John Wesley Chisholm
Yelling at the Government Bureaucracy
In a recent front page article in the local paper a group of citizens got a few lines of press for yelling at the government in a creative and hopeful way.
Yelling above the crowd: Getting attention from HRM on street safety issues is no easy thing
Will acts of public disruption lead to desired local change in traffic issues?
That's what Steve MacKay and his neighbours on Robie street in Halifax are hoping as they use their green bins to raise awareness of often tragic traffic problems on their street which doubles as residential and arterial throughway.
I hope it does. And I hope the tactic will be used in neighbourhoods all over the city if it works. But I think there’s reason to doubt because the problem is much larger, more complicated, and deeper, than simply asking the city to slow down traffic for safety’s sake. Which of course seems simple enough.
I’ve got 25 years into this exact problem. I’ll tell you the story, a cautionary tale, mostly just for catharsis, though it may help you avoid years of trouble and hardship. And I’ll finish this long piece with a short list of real reflections on bureaucracy; definitions and where they need to be made to make improving our government, streets, and traffic a real possibility. You can skip right to the numbered comments at the end if you want to hear the end to the whole matter of what I have to offer here about fighting bureaucracy.
With a young family on the way and a new business, I bought my first house on Allan St. in Halifax in 1995. It didn't take long to discover there was something wrong with the way the street worked. Taxis and other speed demons used the street, that runs parallel to Quinpool to avoid traffic and short cut, rocketing up and down the street as fast as their cars would accelerate, which thanks to the big car companies comes closer to 1/4 mile drag strip speeds every year.
This was for me, and I think this is true for many people like the fella in this article, my first encounter with politics and politicians as an adult. The framing is standardized. I was angry about the situation, afraid my family or neighbors would be hurt, self-interested because I wanted to improve what was now my neighbourhood since I was owning this property and paying taxes. IT turns out this is usually the only time people get involved with government and the only time government hears from citizens... when they are angry, afraid, and self-interested. It's a position of extreme weakness and no mater what spin you put on it government and elected politicians are truly and impressively expert at dealing with people who approach them with this frame of mind.
In all these discussions with government the bureaucrat and the politician have three main advantages over the citizen. First, he odds are always in favor of those who devote all their effort exclusively to one thing only. Although not necessarily experts and often certainly not more clever than the amateurs, they enjoy the benefit of being specialists. Their eristic technique as well as their training and experience are superior. They come to the encounter with rested mind and body, not tired after a long day's work like the amateurs. Second, time is on their side. They can simply wait where the citizen does not have the luxury of time, and in almost every case the ‘problem’ will simply disappear. This pattern is reenforced over and over early in the careers of bureaucrats and politicians. Finally, the bureaucrat has language on their side. Dissembling, difuse, governmental language is a disease of modern writing. Clutter, unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon strangles the life out of any real communication. Add to that the worlds of acronym, department, and processes and the good hearted citizen will be beaten at the first hurdle.
Now, almost all these professionals are zealous advocates one thing; keeping their positions exactly as they are. These are the best jobs these professionals will ever have, with the most money and the most power. Any threat of change or progress is existential. The ordinary business person or wage earner is no match for them. The citizen may diligently or even brilliantly lay out the problem and even a practical solution. But the government worker will never see it that way. Where the citizen sees opportunity for specific improvement the politician and bureaucrat will see a threat and challenge at best, or worse, an opportunity for personal gain of some sort.
I didn’t know any of this in 1995. I thought I was doing the important duty of a citizen come of age. Taking on my share of the responsibility. Helping leaders identify how our wonderful community could be made even better by small, near cost free, local improvements. If everyone devoted a little of their time to this, my thinking went, our neighbourhood, and everyone’s neighbourhood would continue in a cycle of constant improvement forever. All I had to do was contact MY representative, whom I had voted into office. A man surely waiting to hear from me.
I can still remember the snide whipping I took from our Councillor Howard Epstein and the public pleasure he took at a small community meeting when I identified the traffic problem and offered a simple solution – raised crossings at each block. Like a fox eating shit from a wire brush it pained him that much to inform me what a fool I was because I did not know this was not his problem, not a municipal issue, and therefore not something to be discussed at a neighbourhood meeting with him. I don’t think the other people there so much laughed at my comeuppance as they were properly chastened from venturing any of their own wild ideas about how to improve our little community for fear of a similar such embarrassment.
It was less than three years later as I continued to write and speak and ask questions that I had my next encounter with the same Mr. Epstein. In a not so unusual turn of fate he had parlayed his city council position into a provincially elected office as the representative member for our community of Halifax Chebucto. Guileless, and healed from the earlier wound, I actually thought, this is great. Now, for sure he has been elevated to a position to help with the traffic problem. I wrote to him right away recapping the problem the solution, and the easy opportunity for improvement. No one could have been more surprised than me when, after a half dozen promptings, he wrote back without the slightest hint of demurring, and told me that such issues were not of Provincial concern and he could not advocate for this or even speak to the problem. Surely, he said, I should know it was not a provincial issue.
