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The Iron Law

Jerry Pournelle is a well-known science fiction writer, essayist and journalist, but none of those are the reason I am mentioning him here. No, the thing I am most interested in at this point is his best-known “law” which is “Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy” and goes something like this: “In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.”

Now I have to admit that his logic is somewhat circular because he states that in a bureaucracy the bureaucrats have taken control. But if they hadn’t then it wouldn’t really be a bureaucracy, would it? Isn’t a bureaucracy an organisation where the bureaucrats are in control?

Maybe it would be better to replace the word “bureaucracy” with something like “large, conventionally managed organisation” and this would suggest that any large group of people, when managed according to conventional wisdom, would tend to become a bureaucracy and that the organisation would then be dedicated to the management process itself rather than its original purpose.

It’s probably also a bit unwise to suggest that this law is inevitable and that no organisation can ever escape it, although it is difficult to think of any which have. Of course there are varying levels of bureaucracy and in small quantities and with sufficient flexibility that is OK. But again I guess it’s a matter of definition: any organisation with reasonable flexibility probably couldn’t be classified as a bureaucracy since flexibility is the very anathema of the bureaucrat.

But I have to say that I think Pournelle has really encapsulated the essence of many modern organisations: they really have “lost their way” and the processes originally put in place to support the core functions have developed a life of their own and are justified entirely for their own sake and independently of the organisations “true purpose”.

Naturally it would be unprofessional for me to comment on my own work environment, however I can do what I generally do in these situations and paraphrase what my colleague, Fred (not his real name), tells me about his workplace, which has certain similarities to mine.

First, there are a lot more managers, administrators, and other bureaucrats than people doing the actual work the place is really supposed to do. Many of the managers are worn out “workers” who have either lost any skills they might have had or were no good to start with. Others are “professional” managers who have never done any real work in their life and whose whole existence consists of sitting around talking to other managers, taking extended lunch breaks, attending numerous expensive conferences and meetings, and generally writing meaningless and useless reports and other documentation which other, equally useless, managers read and in turn report on.

Second, even though the bureaucratic class make no contribution to the core functions of the workplace (quite the contrary: they inhibit its operation) they still get paid more than the real professionals, have a lot more power in the direction the organisation is taking, and generally look down on the real staff as if they were some inferior underclass.

Third, the bureaucrats are extremely enthusiastic about introducing increasingly draconian and counter-productive checks into the way the workers work but rarely think it necessary to accept any accountability themselves. For example, they will stand around the water cooler for hours involved in intense discussions and then demand that the workers recover more hours of chargeable time to avoid budget problems. However the budgets will be composed in secret and the workers will have no idea what they have been committed to.

Finally, the bureaucrats will refuse to enter into any meaningful discussion with the workers. Most debates will end with a statement such as “that just isn’t appropriate” or “that is the decision we made and you can work somewhere else if you disagree”. For example, if a manager who demands that a worker recover more hours is asked how many hours he himself recovers the answer will be “it’s just not appropriate for us to charge for our time”. Gee, I wonder why. Could it be because no one would pay them to do whatever it is they do?

It’s difficult to imagine how these people really see their role in the world. I’m sure many of them must realise they are completely useless and could never do a real job if they weren’t a manager. But others must be so delusional that they really believe their endless bureaucratic nonsense is actually achieving something. And I think it is those ones which Fred is concerned about the most. There’s nothing quite as disconcerting as a totally delusional zealot pursuing their own ill-conceived path.

So the Iron Law certainly seems to have a lot of validity in many modern workplaces. The way Fred tells the story it’s almost as if Jerry had been there making notes, but maybe these problems are almost universal so it might not matter too much where you work. It is frustrating though because many of us realise just how much better things could be. Still, you can’t fight the law, especially an “iron law”.

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