaucracy. The problem with it is that most organizations (government or private sector) have big things going on all the time. The bureaucrat uses this argument because s/he knows there will never be a time when nothing big is happening.
  • “It sounds good, but we need to study it more.” Studies can be incredibly helpful. They can lead to a better understanding of risks, cultural issues, and many other aspects of change. They become a problem when they are intended to delay rather than move the issue forward.
  • “We need a business case analysis (BCA) for this.” This one is a variation on the study tactic, but it is more focused on the numbers. A solid business case for a big change is important and it can be a great tool for moving forward, but it also can be one of the best delaying tactics. Be wary when the BCA concludes that more study is necessary.
  • “We tried that before and it did not work for us.” Every organization has tried a lot of things that did not work. They should be learning experiences, but can also be used to object to any kind of change. When we hear the same type of idea being brought up over and over, it does not send the message that you should not do anything. On the contrary, it is telling you loud and clear that there is a problem that people want to fix.
  •  “We cannot possibly have our (fill in the blank) service provided by someone else.” Yes you can. What matters is not who does the service for you, but rather are you getting good service at a fair price. If another agency or someone in the private sector can deliver what you need at a lower price, let them. Agencies do not have to provide their own services, but they do need people who can exercise a reasonable degree of oversight over the people who provide them. They also need to maintain in-house the ability to determine their needs and strategy. If NASA can outsource much of the work around rocket science, other agencies can do the same for work that clearly is not rocket science.

Most people who work in government are not bureaucrats in the negative sense of the word. They are simply people who do their work in a bureaucracy. There are others who are bureaucrats and they are the ones who actively use the tools of the bureaucracy to maintain control and hamper progress. Be on the lookout for them and do not hesitate to call them out on their behavior. The bad bureaucrat hates sunlight and certainly does not want their tactics to be noticed.