None of this is to say that people working for government agencies are bad, lazy, or uncaring people. That’s not it at all. However, they are stuck in an environment where all of the caring and hard work in the world simply cannot overcome the organizational culture. All of this has been studied and well documented by organizational behavioralists.
MehRan Rastakhiz, PhD has a short paper that discusses the shortcomings of the bureaucratic structure. Dr. Rastakhiz cites a number of studies to support his discussion. He notes that private sector organizations used to be similar to public sector organizations. But the private sector has evolved away from the bureaucratic structure to “fluid networks reinforced by core values of empowerment and learning.”
Consequently, private sector organizations are becoming more “holistic,” “environmentally aware,” and “publicly conscious.” Government agencies, on the other hand, are “steeped in historical tradition” and “continue to operate in isolated, mechanistic, and emotionless ways.”
Dr. Rastakhiz includes a brief, but decent discussion of the important role that government organizations play.
“Governments … maintain control, make the rules by which organizations operate, and retain the monopoly of legitimate coercive power. Often, they are the stable guarantors of open and fair dealing …. Governments facilitate the establishment and enforcement of the fundamental understandings necessary for action: who is entitled to what uses (use rights); who may legitimately sell products, land, and equipment (ownership rights); and what actions are acceptable (contract law).”
So now we know that governments are important and that government agencies are stifling bureaucracies. Dr. Rastakhiz encourages government agencies to make actual cultural changes and break out of the bureaucracy mold to gain the advantages found in private sector organizations. He mentions a number of initiatives (“incentive programs”) underway that aim to accomplish this by “select[ing], recruit[ing], and train[ing] a new generation of managers and leaders.”
In other words, Dr. Rastakhiz feels that government agencies are capable of changing from the bureaucratic style of organization to a more dynamic style. All they need are incentives. I mean, why shouldn’t they be able to make the shift to become more like the private sector? The private sector was once bureaucratic, and it has made the jump. Why can’t government?
The answer to these questions lies in Dr. Rastakhiz’s discussion of the role of government. The private sector and the government play dramatically different roles. Government is the maker and maintainer of the rules — the laws that govern society. Bureaucracy is a hierarchical system based on laws, written rules, and clearly defined career paths, among other things. It is the type of organization that is best suited for implementing and administering laws. Flexible, dynamic organizations are well suited to meeting customer needs, but are ill suited for implementing and administering laws.
Dr. Rastakhiz wants to make a dog out of a cat. He’s not alone. People argue all of the time that you can make government more productive, efficient, and customer friendly if only you have the right elected and appointed officials. If you have this nirvana cadre of individuals, you can certainly improve government, but you can never make it something it is not. You can hire the best trainers in the world and get your cat to do some of the things a dog does, but you will never turn your cat into a dog.
While promoting incentive programs, our good PhD conveniently failed to mention research, such as this 2002 University of Albany study that found no evidence that these programs (some of which have been going for more than 20 years) produce any desirable results or even have the potential to do so. This is because they are fighting a losing battle. Government agencies can be improved, but you cannot make them into something they are not. The primary role of government simply precludes this possibility.
Today, many people are clamoring for government to do more than it ever has in the past. Many people, for example, seem willing to entrust government with our health care because they are fed up with the problems in the current system (many of which stem from current government intervention). Unfortunately, confidence in government to adequately manage these types of programs is ill placed. We are asking a system whose main purpose is laws and rules to step in and provide services that in no way fall into its designed roles or competencies.
This kind of thing begins with the best of intentions, but the goals that are sought simply cannot be achieved through the tool of government. You may be frustrated with the performance of your screwdriver, but dumping the screwdriver in favor of a hammer is going to produce a worse result. The same is true when we assay to use government for purposes for which it is not suited.
This is why I favor limited government, as did our Founders. Government should stick to the business for which it is suited and should keep out of endeavors for which it is poorly suited. When we use government for the wrong purposes, it results in coercion, oppression, and limitations on liberties that each of us should regard as precious.