Are you a bureaucrat?

If you’re reading this, it’s definitely possible.

In a recent New York Times piece called Don’t Let Bureaucracy Ruin Your Day, Russell Bishop explains that the roots of the word “bureaucrat” come from the French word for desk or office and the Greek word for rule. So if you sit behind a desk (even part of the time) and develop procedures for others to follow (even if not very often) then you fit the classical definition of a bureaucrat.

Many people arrive at social change work—either starting up their own social enterprise, or taking a nonprofit job—because they want to avoid bureaucracy. After all, everyone has encountered a frustrating roadblock that’s explained as “just our policy,” and sometimes even the people most directly involved have only a hazy idea of why that particular policy exists or what it’s good for. Who wouldn’t want to break free?

But it’s easier to start something than it is to stop. So policies, procedures, rules, and regulations have a tendency to multiply, complexify, and persist. Piecemeal reforms often make things worse by tweaking one part of the problem but leaving the rest unchanged and even more difficult to understand.

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Turn those frowns upside down. Photo: Glen_Wright, Flickr/Creative Commons

But Bishop believes there’s a cure. It’s not necessarily easy – but stick with it and it may be fun and liberating.

Is it your job to administer a rule that seems to chafe? Then figure out how to ease the pain. Find deeper-than-average ways to review why the rule exists, how it might be changed, and what the benefit might be.

Put together a little group of people affected by the rule – including, of course, the people who need it to make their lives easier or safer. Bishop suggests three short questions that might guide a conversation with these people:

  • Based on what we are learning, what do we need to stop doing?
  • What do we need to keep doing?
  • And what do we need to start doing?

A candid talk about the whys and wherefores of any rule should generate suggestions for change and ideas about how to smooth out the rough spots.

I think it’s worth a try. I’d love to live in a world where bureaucratic barriers are less common, where rules simply help everyone to succeed rather than tripping people up.

What do you think? Is it possible to be a good bureaucrat?

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