Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Useful Work

with 15 comments

It’s the fourth of July, and I should probably be off doing something about something.  I know I’m supposed to be making chicken salad.  There are things.

But it’s also just after five in the morning, and I’ve just put away another big hunk of Gregor novel, and I don’t really want to get up and move away from the computer for the moment.  Besides, I have tea, and I can put the music on in the background if I want to.

On the other hand, I’m not feeling too serious this morning,  or too coherent.

So, instead of writing something comprehensive, with a good persuasive arc–or even trying to–let me throw out two ideas.

The first is this:  people who talk about the public sector vs the private sector are misunderstanding the real nature of the problem. 

The big divide isn’t between public and private, between government and business.  The big divide is between bureaucracy and the lack of it.

An enormous private corporation–say, for instance, Toyota or BP–exhibits not only exactly the same amount of dysfunction as a large public agency, it exhibits exactly the same kind of dysfunction.

And the first symptom of this kind of dysfunction is the proliferation of completely unnecessary people–people who do absolutely nothing to further the goal of the business or the agency.  These people are hired and retained for a raft of reasons that sound plausible until you actually start looking into them. 

There are “diversity coordinators,” and people who do nothing but plan parties for all-department meetings.  There are people who put out the company newspaper, full time.  The list is different in each organization, but in every case it is a list of people whose jobs do not need to exist for the organization to fulfill its function.

There are also other people with jobs that do need to exist for the organization to fulfill its function, except that there really need to be only about half of the people the organization has.  It now has twice as many as it actually needs because it has complicated its paperwork to the point where documenting a function has become so complicated you need more people to do that than you need to fulfill the actual function. 

People always say that this is a disease of government, and that business, always needing to be mindful of the bottom line, is largely immune–but a short look at any multinational corporation will show that this isn’t true. 

Bureaucracies, once started, feed on themselves.  The purpose of any bureaucracy is not to get something done, but to preserve itself, and that’s true in the private as well as in the public sector.  What’s more, that causes exactly the same kinds of problems for those of us who have to deal with the bureaucracy in question. 

When self-protection is the only goal, almost everything (lying, cheating, falsifying documents, blaming the victims of your incompetence for your mistakes) is acceptable.

My second point is this:  bureaucracies happen so often and so spectacularly in modern industrial societies because, in modern industrial societies, the vast majority of working aged people are not needed to do any necessary work.

I put that into italics for a reason.

At the base of every society, there are jobs that have to be done for that society to survive and prosper.  And as a society becomes more sophisticated and technologically advanced, there are more kinds of jobs that are needed to make that possible.

But at the same time there are more kinds of jobs necessary to make the society survive and prosper, the percentage of the population required to be in such jobs gets smaller.

Five hundred years ago, a majority of your population had to be engaged in agriculture just for your society to eat.  These days, that percentage is down to single digits. 

Of course, we need other people that that old agricultural society did not–engineers, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, computer hardware and software designers.

The problem is, we don’t need enough of these people to engage a majority of our citizens in what is actually, at base, useful work.

And I’m using an expansive definition of “useful work.”  I don’t think, for instance, that entertainment is negligible. 

But even with that expansive definition, we have an awful lot of people with nothing significant to do.  

And to deal with them, we invent “professions” that are often fun, but also sort of silly–think of “fashion.”  The making of clothing is certainly useful work, necessary for any society to survive.  Fashion magazine production, runway modeling, and designing “couture” originals made of clear plastic and strategically placed conch shells are not.

The problem is this:  people who do actually useful work have a different experience of themselves and their society, and a different perspective on both, thanpopel who do things that are not actually useful work. 

For one thing, if nothing else is different, there’s the fact that there’s a lot more give in the non-useful professions than in the useful ones, because the society-wide consequences of failure are so much smaller, if not nonexistent.

And that leads me to this: the political and philosophical and moral ideas of people who do useful work are likely to be different from those of people who do work that is not useful, and to be so because their experiences will have taught them almost contradictory things about the way the world works.

I’ve gotten to that place where I’m beginning to think I’m blithering unbelievably.

So I’ll go off and listen to music, among other things. 

And I’ll just leave this here as it is.

Written by janeh

July 4th, 2010 at 6:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

15 Responses to 'Useful Work'

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  1. This makes sense. I’ve said before that the most useful book I read–in terms of understanding the world–during my college years was PARKINSON’S LAW.(Naturally, no professor assigned it or recomended it.) I’d also add Jerry Pournelle’s observation that in a bureaucracy, there are always people pursuing the ostensible mission of the bureaucracy and people whose loyalty is to the organization rather than the mission. The long-term advantage lies with the latter type.

    Three hedges: first, reality can catch up with those who can’t collect revenue at gunpoint. Just ask the nice people at Kaiser, Packard or American Motors. The governments of California and Greece will not be sold to Utah and Germany next week. Mind you, when your “private” firm exists by tax money or government-guaranteed monopoly, you’re part of the government no matter who signs your paycheck.

