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  • Writer's pictureDr. Stefan Fourier

Reducing bureaucracy - how is that supposed to work?

Here are two recent reports:

  1. The number of government employees has grown by more than thirty percent in recent years.

  2. Among young workers, the government is by far the most popular employer.

Such reports shouldn't even exist anymore since reducing bureaucracy has been at the top of politicians' agendas for years, at least in their speeches. Why isn't this working?

It's very commendable when governments, opposition, and parliamentarians commit to reducing bureaucracy. But it is naive to believe that bureaucracy can be fought with appeals. It becomes particularly questionable when bureaucracy is fought with even more bureaucracy, for example, through ministerial practice checks, bureaucracy reduction teams, the National Regulatory Control Council, the State Secretary Committee on Better Regulation and Bureaucracy Reduction, EU-level consultations, evaluation of EU initiatives, and much more, as detailed on the relevant ministerial websites.

One must consider what bureaucracy is actually for. What is its function in the world? It must have some function; otherwise, it wouldn't exist.

Bureaucracy is a structural element that systems use to manage their complexity. (Whether complexity can be managed at all is debatable, but it is attempted.) Rules are created, prohibitions are issued, control mechanisms are installed, measured, and sanctioned. All this is to get a grip on the growing complexity of the state or the company. But complexity continues to grow. It does so anyway, and exponentially. Therefore, bureaucracy will grow at the same rate. It will probably grow even faster because ultimately, the measures to control bureaucracy, that is, the bureaucracy added to fight it, increase complexity.

We are stuck in a dilemma: The complexity of our systems grows, we try to control it and create bureaucracy to do so. Even reducing bureaucracy leads to new bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is inherent to the system. It is a necessary attempt to keep complex systems under control. However, this only succeeds partially, especially as complexity continues to grow and the system eludes our control even more. So: Bureaucracy must grow as long as we stay within the system's boundaries. It's a law! Jokingly, I sometimes refer to this phenomenon as the entropy of social systems.

By the way, briefly inserted: There is also a deeply human reason why bureaucracy grows. In most cases, its reduction is entrusted to bureaucrats. Does anyone in their right mind believe that these people will rationalize themselves away?

There are only two ways out of the bureaucracy dilemma. Either we give up control or we reduce the complexity of the systems.

In companies, complexity reduction is done from time to time: Flattening hierarchies, lean management, process optimization, outsourcing, splitting up companies. This works for a while but has disadvantages regarding innovation. Therefore, they rely on forms of shared responsibility and decentralization, such as agile management. After a while, disadvantages regarding control also appear there, so bureaucracy, i.e., control, is strengthened again.

In the political sphere, this would mean cutting the EU's superstructure, breaking it up in its current form, and completely redefining it. Or we abandon the federal system and completely rebuild it, reduce the number of states, disempower the many kings and co-decision-makers, but at the same time forgo control.

Complexity reduction can only be achieved by smashing the systems.

But who is supposed to do that? The people who earn their money within these systems, who derive their raison d'être from them? They certainly won't do that—they just pretend to.

The other option remains: giving up control. Why not, since we will lose it anyway, at the latest when resources are no longer sufficient to build more bureaucracy. We will one day find ourselves in a situation where complexity will burst bureaucracy. The systems will become uncontrollable because the growth of complexity cannot be stopped. Then bureaucracy will virtually devour itself. What will that look like? No idea. I don't even want to imagine it. It could be sheer chaos, anarchy, ungovernability. First signs of such loss of control already exist, in the form of uncontrollable neighborhoods, parallel societies, clan crime.

At the end of my reflections, which do not make me happy at all, I can only state: The current system cannot solve the bureaucracy problem, not even with a big push or double push. I lack the imagination to see where the solution could lie and what it would look like.


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