How bureaucracies function and why you should care

A continuing saga



For years I have received a monthly bill from Mindspring that looked like a bill or statement. I tried periodically to find out what it was but with no success.

A couple years ago I finally decided to take the day off and stay with the problem until it was resolved. What I ultimately found out was that it was something involving a “Web hosting something” and an “e-mail something” that was costing me like $19 a month and was being auto-paid from my credit card. The services auto-renewed each year. The services that auto-renewed each year were services we either ceased using around 1992 or never used at all. So over about 20 years or more, I am guessing they extracted probably more than $3,000 from me.

When I realized what had happened with this auto-pay/auto-renew situation, I became quite determined and stayed on the phone with India for another couple hours of “transfer” and “hold.” Every time I requested the “name of your boss and how to get in touch with him or her,” I went to “hold” and sooner or later, a new voice picked up the phone.

In the end though, they played their trump card: “I cannot tell you who I report to – I’m not allowed to give out that information - but if you wish to send a letter to customer service, I am sure they will be glad to help.” You got to know when to hold those cards and when to fold them. The circle was complete – “Check and mate.”

I threw in the towel. I could not successfully navigate the bureaucratic river that I encountered. And this brings me to some thoughts on bureaucracies in general and one in particular.

Time and attrition is the “infantry” of bureaucracies. They are their go-to options. All they have to do is maintain the status quo and allow the other guy to implode as a result of a lack of time, funds, will or support.

All the bureaucracy has to do is just sit and not move – do nothing. Rarely do individuals or organizations that oppose bureaucracies win. And even when they win or survive, in the long run, the cost extracted by the bureaucracy is usually heavy and debilitating.

Bureaucracies rarely innovate. Seldom do they take risks, and their safe answer default tends to be “no.” They typically do not tolerate behavior outside of the box or that which is not clearly black and white. Bureaucracies rarely do shades of gray well.

Often, the primary goal of a bureaucracy is self-preservation first, and its formal or official mission is second or third. Bureaucracies hide behind rules and policy walls and are accountable to no one. And they tend to destroy innovation and initiative of others. Rarely does a bureaucracy admit mistakes or take responsibility for their actions or failure to act.

They do not justify their actions outside of adhering to official “policy” and, in general, this bureaucratic immunity to punishment or accountability is like a debilitating virus.

I have always admired the job done by the Fulton County Board of Education. I have lived here and covered the news here now for over 20 years and have marveled how the BOE has managed to hire so many strong principals and managed the growth so well. They have done a great job in my opinion. That is, until now with their abysmal handling of the Fulton Science Academy situation.

To have managed the re-certification process of Fulton Science Academy so poorly that the highest achieving and most cost efficient middle school in the entire system ends up fighting for its very survival is a breathtaking (and avoidable) bureaucratic failure with possible broad social and economic impact.

And they have yet to show a hint of insight or understanding of the situation in the broader context.

Instead of accepting the Georgia Department of Education’s offer last week to mediate this mess, the Board of Education categorically rejected the initiative. Instead, the Board chose to prolong and increase the damage to North Fulton and Georgia’s economy and our already tarnished reputation in “education,” as well as throw the over 500 students who are “in play” under the bus.

And all they had to do was accept the state’s offer of mediation. What part of that do they not get? Who knows what the long-term economic impact of the board’s entrenched, arrogant and myopic attitude will be.

And I still struggle for a reasonable explanation as to why they continue to make the decisions that they are making in this matter. The only answer that I keep finding is “because they can.”

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