Tag Archives: Yes Minister

Bureaucratic incentives

Element Descriptor

You can’t “win” in bureaucratic games. Sorry, finished that sentence prematurely. You can’t “win in bureaucratic games unless you understand what is motivating the behaviour of the bureaucrats (aka “civil servants”) who are busy trying to ram through all sorts of stupid, albeit dressed up as “green” or “sustainable” – or whatever other meaningless drivel is being pushed at the moment – through the ‘democratic’ processes of your city/state. And unless you understand the tactics, and devise, share, refine countermeasures. If you don’t do this, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

Level descriptors

NovicePractitionerExpertNinja
You have – and can communicate – a basic understanding of how hierarchical organisations constrain behaviour and reward conformity/obedience/secrecy. You understand and can explain using local examples, the Peter Principle and Pournelle’s LawYou have a more detailed and local understanding of the history of the local organisation you are dealing with – the past and present big fish, where they came from, and what has happened to unlucky/dissident bureaucrats in the past.  You can explain ‘evaporative cooling’ and you can explain the different techniques bureaucrats use to gild the turd, and hide from scrutinyYou know the ins and outs of the various departments in the local government bureaucracy, how they fight like cats in a sack, who plays dirty, who leaks what to who and when, which politicians are under the thumb, which ones are on the outer. You know who the likely next bosses and their foibles. Meanwhile, you can confidently and accurately predict the kinds of spin specific Sir Humphreys will use to blameshift in any given scandal.You can compare and contrast the bureaucratic cultures within your local authority with those of neighbouring/comparable authorities, and trace the lineages/tensions with national cultures.  You have written extensively on the reality-distortion fields of bureaucracies in general, and the consequences for effective climate policy (hint, no such thing exists).

Element Overview Essay

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So unless you’ve worked as a civil servant or looked at them closely, you don’t understand the nature of bureaucracy probably. So, these are the causes and then there is the standard sort of, “Yes Minister” model where there is a mindless accrual of power. And, yes, Minister was infamously written from a public choice theory perspective. Bless it. 

The consequences of not understanding the pressures and incentives on bureaucrats is you just misunderstand what makes them tick. You’re not going to get them to tick differently. These are intensely hierarchical organisations. But also the real power isn’t necessarily the same as the one in the organisational chart: you must never take it literally. 

Bureaucrats, if they want to climb the ladder or even survive, must never be in a position where they have to take the blame or someone else could pin the blame on them. They must never embarrass their political masters or their bureaucratic masters. And if mistakes are made, they have to bury them. They have to be incredibly small c conservative, because if they do take chances stick their head above the parapet the best possible outcome is they get away with it and someone else takes the credit(probably), they may well make their superiors jealous and nervous about them as a free thinker and as a potential square peg in a round hole or whistle blower. So if they want to climb the ladder, it’s a tricky business.

The incentives?  Well, I guess the pension a lot of the time, I mean, some come in wanting to, quote “change things”, unquote, they tend not to last long. There’s a good book – Beyond the Stable State by Donald Schoen who later was an educational theory guy that talks about this.The fixes? So, to understand how bureaucrats work we have to observe them, we have to look at what they do when they’re under pressure, we look at their behaviours. God help us all. We are doomed as a species, I can tell you that for nothing.

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