Bureaucracies are like weeds

Your federal, provincial and local governments at work:

In preparation for the announcement, emails flew fast and furious between departmental bureaucrats. In a four-month period beginning in September 2011 they exchanged more than 170 messages on the subject, according to documents released in response to an access to information request by Postmedia News.

So what were the Mandarins up to? A sweeping overhaul of the tax system? Introducing market elements into our socialized health care system? Invasion of Greenland? Nope. They were renaming a building in downtown Ottawa after John A Macdonald. Four months and 170 messages, most of which I'm assuming were e-mails, about changing the name of a building. Much of the efforts seems to have been directed at the appearance of the plaque and how the name should appear in French. The end result, according to this Ottawa Citizen article, is that the name in French is not grammatically correct.

Stories like this should be framed and placed lovingly over mantelpieces. Anytime a statist argues for more government, show him this article. Ask him if he really thinks that this is how anything should be run. Grown, highly educated and experienced men and women spending four months deciding whether it should be Building Édifice Sir John A. Macdonald or Édifice Building  Sir John A. Macdonald. I would be fascinated to know how much time was spent on deciding which font to use. 

This is not an aberration. This is how government works. Whether it's deciding to rename a building after our first Prime Minister, or building a new hospital, this nitpicking obsession with irrelevant details is routine. A homeowner, with some basic sense, would have wandered down to the Home Depot, picked up a nice brass plaque, had it engraved and stuck it on the entrance. It's about half-a-day's work. Stretched out leisurely with a two hour lunch it might take a whole day.

While your humble correspondent has never worked in government, he has rubbed shoulders with enough of Her Majesty's Loyal Paper Pushers to get a sense of how Leviathan operates. I have also spent rather too much of my life working at the head of office of a large, heartless, soulless corporation here in the Imperial Capital. Big government is like a very big corporation except more so. Everything you hate about dealing with a big business is magnified, distorted and suspended from reality.

Anyone who has worked at a large corporation, especially one that has been profitable for many years in a not too competitive market, can attest to the existence of hundreds upon hundreds of drones. These are creatures who do no real work. They certainly work. Many of them work very hard. No one, however, knows exactly what they do. They attend lots of meetings, send out lots of e-mails and give the occasional presentation. Even their managers explain their roles in the most abstract terms that are undecipherable to outsiders: David has exceeded his expected matrix goals for this quarter by maximizing his project deliverables. 

Bureaucracies are like weeds. They grow uncontrollably. There is always an excuse to hire more people, to then give more manager jobs to more of your friends. The more people you manage the more important you are. This is the iron law of bureaucracy both private and public. The difference is that private bureaucracies are subject to competition, enraged shareholders, hostile takeovers and general market forces. Government bureaucracies are subject only to political whimsy.

Today the government wants to help Canadians by setting up yet another social / outreach / diversity program. Tomorrow the government is broke, so it then shuts down that program. Thing is that the program never really gets shut down. The name changes and it's shuffled around to another department. If people really do have to be fired it's some front line schleps. That way the voters know how much government cut backs are hurting ordinary Canadians, by forcing ordinary Canadians to wait in line for hours.

This is why our hospitals are staffed by bleary eyed nurses and our government offices by bored paper pushers. Politically it makes more sense to fire useful people because their absence will be noticed. This can then be used to justify, once the economy picks up, new hiring. That new hiring, of course, is rarely on the front lines. The voters need to see overworked nurses that they feel sorry for. It makes it easier to convince them at election time that our health care system is "underfunded" as opposed to being horribly mismanaged.

144 Wellington Street in Ottawa is now named after John A. Great. But what's in a name? If you name a building after a great man we might remember him better, it does not mean the decisions made within are any wiser. Names are just labels and in modern Canada there is only one label that truly matters: Is it private or public?

Obama no socialist