LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - It’s easy to mock faceless, rule-bound bureaucracies. The criticism is deeply unfair, particularly from those who enjoy modern comforts. As the coronavirus spreads around the world, millions of people are belatedly learning the virtues of “rational authority”.
The phrase comes from Max Weber. Writing at the beginning of the 20th century, the German sociologist thought rule-bound, competence-based administrative structures were a wonder of the modern age. He contrasted them to charismatic leadership, based on emotional attachments, and traditional leadership, which is derived from inheritance. If you like excitement, go for charisma. If you want to get something done, such as running a sophisticated test for a viral infection on millions of people and sorting out how to treat the ill, you need a bureaucracy.
Complex modern societies need to get many things done at the same time. That’s why they rely on government and private sector bureaucracies. These produce countless memos and meetings, rules and procedures. They can seem like the opposite of dynamic business. As Jack Welch, the former General Electric boss and management guru who died last week liked to say: “Bureaucrats must be ridiculed and removed.”
However, masses of office workers are necessary to ensure that products are safe, accurately marketed and conform to quality standards. Working according to rules, absorbing innovations and responding to changed circumstances, they coordinate billions of products moving around the world.
They also have to cope with unexpected problems, including emergencies ranging from power outages to pandemics. These are often so complicated that most governments have at least one bureaucracy whose sole mission is to prepare for and deal with crises. When those agencies perform badly, as the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency did after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the damage can be tremendous.
The response of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Covid-19 disease looks like another failure. As of Feb. 28, only 459 people had been tested in the United States for the contagious and sometimes fatal virus. The count in smaller and poorer South Korea was 65,000. Since early testing and effective quarantines are the only way to slow the spread of a virus which has no vaccine or cure, tardiness is likely to cost lives.
Though it’s hard to pinpoint blame, the reluctance to invest in health bureaucracy has almost certainly played a role. For example, the U.S. federal government eliminated its Complex Crises fund in 2018. Financing for the CDC has lagged inflation for more than a decade. Money and morale go together. When an organisation is under constant threat of cutbacks, its best employees tend to leave.
China is now taking advantage of its draconian state powers to fight the coronavirus. The ruling Communist Party’s strong skills in controlling its population have enabled effective lockdowns of millions of people.
That is the good news about Chinese bureaucracy. The bad news is that the country’s initial response to the coronavirus appears to have suffered from an instinctive unwillingness to let bad news flow up the chain of command. Administrative denials and delays allowed the disease to spread unmonitored for several crucial weeks.
Like bribery, rigidity and incompetence, blindly positive thinking is always a risk in bureaucracies. Bosses tend to blame subordinates for bringing bad news, even when they are just doing their duty. In China, where flagging a problem can be interpreted as criticising the government, fear of failure probably encouraged reckless carrying on as normal.
It is too early to tell whether other nations will be better at dealing with a coronavirus outbreak. Since bureaucratic competence correlates fairly well with average incomes, poor countries will generally fare worse. It may therefore already be too late to stop the virus from spreading around the globe. A genuine pandemic would put terrible strains on medical systems and disrupt normal economic activity. Only government bureaucracies have the power and competence to respond.
The Herculean labour of administrative agents cannot succeed without firm political leadership. Yet the politics are not supportive. Strong, popular and bureaucratically savvy leaders are in short supply. U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson seem to prefer Weber’s charismatic leadership, and owe much of their electoral success to anti-bureaucratic rhetoric.
It is also likely that many skilled professionals in healthcare and logistics are not working at the government agencies which need them most. The mobilisation of talent from the private sector, including universities, could help address the crisis, especially in countries where forming a bureaucratic chain of command is second nature.
The best time to deal with this kind of crisis, however, is long before it occurs. People need to build up knowledge, develop specialised skills and learn to work together. That can take years. An improved bureaucracy might be ready to fight the next crisis. For the current outbreak, it’s too late for an upgrade.
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