January 13, 2009

Where is the bureaucracy reenactor crowd?

In the past few months, I have been struggling with how to teach a difficult topic: bureaucracy. It's not hard to enter the topic with a class; everyone experiences bureaucracy in ways that they can talk about at one level. Generally, I find that students absorb notions of street-level bureaucrats, scripts about "real school," and loosely-coupled systems. And one of the most popular books I assign is about bureaucracy: Tyack and Cuban's Tinkering toward Utopia. Especially for current school administrators, bureaucracy can be a very attractive topic.

But at another level, a bureaucracy is hard to learn. Though we experience the status games that Weber discusses, and though most adults spend months and years learning the tacit knowledge that Polanyi has described, I know relatively few friends and colleagues who can reliably describe the weird ways that bureaucracies work.

It's not that people don't theorize, but that their theories are often two-dimensional: bureaucracies always behave a certain way, at least in many of the explanations I hear. But that's not a legitimate generalization. Large organizations have repertoires of behavior, and the choices of individuals matter. The truth is somewhere between guessing the psychology of individual administrators and making cookie-cutter pictures of school bureaucracies.

There are two common errors I have observed in the lay perspective on bureaucracy, even from people who work within them. First is an inattention to the interplay of explicit and tacit knowledge, an inattention to the relationship between formal rules and the inevitable discretion in applying them. At universities, this is often played out in arguments about what an accrediting body will or will not call a university on the carpet about. Some things are no-brainers: if news reports show that an institution is the victim of massive financial fraud and mismanagement, an accrediting body will almost inevitably place the institution on probation. But the rules are often more flexible than what a reader may assume. So while my regional accrediting body requires that college teachers have a masters degree with 18 hours in the instructional area, institutions (usually department heads) can certify an individual as qualified without meeting that requirement. Too many such exceptions will raise red flags, but not the occasional one.

At other times, people confuse the discretionary authority of administrators with what is politically or financially possible. In many universities, for example, there is a political balancing act between a provost's office and departments. While in theory many a provost can overrule every department recommendation on tenure and promotion, in few cases will university administrators ignore recommendations that come from both the tenured faculty and a department chair. If the recommendation is to deny tenure, few provosts want to discourage what they perceive as higher standards. And if a provost consistently denies tenure to faculty that are recommended for approval at the department level, there will also be a political price to pay. 

A related error is inattention to institutional routines. I recently read the novel manuscript of a friend, and while I loved the plot, I winced whenever the author confused jails with prisons, swapped police and sheriffs' deputies, ignored the existence of continuances, and so forth. I do not read many mysteries these days, and when I have, I have usually enjoyed the Agatha Christie more than police procedurals. But there is something about the details of institutional behavior that matters to me.

I suppose I am the bureaucratic equivalent of a Civil War reenactor: I have an acquired instinct for institutional behavior and can spot inaccuracies faster than you can say thin slice. I have no idea where I acquired it, and I am not sure how to teach it or if one can teach it at all. But that knowledge should be teachable, because many of the problems that frustrate parents on a day-to-day basis is bureaucratic behavior. "They're just unfair" is an understandable reaction to events, but neither despair nor screaming at principals (or threatening lawsuits) will get your child the best opportunities, or at least not without considerable cost.

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Tags: bureaucracy, Max Weber; Michael Polanyi
Posted in Teaching on January 13, 2009 9:49 AM |