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Bureaucratic Ritualism and Red Tape

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Introduction

Bureaucratic ritualism is an excessive focus on rules and regulations to the point of undermining an organizations goals. In the part where unnecessary forms and reports are required it is often called red tape. This is a classic example how quantity turns into quality: excessive formalization undermines the value of the imposed rules and regulations to the extent that the situation again became anarchic. In other word extremes meet. Nowhere this phenomenon is more noticeable then in large corporation which are in most case are classic "theaters of absurd".  See also Absurdity of bureaucracies

Now we can also add to this focus on security which when applied with excessive zeal can completely paralyze corporate IT.

Classic example of bureaucratic ritualism are hospitals were paperwork takes precedence over patient care. In fact any bureaucracies  tend to stray from formal objectives of the organization and substitute them with the actions/activities related to ensuring of the survival of the particular bureaucracy and its elite (see Bureaucracy as a Political Coalition).  This is one of many manifestations of the key controversy of bureaucratic organization -- the perversion of means and ends when means become ends in themselves, and the real goals and "greater good" are substituted by internal "clan" interests and first of all interest of the top layers of bureaucracy  in survival and expansion of their influence. Any links to "greater good" and general, public interest are lost in this transition. Left uncontrolled, the bureaucracy eminently becomes increasingly self-serving and corrupt, rather than serving society. Bureaucratic ritualism is an essential part of game-playing, duplicity, ineptitude, wasted money, manipulation and ass-covering flourishing  behind the facade of a typical "mature" corporate bureaucracy.

Interplay between ritualism and bureaucratic inertia

Decent into poor, sectarian judgment when "rules are rules"  is especially sharp in technology firms and large corporations IT departments, where the behavior of the brass quickly became rigidly rule-bound and unwilling to try creative solutions to problems. At this point  work on making rules correspond reality is replaced in blind following existing, often outdated rules. Which strangulates any remnants of initiative from rank-and-file dwellers of this madhouse. 

This is reflected well in the following sarcastic definition of datacenter:

Computing Center [n], is an organization whose functions are

  1. To impede wherever possible the development and usefulness of computing in the company or University.
  2. To gain the lion's share of funding, spend it largely on obsolete, bloated and otherwise inappropriate IT Solutions, and convince the businesses/campuses wherever possible to spend funds on the same.
  3. To oppose vigorously any new, useful and popular technology for three years or more until nearly everyone on the business/campuses and elsewhere in the world is using it, then to adopt that technology and immediately attempt to centralize and gain complete and sole control of it [for example, Web hosting, Webmail, ssh, etc].

Bureaucratic ritualism is connected and is amplified by bureaucratic inertia -- the tendency of bureaucratic organizations to continue policies that became useless and to perpetuate themselves. This includes rules. For example, regardless of whether the threat of terrorism is still real and eminent, bureaucratic inertia will keep the so-called war on terror on auto-pilot for years to come. That's why organizations are seldom flexible and responsive to change as one would assume they should be.  And that why bureaucratic organization that in theory supposed to be rational often engage in completely irrational behavior.

So in essence any bureaucratic organization with itself contains seeds of destruction of the  principles of rationality or efficiency that are supposedly to be uniformly applied by bureaucracy both to the target area as well as internal administration of the organization. By its nature  any bureaucratic organization  tend to promote authoritarians and psychopath (or borderline psychopath) which in turn make this tendency toward ritualism worse.  Rational design which is the essence of bureaucratic organization is easy perverted by bureaucratic ritualism and create modern theater of absurd.

Rational design which is the essence of bureaucratic organization is easy perverted by bureaucratic ritualism and create modern theater of absurd.

Theatre of absurd: excessive regimentation leads to anarchy

The apparent absurdity of some bureaucratic behaviors is the flip side of the investment in formalization the organization has made. Excessive regimentation turns into its opposite -- organizational anarchy. The latter is characterized by five conditions.

