Co-AI online blogger Francis Fukuyama has been hitting some out of the park lately. In a recent post he opened an important question: how do we measure bureaucratic performance?
Americans love to complain about bureaucracy and rightfully so, but hating on the DMV lady isn’t the same thing as trying to figure out how government bureaucracies could be re-organized to be better, faster, cheaper. Frank makes the important point that there hasn’t been much serious study of how to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of the bureaucracies that carry out some of the functions on which we all depend.
It isn’t just an American problem, of course. There are many countries where government bureaucracies aren’t just inefficient and power-seeking. They are corrupt and in some cases they are totally dysfunctional. The DMV lady doesn’t just treat you rudely when you show up and process your application very, very slowly: in some countries she doesn’t show up for work at all, or will only issue a license if you cross her palm; worse, she hands out driver’s licenses and other fake ID (like passports!) to terrorists and criminals, and keeps no records or files so that it’s impossible to figure out what is going on.
In Pakistan there are “ghost schools” where buildings have been built and government salaries are paid — but no teachers ever show up for work. Sub-Saharan Africa is full of bureaucracies that perform at levels the frustrated American victim of bureaucratic incompetence can hardly imagine. This is the state red in tooth and claw: existing only to steal, powerless to help, but parasitically sucking the nutrients from its emaciated host.
Nobody likes bureaucracy, but developing countries are often crippled by bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. Rogue bureaucracies, no-show bureaucracies, sticky fingered bureaucracies: there are many types and degrees of bureaucratic failure. Trying to figure out how developing countries can build the kind of reasonably honest and professional bureaucracies that the British, French and Prussians built in the 19th century, and that the Americans and Singaporeans did in the 20th is an important — and, Frank points out — understudied subject for people trying to promote economic development to study today.
In America and a handful of other countries, the problem is even more difficult. The classic bureaucratic states rose at a time when much of the public was poorly educated and when traditions of deference to authority were strong. As Frank points out, many of the great bureaucratic traditions appeared in non-democratic states where modernizing, authoritarian rulers or parties promoted bureaucratic functioning as a way of carrying out a complex social transformation. Napoleon needed effective prefects across France to mobilize the nation’s resources and monitor threats to his rule; the Prussians needed a strong civil service for much the same purposes; Ataturk needed a powerful and effective state to carry out his revolution at the village and provincial level.
In many countries, military necessity helped drive the formation of an effective civil service. The state had to develop the capacity to keep roads in repair, monitor the food supply and other economic elements necessary to plan for and carry out wars, educate young men so that they could read and write well enough to serve in a modern army and so on.
In today’s advanced societies, the social conditions that made the classic bureaucracies possible have changed. Modern Americans have no interest in obeying the mandates of a powerful government bureaucracy. We are, as Frank notes, much more interested in thinking about how to check and to limit their power than in how to make bureaucracies more efficient and effective.
What we need to do now in places like the United States is to rethink government so that it can do what we need it to do with as little cost and delay but as much competence and wisdom as possible. In part that involves the use of IT to reduce the number of personnel and accelerate the speed of decision making. It involves streamlining the court procedures that now tie up all projects in years of complex, expensive litigation. It involves a systematic review of regulatory rules and statutes that have over time become complicated and onerous, simplifying and modernizing them so that the rules focus on real needs without becoming unnecessarily burdensome. As AI editor Adam Garfinkle has suggested, we also need to think about reviewing bureaucratic rule making procedures. Paper pushers can always think of more reasons why more paper needs to get pushed — and somewhere inside the system we need to develop a capacity to push back.
But making government more effective and less of a hindrance involves thinking with great care about what a 21st century bureaucratic organization should look like: who should be recruited; how should they be rewarded and managed; what is the proper line between autonomous rule-making processes within bureaucracies and the political system; how power should be distributed between levels of government; what is the proper role for private firms in the operation of historically governmental functions (education? prison administration? others?) and so on. American discourse tends to focus mostly on the “what” questions and we argue about what bureaucrats should and shouldn’t regulate. But Frank reminds us that the “how” question also matters a great deal: how bureaucracy works affects our lives as much or sometimes more than what bureaucracy does and does not do.
Many Americans instinctively want to prune bureaucracy back to the smallest possible size and do away with it wherever possible. That instinct is a useful counterweight to the tendency of all bureaucracies to accrete power and engage in mission creep, but Frank’s post reminds us of two important truths.
First, no matter how industriously we prune, we need some bureaucracy and some government in our lives. Given that, the true small-government position isn’t that we want to hobble that necessary government and hinder it at every turn. An ineffective government has to be quite large and have wide powers even if its functions are relatively small.
The true small government position is to ensure that whatever government we have is as competent and efficient as possible. The cost of governance is a huge burden on our society. It isn’t simply the salaries of the bureaucrats. It’s all the ways in which the burdens of compliance weigh on business and, given the huge legal mess in which we’ve entangled ourselves, the years of lawsuits and other appeals and processes that clog the system. Some of that is due to bureaucratic power grabbing and the dead hand of the blue social model, but some of it is also due to poorly organized and incompetently managed structures. (Yes, Department of Homeland Security, this means you.)
You have to understand how government works to make it small. Those who love government for its own sake (like the Bostonians I wrote about in an earlier essay) will take Frank’s message to heart. They want to make government work because they love government and want it function efficiently as its power grows. But the people who really need Frank’s message are those concerned about the limits and costs of government. Governance matters, and it should matter most to those who want the least government possible.
Second, the tension between bureaucracy and democracy is a real one. Frank reminds us that you don’t need a democracy to develop a bureaucracy, but also that it’s hard to develop a democracy where government lacks the capabilities that an honest and competent state bureaucracy can provide. At the same time, as democracy matures, citizens become less tractable and they are less willing to obey the decrees of meritocratic bureaucrats. There is no perfect way to resolve all this tension, but understanding the forces at work will help us make better decisions.