The bureaucratic mindset


Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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41 Responses

  1. RTod says:

    “This could be a convenient launching point for another anti-government tirade, but anyone who’s encountered a customer service hotline knows that large, hierarchical institutions in the private sector are plagued by many of the same problems that beset the DC bureaucracy.”

    This is exactly right. One of my first jobs out of college was at Pitney Bowes (at the time one of the 20 largest companies in the country), and I’ve never heard a DMV customer service/Federal Govt. waste story that didn’t sound like it came directly from that place.Report

  2. tom van dyke says:

    If you’re the head of DC’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, I want you to have some authority to repeal or amend bad laws.

    Not me.

    I think the gentleman is doing the right thing, his job. He doesn’t give his personal opinions on laws to the newspapers. I don’t want unelected bureaucrats legislating or pontificating. We elect people to do that. 😉

    And I think it’s unfair that Majett is painted as a mindless and blanket defender of existing law. He also says:

    “Now, we also have a code coordinating board that’s revamping all of the laws. We’re going to be among the first jurisdiction to revamp all of its codes. So I think we’re on track to be a model for other jurisdictions. We have looked at the laws on the books and we’ve modified some, and some of them might be antiquated, so we’ve gotten rid of those.”

    As for not giving advice on how to start a business, his staff has been cut heavily. What you’d end up with is an unqualified clerk giving advice that falls far short of an attorney’s for necessary accuracy. [It happens all the time when you ask the IRS about stuff.]

    Bad help is worse than no help atall, and Majett’s department certainly can’t afford to have qualified lawyers on staff to answer legal questions for free.

    I think the guy sounds ace, sorry. He even put a building permit kiosk in at Home Depot. Would that all bureaucrats thought of themselves as “civil servants.”Report

    • James K in reply to tom van dyke says:

      I agree with Tom on this. I’m way more libertarian than most government employees, but if you put me in front of a camera and asked me that question, I’d give a similar answer to him. Rule number 1 of public service: do not criticise your government in public. There’s a reason why I spend my time on American political blogs and not New Zealand ones.

      The function of the civil service is to advise the government of the day and then carry out that government’s instructions, including making any decisions that have been duly delegated to them.

      You won’t find current government employees that are heavily critical of government in public, it just doesn’t work like that.Report

  3. Trumwill says:

    He makes two justifications. First, that the laws and regulations are good. Second, that these laws and regulations are the legislature’s job. The first… well, I’ll just have to disagree with them about that. The second, though, is exactly right. Maybe they should pass along common complaints for the legislature to consider, but with somewhat rare exception the rules are the rules.Report

    • RTod in reply to Trumwill says:

      “The second, though, is exactly right.”

      Except that it isn’t, even if it should be. Legislators simply don’t (can’t?) spell out every little intricacy of how a bill that instructs a government agency. Which means that about half of what I deal with in the insurance industry from a regulatory standpoint is from statutes, but the other half is by administrative rules… that is, de facto laws that are created by government bureaucrats.Report

    • Francis in reply to Trumwill says:

      Got this one wrong,ED. There’s a bright line between writing laws and administering.them, and there are lots of good reasons to keep it that way (like respecting the democratic process).

      In my pretty extensive personal experience, legislators get verrry cranky when their mid level to senior staff spout off to the press about laws being stupid (& junior staff don’t get interviewed). If a civil servant believes that a law is counter-productive, or inefficient or just a waste, then the appropriate course of action is to go to the legislator or the deputy in charge of legislative affairs and recommend the change in private. Even that can be tricky; the State of California prohibits State employees from lobbying while acting in their official capacities. The Governor sets policy for the Executive Branch, not staff.Report

      • Trumwill in reply to Francis says:

        That’s a good point. The appropriate response to the question of how they feel about the laws probably ought to be “it’s not my job to evaluate the legislation” until such a time as they move on. Publicly, anyway. Privately, kvetching is a national passtime.Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Francis says:

        There’s a bright line between writing laws and administering.them, and there are lots of good reasons to keep it that way (like respecting the democratic process).

        I have to say I agree with this. We separate these powers precisely to frustrate arbitrary government.