    Second, because we don’t “need” Title IX lawyers or diversity coordinators doesn’t mean there’s nothing useful–or at least not harmful–for everyone to do. Even an EO officer, caught young, could be taught to read, and if taught to read, taught to proofread. You should see some of the material I’ve gone through lately. Think of the subjects on which you’d like to read a book–only there is none. Imagine party organizers and diversity coordinators down on the sales floor, or manning help desks. Considering that we have all these people we don’t “need” we still have a great deal of work which is not done, or not done well.

    Third, even in a just above subsistence economy, There will ALWAYS be people who think what they do or are is so precious that others should be compelled to support them. It’s not a mdern delusion. What a prosperous economy does is postpone the jaquerie, and give these people time to multiply.


    4 Jul 10 at 6:34 am

  2. I think you may have just defined why I prefer, in my professional life as a database developer, to deal mostly with small to medium sized businesses.

    In such businesses, everyone has a vital role, there just isn’t enough slack for deadwood. The decision-makers are intimately involved with their processes and their employees, business is as lean and agile as they can make it, and nobody creates paperwork unless compelled to by outside forces.

    One of our clients started this way, 8 or 9 years ago, and grew (thanks partly to the success of our software) far beyond it. We lost touch with the 5 partners, who had been our greatest fans, and now we’ll most likely be ousted for programs and programmers who cost 10 times as much, and deliver very little, just because the corporate structure has grown to the point where they have an entire “technology management” apparatus, one that is dazzled by buzzwords and “industry standards”. The decision-makers have absolutely no idea of the internal rules the rest of the company must work to, so for them, every solution is simple, or easy, or some combination thereof. If they don’t know about it, it can’t be that hard. Really.

    We, who have provided the tools to manage the complexity of their real business, are suddenly perceived as not good enough, because suddenly, success in this organization isn’t measured in the same way it was before. Success now is seen as pleasing the outside management “experts” they brought in, rather than providing tools that actually work.

    And this growth (and decline in my eyes) has proceeded exactly along the lines Jane noted. At first, every hand was turned to make sure the technicians in the field, who actually *made* the money for the company, could do their jobs with a minimum of overhead. Now they’ve got layers on layers of management, trying to make sure that all sorts of other purposes are fulfilled. Government compliance, employee motivation, paperwork generation, well, you know the kind of crap we’re talking about.

    Oddly, when we *do* come into contact with the original 5 partners (this is a private company) they don’t seem to be having fun any more. They used to have fun.

    I think if I had one of those paper-shuffling “not doing any useful work” kind of jobs, I’d think about getting out constantly. I’m just as glad my son is training for actual work, maintaining aircraft, rather than the professions where I thought he might end up originally.

    As for the creators and maintainers of bureaucratic complexity, phfooi on them all. I hope they all get itchy underwear for the rest of their lives, as payback for the misery they inflict on anyone who has to deal with them. Ahem. And yes, I had to visit the DMV this week. Why do you ask?


    4 Jul 10 at 12:49 pm

  3. I have worked for large companies and small ones. The large ones certainly had to much bureaucracy. And I’ve seen good engineers and programmers “promoted” into average managers so I do understand the Peter Principle.

    But the small companies suffered from a lack of bureaucracy. People working at cross purposes because no one was coordinating the work.


    4 Jul 10 at 4:23 pm

  4. I’ve seen the working at cross purposes, but I’ve seen it in places with LOTS of bureaucracy. What they lacked was a boss willing to exert his authority. Head-butting can go on for months–years, even–if the boss can’t bring himself to say “I AM the Boss, and we’re going to do things this way.”

    All the connittee meetings, liaison sessions and even the “off sites” in the world don’t make up for the absence of a decision-maker.


    4 Jul 10 at 6:08 pm

  5. Robert has the right of it. I had a client where the project failed because the head person would *not* assert her authority, nor did any of her staff, with an oddly flat corporate structure, have any authority to assert in the first place.

    Then she brought in her husband to build the software I had tried to provide, and guess what…it worked. I suspect he inherited her authority as her spouse and wasn’t afraid to use it.

    Bureaucracy has a different symptomology from UnAssertiveness Syndrome, where nothing gets done because the person has authority but won’t use it. In a bureaucracy, people use their authority to thwart progress because it might lessen their influence. Or make someone look better than they do. Or would prevent them from covering their ass, the prime directive of every bureaucrat.

    Small businesses, or small groups within large businesses, which have effective leaders can be the most creative forces around. They can accomplish amazing things, as long as all members are providing Actual Work, and the leader guides them, shelters them from outside influence, and they don’t bog down in the dreadful Need for Meetings. In other words, encroaching bureaucracy.


