Coda: Snared in Bureaucracy

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From the Summer Issue "Unchaining Labor"

By David A. Andelman

Nadir Dendoune is accustomed to adventure. Carrying triple nationality—French, Algerian, and Australian—in 1993, just shy of his 21st birthday, he embarked on a round-the-world trip on a bicycle for the Australian Red Cross that followed a 3,000 mile bike-tour of Australia. Ten years later, at the height of the war in Iraq, he pitched up in Baghdad, offering himself as a human shield. Five years after that, he decided it would be a challenge to be the first Algerian to summit Mt. Everest. So he climbed it. But earlier this year, he met his greatest challenge of all—Middle East bureaucracy.

In January, he returned to Baghdad, this time on assignment for the great French monthly Le Monde Diplomatique to chronicle the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. Arriving with a journalist visa, he happened to snap a photo of a water treatment facility in Dora, south of the capital, and was promptly arrested. Taken to the feared central prison in Baghdad, he was held for 23 days without any charges brought against him. Le Monde launched a global campaign for his release, including a petition signed by many of France’s leading luminaries and published in four of Paris’s major dailies. Finally, even after he was released on bail, it took 12 more days for courts to clear him of these bogus and clearly politically inspired charges. On March 1, he was accompanied to the airport by the French ambassador and an Australian diplomat. Minutes before boarding, however, he was seized again. His visa had expired. It took four more days to sort that out—as though the Iraqi authorities didn’t have anything better to do.

The fact is, Dendoune was a victim of bureaucracy, plain and simple. And throughout the world—the developed as well as the developing world—millions, rich and poor alike, are snagged each day by the snares of what is perhaps the single most debilitating manifestation of government. In my previous Coda, I promised to devote this space this year to examining a broad spectrum of different aspects of government—how effectively they function in working for the people they profess to serve. I began with the judiciary. But as important as that function is in protecting the safety and freedom of nations, penetrating our lives even to the most basic levels, none affects more people more directly, more immediately, or more insidiously than bureaucracies.

Above all, bureaucracies should not blow with inevitably shifting political winds at the top. Such a practice appears to be at the root of the problems represented by Obama and the left-wing agenda of the IRS. But such practices are hardly unique to Washington. They become problems wherever political hubris might rear its head—in François Hollande’s socialist administration in Paris and its pursuit of his right-wing predecessor or the Italian judiciary’s pursuit of Silvio Berlusconi, not to mention the dogs of war that Putin has repeatedly unleashed on his political rivals or indeed any Russian he wanted to bring to heel.

How bureaucracies function and how their operations might be improved is a vital question that is almost never addressed. Reforming bureaucracies, or even tweaking them around the edges, is effectively a third rail of politics that has brought many promising careers to a crushing end.

Unlike virtually any other aspect of government, bureaucracies are themselves most curious—their traits, their very design affecting their efficiency, responsiveness, and impact. It would be best to examine their traits and their impact before we suggest how they might be brought to heel, or at least curb their most flagrant abuses.


Historically, bureaucracies date as far back as the time humans first organized themselves into communities. Someone needed to care for the livestock, see to the collection of taxes or common charges, attend to the security, and eventually maintain the common areas and thoroughfares. Bureaucracies were a feature of the earliest city-states of Mesopotamia 5,000 years before Christ and the earliest Chinese civilizations of the Qin dynasty. Of course by the time of the Greek and Roman empires, bureaucracies were well developed. In France, under King Louis XIII, Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin were responsible for the modern structure of their nation’s bureaucracy. Taxation was, of course, the principal motivation for its growth and expansion. Monarchs of Europe and Asia alike needed a means of financing their lavish lifestyles, not to mention the military machines that would cement them in power and allow them to expand.

So today, the accumulation of wealth for dictators and democrats alike is central to the mission of bureaucrats as the prime lubricant of the machinery of government. It’s no secret that the top members of each graduating class at France’s single most elite institution of higher education—the École Nationale d’Administration (ÉNA)—are given the exalted rank of inspecteur de finance, launching them into a career at the very pinnacle of French bureaucracy.

