And Never the Twain Shall Meet

Bureaucracies are not networks. And never the twain shall meet. Bureaucracies are hierarchical, rules-based, static, slow to adapt, and have a single, constant imperative: survival. Networks are flat, conventions-based, highly adaptable, and, consequently, varied. They can spring into existence when a need arises and vanish when the need has ended. Networks are a challenge and a rebuke to bureaucracies.

Once any human organization has reached a certain level of size and complexity it has evolved a bureaucracy as its means of administration. This is as true of empires as it is for corporations institutions of learning, or religious sects.

The human world today has reached a size, complexity, and facility in communications and information dissemination and storage greater than anything we’ve known. Bureaucracies by their very nature simply aren’t capable of keeping up with today’s needs. But they’re still surviving, growing, they have the power, and they’re unlikely to yield it.

My friend Mark Safranski of Zenpundit has a fascinating article up today at Democracy Project on the execution of foreign policy. In the post he notes the fracturing and stultification of foreign policy among competing bureaucracies:

Such a dysfunctional situation exists again, except today it is not merely a military problem. The process for executing American foreign policy through various departments, agencies and bureaus is less like the president activating a streamlined network than it is like a farmer attempting to move a herd of unwilling cattle. Changing policies or presidents will not help, except to shift the area or degree of failure without improving the performance. The foreign policy process is becoming unmanageable because the bureaucracy through which the president –any president – must work his foreign policy, was built for an era that is increasingly relegated to history books. A world of iron curtains and checkpoint charlies that ran at the pace of snail mail, telegrams and rotary telephones. That time is gone and it is never coming back; America’s problems today evolve at a much faster velocity.

He goes on to propose a creative network-oriented alternative. Read the whole thing.

I think that Mark’s proposal, while interesting, is doomed. The existing bureacracies will fight any change tooth and nail simply because it is a change, simultaneously insisting that any new institutions be subsumed into their own bureacratic structures, effectively strangling them at birth.

What I believe will happen is that the emergent network-oriented forces outside of government will route around the existing bureacracies, which will become decreasingly relevant and increasingly detached and surreal.

There’s already a model for this in the political-military sphere: al Qaeda. Whether a modern industrial or post-industrial society can survive competing and conflicting interests among such networks in an era of super-empowered individuals is open to question.

Check out Mark’s article. Since DP doesn’t seem to allow comments, you might want to leave yours here.

9 comments… add one
  • Hi Dave,

    “What I believe will happen is that the emergent network-oriented forces outside of government will route around the existing bureacracies, which will become decreasingly relevant and increasingly detached and surreal.”

    You have made a critically important point ( wish I had made it) and if the top level of the executive branch doesn’t grasp the opportunity to decentralize in some fashion, that is exactly what will happen.

    Much thanks for the links!

  • I understand your point about ‘routing around’, but have to disagree. While I’ll be the first to declare that bureaucracies have innate and serious problems, they do address (however dysfunctionally) the true need for hierarchical decision making.

    A network of really smart people (I’m drawing a best-case here) can certainly come up with policies. But governance isn’t the same as finding the most efficient solution to a traveling salesman problem. It depends on politics and political will and that’s not just a matter of routing the salesman around a broken bridge. It’s also the matter of dealing with the salesman who won’t go over particular bridges because of factors non-essential to salesmanship, but vital for other reasons. It has to deal with the destination that simply won’t accept your salesmen or don’t want your product. When you try to figure out all the potential variables you simply run out of computing time.

    I do think that networking as described can play a vital function within bureaucracies. Many–and I put State at the head of the list–are now dysfunctional due to their near-total top-down orientation. But it needn’t stay that way.

    In the mid-1990s, the US Information Agency (USIA) underwent a major transformation which, in some of its bureaus, greatly flattened the management structure. Instead of three layers of supervisors, each with his/her turf to protect, it resulted in a ‘team leader’ actually leading teams of peers, even if those peers were at varying grades. Evaluations, awards, and raises were based on the success of the team rather than the individual. It worked, to a large degree, because the offices were mostly electronic by that time. E-mail and early BBSs helped distribute information, getting out of the hands of the gatekeepers.

    But it also brought to light new problems. Networks made of people of varying skills and abilities are not going to work at top efficiency. We might like (or like to think) that our government workers are the finest on earth, and many are. But there are also people who cannot be fired, cannot be urged to retire–even in their 90s–people who are in positions mostly in order to rectify past discrimination… in other words, real life impinges.

    Change is going to take at least a generation as the people now in top positions, and perhaps one or two steps below, are jealous of their positions. They spent 20 or more years getting whether they were through old(er) techniques and aren’t about to hand over the reins to someone who really fast and accurate with Google, but otherwise hasn’t paid any dues.

    I ran into this when I was Team Leader for the public diplomacy offices responsible for getting accurate information about the US out to (in two different jobs) Europe and the NIS, and Near East/South Africa audiences, after USIA was rolled into State Dept., as well as when working as a field officer.

    State has an office responsible for all translations of official documents such as treaties, something which can take weeks to accomplish. USIA had an office responsible for quickly translating speeches by US officials–including the President and Sec. State) and getting them to the field ASAP so that world media would have an exact text and wouldn’t have to rely on AP’s or some other news agency’s take. This was a very real clash of purpose and an affront to the dignity of the State translation office. It was resolved because common sense prevailed. It became understood that a translation two weeks after the event was worthless. One office had to suck it up while another, fleeter office, ate part of its lunch.

    Not everyone puts the mission above career though. I need more than two hands to count the senior State officials who tried to retract information or translations that had already gone out to global media because they hadn’t phrased their remarks quite right. I can’t begin to count the instances where senior officials tried to distinguish what they said to a particular American audience knowing (after the fact) that it wouldn’t go down well in some region abroad.

    Even within the bureaucracy (and networks as well), you have to deal with individuals (or nodes) that insist on bringing their personal biases to bear. I had to fight in one office to ensure that foreign policy statements by the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were transmitted abroad because the majority of the staff didn’t support the Chairman’s positions or politics.

    Even networks have critical nodes whose misfunctions can crash the system. The more critical those nodes, the more critical the damage.

  • Ken Hoop Link

    You guys need to read Prof. Andrew Bacevich’s books on the necessity of dismantling the imperial state before all your pretensions dissipate in a heap of ignominy. “New American Imperialism,” a starter.

  • Ken Hoop Link

    That’s “New American Militarism” chaps. Padon.

  • Thanks, John. I think that perhaps I haven’t made my point clearly. I don’t believe that bureaucracies are useless nor do I believe that ad hoc networks are free from flaws. I believe that both have their strengths and weaknesses and, most importantly, both are inevitable within their own milieus.

    There are two point about the present entrenched bureaucracies at State and Defense, however. First, the rate of change today is simply beyond those two organizations’ abilities to adapt without substantial motivation. Second, I don’t see the motivation coming in the form of leadership from either Democrats or Republicans for the foreseeable future. Both parties at this point are dedicated to the preservation of bureaucracies not their reform.

  • Ken, if you think I’m an imperialist of any form you aren’t reading closely enough.

  • Ken Hoop Link

    Oh, I didn’t realize you agreed with Buchanan’s position in “A Republic
    Not an Empire.” Let’s start here: you’re against NATO expansion and agree with the Russian position it is a belligerent continuation of Cold War
    policy. You favored cutting off Israel rather than, eg financing its
    barbarian invasion of Lebanon…etc.

  • Ken Hoop Link

    And you have formally advocated dismantling a large percentage of
    military bases in Asia and Europe. Sorry I missed it….

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