By now this had gone on for over five years and I had come into the orbit of a man, Ken Reshor, known to most in the city simply as the Traffic Authority. It turned out that at the amalgamation of HRM in 1996 the responsibility for streets and traffic had kind of fallen between the cracks. The office of the Traffic Authority was impowered to work by provincial legislation, but the budget and salaries were paid by the new municipality. Even then, with the ‘weak mayor’ form of government, none of the new municipal departments or managers were accountable to the mayor or council. They all worked for an unelected sort of city manager and were effectively unfirable and unaccountable to anyone. But few were more siloed than the Traffic Authority. The office holder became a petty potentate of the highest degree, and such offices, as they always do, both attract and amplify the absolute worst of human power mongering.
Another five years of writing, rallying neighbours, attending council meeting, and the quickly disappearing old-time public meetings and I left the neighbourhood. I just happened to drive down the street 20 year after my first meeting with the politician to find that they had installed, not raised crossings, but at least a series of several speed bumps to ‘calm’ traffic.
What happened? Did someone figure out the secret mystery of the system and finally get through. I would like to think so. We could emulate their strategy or draw on their special powers. But having seen this kind of thing repeat a few times I think the more likely explanation is that some bureaucrats from the office got to go to some conference where they learned the latest buzzword, meme, or trend. They came home espousing the cosmopolitan style of the most ‘world class’ city departments to install roundabouts, traffic calming, or risk mitigation strategies and suddenly, neat piles of asphalt turn up on random streets or traffic circles appear on new dead end connector roads like unfinished hotwheel tracks.
So what goes on here? Year after year. Generation after generation. Citizens, good and decent people, with simple, inexpensive ways to make things better. Lost like cannon fodder against the front lines and trenches of bureaucracy. Writers and thinkers have been speaking out against bureaucracy for well over 100 years. Regular people chafe and gripe. And yet it grows, it perfects itself, it self-perpetuates.
We’re all excited when some regular folks get a little traction like the locals getting a headline one day in the press about their traffic fight. It’s not even that they won a battle, and certainly not the war. They just got a dig in, and that is front page news.
Here’s what I got. It’s just some citizen's notes on trying to label exactly what bureaucracy is and when it happens.
1/ Bureaucracy happens when process becomes more important than action and results.
2/ When more than one person is responsible for something then, in a very real way, no one is responsible. In the absence of direct and real responsibility true humanity can not exist. Unless someone carries the weight of others as an individual they can not carry any weight as part of a team, organization, or government. Bureaucracy can be defined as the work and systems required to most completely avoid personal responsibility for the most possible people.
3/ Civil service reform ensured that vast swaths of civil servants wouldn’t be fired and hired along political lines at each change in government, but at the same time a real check and balance accountability was lost such that citizens completely lost any democratic sway over the permanent bureaucracy. The ultimate good of democracy, the peaceful sometimes even random, transition of power, no longer reached into the government, it just impacted the few somewhat sacrificial elected politicians form time to time making them (our representatives) the least powerful and most transitory forces in all of government.
4/ Bureaucracy knows no sense of purpose beyond perpetuating itself. It’s long recognized that much of life is about finding and pursuing some purpose, some improvement, some greater good. Bureaucracy exists in the absence of purpose in government just as depression and such ills exist when an individual lacks a sense of purpose.
5/ Government should be the business of making decisions. Good information is required to make decisions. As the quality of information deteriorates and the quantity increases, decisions can not be properly made and are avoided in creative ways. Bureaucracy is a situation where the quality of information deteriorates as the quantity increases. On the subject of bureaucracy people often mention paperwork, forms, red tape, rules and regulations, but these things are just the surface tension seen by the observer on the beach while the whole ocean of information ebbs and flows in the sea of bureaucracy.
6/ The opposite of bureaucracy is action. Action, right or wrong, has direction. Action triggered by decision. Action is the result of effort to be responsible.
“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” – Leonardo da Vinci
“Action is eloquence.” – William Shakespeare
Only people can act. When government acts it is just a perception, like seeing the movement of a blanket under which someone is tossing or turning.
Action will always be rewarded or punished. Action never goes unnoticed. Bureaucracy is an institution where any potential reward for action can never exceed the perceived potential for punishment. Bureaucratic punishment for action can take any form with the one most feared always conforming to the actor’s greatest fear.
My thought here is that more clearly defining bureaucracy, labeling it, naming its symptoms, causes, and comorbidities, can help us understand how we get bureaucracy and help us battle the disease.