Virtually every aspect of life is within the powers of bureaucracy to regulate as well. It was Cardinal Richelieu who, in 1634, created the Académie Française to police the French language. Through the centuries, the Académie has ensured that a certain linguistic purity remain unchallenged, even as other languages were constantly evolving. Since its founding, the Académie has published eight complete dictionaries of French and has been working on the ninth since the eighth was completed in 1935. The first volume (A to Enzyme) was published in 1992. Then work accelerated, the second volume (Éocène to Mappemonde) appeared in 2000. Often, the 40 members of the Academy, known as les Immortels will spend an entire session debating the etymology of a single word. One of its primary missions in preserving the purity of the language is to prevent creeping anglicization. Walkman, software, and email are verboten in favor of baladeur, logiciel, and courriel. Try telling that to a hip young Francophile, of course. In 1997, Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister, began using the feminine locution La Ministre to refer to a female minister of the government (since francophone Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland had already adopted that practice). Forget about it, pronounced the Académie Française. French ministers of either sex will continue to be known as Le Ministre.

In the Académie, each member is deemed “immortal.” His (or more rarely her) seat is filled by a vote of the members when its possessor dies. Which brings us to the first principal, and most malevolent characteristic, of a bureaucracy. It is largely self-perpetuating.

Self-perpetuating, of course, means choosing folks who look very much like yourself. So the first woman, Marguerite Yourcenar, was not elected an Immortelle until 1980. And the first non-French woman, the brilliant Algerian novelist Assia Djebar, whose mother tongue is Arabic, did not join the ranks of the Immortals until 2005. When I asked her several years later, she still couldn’t say why she was ever selected in the first place.


Most bureaucracies function in this self-perpetuating mode by their method of selecting their membership. Often, this devolves to a special examination that is conceived by those sitting in the very positions to be filled and designed to select individuals who will not only be virtually identical to themselves but will also not prove in any fashion a challenge to their bureaucratic way of life. The foreign service exam in the United States and many other nations is a classic example in that respect. Taken in two stages—written and oral—the foreign service exam is designed to uncover individuals with the ability and temperament of a postal clerk who are nevertheless prepared to spend years in remote and often unpalatable reaches of the world processing visa requests and issuing passports to expats of their own nationality. Both are relatively mindless endeavors whose carefully circumscribed parameters are designed to discover those individuals most likely to overstay their visas and become illegal immigrants. A carefully designed computer program could probably be equally efficient, but would result in the termination of a vast army of individuals who, together with their supervisors, are guaranteed a lifetime of adequate pay and benefits and a comfortable retirement at a relatively young age.

The result is the identification of individuals all but devoid of imagination or initiative. There was, for instance, my recruitment into the Central Intelligence Agency. Forty-eight years ago, in my senior year in college, and at the height of James Bond fever, I was attracted by the notice in Harvard’s Office of Career Planning of a visit from a CIA recruiter. So I signed up, and eventually was dispatched down to headquarters in Langley, Virginia for a series of interviews, polygraphs, and other assorted indignities. I was up for a job in the relatively young bureau that produced the President’s Daily Brief—a daily newspaper of top-secret information prepared for a very limited audience each morning, namely the president, vice president, and several other top national security officials. At the end of my recruiting day, my handler, a nameless bureaucrat, ordered me to proceed for my final interview to Building No. 213 in the Navy Yard. I was instructed to change taxis in the middle of Washington to foil any potential pursuers and preserve the top-secret nature of the facility. I performed my errand impeccably, or so I thought, changing taxis at the Capital Hilton. But when I told the driver of the second cab my final destination, he turned, grinned brightly at me and replied, “Oh, you mean the CIA building.” When it was first built, there was a big controversy about it, which played out in the pages of the Washington Post, but agency bureaucrats had continued to preserve the fiction of its highly classified nature.


Beyond self-perpetuation, most bureaucracies also stifle growth, innovation, and imagination. For all of their value in delivering a society of order out of chaos, they neutralize that value by how they perform their functions—mindlessly, thoughtlessly, with an agenda often deeply at odds with any national priorities of the nations and the people who pay them to perform their functions.

