Losing a Teachable Moment

October9, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Bureaucracy was the topic in class yesterday, and a student had a wonderful anecdote. The trouble was that I couldn’t figure out what it was an example of. I still can’t.

Here’s the story.
She needed a copy of her birth certificate, and eventually she found the right government building and the right office, only to find a sign on the door saying that the person she needed to see was away for a one-day seminar. She went home and returned the next day. Same sign.

Maybe the person was late in getting back. When she came back a third day and the same sign was still there, she went into another office to find out what was up.

Another worker explained that the person in that office was off for a week vacation, but they didn’t have a sign that said that. The only sign they had was the one-day seminar sign. So that’s what they posted.
There are some lessons to be learned here – don’t believe everything you read, close enough for government work, etc. Beyond the practical implications though, I had the feeling that story also illustrated some more general sociological concept or principle. But whatever that might have been, it was, and still is, hidden someplace in the shadows.

Any ideas? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?


Anonymous said...

Perhaps norms -- in terms of how norms allow us to know what to expect? Make sense of the social world? So, this is a norm violation. I think that's what I'd pull out of my ass in front of the class.

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks,Pitseleh. But I was trying to keep it in the context of bureaucracy. Maybe bureaucracy discourages improvisation; people just stick to the routines (and signs) that are available. And the compartmentalization (div. of labor) of offices means that people in one office didn't have to worry much about what might be happening in another.

RW said...

Perhaps, in a bureaucracy, norms are excessively rigid, such that, in extreme cases, everything is forbidden unless it is specifically authorized by higher-ups, regardless of logic. This rigidity precludes the flexibility necessary for the organization to adapt to a changing world, eventually eroding the rational functionality which the organization was designed to embody. Therefore you may not create an unauthorized sign, even though the absence of the worker was authorized, and the role/mission of the agency is to serve the public who will look at the sign.

It reminds me of an anecdote I read many years ago, when airlines first began to require photo ID from passengers in the US. A man arrived at the airport without conventional ID, but he had a copy of his recently published book, complete with author photograph on the book jacket. Although the airport employee could not come up with a scenario in which the book jacket could have been faked, he still refused to let the customer fly, as the book jacket was not on the airline's list of approved photo IDs.

Essentially, in these situations the employee has no incentive to serve the customer outside the bureaucratic rules, and considerable risk of disincentive for violating these rules. "My hands are tied; it's company policy." Now, in a corrupt bureaucracy, the worker will cut through the red tape for you if you are a friend or if you provide a bribe. Others will be SOL.

Tennille said...

WHat about Ritzer's inefficiency of efficiency?