COLUMN: Lessons from a failed bureaucrat

Sometimes the rules need to be applied with reason

A lifetime ago I was a civic bureaucrat.

I was very bad at it.

Not that I didn’t have the expertise to fulfill my role, I was actually quite informed on all of the many aspects of my portfolio and could, at the drop of an administrative report, recite the rules and regulations of my department, chapter and verse.

My problem wasn’t that I didn’t know what I was supposed to do; it was that I had a nasty habit of questioning the blind application of rules and regulations. It seemed to me that we should always consider the impact of our actions on the poor souls who would feel the brunt of those rules.

I also liked reducing the number of silly rules or not applying them when they didn’t make sense.

That’s not the way bureaucracies work and my propensity for common sense drove my superiors into apoplectic fits and resulted in my eventual resignation ( I may have been fired, but this is my column and I’ll remember it as I choose.).

In a bureaucracy, I was told, principles and processes are based on rational, clearly understood rules and those rules are applied in a manner that is never influenced by interpersonal relations, politics, or personal feelings.


It also means that bureaucracies are often bereft of common sense. (I’m pretty sure that’s what I was muttering to myself as I walked out, carrying a cardboard box of personal items.)

But let’s admit it, bureaucracies are prone to some systemic problems.

Parkinson’s Law states that work creates more work, usually to the point of filling the time available for its completion. Bureaucracies always grow, creating pressure to create more rules — more hurdles — for the very people that bureaucrats are meant to serve. That creates more work for the bureaucrats and the cycle repeats.

The phenomenon led one economist to note that bureaucracies gives birth to themselves, and then expect maternity benefits.

Another problem is found in Laurence Peter’s assertion that, too often, people tend to rise to their level of incompetence.

Now that principle is not universally true – I’ve met lots of senior CAOs who are quite competent – but, unfortunately, it’s at least a little bit true. In any bureaucracy, there are folks who create more problems than they solve.

Finally, there’s the problem of leadership.

Bureaucracies are strictly hierarchal, with each layer getting its direction from the next higher level.

Put incompetent or less than effective leadership in place and the entire system breaks down. Soon the system drifts from being a well oiled machine to something resembling the bar scene in Star Wars.

At the risk of overworking metaphors, bureaucracies are like oil tankers. Once they go off course it takes a long time to correct the their path and, in the meantime, they blunder along in the fog and may run over any number of poor souls in the process.

Course corrections can and do happen, but on the way it is incumbent on city councils to keep watch on what their bureaucracy is doing to ensure that no one else is hurt.

For a price, I’ll even agree to give a staff seminar on how to be a less bureaucratic bureaucrat. It couldn’t hurt.


Tim Collins is a Sooke News Mirror reporter. His email is

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