Tuesday, May 5, 2015
Bureaucracy (Part 2: The Tendency toward Centralization)
As mentioned last week, one of the structural tendencies of bureaucracy is centralization. So, where does this tendency to centralize power and control come from?
Order and Freedom
In his influential book Small Is Beautiful, British economist E. F. Schumacher elaborates on the tension between order and freedom that exists within virtually all organizations:
Nobody really likes large-scale organisation; nobody likes to take orders from a superior who takes orders from a superior who takes orders . . . Even if the rules devised by bureaucracy are outstandingly humane, nobody likes to be ruled by rules, that is to say, by people whose answer to every complaint is: “I did not make the rules: I am merely applying them.”
Yet, it seems, large-scale organisation is here to stay. Therefore it is all the more necessary to think about it and to theorise about it. The stronger the current, the greater the need for skilful navigation. . . .
In any organisation, large or small, there must be a certain clarity and orderliness; if things fall into disorder, nothing can be accomplished. Yet, orderliness, as such, is static and lifeless; so there must be plenty of elbow-room and scope for breaking through the established order. . . .
Therefore any organisation has to strive continuously for the orderliness of order and the disorderliness of creative freedom. And the specific danger inherent in large-scale organisation is that its natural bias and tendency favour order, at the expense of creative freedom.
We can associate many further pairs of opposites with this basic pair of order and freedom. Centralisation is mainly an idea of order; decentralisation, one of freedom. . . .
The larger an organisation, the more obvious and inescapable is the need for order. But if this need is looked after with such efficiency and perfection that no scope remains for man to exercise his creative intuition, for entrepreneurial disorder, the organisation becomes moribund and a desert of frustration.1
We should probably view the tension between order and freedom, between centralization and decentralization, through the lens of the question suggested in an earlier post: Which is more important, the individual or the organization? If the answer is the organization, then order and centralization should weigh more heavily than creative freedom and decentralization. If, however, the individual is more important than the organization, then freedom and decentralization should take precedence.
This question is particularly relevant in the Church, because of its hybrid nature. While the wards and stakes are in many ways a fine example of decentralization, in other ways centralized bureaucracy has been the predominant pattern at both the local and the general level for decades. Not surprisingly, some of the Brethren have expressed varying degrees of discomfort with the inevitable fruits of centralization. For instance, in a talk given at a regional representatives seminar in1990, Elder Boyd K. Packer, comparing Church leaders to a team of doctors, stated: “While we all seem to agree that over-medication, over-programming, is a critically serious problem, we have failed to reduce the treatments. It has been virtually impossible to affect any reduction in programs. Each time we try, advocates cry to high heaven that we are putting the spiritual lives of our youth at risk. If symptoms reappear, we program even heavier doses of interviews, activities, meetings, and assessments. . . . In recent years I have felt, and I think I am not alone, that we were losing the ability to correct the course of the Church.” He then suggested that “the most dangerous side effect of all we have prescribed in the way of programming and instruction and all, is the overregimentation of the Church. This overregimentation is a direct result of too many programmed instructions.”2 In other words, too much order, too much control, too much centralization.
Similarly, in a 2004 presentation to a worldwide audience of ward and stake leaders, Elder Richard G. Scott quoted a 1940 memorandum from the First Presidency that conveyed their concern about the regimentation that can occur in the Church if leaders are too directive or programs too prescriptive. “The work of the Church, in all fields, is standing in grave danger of being regimented down to the minutest detail. The result of that will be that not only will all initiative be crushed out but that all opportunity for the working of the spirit will be eliminated. The Church has not been built on that principle. In all their work, the Auxiliaries must not only give opportunity for initiative, but . . . must encourage it.”3 The fruits of centralization were apparent in 1940, and they certainly have not diminished in the intervening seventy-five years. Indeed, the bureaucracy grew more dense and difficult with the implementation of Correlation in the 1960s, and by the turn of the millennium it had become so cumbersome that it yielded the candid admission from President Gordon B. Hinckley that I quoted last week: “As thrilling as [Church] growth was, he abhorred bureaucracy and at times felt himself swimming helplessly against a mounting tide.”4
But it has not been just President Hinckley or a few of his apostolic colleagues who have expressed frustration over Church bureaucracy. As I have talked with various people about organizational issues (and as I have listened to or overheard others speaking spontaneously), I am amazed at how many have had some sort of unpleasant encounter with the Church bureaucracy. I have a friend, for instance, who was looking for a job several years ago and applied for a position as a sales rep with a large computer manufacturer. He happened to meet the man who had vacated the position and asked him why. The reason was that his major account was the LDS Church, and it was so frustrating dealing with the Church bureaucracy that he quit his job and looked for something less stressful. Those who have worked inside the bureaucracy have an intimate acquaintance with the difficulties centralization and heavy top-down management can create. Schumacher’s observation that too much emphasis on order produces organizations that are “moribund and a desert of frustration” certainly rings true to me based on my seven plus years with the Curriculum Department. And just this week I sat in a meeting at BYU with a former Church Magazines colleague whose feelings about working at Church headquarters mirror my own.
