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Anglosphere: Granaries and ironclads

By JAMES C. BENNETT, United Press International

WASHINGTON, Aug. 3 (UPI) -- We perennially decry the stupidity of bureaucrats, and ponder how citizens and their representatives can hope to impose some control on the bureaucracy. However, this past week we have seen the opposite problem present itself: how can we protect smart bureaucrats from stupid politicians? The cancellation of the idea-futures program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a project that promised a substantial improvement in our ability to forecast events in the Middle East, was, simply put, a victory for Osama bin Laden.

More frightening than the demise of the program, however, was the manner of its demise. Not only have we been deprived of the information the program would have given us, but we have sent a powerful message to those on the front lines of defense against terror. That message is "Don't think. Don't Innovate. Don't take risks." It's not as if these characteristics have been so predominant in the civil service that we can afford to suppress them gratuitously.

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Of course, stupidity in bureaucracy has never been its real problem. Anyone who has dealt extensively with the civil service of a major industrial nation, particularly at its higher levels, knows that many bureaucrats are, as individuals, quite intelligent. Bureaucracies are a bit like computers: they do what they're programmed to do, so you had better understand exactly what you are asking them to do. If you're not happy with the results you're getting, it's more likely to be a problem with the instructions you are giving (i.e., the software) than a defect in the components, whether they are silicon or flesh and blood.

Why have conventional bureaucracies gotten a reputation for stupidity? It would help to remember the origins of the civil service system. In the Anglosphere, the forms of the modern civil service date back to the second British empire, particularly in the imperial civil services founded to administer India and elsewhere. Unlike previous British administrative structures, which were founded upon partisan favoritism and corruption, the imperial models strove above all for objectivity, impartiality and administrative competence.

In forming them, the classically educated and well-traveled 19th century British reformers drew upon the experiences of the Roman empire and the example of the imperial Chinese civil service, the mandarins. Eventually, the United States, which had retained a politically driven spoils system in the civil service, adopted a version of the British system.

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But what was the ultimate purpose of the imperial bureaucracies upon which the Anglo-American civil service systems were formed? It was to serve a system drastically alien from our modern industrialized world. Pre-industrial states such as China depended ultimately upon massive state-run irrigation projects requiring the coordination of the hand labor of millions of people stretched over thousands of miles, and which needed to be maintained for centuries in more or less their original form. The information tools available for this task were basic: Scribes copying handwritten documents, and couriers distributing them.

In such an environment, the first and most important virtue was consistency. The only real way to effectively coordinate actions was to lay down an unvarying routine and punish departure from it severely. Innovations were highly suspect: after all, the existing system worked, and if the innovation were to fail, everyone would starve. The risk-reward ratio was heavily weighted against risk.

This was one of the models upon which the U.S. civil service was ultimately based: a rule-based administrative system that worked well in guaranteeing uniformity of action over time. For some tasks, this is an admirable virtue. For disaster relief, for example, it is useful to have a corps of people who remain ready to deal with an emergency that might not happen for 50 years, but that is massively deadly when it does. Lessons learned from 50 or 100 years ago must remain encoded into the bureaucratic regime, because they would otherwise have to be relearned at great cost. We have not had a health crisis on the scale of the great influenza epidemic since it peaked in 1919, for example, but it is certain that one day we will again, and we must retain against that day the lessons of the emergency public health measures that were used then.

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The other model is the military model, which evolved independently in Western Europe over the past 400 years. This model also had to deal with the maintenance of long-term war-fighting activities over wide areas of the planet, and to coordinate far-flung units of men with primitive information and communication tools. Unlike the classical imperial model, it had to do so against a background of accelerating innovation. The risk-reward matrix was also different. For civilian civil service, the ultimate upside was promotion, which was achieved by avoiding departure from the rulebook; the ultimate risk was dismissal and loss of pension, which was the result of embarrassing the system. For the military, the upside was victory, and the downside was defeat and death.

During peacetime, military bureaucracies historically tended to follow the pattern of civilian ones: stick to the rules, and beware innovation. During the stress of wartime, especially when things weren't going well, militaries, to be successful, had to find a way to encourage and use innovation. Thus the military, unlike civilian bureaucracies, had legends of rule-breaking innovators that saved the day -- sometimes literally. During the American Civil War, the innovative Union armored warship Monitor steamed into Hampton Roads the day after the similarly innovative Confederate ironclad, the Virginia, had decimated the wooden-hulled Union fleet. It is also a comment on the relative flexibility of military bureaucracies versus civilian ones to note the amount of time it took the British admiralty to give up on the wooden warship once news of that battle reached London: all wooden warships under construction were cancelled the next day.

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Thus, when in 1957 the Soviets challenged the West by launching the first satellite, Sputnik, President Eisenhower reacted by creating two new government organizations. One became NASA, which went on to create the American civil space program (also conveniently drawing attention away from the already-massive American military space program, which had been drawing close to deploying the first reconnaissance satellites.) The second was a military agency, DARPA, which was a classic example of the military reaction under challenge -- innovate and take risks. Although NASA became instantly famous, DARPA labored in mostly-welcome obscurity for decades, creating the occasional little invention like the Internet.

DARPA was deliberately sheltered from many of the bureaucratic constraints under which the rest of the government was required to run. Its modus operandi was to take a few smart people, give them substantial budgets and authority, and turn them loose. The idea-futures market DARPA had created to improve predictive capability about Middle Eastern affairs was a classic example of the innovation it was chartered to exercise. Hopefully the idea-futures market will go forward under private auspices, but we have lost valuable time we may soon come to regret.

America and all the world's strong civil societies are under challenge. Our opponents have been quite innovative and clever in their grisly way, working with tools of suicidal attack that we cannot copy. Victory will require innovation, a quality America and its allies have in abundance. But we cannot make use of it if innovators are forced to operate under rules originally devised to maintain the ever-normal granaries of the Ming emperors. The truly appalling aspect of this incident is that we have succeeded brilliantly in fostering innovation in government, only to have it sabotaged by a handful of cheap grandstanding politicians.

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The remedy for the problems of democracy, of which this episode is one, can only be more democracy. Let us hope that people like Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are called to account for their sabotage of America's defense before too long.

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