Bureaucratic ritualism as a variant of cargo cult science

Bureaucratic ritualism  has also uncanny resemblance to Cargo cult science. Here is how it is defined by Eric Lippert who popularized the term:

During the Second World War, the Americans set up airstrips on various tiny islands in the Pacific.  After the war was over and the Americans went home, the natives did a perfectly sensible thing -- they dressed themselves up as ground traffic controllers and waved those sticks around.  They mistook cause and effect -- they assumed that the guys waving the sticks were the ones making the planes full of supplies appear, and that if only they could get it right, they could pull the same trick.  From our perspective, we know that it's the other way around -- the guys with the sticks are there because the planes need them to land.  No planes, no guys.

The cargo cultists had the unimportant surface elements right, but did not see enough of the whole picture to succeed. They understood the form but not the content.  There are lots of cargo cult programmers -- programmers who understand what the code does, but not how it does it.  Therefore, they cannot make meaningful changes to the program.  They tend to proceed by making random changes, testing, and changing again until they manage to come up with something that works.

It is characterized by the extreme adherence to the form instead of content.

One important role of bureaucratic ritualism is to suppress the internal conflicts by making activities more meaningless and thus less conflict prone. In a way bureaucratic ritualism results from obsess ional thinking and compulsive actions of the managers defending themselves from the anxiety of losing control. As such it is typical for autocratic managers and micromanagers. For the latter this is essentially the essence of their style.

Infected by bureaucratic ritualism brass confronted with the signals that something is wrong (danger signals) typically proceed as if nothing is wrong despite repeated evidence that something is very wrong (Challenger disaster). They effectivly ritualize thier responce so that actions looks acceptable (nothing beyong ordinary) while in reality they are damaging to the orgnization and the society. This process sometimes is called "normalization of deviance" which erode saftly mechanism and often the very survival of the organization.

Within rigid group at the top such a deviant, irrational behavior is construed to be normal. Organizational rituals became so powerful that means toward goals became goals in themselves.  The stress of rules and procedures decrease the internal cohesion within the organization. In this environment the individual performers at the lower levels (trench solders of the organization) may become psychologically detached from the organization and its goals and in some case start acting against organizational interests by persuing their own and misusing organization resources.  This process is called alienation and it is typical for organization with strict regimentation of employees behavior.  In organization where workers are expected only implement rules or where they think there is little change of advancement despite best efforts alienation is a common malady. See  Bureaucracy

It is one of the most common ramifications of impersonal bureaucracy.

 Routinization as the instrument of employees suppression and control

Whereas some laud the technical efficiency of bureaucratic organizations, others view bureaucracy as a tool by which owners and managers control their workers. Barley and Perlow both examine control (one more explicitly than the other) in contemporary settings, thereby complementing the historical concerns of Edwards and Baron et al. while extending the worker control literature. Once again, Perrow offers a nice introduction to the topic.

Chester Barnard insists that bureaucratic organizations inherently are cooperative (read “normative”) systems. In a similar vein, the Human Relations model can be viewed as bureaucratic ritualism of an important side of organizational life bureaucratic life (intencinally excuding informal groups, cliques, dirrent leadership styles including sociopathic and autocratic). It operates in Potemkin village of formal factors and performance reviews that supposedly induces productivity and commitment among workers. Perrow provides an unflattering overview of the Human Relations model.

But this is not done without purpose. Despite aura of bureaucratic ritualism Humal Relation model is a pretty effective instrument of employees suppression and control. Roy provides an empirical critique of the Human Relations model and sets the stage for Burawoy’s case study. Burawoy and Barker both move beyond the Human Relations model and critically examine the worker control that results from normative inducements.

Internal struggles for control and bureaucratic ritualism

From the outside, organizations (especially bureaucracies) may appear tidy and efficient. From the inside, however, they often appear as messy struggles for control. The case studies of the 1940s and 1950s admirably depicted such struggles. These studies were journalistic in style and emphasized both the informal aspects of organizations and the larger environmental context. Often bureaucratic ritualism serves as a smoke screen for fierce internal struggle for control.  It also serves as a catalyst for forming cliques and cooptation into them of key payers within the organization.

