Wednesday, September 17, 2008


I’m sure if you ask most anyone today, the word ‘bureaucracy’ conjures up feelings of ineptitude and mismanagement. Although most people work within some sort of ordered system (by default a bureaucracy), in many minds the word is almost tied with ‘liberal’ on the negative connotation scale.

I happen to work in one of those long governmental bureaucratic chains, and I must admit, its pretty ridicules. The first time I realized how bad was in 2003 at an environmental conference watching a distinguished EPA speaker. The guy was probably somewhere in federal middle management. Mr. EPA is giving a presentation on new state perchlorate contamination standards, measured in parts per billion… as most scientists would show- μg/L. At least any scientist that has taken an undergrad chemistry course. However, in Mr EPA’s talk, every single slide of his powerpoint has λg/L. We saw it about 50 times throughout his presentation.

For those of you who haven’t taken a college physics course, lambda (λ) is a symbol for wavelength. Nothing to do with concentration. Mr. EPA is talking about state standards (which we have to enact), and using the wrong symbol. Or, taken further, we must invent a whole new way to measure concentration to meet EPA standards.

When called out on it from a member of the audience, he simply said “It means parts per billion.” And brushed it off like somehow we’re the ones who didn’t understand.

And that, in a nutshell, details what’s inherently wrong with bureaucracies. You see, we lowly ‘state’ people couldn’t tell him he was wrong because we’re below him on the bureaucratic totem pole. The only way he would have righted his wrong was if someone from higher up the chain -District Manager or something- would have corrected him.

Does that make bureaucracy inherently bad? Absolutely not. But it does make it overwhelmingly dependent on the abilities and aptitude of those in higher management. That’s why good private sector presidents/CEO’s get paid so much; private companies know how important it is (at least the successful ones do).

On the public side, we’re seeing friends or major contributors of the governor, president, etc. in heads of agencies in which they have little to no experience or qualifications. That inexperience trickles down and permeates the rest of the agency. Then you get what we've got today.

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