    4 Jul 10 at 8:38 pm

  6. I really should fight against my tendency to take a contrarian stand to whatever’s going on… OK, I dislike excessive bureaucracy as much as anyone, and if anyone out there thinks that excessive bureaucracy and waste only exist in government or government-paid entities, they haven’t tried dealing with some of the businesses I have.

    But as a very minor bureaucrat, I want to point out that bureaucracy starts to grow in response to very real problems. Lack of communication. Lack of coordination. And one of my favourites, lack of procedures to ensure fairness, as in, avoiding situations in which the only supplier you can consider is the boss’s cousin and hiring and promotion are done on the basis of either kinship (family or social group), skill at manipulation or personal friendship. I’d better not get into that on in more detail.

    I’m not sure how you run an operation big enough and complex enough to keep a modern country running without bureaucracy. I don’t think even the ancient Romans could do it, with far fewer people to keep more or less contented, occupied and fed!

    There’s fuzzy edges on ‘necessary’ too, and I think what matters is not the truth of the situation, but the worker’s view on the matter. I bet a lot of those people who do haute couture with conch cells are convinced that what they do is necessary. Either they consider it a form of the arts, and thus necessary for the human soul, or they consider it the engine that runs the whole industry that provides the clothing that helps us avoid freezing.

    But what do I know? I’m the woman who almost always wears black cotton slacks – cotton and slacks for comfort, black because it doesn’t show the dirt and because I don’t need to worry about which tops go with it; I can grab whichever one is clean.

    It would be even better if both my cats were black. I don’t mind a cat hair or two, but some stranger seemed to think I needed to know that my backside was allegedly covered in fur the other day.


    5 Jul 10 at 6:35 am

  7. You should try the worst of all cat-hair worlds, Cheryl, a calico. She has a contrasting color of hair for *everything* I wear, and sheds them all.

    You’re not wrong that most bureaucracy arises in response to real problems. However, it seems only at the beginning, or at very small sizes, do they actually solve their originating problems in any effective way. And once they grow beyond a certain size, they cease to solve problems and create more, better problems, because, after all, without problems, why would bureaucracy be necessary?

    I think if we could identify that point at which bureaucracy becomes self-perpetuating and loses focus on their original mission, and just cut them off at the knees, we’d all be better off.

    As for fairness in family-run businesses, never expect it. It rarely happens. Bureaucracy won’t solve it, either, because that’s just co-opted by the most skilled players within the family.


    5 Jul 10 at 11:46 am

  8. Cheryl, let’s not confuse bureaucrats with bosses, nor procedures with objectives.

    A good boss is concerned that I get the best software for the money. A bad boss is concerned that I not be related to the software designer. A bureaucrat’s job is to make sure the software designer and I both filled out geneologies and submitted DNA samples, and that I have attended the conflict of interest course within the past year.

    Similarly, the good boss asks whether I’ve shown the draft paper to DBC-1, because it’s close to their area of expertise. The bad boss won’t approve the paper until all 16 peer agencies respond, and the bureaucrat is concerned that she has a properly signed Form 23(b) from each of them.

    A good boss may need eyes and ears, but a bureaucrat is generally a bad boss’s weapon of choice. Filled-in forms substitute for reality, and no one ever asks how much the time wasted costs. There is, after all, no form on which to record that information.


    5 Jul 10 at 12:20 pm

  9. Funny you should mention calicos, Lymaree


    She’s got a LOT more fur than you’d think from the photo. In fact, when I first saw her, I exclaimed ‘She’s a longhair!’ and the fosterer said the shelter hadn’t actually classified her as a longhaired cat. There are certainly longer-haired cats around, but she’s no Domestic Shorthair. And she’s got this enormous plumy tail that Sam, the other cat, thought was a cat toy specially for him, until she made it clear it wasn’t.

    Robert, I think you’re defining the bad administrators as bureaucrats and the good ones as bosses, whereas I’m using ‘bureaucrats’ for both. To my mind, anyone who deals with procedures and paperwork and organizational problems is a bureaucrat. And I don’t know how you avoid having them in any organization so big that a single individual – or at most, a SMALL group – can’t supervise everything personally.

    Elaborate procedures attempt to not just CYA, but also to deal with the fact that people are fallible and sometimes dishonest. People have noticed that my opinion of my brother’s work as a software designer might not be unbiased; that I might be ignorant or forgetful about the fact that Branch Office X needs to know what my office is planning to do about Project Y. So they insist I not only find an unrelated software designer and circulate my plans to every single branch office, but that I document that I have done so. And that’s what gets out of hand. I wish I had a solution. It would make my life a LOT easier if I didn’t have to try and document stuff.

