The Iron Cage of Educational Bureaucracy

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It is the nature of bureaucracy to get caught up in processes rather than persons; to focus on means and lose sight of the ends to be served by those means.

It was the nineteenth century “father of sociology” Max Weber who warned that bureaucracy would become an “iron cage,” a translation of the original German stahlhartes Gehäuse made popular by Talcott Parsons in the 1930s, but which more literally means a “steel-hard housing,” suggesting something that cannot be broken into.

Bureaucracies depend upon rigid rules to which all human affairs, no matter how complex, must be fitted. This can cause them to de-humanize persons into categories. Bureaucracies also tend to have a narrow focus, which can cause them to fail to see the good of the whole. This can put them in a perpetual trouble spot: too large to deal with individual needs and problems, and too narrow to serve the interests of the whole. With neither a vision broad enough to serve the common good nor a system flexible enough to provide for the individual, what do bureaucracies do well? Their claim is that they are “effective.”

But effective at what?

Alasdair MacIntyre in his groundbreaking book After Virtue describes the modern moral character he calls “the Manager” whose position is justified by the claim that he or she can coordinate materials and human resources most effectively to realize the goals of the corporation, whatever they are, which “the Manager” never questions. This is true enough, but MacIntyre’s description is too optimistic.

It often happens that the processes developed by mid-level managers become more important than the goals of the corporation. Requests that don’t fit into the current categories employed by the bureaucracy are taken to be “disruptive,” as are changes in the goals of the organization that disturb the mechanism of the bureaucratic process.

In a university, this can result in the needs and requests of students becoming an annoyance, even though the institution exists to serve them. And it can cause resistance to rededication to the mission of the institution when that mission has not been the animating principle for years. Such institutions are like the driver who, upon being told by his passenger consulting a map that they are going the wrong direction, responds: “Shut up, we’re making great time.” Too often, bureaucratic processes, created to serve an end, become the end to be served, and the tail begins to wag the dog.

Closing Alcatraz, 1963 [AP]

It makes sense for leaders to delegate tasks to bureaucracies, but only if they understand their inherent weaknesses. A group involved with Catholic classical education told me a story of their appeal to the charismatic director of a major Catholic educational outreach program. “We need to be doing this!” he declared. “Let me put you in touch with my associate director.” After making the same impassioned appeal to the lower-level functionary, the response was: “We already do that,” which is the verbal equivalent of: “There is no problem.” Because, of course, if there were, they would have already fixed it. The processes work fine. End of discussion. This is the way to stifle innovation.

The claim isn’t that their current processes don’t work. No one would approach a broken institution with a new idea; you go to a working, dynamic one. The issue is whether a new approach might serve the students even better. But this is unthinkable to many mid-level bureaucrats. Their “effectiveness” is not measured by how well they foster new goals, but by how well they coordinate resources to meet current ones. Innovative ideas are a threat to a manager’s job security in one of two ways: because (a) they presume the current staff is not entirely self-sufficient and (b) they represent possible new priorities that, without new staff, will mean less efficiency at current priorities.

I once heard a prelate ask an assembled audience of academics to produce a resource to help his deacons understand the basic ideas of metaphysics. I spoke to him afterward and told him that the International Catholic University has a superb series of lectures on metaphysics by the late, great Ralph McInerny; that we could have them downloaded on each deacon’s computer for a minimal cost to each man; and that I could arrange on-line quizzes and tests if needed. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed, “Would you please contact Monsignor so-and-so.” I did, got a polite reply explaining they were “examining possibilities,” and then nary a word in response to any of my next five messages. I would be very surprised if the bishop ever got anything on metaphysics.

If leaders don’t know what ideas, facts, and potential innovations their staff is keeping from them, then they are like a mind floating in the mist without a body. We are an incarnational Church. It’s not enough to want good education for young people; you have to pry open the bureaucratic cage to make sure it happens.

If you really want something, you have to empower its implementation, saying: “I will send a note to my associate directing that this must be done, and I want a report in two weeks.” Anything less is an abdication of responsibility and simply an invitation for outsiders to beat their heads against the hard steel casing of the bureaucracy.

Pope St. John XXIII spoke about aggiornamento, about letting fresh air blow through the stuffy corridors of Church bureaucracy. If you hired someone from a mediocre school district to run yours simply because he or she had “experience,” what makes you think the results will be better? Maybe you should take a risk on some fresh blood.

If a person has been running a chancery office since the 1970s or 80s, he or she may not be innovating. Have things been good for the past 35 years or decaying? Someone should let that fresh breeze of the authentic Spirit blow, because the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.