[Paleopsych] NYT: The Beast That Feeds on Boxes: Bureaucracy

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Week in Review > The Beast That Feeds on Boxes: Bureaucracy
April 10, 2005


    IN the long and dispiriting history of American intelligence failure,
    from Pearl Harbor to the 2001 attacks to Iraqi weapons, one chronic
    culprit is that "giant power wielded by pygmies," as Balzac put it:

    Critical discoveries by code breakers, F.B.I. agents and the C.I.A.
    were lost on the way up the long ladder that separates rank-and-file
    spies from top decision makers.

    But who has ever resisted the impulse to add rungs to the ladder,
    always with the sturdiest intentions?

    "I've been studying bureaucracy for 40 years," said James Q. Wilson, a
    professor of public policy at Pepperdine University, "and I can't
    remember a single commission that proposed cutting back."

    Little surprise, then, that after two independent commissions and
    multiple Congressional committees studied the shortcomings of the 15
    intelligence agencies, they proposed more bureaucracy.

    Much, much more bureaucracy.

    This paradoxical result worries Richard A. Posner, a federal appeals
    court judge and the author of a coming book on intelligence reform.
    "Every time you add a layer of bureaucracy, you delay the movement of
    information up the chain to the policy maker," Judge Posner said. "And
    you dilute the information, because at each step some details are
    taken out."

    Yet adding layers appears to be in the DNA of bureaucracy; it is what
    bureaucracy does, according to Paul C. Light, who has spent years
    studying the phenomenon he calls the "thickening" of government.

    Through Republican and Democratic administrations, in response to any
    kind of crisis or failure, in every field from education to national
    security, and often in the face of stark evidence that it will be
    counterproductive, the federal government has grown layers, said Dr.
    Light, a professor of public service at New York University and senior
    fellow at the Brookings Institution.

    The layering can scramble communication and accountability, he said,
    and it lies at the heart of many government failures. In the Columbia
    disaster, NASA engineers' worries never reached top officials.
    Commanders in Iraq have said that word of abuses at Abu Ghraib did not
    reach them.

    One of the first great students of bureaucracy, the early-20th-century
    German sociologist Max Weber, saw a lot to like in this form of
    organization, particularly as a replacement for clan-based or
    patronage systems. Bureaucracies were made up of people with
    expertise, operating under consistent rules and keeping precise
    records. But Weber may not have imagined the scale of bureaucracy at
    the top of a 21st-century superpower, or its relentless growth.

    In 1960, according to Dr. Light's study of federal phone directories,
    there were 17 different executive titles in the 15 cabinet departments
    he tracks. By 2004, that had ballooned to 64 titles, as new positions
    were wedged between existing jobs, creating such choice appellations
    as "chief of staff to the associate deputy assistant secretary" and
    "principal deputy deputy assistant secretary" (the repetition is not a

    High-level career posts have proliferated as fast as political
    appointments. "It's a stalactite-stalagmite problem," Dr. Light said.
    "The politicals drip down, and the career people drip up."

    Sometimes growth is a matter of prestige. "Today, you're no one in
    this town if you don't have a chief of staff, and not much of a chief
    of staff if you don't have a deputy chief of staff," Dr. Light said.

    Sometimes pay freezes lead to the manufacture of new titles to allow
    bosses to give deserving subordinates raises.

    But the real driver for layering is the effort to reform, Dr. Light
    said, as leaders frustrated by failing bureaucracies add layers to
    impose discipline on those below. The response to the 9/11 attacks is
    a clear example. The government first created the Department of
    Homeland Security, building a florid new superstructure above 22
    agencies employing 180,000 people. Now comes the intelligence
    agencies' turn. Atop the layers of the Central Intelligence Agency and
    its 14 siblings, Congress followed the advice of the 9/11 commission
    and decided to place a new director of national intelligence, assisted
    by a staff of more than 500. President Bush's nominee for the post,
    John D. Negroponte, is set for a Senate confirmation hearing this

    Then the presidential commission on Iraqi weapons intelligence weighed
    in on March 31 with a list of proposed additions: the C.I.A.'s
    directorate of operations would be swallowed up by a new human
    intelligence directorate; the F.B.I.'s security operations would be
    consolidated into a National Security Service; "mission managers"
    under a deputy director of national intelligence for integrated
    intelligence strategies would coordinate reporting on a single target.
    And so on, for 74 recommendations.

    Each comes with a common-sense rationale. But nearly all would add
    bulk to the bureaucracy, potentially tangling lines of authority and
    communication for intelligence, with its dependence on speed and
    precision, say experts on spying and government.

    "It's going to slow down decision-making and make things even more
    confusing," said Loch K. Johnson, a professor of political science at
    the University of Georgia who was on the staffs of Congressional
    intelligence reform panels in the 1970's and the 1990's.

    The hazards of the bureaucratic imperative were not lost on the latest
    intelligence commission, led by Laurence H. Silberman, a senior
    federal judge, and Charles S. Robb, the former Virginia senator and

    "We were worried about it, and we are worried about it," the judge
    said in an interview. The report frets repeatedly about the danger of
    bureaucracy and says specifically, "We have tried to eschew the
    'boxology' that often dominates discussions of government reform."

    But in the end, the commission could not stop itself. On its
    organizational chart for Mr. Negroponte's operation, there are 34

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