Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On Redundant Subsystems

Bureaucracy creates bureaucracy. Bureaucrats justify their existence by creating more work for themselves and people like them. Paperwork can expand without limit. Regulation, administration and control are very easy things to make. Bureaucrats essentially keep track of what everyone else is doing, including other bureaucrats. It is a perfectly simple matter to duplicate, or heptuplicate the work involved, and so justify the need for more bureaucrats and thus more bureaucracy. Bureaucrats are not noted for complaining that they have too little work.

The unproductive in a company will try to put themselves on a level with, or above, the productive workers. Their very inferiority, of which they are acutely aware, leads them to do this. They could assist productivity by acting as a central processing point for data, collecting information which will be needed by others and passing it on at just the right moment,  but they rarely do just that. There are many things that are required, not by the practicalities of the productive processes of the company, but by law, and it is here that the bureaucrat has fertile ground for self-importance. Since the work he does is not for the company’s good, but to satisfy external criteria, he does not answer to the company, and so can to a certain extent create his own work, bogging down the work of the rest of the company in order to feel more important about doing nothing serious.

Most of the public sector consists of departments full of bureaucrats that exist because someone has decided that they must exist. Most of them could be sacked and no one would notice the difference, except that many requirements of administrative law would not be satisfied. This would not matter either, and once this was noticed, the laws themselves could be repealed, or at least ignored.

But there is more to it than this. The laws that make these requirements are often the product of insistence by bureaucrats that such laws are necessary. The inertia of bureaucracy is such that it is extremely difficult to identify the most expensive and unnecessary bureaucracy, and political impossible to remove it.

There must be closed loops, entire systems within organisations, private and especially public, which exist only because the other bits exist. It should be possible, though it would doubtless be extremely difficult, to identify these departments and sections which create work only for each other, passing papers round and each inspecting the tail of the next in an intricate, pointless and very expensive circle. Then the whole lot could be extracted as a single unit and cast aside to eat itself.

These things are deliberately created in many cases. Legislators, elected or otherwise, because these days many council bureaucrats seem to have the authority to call into being regulations on businesses or individuals, or the council’s own system of operation- these things can cannibalise themselves to the point of incest- which then require inspectors to check that they are being obeyed, a dedicated legal team, and even special courts, to deal with breaches, and an army of paper pushers to tick all the boxes. In the end the law might even be created to keep busy the box-tickers who would not be needed if it weren’t for all the other people who are required because of the law. Remove the whole lot and the only thing anyone would notice would be a subtle sense of relief and more money in their pockets.

It is possible for this to happen in the mechanical world, too. I would love to hear of an example of a machine so badly designed that it contained an entirely redundant chain of parts, which existed only because of each other. It certainly happens with computer software, and I am sure there must be, perhaps in the Maximegallon Museum of Diseased Imaginings, failed inventions, even successful ones, with sub-systems that didn’t need to be there.

This idea can be extended to the natural world. The human body may well contain such redundant sub-systems. It certainly has redundant parts, but they have become vestigial. Are there any systems which have not been reduced to vestigiality because selective pressure has been unable to work on them as a whole?

Philosophy, too, and the world of ideas in general, is, I am sure, full of concepts which owe their apparent existence to other concepts which lead back in a chain to the original one. Spinoza springs to mind here, but much modern bullshit has the same problem.

In general it might be said that systems are susceptible to infection by redundant subsystems when a part is assumed to be necessary without determining conclusively whether this is true.

I think it’s time for a beer, before I disappear up my own navel, or am myself discovered to be an unnecessary part supporting the existence of a redundant subsystem.


James Higham said...

They could assist productivity by acting as a central processing point for data, collecting information which will be needed by others and passing it on at just the right moment, but they rarely do just that.

Very true - it's almost as if they need to justify their non-productivity.

CIngram said...

A competent, hardworking secretary or PA can improve productivity by maximizing the results of the time and effort of the boss, which is why they are employed in the first place. And a good administrator is essential to any company. But in the public sector it's a good place to bury the lazy and competent, and in the private sector, regulation creates opportunities for them bury themselves. And everyone else, for that matter.