At the time of the rule of Indira Gandhi in India, there was a determined effort to encourage, at all cost, the concept of “buy India.” If there was any product manufactured or developed within India, then its foreign homologue, no matter how much more efficient, rapid, modern, or inexpensive, would be barred from entry into the local market. The New York Times itself became ensnared in this web of bureaucratic blunders. Sometime in the mid-1970s, nearly a decade into her rule and with many of her more bizarre policies deeply entrenched in a bureaucracy that existed largely to carry them out, The Times had converted its New York newsroom from typewriters to the new electronic word processors. Eventually, similar terminals were shipped to the important foreign bureaus, which were instructed to install them and begin to generate output that would therefore be compatible with similar terminals in New York where the paper was edited. The Times’s Delhi bureau chief was told that such a terminal had been shipped to him and to look out for it. Some weeks went by, and no terminal, so the bureau went looking. Sure enough it turned out to have been impounded in a customs facility at Delhi airport since a “comparable” Indian product existed. “Why not come and a have a look at it,” suggested an eager Indian bureaucrat. So the bureau chief and his assistant showed up at the plant producing these devices. There, all but filling an immense room, was a colossus—a vacuum-tube-based Indian “computer,” lights blinking away, an operator seated at the keyboard. “See, an Indian word processor that does everything your machine does,” the bureaucrat smiled brightly. “But where would we put it?” the Timesman inquired, after overcoming his speechlessness. “It’s bigger than our entire news bureau.”

Eventually, of course, such restrictions were lifted. India assumed its rightful place as a leader of the developing world. But deeply entrenched residues of this bureaucratic state remain. Most importantly, however, such mindless idiocies, whether in developing or developed nations, stifle growth and initiative—indeed eradicate it wherever it threatens to rear its head. Expunging such mindless, self-serving actions, and removing their every manifestation should at once encourage free trade, development, and innovation. So when bilateral and eventually global free-trade pacts developed, their first goals, beyond simply reducing tariffs, were to reduce so-called “non-tariff barriers,” of the type that kept our Times computer locked up for months in a customs house in Delhi. Of course, hardly surprisingly, these same free trade pacts spawned their own acute, mindless bureaucracies with their own idiosyncrasies and self-perpetuating band of international civil servants.


Bureaucracies, and especially bureaucrats, serve themselves all too often and far more directly than those they are supposed to regulate. Direct, unflinching, and unthinking adherence to a rulebook leads to success and advancement of a bureaucrat—often to the frustration of consumers or citizens.

In 1995, while based in Paris for CBS News, I was dispatched urgently down to Chad in central Africa where there was some evidence that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was contemplating a new incursion across the Sahara into Chad. French troops, only recently withdrawn from the country, had been dispatched again to deter such an adventure in a former African colony. The international press descended on the capital, Ndjamena, to await the arrival of Libyan forces and the inevitable clash. A Paris colleague of mine had been sent down first, but when he was off shooting with a camera crew, a scorpion had run up his trouser leg, stung him on the thigh, and the wound had become dangerously infected. He was flown back to Paris, and I prepared to arrive. I did not, however, have the yellow fever vaccine required to enter Chad, since it was grown in chick embryos and I happen to be deathly allergic to eggs. In Paris, only a single office of the French Ministry of Health administered the vaccine, so I raced over to Montparnasse to see if they might simply note in my international vaccination certificate that I was unable to obtain the vaccine and might I be admitted to the country anyway.

An imperious French bureaucrat confronted me in a white lab coat. “Impossible,” this ministry nurse sniffed. “You have the vaccine. It won’t hurt you.” On the contrary, it might have killed me, but this bureaucrat had little understanding of this likely eventuality, nor did she especially care. So, I suggested that instead she just scratch a drop under my skin and see what developed. Reluctantly, she agreed. “Wait outside for a half hour,” she snapped after doing this. It won’t take that long, I thought. Sure enough, in 10 minutes, my arm had swelled to twice its size, was hard as a rock and hot. I returned. “I thought I told you to wait a half an hour,” she snarled. “You may want to look at this,” I replied evenly and held up my arm. “Oh, mon dieu,” she exclaimed. “I’d better fetch a doctor.” That would be a good idea. He arrived presently, glanced at my arm and smiled. “Oh, you’re allergic to eggs!” Indeed. He administered intravenous antihistamines and cortisone and in a matter of minutes, I was better. He then suggested that he write a note in my vaccination certificate and noted that even the small amount I’d been given would protect me in most cases for a short time. When I arrived at Ndjamena airport the next day, the immigration folks glanced at the note in my certificate and waved me through. Frankly, I doubt seriously whether they cared a jot that some American hack might contract yellow fever in their country.

