Like many cities, Peoria, Illinois broadcasts its city council meetings live on the local public radio station. Earlier this week I was listening to a portion of that broadcast. The council was debating approval of sign variances to allow businesses to put up signs that may or may not have been within the guidelines of the city’s sign ordinances. Pretty dry stuff, but part of the day to day operation of a city.
Specifically, one item on the variance list was replacing an existing sign (with an existing variance) with a smaller proposed new sign. Obviously the new sign was closer to what the ordinance allowed than the existing structure so one of the city councilmen asked why it wasn’t approved by the city staff without taking up the council’s time. The answer was telling:
“They’re doing what they were tasked to do and staying within the rules they were given.”
It was a good answer, but it points to one of the problems with government bureaucracies everywhere. Put another way, staff isn’t allowed to use common sense or best judgement. They have to follow the rules no matter how little sense the rules make for the situation at hand. They’re doing their job the way they were told to do it and they’re not allowed to vary from the script. When the person at the zoning office doesn’t approve your sign (or the DMV worker sends you away because you didn’t have the proper stamp on a form) they’re not bad people, they’re just doing their job.
This is but the tiniest example and one of the least consequential of bureaucracies, but it is indicative of what are known as bureaucratic pathologies. A social studies help site put it in simple terms and listed 5 classifications of pathologies: red tape, conflict, duplication, imperialism, and waste. My example clearly falls into the “red tape” category, which is simply the rules and procedures that you HAVE to follow to get anything done. I’d argue that this is the most insidious of the pathologies. For example, when it comes to government healthcare, it is the red tape that will kill people. Some government bureaucrat will compare the procedure that your doctor ordered to his list of approved procedures and tell you if you can have it. If the procedure isn’t approved you won’t get it. If it’s approved, but only enough money allocated for 250/year and you’re number 1500, you’ll go on the waiting list for a couple of years. There’s nothing the poor bureaucrat can change, after all he is only doing what he is tasked to do.