Monday 18 August 2008

”… craven, inhuman, poltroonish cowering behind rules and routines..”

It seems Libby Purves, at least, gets it:
Meanwhile a thousand small habitual practices - from cake stalls to carpentry classes - find themselves under heavy reproof and restraint. And in a hospital ward somewhere a dying, frail old man repeatedly falls out of bed because nurses reckon that they can't put up his cot sides without a “risk assessment”, in case they breach his “human rights” and “unlawfully imprison”
She goes on to note the many other instances of pointless bureaucracy and meddling officials, including the sea rescuers and dustcart standoff that have been in the news lately.
From distant California, thanks to Timesonline message boards, comes the echo of a voice from the Ancient World. Jim from El Centro responded to the Hope Cove rescue story at the weekend with a quotation from Marcus Tullius Cicero: “A bureaucrat is the most despicable of men, though he is needed as vultures are needed, but one hardly admires vultures, whom bureaucrats so strangely resemble. I have yet to meet a bureaucrat who was not petty, dull, almost witless, crafty or stupid, an oppressor or a thief, a holder of little authority in which he delights, as a boy delights in possessing a vicious dog. Who can trust such creatures?
Yes, you really do need to go back to the classics for wisdom these days. I haven’t seen anything (even a Jeremy Clarkson column) that so encapsulates the modern pen-pusher and town hall bully. Although ‘An Englishman’s Castle’, also blogging this article, says that the quote doesn’t come from Cicero but from Taylor Caldwell in her novel based on the life of Cicero.
Something is wrong. We read too many stories about this craven, inhuman, poltroonish cowering behind rules and routines, and about individuals who get into trouble for momentarily breaching them in the name of humanity or sense. I take issue with Cicero and Jim a little, though - it is too easy to rage at bureaucracy itself and join in thoughtless jeering at “suits”.

Even Cicero accepts that efficient administration is necessary: it gets things done and distributed, and is a bulwark against chaos. So I think we have to choose our targets more carefully, and unpick more precisely the evil threads that make us so uneasy and unhappy and desperate to stick to rules in defiance of common sense and kindness.
Perhaps the problem is that these days, there are just too many of them. And they are everywhere.
I would diagnose it as insecurity, linked to a misunderstanding of the concept of “training” (which, incidentally, links straight back to the culture of unintelligent testing in schools). Depressed, anxious people always prefer rules to thinking for themselves; at the extreme they lapse into obsessive-compulsive disorder, forever washing their hands and touching wood. Depressed, anxious institutions such as the Maritime and Coastguard Authority, National Health Service management (and quite a few call centres) display this pathology on a corporate level. You get the “training”, tick the right multiple-choice boxes and refuse to think that there might be another choice, not listed. You feel safer that way, like a troubled child determined not to colour outside the lines.

Yet this is the opposite of real training, as practised for years in real armies, navies, laboratories and institutions. Real training lays down a framework of expertise and safety not to prevent initiative, but to free it. If you really know the rules and understand their purpose, you can judge when to make an exception and break them.
I’m not sure I agree with Libby’s ‘depressed, anxious people’ diagnosis. It could just be that they are bullies, plain and simple, who as Cicero put it, are ‘holders of little authority in which they delight, as a boy delights in possessing a vicious dog..’.
Employees should be allowed to be people too; and a good bureaucrat should feel safe to judge which value scored highest at the critical moment. We all see examples of this gentle accommodation every day. But we also know that those who break small rules for human values run a real risk, because of that corporate anxiety and depression. It is brought on by soulless micromanagement from the top and a culture that assumes the citizen is a moron. Keeping the balance is not always easy: but hell, human life is a tightrope and always has been. Certainly the reckless rule-breaker should be curbed, even sacked; but so should the stupidly rigid bureaucrat.


Mercurius Aulicus said...

To quote French Anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhoun:

To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed, and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonoured. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.

Anonymous said...

It's a depressing thought that the petty, pen-pushing official is to be with us forever....