Such mindless adherence to rules, even those established in good faith, can prove dangerous, if not lethal. All too often bureaucrats and bureaucracies prevent the proper functioning of the machinery that legislators or elected officials established in the form of otherwise commendable laws or regulations. The members of the bureaucracy, however, are judged not for any originality, initiative, or other trait that might improve society at large, but rather simple and direct adherence to a rulebook that they likely had little input in establishing but that is guaranteed to fulfill its own purpose—serving those who adhere most attentively to it at all costs.

The chief bureaucrat in the British foreign ministry, or indeed any other UK ministry, is called the permanent under-secretary. He is elected not by a single British subject, nor is he subject to any of them. The key word of the title, of course, is the first. Permanent. For permanency is the single broadest and most insidious value of most bureaucracies and the bureaucrats who run them. For theirs is a permanent government that no one elects, is responsible to no one but itself, and that will outlive, certainly outlast, all its nominal bosses.

Of course the debate over the value of bureaucracy and its contributions to or stifling of growth go back at least a century or more to the time when Max Weber, the great German sociologist and political economist, argued in his monumental essay Economy and Society that bureaucracy is a cornerstone of the effective functioning and growth of any capitalist system. For Weber, the imposition of strict, formal rules and a hierarchical structure helps ensure stability and uniformity. He missed the fact that these uniform structures and laws have a tendency to expand, like slime molds, wherever they can. Government bureaucracies can certainly protect property rights and preserve fair competition, but it can easily grow into other areas, suffocating innovation.

Late in 1999, two American social scientists, Peter Evans and James E. Rauch of University of California campuses respectively at Berkeley and San Diego, examined core state agencies in 35 countries from 1970 through 1990, and suggested that bureaucracies that go off the rails can have as detrimental an impact on growth as those functioning, properly constrained, can enhance growth. The problem is how to define a “good” bureaucracy—for we must, of course, have some mechanism to assure order in any functioning nation.

Evans and Rauch suggest that a good bureaucracy, “characterized by meritocratic recruitment and predictable, rewarding career ladders are associated [with] higher growth rates. … Having Weberian structures in the strategic core of the bureaucracy may be sufficient.” Hardly. It’s only necessary to take a close look at one institution where many of the world’s most accomplished bureaucrats are educated—France’s ÉNA—to understand how and where a bureaucrat is born and how the mentality of unthinking, mindless adherence to rulebooks is nourished and rewarded. As it happens, in the mid-1980s I was privileged to instruct a class for several years in the ÉNA‘s Stages Intensifs du Printemps. It was a class in intensive English, and my students were truly the crème de la crème of the French educational establishment—destined for the highest posts in the French bureaucracy. I began with a brief opening remark about American media (at the time I was serving as the Paris correspondent for CBS News), then told them I was opening the class up to a dialogue, a discussion. Silence. Bewildered looks surrounded me. What was wrong? One intrepid lad ventured an explanation. “Monsieur le professeur,” he began, then paused and plunged ahead. “You are to tell us what we need to know, we listen, and write it down, and those of us who most effectively repeat that in our examinations receive the highest marks.”

Suddenly, all became clear. The most accomplished bureaucrat is not often the one with the greatest imagination, the most accomplished in Socratic debate and dialogue, but merely the most accomplished dactylographer. It’s not a recipe for a bureaucracy that could reinforce a nation of imagination and progress.

Still, such an ÉNA system does contribute to development of a certain esprit de corps, which Evans and Rauch suggest “can be argued to have substantial effects on the motivation of individual officeholders.” Perhaps. Certainly it’s better than thinking they owe their office to friends, relatives, or fellow tribesmen. But it will also dissuade all but the most intrepid, and foolhardy, of their colleagues or superiors from overruling their actions or helping a hapless victim of a bureaucratic quagmire who may be seeking some redress.

