Bureaucracy was the solution to an evil. The Bureau was a procedural solution to the untrammelled corruption and abuses of the autocratic state. We have restrained the world with prolicy, process and procedure. We have also created a new evil to fight, particularly as we enter more procedures into digital systems.
Kamil Galeev, a commentator on Russia recently posted a thread on the procedural nature of the Russian state. The key takeaway of the thread is that as a fully bureaucratic state what matters in Russia is not legality or even sense, what matters is following the procedures.
This procedural mindset is not constrained to renegade pariah states like Russia. A key message of the Australian Institute of Company Directors in recent years after many corporate scandals has been to remind boards that the critical question is not ‘what can we do?’. The key question is ‘What should we do?’. Too many organisations have so deified procedure that they lose the ethics of the actions in rote following of procedure. We need to act with greater care.
As we moving into an increasingly digital economy, the danger of pure proceduralism is something all organisations must consider. Just because you can build a purely digital exception free process does not mean that it is wise or ethical. Examples abound where such processes either fail customers completely, fail to provide equality of access or produce absurd and inequitable results.
Digital systems are not always as transparent as they should be and without human feedback poor interactions can continue endlessly. I tire of websites that force logins but don’t realise their login procedures don’t always work. These sites get in their own way ejecting eager customers and mostly seem unmoved by the ongoing poor experience. They clearly aren’t aware of what their data could tell them.
This digital bureaucracy is particularly the case in organisations where policy and procedure has accumulated over generations in response to breakdowns and exceptions. The byzantine nature of these processes makes any human progress nearly impossible and create huge costs for digital systems and their users. Far better to provide a human with discretion to apply sense in pursuit of sensible goals.
Bureaucracy is a human tool. Bureaucracy is a tool we should deploy to human ends. When it breaks down we should allow ways to fix it or improve it or stop all together. Keeping sight of our goals and choosing the right amount of policy and procedure is an important management task. More policy and procedure is not always the best option.