        There are other routes, however, to arbitrary rule. One of them is a set of laws and regulations so complex that no one can ever follow them in their entirety. After that, the administrators have discretion in punishing those whom they choose. If you don’t believe that we have such a system today, you’ve never examined the Federal Register.Report

    • Annelid Gustator in reply to Trumwill says:

      I like the idea of a drop box at gov’t offices for comment cards that go directly to the leg.Report

      • Scott in reply to Annelid Gustator says:

        That will have about as much effect as my law school asking me to rate the performance of tenured professors. The guy at issue is just another Dem bureaucrat and doesn’t care b/c the gov’t is always right and more importantly pays his check.Report

        • Annelid Gustator in reply to Scott says:

          I believe your comment is incorrect: contact with legislators matters, particularly *written* contact.

          Besides, it ISN’T that guy’s job to write the laws, except where the “laws” are “rules” and then in almost every jurisdiction proposed rules and changes are held for periods of public comment.

          Acting like the whole thing isn’t going to work is the one sure way to make sure it won’t.Report

          • Scott in reply to Annelid Gustator says:

            No, it isn’t his job to write legislation but it is his job to think instead of mindlessly repeating the party line.

            If I have a suggestion for my legislator or representative I will go straight to them not via some mid level bureaucrat who would in all likelihood toss my comment in the garbage lest he be forced to think.Report

            • ThatPirateGuy in reply to Scott says:

              A brilliant Idea Scott.

              I suspect that DC is not unique in this regard. Perhaps you could investigate if your area has a similar problem and if so contact your local representatives.

              Making it easier to jump through business creation hoops is about as pro-business/growth as a policy as I can think of. Conservatives and libertarians should really push it when they can. In fact perhaps congress could address it.

              Call it the small business jobs creation act. Offer an incentive to state governments that create offices where a person can find out in one trip from one person what they will need to do to start a business. You could offset it by cutting corn/oil subsidies.Report

  4. E.C. Gach says:

    “If you’re the head of DC’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, I want you to have some authority to repeal or amend bad laws. I also want you actively thinking about the efficiency, fairness, and desirability of current regulations.”

    A little more autocracy is just what we need.Report

  5. DensityDuck says:

    “And if you’re a customer service rep at my local big box retailer, I want you to make it right instead of passing my complaints up the chain of command. ”

    Well, but that’s the problem. That customer service rep at the local big box retailer doesn’t have the ability to make it right. The customer service rep has the ability to forward your complaint to our Service Department and can we offer you a twenty-dollar gift certificate for your next visit sir?

    Which is, I think, what ED is railing against–the idea that It’s The System that’s responsible for everything, and that we’re all just cogs in the machine, Just Working Here, I can do what I can do, it is what it is. I think that’s the real thing that’s scary about big-box retailers; the idea, pounded into the employees, that they’re just part of the process, that there’s no personal connection between them and the customer. The Best Buy down the street from me isn’t owned by someone I know; nobody I know works there; nobody who works there lives in the neighborhood; and nobody in that store would give a hoot in hell if I went to Radio Shack or Fry’s or even a different Best Buy. If I go in hopping mad about the flimsy piece of junk that just broke, and I leave even madder after throwing their Chinese-made crap in a garbage can, they’ll just shrug their shoulders and post about it on

    And, really, why should they care? It’s not their fault; they didn’t decide to stock cheap junk, they didn’t set the return policy to be “no returns unless it’s unopened”, they didn’t decide to eliminate the film-noir section so they could stock more copies of “Piranha 3D”. And there’s no way I can talk to anyone who is responsible for those decisions; it was someone in a corner office in Chicago or something, six months ago.

    Anyway, where I’m going with all this is that modern bureaucracy engenders and encourages a passing of personal responsibility to the nameless, faceless, mindless system. Nothing’s the fault of the functionary; no, that’s just The Rules.Report

    • > doesn’t have the ability to make it right.

      Horsefeathers. They don’t have the implicit authority to make it right, maybe. But I’ve run into plenty of customer service blokes that bend, break, fold, spindle, or mutilate the rules to make the customer on the line happy. If they can’t help you, they kick you over to the guy in Tier 2 that they know can solve your problem, because they care. Sometimes, they risk reprimand by gettin’ stuff done instead of following the little red line. It’s only very seldom that they are structurally *unable* to help you (although that does happen, of course).

