Monday, October 31, 2005

Bureaucracy, Time to Downsize



"The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is its inefficiency."
Eugene McCarthy

Bureaucracy gets a consistently bad press, sometimes unfairly and perhaps just as often with justification. The bureaucrats of our nation keep things going between the chaotic changings of administrations and congresses, keep the wheels greased and a continuity to the delivery of government. Without all those worker-bees we disdainfully call bureaucrats, we'd be up to our knees with things to do and no one properly trained to do them.

Having said that, we're probably forty percent too large bureaucratically and the growth comes because, for the most part, nothing ever gets shut down. Like a business that hasn't the need to show a profit, there always seem more desks to fill, more papers to push. Agriculture is but one example. The sheer numbers of farmers who produce our food have declined from forty-three percent of the population at the turn of the century to less than two percent now and yet the Department of Agriculture has grown tenfold, perhaps twenty if anyone cared to look. Much the same can be said across the board.

A decade or so ago, I remember William F. Buckley, Jr. proposing a tongue-in-cheek remedy that would allow any bureaucrat who could prove his bureau needless, to just go on home. We'd pay his salary for life merely to get him out of the system, along with his horde of workers and the office space they occupy. The savings would be huge by this system of profitable self-destruction. I hope I remember the gist of his proposal correctly, if not he's sure to let me know or point out it was someone else's fun being had at the expense of bureaucrats.

But tongue-in-cheek or not, it strikes at the core of a solution and the theory of self-interest is worth our attention. The main reason bureaucracy is so endemic is that no one in government is there long enough to shut off the lights. Bureaucracy withstands the storms of presidencies and congresses like Iowa farmers in tornado-time, by hunkering down in the cellar until it all blows over. And given the intrinsic impermanence of our elected officials, it does blow over, over and over and over. There has to be a self-interest, needs to be a payoff for downsizing and Buckley may have shined a light on it.

Currently, budgets for our myriad bureaus are historically based rather than need based, but the difference is probably academic. Fiefdoms of power derive from bureaus and the money appropriated is always spent, even in year-end panic to justify a still larger budget and still larger fiefdom for the coming year. Realistically, it has ever been thus and will ever be thus until a way is found to encourage bureaucrats to participate in the process of downsizing. Money and time off may be a way to begin to accomplish the unaccomplishable.

Suppose all government bureaus were encouraged, as industry has been encouraged by quality-circles and employee suggestion programs, to find more efficient and less costly ways to provide their services and then the savings were shared. Save ten million and we'll put two and a half in the pension fund and distribute two and a half. We might begin to see a closing down of redundant programs, a scaling back of personnel. Those who are displaced would leave with a part of the financial package. Some bureaus might actually go entirely out of existence. The short-term sharing would be dwarfed by the long-term savings and government might at last begin to shrink within the walls of realistic and appropriate size.

Workers are always the best judge of what is being done needlessly or inefficiently. Any line worker in a department, whether it be in private industry or government is aware of the procedural stupidities that stand between them and doing a quicker, cheaper, more efficient job. Without incentives and subject to the pressure of fellow workers to go along to get along, inefficiencies become nearly impossible to ferret out. That's particularly true in a constantly changing government, where the incoming political appointee may have the best of intentions, but hits a brick wall of indifference, a hunkering down until the next appointee comes along to face the same imponderable forces.

Something has to break the inertia and money can be a powerful influence. The shared money of voluntary downsizing could provide huge benefits and reverse a trend that has shown itself to be unchallengable. We are opening upon an era where technology offers mind-dazzling efficiencies in the transfer and assimilation of facts and figures. Programs can be computer-modeled as never before and yet we find ourselves bound and gagged, held hostage to the sheer numbers of needless jobs that no one can define, much less justify. Perhaps we can pay some of them to go home.