Institutional school offer great insights in this area, especially in the area of cliques and cooptation. Perrow offers an overview of the institutional school, and Scott describes how institutionalists compares to other groups. Merton's classic piece calls into question the operational efficiency of bureaucracy, while Zald and Meyer detail the dramatic transformation of a particular organization. Both Blau and Dalton cleverly show the difference between an organization's "official" and "unofficial" chain of command.


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Busy work

Wikipedia

Busy work is a term for work or assignments that are time consuming, but not useful. It is typically used to refer to schoolwork which is time consuming for students but not educationally valuable, but can also refer to procedures or paperwork in a bureaucracy which is unnecessary. The term is generally pejorative.

Restoring the Meaning of Education is a nonprofit organization that wants to eliminate busy work and replace it with practical work.

Busy work in academics

Within academics "busy work" can refer either to classwork assigned for the purpose of keeping students busy, so that they do not cause trouble, or to time consuming homework which is assigned as practice, but is of little educational value. Students are often forced to complete busy work in the form of maps and scales. Busy work includes things like Machado's vocabulary, notes, questions, and timelines.

[Apr 01, 2012] Operations Understanding Organizational Anarchy By Douglas A. Samuelson

Research Management Science Today - August 2008

Inside the "garbage can": agent-based models help explain well-known dysfunctions in managers' decision-making processes.

Both real-life managers and teachers of management stand to benefit from recent research in organizational decision-making. What began as a whimsical, almost tongue-in-cheek characterization of how organizations decide - or, more often, fail to decide - now offers a promising basis for both new theory and improved practice.

Every manager has experienced the problem: deadlock, confusion and bickering, with important items seeming to take forever to get considered, let alone resolved Sometimes when a decision does get made, it seems not to be the one preferred by most of the people who supposedly collaborated in making it.

In turn, experienced managers who have tried to teach management have encountered the difficulty of conveying to students just how much real management typically differs from theory. Managers usually don't optimize, they muddle through, simply trying to stay one jump ahead of the issues that threaten immediate disaster. As C. Northcote Parkinson, renowned both as a historian and as a satirist, explained, "Many of the decisions in real management are like the one a person faces when, while crossing the street, he becomes aware of a runaway truck bearing down on him. It doesn't matter much which way you jump; the important thing is to choose one and do it quickly." Most management textbooks neglect to convey the proportion of the time many organizations spend deciding how to decide, sometimes accomplishing little else.

In a classic 1972 article, Cohen, March and Olsen argued that many organizations' decision process resembles throwing all the problems and all the solutions into a garbage can, where only chance meetings of problems and solutions produce anything of value. While this is a rather pessimistic view of performance and of the potential contribution of management, the predicted level of chaos and confusion appeals to many knowledgeable people as far more accurate than the characterizations most formal theories yield.

In all too many organizations, what we see is:

Management theories taught in business schools generally attribute such effects as these to failures of leadership, but rarely focus on the decision-making structure as the culprit. Thus, the would-be manager often emerges knowing how to recognize some signs of poor decision-making, but without much insight about how to improve it. To students, the ideas embodied in the garbage can model are abstractions that do not connect with their experience. Now, with the model available in a form easy to learn and modify, some teachers may find it easier to engage students, most likely through term projects, in learning how decision-making processes work and how they can be improved.

... ... ...

The work to date generates a few suggestions for managers:

Book Summary of Acceptable Risk Making Decisions in a Toxic Environment by Lee Clarke

Citation:

Acceptable Risk?: Making Decisions in a Toxic Environment, Lee Clarke, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 220 pp.