So from close observation and experience in more than 70 nations after a lifetime of travel, I would respectfully suggest that Evans and Rauch have got it wrong. These criteria might well prevent the more egregious abuses of bureaucracy, particularly corruption, but they are hardly calculated to attract the kind of innovative, entrepreneurial individual most likely to foster economic growth in today’s complex world. A “good bureaucracy” has vastly different criteria, especially when it comes to encouraging growth and development—which really should be its central goal. So if I may, these would be my suggestions for a truly brilliant bureaucracy: minimize invasiveness, periodic renewal and review, both of which will ultimately lead, at least in a perfect world, to serving the will and needs of the people who pay their salaries.

First, the best bureaucracy is the least invasive. A large number of bureaucracies that malignantly discourage foreign direct investment and hamstring growth are found in the least developed reaches of the world. While it’s true that some highly developed systems, such as the French bureaucracy, establish considerable barriers to growth and innovation, they pale before structures across Africa, large parts of Asia and Latin America. Accompanying invasiveness, all too often, are inconsistency and opacity. In Indonesia, where bureaucracy truly runs rampant, a series of efforts to clean up corruption only contributed to the difficulty of doing business. As one Western businessman said, when we knew how much we needed to pay and to whom, at every level, we could simply factor that into the cost of doing business. When that was removed, only a paralyzing bureaucratic superstructure was left, with no means of circumventing it at any price. The result, in the case of Indonesia, like many other developing nations that desperately need foreign direct investment to grow, was to send Western companies with investable capital to neighbors like Singapore or Malaysia.

Second, bureaucracies should be periodically renewed and reviewed. In few other organs of society or government do individuals receive an entitlement of lifetime protection in a job no matter what their performance. So why should bureaucrats who are indeed the principal nexus on a daily basis between rulers and the ruled? Even more unsettling, however, are those bureaucracies whose workers depend on their perpetual employment not on any fixed structures but on friends, families, tribes, or other patrons who might be removed on a whim, some civil or military upheaval or an election—whether rigged or free. Such a potentially cataclysmic change to an individual’s fortunes would likely only encourage corruption or other malfeasance designed to guarantee the bureaucrat some resources that would persist beyond his or her tenure.

To guarantee a proper functioning of a bureaucracy, of course, it would be necessary for the performance of each bureaucrat to be reviewed, periodically, not by their peers, such a mechanism carrying its own potential for flaws or inequities. Rather, an independent panel comprised of members of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches would be perhaps the most appropriate method. Many Western bureaucracies do have civil service review boards. Most American and many overseas police departments even have Civilian Complaint Review Boards. But all too often, they fall prey to so many of the faults of bureaucracies that they turn into sclerotic bureaucracies themselves. In many true democracies, government structures follow the concept of “checks and balances,” of which the United States and Canadian constitutions are prime examples, as well a others dating back to the Magna Carta—the executive, judicial, and legislative branches—each checking each other. But bureaucracies fall outside such frameworks. They must not.

If all of these prescriptions are followed rigorously, not simply paid lipservice, then hopefully the bureaucrats and the mechanisms they operate, will ultimately come to serve most directly the will of the people. Only then will a bureaucracy or its bureaucrats be in a position to fulfill their ultimate mission—carrying out the laws passed by freely elected legislators or regulations imposed by freely elected leaders, of which we will speak more in my next Coda.

It’s time for bureaucracies, which are in so many places and so many ways a fourth branch of government—one to which the average voter, citizen, even visitor may fall prey more directly and immediately than any of the other branches—to carry the same guarantees as any element of government. Bureaucrats will never totally disappear, nor should they. But with careful vigilance and oversight, their numbers can be restrained and their success in blocking creativity and innovation minimized as they go about their crucial work of making government function. Society is better when creative solutions, rather than formulas, are brought to bear.



David A. Andelman is editor of World Policy Journal.

[Illustration by Damien Glez]


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