The Need for Practical Wisdom in the Federal Bureaucracy


Washington DC - Capitol Hill: United States Ca...

Washington DC – Capitol Hill: United States Capitol (Photo credit: wallyg)

With the massive growth of the federal government comes growth in a complex bureaucratic structure that creates multiple layers of administration between government agencies and what they are designed to do. In the 1950s it was relatively easy to begin the interstate highway system–the government was more simply run and the number of “checkers” was reasonable. These days it takes years from conception to finish to build a small limited access route around a growing city. This is not only an issue of environmental regulation–it is an issue of paperwork, finding the right codes, administrator egos, and too many layers of management. In addition, any bureaucracy operates on a system of strict rules. In the case of the federal government, these rules are said to be necessary to protect the public from fraud, from unsafe products, from incompetent health care, or from shoddy construction on buildings and roads. Rules are essential to any organization–it would be irrational to deny that. People, left to themselves, are not often an orderly lot, and efficient, competent operation requires rules. However, beyond rules that are absolutely essential for safety or another vital value, rules often get in the way of common sense. A needed highway may be delayed by the failure to fill out some obscure paperwork that very few people knew about at the time. People in a local area may realize that what they request is badly needed, but someone in the bureaucracy nicks the request. Often, the requests of local people who know the needs of the communities inĀ  which they live are overridden by someone who has never set foot in a particular community. The current trend in the federal government seems to be to follow the model of private business and focus on efficiency. Admittedly the federal government could do a better job of being efficient. However, efficiency should not trump service, and federal supervisors from upper management to “ordinary” employees should be given enough discretion to use practical wisdom to react in the proper way to a particular situation. As Aristotle pointed out, practical wisdom has to do with the local, the particular, rather than with an overarching universal. It is all too easy for federal officials to get caught in their abstract language and multiple abbreviations and lose sight of the very people that pay their salaries and whom they are to serve in a caring, responsible way. Discretion in spending of money should be broadened. Civil service should be reformed in such a way that seniority does not imply that an incompetent person or someone abusing his authority cannot be fired. But there should also be room for dissent and questioning of the decisions of middle and upper management as long as it is done in a respectful way. For example, suppose a federal employee lives in a community where a new bridge is supposed to be built. The employee knows that the road over which the bridge will be build will be re-routed so as to avoid the need for a bridge–at cost savings to the community. Higher federal officials say, “Congress appropriated the money for a bridge, and a bridge you shall have.” What would be wrong with local federal employees who know the situation informing their managers and those managers going up the chain of command so that Congress can allow the community to use the money appropriated for the bridge for re-routing the road? It is not insubordination to question a ruling. Not following a ruling after a final decision has been made would be wrong–but questioning if there is good reason to question should be a right of any American citizen including one who works for the federal government.

Some government programs work well; most do not. Why not work with those who do not to improve them, and if they are not viable, eliminate them? Federal programs, like federal employees, seem to be self-perpetuating no matter how useless or incompetent they are. This demoralizes good employees and empowers the cynical. Instead of focusing on “Which set of rules must we follow now,” focus on “What is the best thing to do in this particular situation?” The best thing will depend on the particularities of the situation and will require practical wisdom, learned by experience, rather than a list of rules to reach the best decision. This implies good observation and evaluation skills as well as the skills to creatively find ways to stay within the rules while stretching them to fit the limits of a particular situation. Experienced local officials should be trusted, unless they have proven untrustworthy, to make prudent decisions. Normally middle and upper management should, if sufficient funds are available, yield to the suggestions of the people who know an area and its problems best. Civil service, designed in the Chester Arthur administration to prevent political favoritism, should not be used to maintain the incompetent, the arrogant, and those managers who harm others by their laziness in performing their tasks. At the local level, conversations in the workplace between different units should be as open as possible so that “the right hand knows where the left hand goes.” Wise decisions are based on the most accurate and thorough information possible. Hopefully federal employees can then go beyond mere rule-following and exercise their discretion


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Susan, 55, has worked for a corporation for thirty years. Most of the time, that corporation was small, and even upper management was able to visit most branches of the business. For years, her vacations had to be approved only by her immediate supervisor.

One day, Susan gives her request for three days’ vacation to her supervisor’s new secretary. The secretary glances at her request, returns it to Sue, and gives her another form. “You need to fill out this form for vacation requests. They must be approved by both your supervisor and your senior manager. Susan protests. “In the past I’ve always given my request to my supervisor.” The secretary waves her off and says, “No paperwork, no vacation.” Susan walks away, furious, feeling powerless, and almost in tears–but she fills out the form anyway.

Most of us, if not all of us, must deal with bureaucracy in some areas of our lives. We may work for a large organization with a complex bureaucracy. We may have to deal with banks, electric and water companies, and other organizations that provide the necessities of life. Most of us find ourselves frustrated at bureaucracy in our lives. Why is that the case? Is it just a matter of the time it takes to go through person after person on the phone before we find help? Is it a matter of the loads of paperwork we have to fill out? In most cases, those reasons are adequate. But when it comes to dealing with bureaucracy in our workplace, as in Susan’s situation, there may be a more fundamental reason.

Most people recognize the need for complex authority structures as organizations grow. There must be a clear hierarchy and clear procedures for business to be accomplished; otherwise an organization would function poorly, and perhaps fail. But there are cases in which a bureaucratic structure can interfere with good employer-employee relations. The problem is a matter of trust.

No employee wants to work for a company she does not trust. Corporations require some level of trust to encourage loyality and hard work. But a corporation, without being naive, should trust its employees. Management should not assume that the employees are essentially lazy and “out to get” the employer (as in Theory X management). This will only result in a hostile work force.

Adding layers of bureaucracy, especially with a lack of good communication with employees, sends a clear message to employees: “We do not trust you.” For example, in Susan’s situation, upper management apparently changed policy on vacation requests without informing lower-level employees. Susan may think (and she might be right) that such action reveals a fundamental distrust of employees (“we’ll do this without consulting our workforce; this is an executive decision, and the workers can find out about the new policy as they make vacation requests”). Such action may also reflect a belief by management that employees will take advantage of their vacation time.

Now Susan may be wrong about all this. Management’s decision might be related to a desire to know when workers will be on vacation company-wide in order to discern patterns and make appropriate plans. And the lack of communcation might be due to the slowness of communication in any large bureaucracy. Even if that is the case, we can understand why Susan is upset–and why we would most likely be upset in similar situations.