    The employers I have worked for have had complicated and convoluted ways to spend their money, with the larger employers having the more complex procedures. Such rules didn’t apply to certain people paid by, let’s call them the people up the road. Since the last of those people has been sent to prison for spending money improperly quite recently, I don’t expect the bureaucracy surrounding getting approval to spend money to reduce down my way anytime soon. It may well increase, although I don’t quite see how.


    5 Jul 10 at 4:10 pm

  10. If documenting your procedures and your activities bothers you, Cheryl, best not get a job in either medical devices or pharmaceutical companies. It’s required but both FDA and ISO, and if you don’t do it to their satisfaction, you can be shut down.

    Now, there are good reasons for all of this – drugs and medical devices can kill people if they’re not safe, well-designed and manufactured properly. So you have to demonstrate that your design does what it should you, then you have to demonstrate that you’ve done an adequate analysis of the hazards involved in the use of the device AND the manufacture of it, and if the hazards are high risk, you have to demonstrate mitigation. Then you have to validate your manufacturing processes, and after you’ve done that you have to document your adherence to the validated process.

    Having said all that, I’ll admit that bureaucracy or no, I like working in the medical device industry. It’s quite gratifying to know that our products help people rather than harm them (I can’t imagine working for a tobacco company, for example) and I don’t mind the regulatory stuff. You just get used to it.

    And we’re small enough that though we comply with the regulatory standards, we don’t make ourselves jump through any extraneous hoops just because we can.


    5 Jul 10 at 5:19 pm

  11. Yikes, look at the typos. That should be required BY both FDA and ISO, and your design does what it should DO.

    And I should add that though we accept the need for regulatory compliance, most of us, particularly in Operations, wouldn’t work in Regulatory at gunpoint. We have what Jane would call necessary jobs – we manufacture the products. Regulatory just makes sure we follow all the rules – and they change all the time, so it’s important to have regulatory specialists. But I wouldn’t be one. And interestingly enough, they’re paid less than my group, or the manufacturing engineers, or quality engineers, so there’s evidently a sort of institutionalized recognition that these are the only three bureaucrats our company employs. Oh, wait, it’s four now.


    5 Jul 10 at 5:25 pm

  12. Not to turn this into a cat-comment thread, but there are medium-haired cats. They have longer-than-short hair, but generally without the thick undercoat of say, a persian. One of my first cats was such, and she had a long plume-y tail too. Best-smelling cat I ever had. I swear her spit was perfumed.


    5 Jul 10 at 5:46 pm

  13. I’m considering the decision-makers as bosses, and the people insisting that the forms be filled out as bureaucrats. And it’s perfectly true that SOME of the forms are necessary to keep people honest, or to ensure that the boss’s orders are carried out. But the bureaucrat isn’t directly concerned with whether the software was a good buy. He (or she) is concerned that the forms are all present and correctly filled in. Smilarly the bad boss is concerned with the symptoms or appearance, where the good boss is focused on the result.

    But if you don’t have a good boss sitting on the bureaucrats, insisting that only the paperwork necessary to the objective be required, the forms multipy like crabgrass. Recently one of ours bureaucrats decided we should all come up on a seldom or never-used computer system to report our arrival each morning. I pointed out that I was already reporting my arrival four times on three systems, and asked which this was to replace.
    “Oh, none of them. It just seemed like a nice thing to have.”

    The map is not the territory. The form is not the mission.

    And calicos go very poorly with dark blue dress slacks, but quite well with medium gray, so I only have trouble Tuesday and Thursday. (Wedded to a routine? ME?)


    5 Jul 10 at 6:19 pm

  14. I’m laughing at Robert’s medium gray slacks.

    Because our last cat was a tortoiseshell with no white on her. And we deliberately purchased a couch in a kind of tan tweed that *perfectly* matched the fur she shed, so that it wouldn’t show.

    I mean really. We brought home a pillow to check before we purchased it.


    5 Jul 10 at 8:22 pm

  15. I don’t object to documenting my activities and procedures as such, or even trying to see to it that others do so. I’m trying to say that (a) often there are good reasons for doing so – my own examples of avoiding fraud and making sure the left hand knows what the right hand is going to do, and Mary’s of demonstrating efficacy and safety. And (b) (although maybe I didn’t actually say this yet) that sometimes such procedures become so elaborate that they interfere with the activities of the organizations.

    Robert, it’s not usually the people who get the forms filled out who decide that the forms are necessary. The bosses do that. They’re the ones who decide how often, and in what manner, you will go through security every morning, and how many forms containing what questions and with what signatures attached you need to fill out to authorize payment to your suppliers. The bureaucrats don’t have the authority to decide what level of, well, bureaucracy is necessary for the functioning of the company. That’s probably why the pay is so poor, unless you’re in a company large enough to have entire divisions devoted to bureaucracy, and you manage to make your way to the top of the heap in one of those divisions.


    6 Jul 10 at 5:42 am

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