Friday, April 2, 2010

Wise as serpents, benevolent as doves

CYA v. Doing Something Worthwhile, i.e. the case of: "To cover your *butt* or to risk a spanking."

A number of recent experiences have caused me to reflect on the net consequences of bureaucracy.  Below I tell three relevant stories (all true), then summarize some key pros and cons of red tape.

Story 1: As an aspiring Eagle Scout, I planned my Eagle Scout Project carefully.  I decided to do a suite of service activities for a local nursing home- talent show, write letters for the disabled, that kind of thing.  I met regularly with the program coordinator to refine plans, and prepared to ask friends, church peers, and fellow high schoolers to help.  When I went before the Board of Review, my project was rejected.  Though my project did not provide any services that would save or earn money for the home, the rejector cited the damning fact that the nursing home was a commercial rather than a community home.  I was floored. This was my first substantive introduction to the emotion of bitterness.  It took me many months to recover enough emotionally to make a second effort, and as you might guess the project was simpler and less ambitious.  My brother had a similar "red tape" experience with his Eagle Project (resulting in a similar outcome: a lamer second project).

Story 2: My buddy *Jeremy* was commiserating this morning about his recent run-ins with onerous bureaucracy.  He was trying to advertise a sexy internship to students in a certain BYU department.  He wanted to do a little booth in the hall during a timely week but was told "no, wait until later and do it with the other internship booths" because of some red tape.  Jeremy told me he's going to ask for forgiveness instead of permission from here on out.

Story 3: I recently sought to bring in a high-level public official and an exonerated inmate (though innocent, she was wrongly convicted and spent 7 years in prison!) to speak to BYU students.  To make a long (and unnecessarily dramatic) story short, due in part to a mistake my organization made and the failure of certain decision makers to get their facts straight, but mostly due to good old-fashioned bureaucracy, the student organization I lead was severed from the Center for Service and Learning at BYU.

There are many good reasons supporting the creation and maintenance of multiple levels of red tape:
- Costs of mistakes very frequently outweigh benefits of error-free activity.  Example: a service organization helps autistic children by befriending them and taking them on field trips to zoos and museums. On one of these trips, a volunteer loses track of one of the children, who wanders off and is struck by a car, severely injuring the child.  The organization, whose budget is $7,000 annually, is sued by the parents.  The organization can't afford even the litigation, not to mention the medical costs.  Even adding the monetary equivalent of the "social welfare" benefits of the organization, the cost of harm likely still exceeds the sum of benefits.
- If, by constraining its activities an organization will live longer than otherwise, it makes sense in the long term to reduce its operational scope.  E.g. if by reducing annual social impact of 6,000 utils to 1,000 the organization will exist for 30 years instead of being done-in by litigation or administrative squishing in 3, the organization will net impact 12,000 utils over the 30 years despite transitioning from an outreach of 1) reforming hardened criminal drug dealers to 2) knitting quilts for blind people.
- Given that most management capital is expended on mitigating problems rather than researching/implementing long-term improvements, then if you can reduce the administrative load that results from risky activities, you don't have to hire as many managers and/or you can engage their time in more constructive ways.

However, the arguments against red tape are also strong.
- The desire to change/improve the world is a scarce resource, a flame that should be nurtured and encouraged rather than squelched.  Prejudice in favor of inaction over action yields the rotten fruit of a cankering status quo, an apathetic citizenry, and idling potential.
- Life is too short to say "no" to so many good, though admittedly imperfect, ideas.  You end up with a bunch of people who lie down in their graves without having actualized substantive opportunities to impact their community in self-initiated ways.
- It seems unfair that there would be so many reasons to fail and so few too exceed; so many obstacles to an endeavor but so few helps; so many reasons to say "no" but so few to say "yes" to a proposal; so many red lights that must be satisfied to get one green.  However, this injustice is manifest in many other areas of life (dating relationships- thousands of hang-ups and reasons to call a relationship off, precious few for pursuing any particular one; salvation- countless millions of ways to sin, but only one perfect path; having the companionship of the Holy Ghost- thousands of ways to offend the Spirit so he leaves but very few to curry his favor), so perhaps the effect of the unfairness is mitigated in that unfairness is common.
- A heavily bureaucratic organization promotes "under the table" activity and discourages asking for permission. (It's becomes more practical to ask for forgiveness than permission)

Having summarized key pros and cons, I'm frustrated with high levels of risk-averse bureaucracy and advocate seeking ways to lessen, though not eliminate, red tape.  In the meantime, service leaders must seek to better their world in a simplistic, idealistic, and sometimes juvenile way (thus preserving the vital vibrancy of "why they do"), yet be as cunning and sophisticated and creative as the devil himself in order to accomplish their aims.  They must appear to anxiously seek compliance as a first priority, yet instead focus their effort and strategy on doing whatever it takes (usually a lot of wading/cutting through red tape) to actually do something.  To the leaders of a social welfare-seeking organization or project I thus advise: be wise as serpents, benevolent as doves.

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