A twitter exchange between Rob Mitchell and Prof Chris Hatton put me in mind of the famous quote from L’Arche founder, Vanier: “Some people say that communities start in mystery and end in bureaucracy”.
Chris, a skilled combiner of academic rigour and humanity, said, ‘Bureaucracy is a vampire. It feeds on people’. Lots of people reading this blog will relate to that, perhaps because they will have felt their own lives drained by working within, or even living within, a public service bureaucracy. What is bureaucracy though?
We all come across bureaucracies. They feel inhuman: some are machine-like; some fanged as Chris says; some have tentacles which we feel reaching around us into our lives.
But a bureaucracy is always a group of people, choosing to behave in a certain way. People will dispute that word “choosing”. The nature of bureaucracies is that, whilst someone at some point wrote their rules, and other people added to them, they feel like they have come to life, operating beyond the control even of those who profess to lead to them.
But whilst Vanier’s quote is often read to mean that every community – a group of people who share some beliefs and ways of behaving – already has some bureaucracy in it, it also suggests that every bureaucracy is also a community. He could equally have said that every community starts in mystery, and ends in mystery: the mystery of how a group of humans created something which feels so utterly unlike themselves. The bigger the bureaucracy, the deeper its mystery: the gap between the values of the people within it and the way we feel instructed to behave. This is why I think the challenge facing public service leaders is no longer how to scale up (the business growth model of marketised public services) but how to scale down.
But even in a vast bureaucratic community, no rule is unchangeable, or incapable of more than one interpretation. The choice to be human can feel difficult, or downright dangerous, when we work within a bureaucracy, but nevertheless we make choices. Ultimately, then, the nature of a bureaucracy, lies in the choices the people within it make every day.