      > And, really, why should they care?

      But that’s a common root cause of the problem. It’s not that most of them can’t help, it’s that most of them don’t care *enough* to get stuff done instead of following the little red line.

      But I think this is a complex problem with lots of contributing factors. It’s probably the case that $10/hour is not going to be a big motivator for quality, self-driven types. It’s probably the case that “I could get fired by my jerk boss who is a stickler for the rules” is another “care-dampener”. There are lots of things that can drive an employee’s care function down below the point where they are going to prioritize “gettin’ stuff done” above “showing up and getting paid”.Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

        “…I’ve run into plenty of customer service blokes that bend, break, fold, spindle, or mutilate the rules to make the customer on the line happy.

        But then you say…

        “It’s probably the case that “I could get fired by my jerk boss who is a stickler for the rules” is another “care-dampener”. ”

        All I have to do is sit here and watch you argue with yourself 😀Report

    • Matty in reply to DensityDuck says:

      Yay, I get to cite Hogfather aga.

      The Auditors lived by consensus, which made picking scapegoats a little problematical. It brightened up. After all, if everyone was to blame, then it was no one’s actual fault. That’s what collective responsibility meant, after all. It was more like bad luck, or something.


  6. And if you’re a customer service rep at my local big box retailer, I want you to make it right instead of passing my complaints up the chain of command. But that never seems to happen,

    I’ve held several customer service oriented job and one actual customer service rep job (at a bank’s inbound call center, but alas, not at a big box retailer), and I usually tried (and I guess you’ll have to take my word for this) to make things right and I usually succeeded. I’ll confess that I had my passive aggressive moments, either when the customer was being a jerk or when I was being a jerk, and sometimes I had to refer certain calls to a supervisor, but in general, I took responsibility for my actions, giving my customers (at the call center) my first AND last name and my extension.

    I obviously wasn’t a saint of an employee 100% of the time (I’d like to see anyone–a professor, an engineer, a doctor–who always does their job 100% well 100% of the time and never makes mistakes), but as a bureaucrat, I really did try to help customers and even went out of my way, and while I probably was considered (by my supervisors) as one of the better employees, I certainly wasn’t by far the only employee who tried to help customers. (Of course, perhaps the customer service culture at the places I worked at were conducive to encouraging helping customers in a way that other businesses or entities are not.)

    My main quibble is with the assertion that “that never seems to happen.” If I am placing too much emphasis on what was meant as an offhand or hyperbolic expression, I apologize. But I get persnickety when people complain about “the bureaucrats” and ascribe “mindsets” to them when these bureaucrats are often (though admittedly not always) people who would like to do a good job and enjoy doing a good job when given the chance.Report

  7. Will says:

    Just for the record fellas, I’m distinct from Mr. Kain.Report

    • Francis in reply to Will says:


    • E.D. Kain in reply to Will says:

      I was wondering about that…
      Also, I’ve had decent experiences with customer service at some big companies like Verizon and Best Buy. And with government employees at schools and libraries. It just depends I suppose.Report

      • gregiank in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        I’ve had universally good experiences with National Park Service Rangers at parks all over the country.Report

        • Trumwill in reply to gregiank says:

          Ditto. I think that NPS jobs are particularly hard to get, so they can afford to be more selective. Out west you have the natural parks, and how cool would it be to work at Yellowstone? In the east you have battlefields, which have their own “neat” factor.Report

      • I agree. I would also say that it depends in part on the attitude of the customer.

        I would like to think that I wouldn’t yell at an employee just because the retailer he or she works for ripped me off on the quality of a product it sells. I would also like to think that I wouldn’t expect an employee to do something that would get them in trouble with their management. I would also like to think that there are some rules employees just can’t violate (for example, when I was a bank teller (I’ve had several banking jobs), there were certain procedures I had to observe when cashing checks that I had almost no way of violating without potentially getting into really severe trouble.)

        Having said all that, it is the CSR’s responsibility to do what he or she can to help the customer. Also, even though I would like to think that I’m a nice customer, maybe I’m not in practice. Being and self-perceiving can be two different things.Report

  8. RTod says:

    I mentioned this briefly earlier, but amid an astounding number of typing/grammar errors as I tried to post on my iphone, plus I wanted to expand:

    Majett says: “We don’t enact laws. That’s done by the legislature. ” While that’s true from a semantics point of view, it’s not from a practical point of view.

