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Thursday, August 1, 1996

The One-Minute Shed

To the Bureaucratic Mind, a Rule Is a Rule

Mr. Smith is a freelance writer living in Santa Maria, California.

A friend of mine once spent a weekend building a cabana for the guests who would be using his pool. A neighbor must have objected because a building inspector arrived early on Monday and told him that it had to come down—no building permit.

My friend, a quick-witted man, tried an impromptu defensive maneuver, asking what could be built without a permit. The inspector rattled off a list of outbuilding structures that were allowable and when he came to “tool shed,” the light went on. “Just what constitutes a tool shed?” The answer was simple: “Tools.”

So, the two men solved the problem that very moment. My friend found a hammer, hung it inside the door, and created a tool shed in one minute. The inspector approved and left with no further objections. The hammer had made it legal.

To me the story hinges not so much on the absurdity of the regulation but on the attitude of the inspector, who saw neither humor nor disgust in the event. It was a ho-hum, case-closed matter and he went off to his next assignment with another problem out of the way.

This has been my objection to the bureaucratic mind since I was old enough to know that there was such a thing. Why don’t these people object to an obviously ridiculous regulation? To them a rule is a rule; not good, not bad, not in-between. If it makes no sense, no one questions it.

In my long and rather unrewarding career in private industry, I found that employees were sometimes required to uphold regulations that were fatuous at best. But we had enough personal integrity to grumble, disassociate ourselves from unworkable schemes, and explain that we were enforcing such nonsense only under duress. This is common in private industry, unheard of in government.

Throwing logic at a bureaucratic minion is like spitting into the wind. It goes nowhere. At the very core of the civil-service soul is a complete aversion to rocking the boat. The primary function is to keep the lid on and get through another day. It is a form of self-preservation that is based entirely upon inaction.

I have recently been going through a letter file of a transaction that I had with a county official a few years ago. It was a matter that seemed to be of some urgency and would have cost nothing; it would, in fact, have represented a considerable cost saving. In every letter from him there was an expressed agreement with my plan, along with an attempt to stall and delay. “I will talk with (name deleted) and get back to you.” “Let’s have a meeting next week.” “I want to go over the (XYZ) report first.” Then there is the person who can contribute some “worthwhile inputs” but unfortunately is away at the moment, usually in Mongolia or Zanzibar. Naturally, everything will be held up until he gets back. There is never any suggestion of doing anything now. The idea is always to push everything back and hope that the whole thing will eventually go away.

As one reared in the old Protestant-ethic tradition, I have always been on the side of accomplishment, even at the expense of caution. If it needs to be done, let’s do it. The bureaucratic mindset is entirely opposed to this line of thinking. The first thing that a bureaucrat does in a new situation is to look for a way to delay something. His tools are committees, slide shows, interminable meetings, and those beloved regulations that can be invoked at any time in the game. If General Eisenhower had been confronted with an environmental impact report, he would probably have been forced to delay the D-Day landing for a year, or maybe forget the whole thing.

The public and private worlds are in constant conflict because of two mental processes that were designed to abrade each other. One fights to accomplish something and the other fights just as hard to prevent it. We survive as a species only because we can hang a hammer in a cabana and call it a tool shed.

  • Mr. Smith, a frequent contributor to The Freeman, lives in Santa Maria, California.