This Book Summary written by: T.A. O'Lonergan, Conflict Research Consortium

Acceptable Risk?: Making Decisions in a Toxic Environment will be of interest to those who seek an understanding of the decision-making process amid the chaos following a toxic contamination accident. The first chapter considers creating risks. The chapter is an explanation of the events leading up to the point when a transformer coolant breached containment in the state office building in Binghamton, New York. The transformer contained polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which, when burned at high temperatures, produce highly toxic substances (dioxins). The remainder of the book is an examination of the management of the clean-up and the identification of workers and inhabitants exposed.

Chapter two examines the organisation of decontamination efforts and medical surveillance in the midst of organizational chaos. It examines what the author terms 'organizational anarchy' wherein each state, federal and local organisation goes about its self-selected responsibilities without the benefit of an overall organizational effort. Chapter three is an examination of the need for constricting the field of organisations involved in the decontamination project. The author addresses the involvement of: local, county, state and federal agencies in the Binghamton clean-up.

Chapter four examines the resolution of organizational dilemmas in a discussion of the Broome County government's risk. Clarke offers a systematic examination of the process of making decisions about the Binghamton clean-up project. The first phase of such an effort is to define the problem, followed by assessing the consequences. This is followed by the ordering of alternatives and the constructing of acceptable risk assessments. The final phase is the acceptance of risk. Chapter five is devoted to the organisation of medical surveillance. The author offers a discussion on assessing the problem and the initiation of surveillance. The problem of malleable science is addressed prior to a discussion of the division of labour which emerges during the process of medical surveillance.

Chapter six is devoted to the organising efforts required to begin the decontamination process. The author offers an attempt at a solution to the chemical problems. The chapter closes with a discussion of symbolic risk: the decision whether to decontaminate or destroy the Binghamton state office building. This is followed by a discussion of the treatment of exposed workers and the need to organize their dissent activities. The final chapter is devoted to the organisation of risk. This chapter examines: the disruption of routine, the structural basis of individual dissent, symbols and organizational dissent, and theories of choice. The author discusses the two phases of clean-up efforts. The first phase is the undirected efforts which multiple agencies made toward clean-up. Many of these efforts were not only misguided, but needlessly exposed more workers to high levels of contamination. The second phase is the State of New York's assumption of the risk and their role as organising agency for the decontamination efforts. The text is followed by two appendices: the first identifying the players and the second offering a methodological accounting.

Acceptable Risk?: Making Decisions in a Toxic Environment is a careful examination of a single case of the creation and assessment of risk and the resultant medical surveillance and decontamination efforts. While addressing a particular incident, the overall approach is applicable to other incidents of toxic contamination.

Sturmtruppen - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"Zis damned military service vill haff to end sometime. I've grown tired of hafing to say 'Yes, sir' to anyone with a higher ranken. I kan barely vait to return to being an anonymous civilian and being able to zay 'Yes, sir' to any of my superiors..."

Sturmtruppen's success spurred two cinema adaptations. The first one, Sturmtruppen (1976), was co-written by Bonvicini and directed by Salvatore Samperi. In 1982 a sequel, Sturmtruppen II, was released, again directed by Samperi and featuring Renato Pozzetto, Massimo Boldi and Teo Teocoli.

Bonvi had a small part as a German officer. The quality of the two movies was uneven, albeit some ideas and situations (such as the Captain abusing a life-size plush toy with Karl Marx features -- only to be assaulted and bitten by it -- or the Pope offering a poisoned wafer to the angelic soldier who came from heaven to usher in a new age of Peace) are very biting and sarcastic, on par with the best strips.

On August 16, 2006, Miramax moved forward with plans to create a live-action movie based on Sturmtruppen. It is not known if a script has been written, or who is slated to direct the movie.

