the power of bureaucracy, deftly wielded

Years ago, I read a story.  It’s long enough ago that I don’t remember the author, or the title, or where I read it, and so if the brief description I’m about to give strikes a chord, please do let me know, because it’s a story I would love to read again.  (And of course I would like to give the author due credit.)

Humans, as always in their expansive manifest destiny mode, colonize an alien planet, but one already inhabited by sentient though more (forgive my description) primitive beings.  The humans do what the humans feel is appropriate, providing for the material needs of the aliens but in the process removing their need to strive and struggle.  And so, the aliens begin to give up and they start dying.

The humans are mortified and a new base commander is appointed, with the remit to save the aliens.  A bureaucrat stationed on the base makes a series of suggestions, all of which are signed off by the new commander, which in the end result in the aliens stealing sufficient space ships to allow all of them to escape and start again.  The base commander is sacked, despite his claims that it was the bureaucrat who knowingly misled him, and the bureaucrat is of course given a commendation for the quality of his paperwork and record keeping.

It is this last part, the lauding of the humble bureaucrat, that caught my attention at the time and is the part of the story that had most clearly stayed with me.  I work in a university, and the universities in England are relatively highly regulated institutions, perhaps among the most highly regulated amongst university systems in the (so called) first world.

Many of my colleagues rail agains the bureaucracy in our university and in the system in general, saying that it impedes their desire to change things.  I don’t mind the bureaucracy, to be honest.  Education in general, and higher education in particular, are from time to time beset by fads, and it’s helpful to have some institutional inertia to allow time for reflection and consideration before making significant changes.

But to be able to make the changes we need to be able to make, we need to understand the system in which we operate, and this includes the internal and external bureaucracies associated to university life.  And this is something I spend a significant amount of my time doing.

This need to be able to deftly operate in a bureaucratic environment is not unique to me.  When I was a young lecturer, at the University of Southampton for only a couple of years at the time, the then-University Registrar came and gave a talk on very much this same point, noting that by the time an item of interest reaches one of the main university committees, it should have been discussed thoroughly enough that the final version being discussed was uncontroversial.

And so, we persist.  I am still learning this art of bureaucratic navigation, but I do get involved in a significant amount of policy revision and policy development.  And I keep coming back to the story of the bureaucrat who, though the deft use of paperwork, saved an entire alien race.  I haven’t yet achieved anything on this scale, but perhaps some day.

~ by Jim Anderson on 5 June 2016.

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