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.