People love to throw their anger into what they see as bloated bureaucracy, and with that they usually mean government in its many forms. My elder daughter threw it out over the weekend, regarding the Inland Revenue Service. I like to teach people to fish, as they say, and rarely accept statements that I don’t truly understand. So, I asked her what she meant. She gave me a description of what she understood was the swathe of personnel that was there to deal with the overcomplicated Federal tax code. She’s a recent university graduate and is now having to deal with her pay and tax issues. She also works for a very small private company. She knows leanness in organizations. So, I understood her starting point. I argued that given Americans’ desire for flexibility over what they do, the tax code was in some sense giving income earners more options for earning and also incurring spending that could offset their income, leaving less of a one-size-fits-all system that might exist with a simpler code. We did not agree, but at least I put the case that what some may see as bloated was perhaps also not far from what was needed: unless a lot of the processing can be automated and dealt with by machines, all of those variations need lots of human intervention to apply degrees of discretion. I called an IRS office last week and was passed to four different officials, each of whom had different but relevant expertise for my case. I got a clear understanding from their combined responses. Could I have gotten the same from one person, who happened to know the different areas that applied to my case? The question to also pose was if the tax officials were, say, cut by x%, would there be a worse or better service. We could not say.
But, I then asked her about all the other elements of bureaucracy that rule so much of daily lives. She did not really react to that. We see it everywhere, and when it is part of routine private sector activity, it is often less malleable than that seen in government agencies. Take as a case in point the simple process of parking a car. If you go to a privately owned parking garage you have to abide by its rules. These may or may not be evident and may make some corporate but not common sense, but they are none the less applicable. You have to deal with individuals who implement the rules, sometimes under immense stress because their companies have pared staff–no bloating, please–or have employed staff who are willing and available but not necessarily capable in a broad sense.
Two examples over the past week. A garage in a mall in Chevy Chase entertained us as we saw the single female operator trying to handle traffic coming from two directions to two different exit gates, and having to jump from booth to booth to take money and operate the exit gates. I presume that someone managing her understands that all that aerobic exercise is going on all day. Second example, yesterday. I parked at an institution, where my wife has a daily pass. I mentioned her name and showed my identification and quickie quick I was allowed in and parked. I left to collect her from an appointment later, so that she would not have to deal with the rain, and dropped her at her office. I returned in the afternoon, to collect her and tried to park again. This time, for some 10 minutes, the persons at the gate asked for her name, her status, and where she usually parked, but could not find information that would allow me to drive in. What had happened to their system during the few hours? I called her. During the time that she offered to contact the supervisor, all had been resolved. “Oh, it’s parking for a day at a time, not regular daily parking, she has,” came a comment. “We have different lists for those two situations.” I blinked. I had to say “That did not seem to matter when I came to park a few hours ago.” The parking guards blinked. They raised the barrier. “The eagle has landed,” I told my wife.
But, this happens routinely, and it’s wearisome. Is the problem bureaucracy, not whether or not it is bloated. Maybe we need to get rid of the crass part and then see whether the bureau part really makes any sense.