So, is it possible to defuse bureaucracy? Certainly. But it involves a reshuffling of values, perhaps even a discarding of certain notions that have become extremely entrenched in the organization. To start with, organizational values such as malleability (requiring people to conform to organizational needs), strict obedience to institutional edict (never being allowed to question anything that comes down the line of authority), and paternalism (treating employees like little children) need to be abandoned. The desire for members to exercise creative freedom needs to outweigh the desire for order (or control). Trust is imperative. Allowing the democratic aspect of the Church to blossom again after decades of being chased into the wilderness by the theocratic impulse is also necessary. These are all topics I’ve addressed in recent weeks. They are also incredibly difficult changes to make, especially for an institution that has carefully and intentionally nurtured a top-down culture, but they are imperative if Church leaders really want to tame the bureaucracy. If, on the other hand, maintaining central control and enforcing cultural and behavioral uniformity end up being too dear to give up, then we must simply resign ourselves to dealing with an increasingly intractable bureaucracy. What we must recognize, however, is that this is a choice. We are not (contrary to President Hinckley’s sentiment) helpless in the face of a mounting tide of bureaucracy.
Change in the Wind?
This discussion may not be totally pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. The wind may actually be shifting slightly. The fact that Church leaders have recognized the dangers of overregimentation is significant. Changes in the new Church handbooks are encouraging. An Ensign article introducing some of these changes stated: “The handbooks provide greater simplification and flexibility to avoid two great dangers, according to President Boyd K. Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The first is the danger of regimenting the influence of the Holy Ghost out of Church programs. ‘It is a spiritual work that we are about,’ he said, ‘and a spiritual work must be guided by the Spirit.’ The second is the danger of ‘establishing the Church without establishing the gospel.’” The article goes on to say that the changes are “meant to reduce the complexity of Church programs and allow some local adaptation where necessary without sacrificing the uniformity of policies, procedures, and programs”5—a perfect description of the uneasy tension that exists between creative freedom and order, between centralization and decentralization. This is of course a delicate balancing act—allowing local adaptation while preserving uniformity—but the fact that some space has been allowed for change is an acknowledgement that Church leaders understand this inherent tension and the dangers of its elimination.
How these changes play out in practice will be interesting to observe, because, as Elder Packer suggested, bureaucracy does not easily yield territory it has won, nor does it readily loosen its grip on the lives of those it controls. As Schumacher points out, the larger an organization grows, the more inescapable and obvious becomes its need to maintain order. Not surprisingly, the compulsion to preserve order (and uniformity) can overwhelm the impulse toward freedom and creativity and toward the unpredictability they inevitably generate.
The Spirit, I would suggest, fosters creativity and is generally unpredictable. But in a highly structured and hierarchical organization, it is very difficult for those responsible for maintaining order and uniformity to trust lower-level leaders and rank-and-file members to receive their own inspiration regarding programs and structures that can deliver gospel blessings most effectively in a variety of cultural settings around the world. Needless to say, American corporate structures and methods are an awkward fit for most cultures (even, I would suggest, for most parts of the United States). So, the big question is, can the Church allow sufficient decentralization so that local Saints can experience the creative freedom of following the Spirit, no matter where it takes them? This all comes back to the issue of trust. Joseph Smith claimed that he taught people correct principles and allowed them to govern themselves. Whether he was as consistent in achieving this ideal as he liked to think is questionable, but it certainly is an ideal worth pursuing.
1. E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (London: Blond & Briggs, 1973), 226–277, italics in original.
2. Boyd K. Packer, “Let Them Govern Themselves,” an address delivered at a regional representatives seminar, reprinted in Sunstone 79 (October 1990): 28–33, quotation at 30.
3. “Memorandum of Suggestion,” March 29, 1940, 4; quoted in Richard G. Scott, “The Doctrinal Foundation of the Auxiliaries,” Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, January 10, 2004. This memorandum was likely written by J. Reuben Clark, since President Grant had suffered a stroke the previous month and remained largely incapacitated until he died in 1945, and Second Counselor David O. McKay was seriously ill with a lung ailment. Quinn, J. Reuben Clark, 83.
4. Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 408. Undoubtedly, President Hinckley was intending the colloquial and not the formal definition of the term. See note 33 above.
5. “New Handbooks Introduced During Worldwide Training,” Ensign 40, no. 1 (January 2011): 74.