[Sep 10, 2011] Information & bureaucratic ritualism by Yahya Ahmad

Pakistan Observer

The inefficiency of bureaucracy has always been blamed for all the ills which have been facing the country. Perhaps even rightly so, as the bureaucratic ritualism and red tape surrounding each and every activity of the public and government organization has deterred them from taking any firm initiative. In Pakistan the government machinery and its everyday working is run by bureaucracy and even we depend on them to manage everything. But over the years the civil servants and public officials have stepped away from the basic job description, of serving the public and have adopted the approach of applying their authority over the citizens, whom they have vowed to serve. This unchecked and most of the times unlawful use of authority, can be observed to have increased every time a democratic setup has been replaced by a dictatorial rule. This has also resulted in large scale corruption and nepotism, as they realize that they are answerable to no one.

Article 19-A introduced in the 18th Amendment of the 1973 Constitution presents a silver lining in the clouds. The article directs the public institutions to share the required information of public interest with the citizens. This has been called as the Right to Information (RTI). According to the Freedom of Information (FOI) law, which governs the rules and regulations of RTI, this information is not only to be shared on demand, but periodical publications are also required to disseminate information. This can be termed as the first step of truly empowering the people, in contributing towards the governance of the country. Unfortunately although almost everyone knows the political aspects of the 18th Amendment, but there is no awareness regarding RTI or FOI. Either the people have been deliberately kept in the dark over the subject or the aspect has been overshadowed by the political perception of the amendment.

Still there are citizens who are aware and there are organizations, who have been working on freedom of information in Pakistan since a long time. There have been information requests filed under the article, by certain individuals and organizations. Recently nine information requests have been filed with various departments in Baluchistan. These requests are queries on developmental work and other civic issues and demand no information on any sensitive issue. This has been initiated with the hope that once precedence has been set and a habit has been developed in the citizens, to engage and question the government machinery, perhaps there will be an improvement in the prevalent situation. But it has been observed that the filing of the information requests with the relevant departments has been ignored. Where the law clearly states that a response to the applicant should be given within 21 working days, the application seems to be lost somewhere in this complex bureaucratic setup. Although there is a way to file complaints over non-compliance of these requests by the public departments, but this process also takes a common citizen through a complex set of procedures. The complaints have been filed with the Provincial Mohtasib by the concerned citizens and it is hoped that as the office of Mohtasib is there to resolve the complaints of the public, it will also take concrete measures in this regard.

This withholding of information in the backdrop of bureaucratic ritualism and red tape is unacceptable. The public demands to know what is happening in the state apparatus, why there is so much corruption, where and how are the funds for various projects being utilized, why is there a shortage of resources and energy, who or what is responsible for the deteriorating security situation? It is understandable that this is a nascent democracy and of course it will take time to brush aside the mindset present in our institutions, nurtured by dictatorial regimes. In the end, it will all come down to the insistence of the citizens to hold accountable the public officials and pressurize them in giving the answers to the questions, which concern every Pakistani. Just as the state machinery has been forced to reveal the Kharotabad incident report, which had been initially decided to be kept a secret, but under considerable public outcry was released; the institutions will also have to be pursued into the habit of sharing information with the public.

The withholding of information, only points to the fact that there is something wrong and the picture that is being painted to the masses is not an accurate one. The mindset and perception present in our public sector departments has no place in a democratic setup. The lowest ranking official to the highest seat of power are answerable to the people. The institutions and officials have declared and vowed to serve the public and not their own vested interests. It has to be realized by the officials and the public also that, times have changed and democracy demands the active participation of the citizens in the governance of the country. The country is no longer run by a junta, where the citizens have been kept at the bottom of the pyramid. The concept of democracy values the opinion of each and every individual and these opinions will only be generated if proper information is available to them. Right to information is a tool which serves the purpose of not only disseminating information, but also strengthening the institutions in the long run.

Purple crocodile

Wikipedia

The term purple crocodile (Dutch: Paarse krokodil) originates from a 2005 television advertisement by the Dutch insurance company OHRA promoting their lack of red tape. The purple crocodile has since become a more general mascot for bureaucracy in the Netherlands[1]

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The Last but not Least Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand ~Archibald Putt. Ph.D


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