    My industry is heavily regulated – I mean, heeeeavily regulated. But only about half of these regulations come from legislative statute. The other half are State Administrative Rules, which carry the same weight (and potential punishment) as laws but are made entirely by government bureaucrats with no real legislative oversight at all.

    An interesting dilemma we face in our industry is which is worse – laws or administrative rules? On the one hand, the statutes are part of a very democratic process, while the admin rules are just handed down from behind closed doors without any kind of recourse if we strongly disagree with them. On the other hand, the legislature doesn’t know what the fish they are doing when they pass small or sweeping laws in our industry – even when they are trying to “help” they are totally clueless and never think things through; the State regulators, on the other hand, do know their shite, and even when we hate their rules they can make bad laws workable.Report

    • Pierre Corneille in reply to RTod says:

      You are right, of course, that the phenomenon of administrative rules and interpretations of rules and statutes is in effect “legislation,” or at least can plausibly be construed as such.

      My main question would be whether Majett, in an interview in which he is invited to discuss changing “legislation,” meant “administrative rules,” etc., or plain Jane statutes and ordinances.Report

  9. rj says:

    It isn’t just Jim Crow that causes people to worry about regulatory discretion. It’s about every petty little squabble possibly turning into something that closes the government to an individual who has a personal beef with a government employee. Essentially, every workaround for one person has an equal and opposite obstruction for another. Thus the “must” language.

    It’s ironic in all this talk of devolution that it’s the smaller governments that are most corrupt. The sort of scandals we see with politicans and regulators on the federal level pale in comparison to the messes that governors and state legislators get into. So many small towns across the country are run by grudge-holding public officials that are systematically biased, especially against newcomers.

    I’d much rather spend twice as long dealing with some faceless guy 1,000 miles away than my local petty tyrant. Just ask Wasilla’s librarian or any black person in Tulia, Texas.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to rj says:

      You are aware that the while “Sarah Palin wanted to ban books” thing is total bullshit, right?Report

      • rj in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Yes, the list of books that was circulating around wasn’t real – and I didn’t mention it. However, the librarian was threatened for not giving her “full support” to the mayor. Other non-elected officials had to undergo bizarre “loyalty tests” to keep their jobs.

        Small towns across the country have similar problems with petty tyrants.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to rj says:

      In the last month we’ve had major discussions of a Bowdlerization of The Great American Novel as well as Canada’s banning of non-radio edits of a song released back in 1985.

      Would those be good examples for what you’re arguing?Report

      • rj in reply to Jaybird says:

        Not really. The American and Canadian examples aren’t really analogous, as one was just one publisher printing a book. As for Canada, well, their free speech laws are different than our own and I’m not too informed about it.

        What I’m talking about is the fact that regulatory discretion may help some people cut some red tape, but it can also be used to stymie people whom the regulator dislikes. The smaller the regulator’s purview, the worse the problem gets.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to rj says:

      I should point out that I agree with you, by the way. If regulatory bureaucracy is going to claim that it derives its authority from being a neutral and objective arbiter, then it has to actually be that.Report

  10. Paul X says:

    We shouldn’t expect bureaucrats to do anything other than support the current regime. That’s just self-preservation.

    What I can’t understand is people who aren’t bureaucrats, supporting it. Bureaucrats live and work by the means of coercion and violence, when you strip everything down. Saying it’s the legislature’s fault is giving them far too much the benefit of the doubt. All of them are at fault – the legislature, executive, bureaucrats, cops, “teachers” (indoctrinators), jailers, and on and on. I’m not inclined to look at this mess and just throw up my hands, saying it just has to be that way. It’s evil, and parasitic, and the parasites will overwhelm the host organism.

    “We separate these powers precisely to frustrate arbitrary government.” Problem is, arbitrary government is in no way frustrated. The whole damn thing is arbitrary, having only a veneer of due process. Go out and commiserate with someone who has been trampled by the bureaucrats, explaining to him that at least the proper procedures of his trampling were followed. See how he reacts.Report