Opinions Mon, 9 Dec 2013

The monster called Bureaucracy

By George Sydney Abugri

The two men in the corridor leading from the reception were so busy shouting at each other that they did not notice me as I made my way past them to the reception leading to the office of the Managing Director.

I later learnt that one of the men was Mr. Bannerman Appiah, the finance manager, and the other, Mr. Kojo Dompreh, a works superintendent of the construction firm.

"What...?" shouted Mr. Appiah.

''What..?'' said Mr. Dompreh.

"I said what?" repeated Mr. Appiah.

"And so did I," retorted the works superintendent.

"You will surely be reprimanded for this gross insubordination," said Mr. Appiah.

"Go ahead, I don’t give a damn…” said the works superintendent

“You don’t what..?

“I have a right to complain about your keeping the stores list for so long without passing it through while the workmen wait for the materials to begin work. What kind of bureaucracy is this?"

Bureaucracy! There goes one long word packed with so much meaning: People like Mr. Dompreh, sooner or later, get to understand that the prevention of quick decision-making by administrative structures is only one of the problematic but rather interesting features of bureaucracy in all large organizations like the one that employs him.

To achieve its purpose, bureaucracy has special characteristics among which are clearly defined tasks attached to defined positions. There is delegation of power and responsibility according to the hierarchy of authority within the organization. There are rules and regulations governing the administration of work and workers' conduct, as well as impartiality in the treatment of all employees with regard to assignment of tasks and promotions.

In spite of complaints about the frustrations inherent in it, no form of social organization, has up to date, developed a suitable alternative to bureaucracy in the administration of organizations employing large numbers of people.

Bureaucracy therefore continues to present employers, employees, social scientists and industrial psychologists with a great dilemma. For every advantage cited in favour of bureaucracy, there is a disadvantage and many observers are questioning the desirability of bureaucracy in its present form.

For one thing, bureaucracy and democracy which modern society is harping on so much, do not seem to be bedfellows. Bureaucracy, in its present form, effectively separates those with responsibility for planning the overall needs of an organization from those whose tasks are narrower and largely limited to the performance of specific tasks assigned them.

Thus at the very top of the average organization employing hundreds or thousands of workers, is management which plans policies, programmes and performance goals or production targets and which has the authority to employ and dismiss personnel At the bottom are the workers whose functions within the organization are limited mostly to carrying out duties assigned to them.

Sociologist Robert Michel was of the view that the formal organization of bureaucracy inevitably leads to a situation where "organizations which were originally democratic come to be dominated by a small group of people who have achieved positions of answer and responsibility." He noted that this occurs in large organizations where it is not possible for everyone to get together every time a decision has to be made.

Michel said, from his research, he had observed a tendency on the part of the small power group to eventually become so enthralled with their elite positions within the organization that they make many decisions that tend more to protect their power and authority than represent the will of the larger group they are supposed to serve.

Despite any protestations and promises that they would not become like all the rest, those who are placed in positions of power often come to believe that they are indispensable to and more knowledgeable than those they serve and as time goes on, they become further removed from the rank and file of workers," Michel complained.

In their book "Bureaucracy and Modern Society", P. M. Blau and M. W. Meyer argue that "many unqualified persons manage to reach high job levels in bureaucracies where often they try to hide their incompetence by becoming ritualistic devotees to rules and regulations".

It is not only such people who become devotees to rules and regulations within organizations. The bureaucratic systems of many organizations insist on strict adherence to rules and regulations, and any failure to follow regulations exactly as they have been spelt out is often seen as a mark of insubordination or disloyalty to the organization. The result is excessive conformity.

Many years ago, a motorist and I drove a girl aged about 12 who had been injured in a road accident, to the government hospital at Wa in the Upper West Region at around 8.30 PM one evening. The poor girl was bleeding profusely, but a nurse at the out-patients department, apparently used to seeing blood flowing freely from human bodies, insisted that the girl could not be attended to in the theatre or a ward until a nurse who had disappeared from her desk at the OPD returned to make an entry and collect a fee!

Another dilemma of bureaucracy relates to the issue of specialization and job specification. While it promotes efficiency, sociologist Warren Bennis concedes, "Bureaucracy by keeping employees in tightly defined jobs does not adequately allow for personal growth". I would add that it does not allow for initiative too.

To cite my own profession for an example, I relate the following incident as once told by a former editor of the Daily Graphic.

One night in 1983, a group of Ghanaians who arrived in Accra following the mass deportation of Ghanaians from Nigeria, set up camp at the Neoplan Station at Odawna near Kwame Nkrumah Circle, waiting to travel by buses to various destinations around the country the next morning•

During the night, the returnees caught someone they claimed, had stolen a radio-cassette player from a returnee who was asleep. They threw a car tyre around his neck and set the hapless fellow ablaze.

A very senior sports writer of the paper came upon the scene on his way to the office that night but passed on to the office where he asked the editor to send a reporter to get the story. Was the editor mad! He gave the senior journalist a verbal flaying and warned that journalism was not a civil service institution and had no room for bureaucracy.

Yet another shortcoming of bureaucracy in many large organizations is that they appear to encourage internal lobbying and maneuvering for power, which distracts crucial attention from the pursuit of the goals of the organization.

The rigidity of bureaucracy, German Sociologist, Max Webber noted, is the, most negative of its features. "The rigidity of bureaucracy frequently curbs personnel freedom and fulfillment. Individuals frequently suffer from a feeling of alienation, tend to adhere to unproductive ritualistic performance of their duties and are willing to accept and protect incompetence."

One thing is certain though; bureaucracy will continue into the ages and most likely outlive all other social systems of control.

However, bureaucracy will need to develop new and more flexible methods of work administration and control to meet the demands and challenges of changing society.

Those organizations which are able to do this are likely to out-pace those which do not and leave them behind in a quagmire of hopelessly outdated organizational and administrative rigidity.

The author is Editor-in-Chief of the General Telegraph

Website: www.sydneyabugri.com/Web

Email: editing@sydneyabugri.com

Columnist: Abugri, George Sydney