As a former oarsman and current American Politics instructor, I feel compelled to straighten out the record on both rowing and bureaucracies. In an MWI article yesterday, ML Cavanaugh suggested that we put the term “row hard and live,” which he calls “a perfect slogan if you happen to work at the DMV,” to bed. He argued we should focus on developing novel solutions based on our expertise as military professionals.
Successful bureaucracies aren’t where expertise dies, however, but where it lives in the government. In Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It, noted political scientist James Q. Wilson describes five traits of successful bureaucracies. They look little like the straw-man DMV trotted out whenever the subject of bureaucracies arises. In the American Politics course I teach at West Point, cadets make the connection between these five principles and military bureaucracies. They emerge ready to play a role in improving the Department of Defense—our biggest federal bureaucracy.
The first principle Wilson identifies is that critical tasks guide bureaucracies. Like the profit motive that guides private companies, critical tasks define what the bureaucracy must accomplish to be successful in their mission. In the military, we’re familiar with critical tasks. Patrol leaders brief the commander’s intent, so when the patrol faces a new situation, they rely both on their personal expertise and the critical task to guide their decision making.
Second, successful bureaucracies inculcate a sense of mission. They do not rely on the whip, but instead cultivate agreement and widespread endorsement of the critical task. Gen. John Schofield knew this when he addressed the United States Military Academy’s class of 1879 and said: “It is possible to impart instruction and give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice as to inspire in the soldier no feeling, but an intense desire to obey.” To accomplish their critical tasks, military leaders must inspire their soldiers to put aside other concerns and complete the mission.
Third, bureaucrats must exercise autonomy. In the military bureaucracy, this autonomy permits us to redefine key problems and then build a sense of mission around the tasks that are key to solving those new problems. The Army’s concept of mission command reflects this principle because it relies on subordinate autonomy. Mission command requires trust in subordinates who can plan, coordinate, and execute flexible yet disciplined decision making. These are hardly the DMV’s automatons.
Fourth, successful bureaucracies judge themselves by their results. For many bureaucracies, the temptation is to measure performance: the number of patrols conducted, enemy killed, or dollars spent. When we, as a military, understand this principle, we are better situated to instead define what success means, and then measure performance towards those goals. The number of rifleman qualified expert during a unit’s range training is a better metric for success than the number of rounds expended.
Fifth, bureaucracies must manage their standard operating procedures (SOPs). Big organizations establish SOPs to manage complex processes. While we like to hate on the DMV, they know how to process all sorts of forms and do it relatively quickly. The Army lists the benefits of SOPs in its manual dedicated to them: SOPs reduce “training time, the loss of unwritten information, the commission of errors, the omission of essential steps or processes, and the time required for completion of tasks.” Wilson also notes that SOPs are not static, and the Army also knows that they must change, sometimes rapidly, as environments or missions shift. Military professionals, with their expertise built on education and practical experience, recognize when our SOPs must change and work to shift them.
When called upon, military bureaucrats exercise our expertise and professional autonomy to shift tasks, inspire our subordinates, and determine whether we’ve succeeded. It is critical that we avoid leveraging characteristics of successful bureaucracies counterproductively, of course. Too often, for example, we change successful, highly efficient SOP when the hyperactive fairy strikes. But this is why, instead of rejecting bureaucratic principles from the profession of arms, we should seek always to better understand and makes use of them. Officers should take pride in managing repetitive tasks at high levels of efficiency. Sometimes, “row hard and live” is the right choice.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Felix R. Fimbres, US Army
I agree with the author that successful bureaucracies are valuable. I disagree that the current Pentagon bureaucracy represents the embodiment of competent, institutional, professional knowledge that he claims. A truly stunning list of errors, misjudgments, and blunders have characterized even the purely technical side of military matters over the last 20 years, under different civilian administrations. In many cases, the same errors are being repeated, repeatedly! Groupthink and political correctness, neither strangers to the Pentagon, only make these things worse.
The premise that the DoD is a "successful bureaucracy" is debatable.
Most DoD employees, civilian and military, are trying to do the right thing and are dedicated (to varying degrees).
The problem is that the bureaucracy itself can create sub-optimal outcomes, just like an assembly line not under statistical control can cause good workers to produce unacceptable products under Deming's management theory examples.
The "axis of evil" (that's meant humorously) consisting of PPBES and financial management rules, JCIDS/requirements, and acquisition combine to result in very slow and often expensive weapons development.
Financial management rules often incentivize sub-optimal fiscal decisions in order to meet obligation and disbursement rates.
DOPMA prioritizes a bureaucratic career development model over mission accomplishment. A prime example of the negative bureaucratic impact of DOPMA is in the acquisition process, where military officer PMs are usually rotated long before the impacts of their decisions are felt. This can (and has) incentivized short term thinking that ignores the creation of long term problems.
All of this bureaucracy hasn't ensured basic strategic or tactical victories – or even competence. Every year or two, Army brigades essentially have to rebuild readiness from scratch because everyone who was trained up has rotated. People make incredibly bad decisions, such as putting a COP in the low ground surrounded by mountains occupied by hostile forces (as if the geniuses who put COP Keating into place never read "Duffer's Drift"!). The Army hasn't fielded a completely new major weapons system in decades; the only saving grace is that the Army has become pretty good at upgrading its existing major weapons systems, such as the 40 year old Abrams tank design, 30year old Apache attack helicopter designs, its 60 year old M-16 rifle designs, etc.
The US hasn't really won a war in a long time, but we sure have a enormous cadre of bureaucrats working very hard to comply with bureaucratic imperatives. That's not a successful bureaucracy, regardless of the merits of the individuals involved.
Bureaucracy is a by-product of 1800s Industrialization as a method to efficiently rationalized complicated processes. Complicated problems are problems which have a very large yet finite number of variables, which therefore can be broken down into pieces and it a blueprint which will always produce the same result.
Catch is, we're not anymore in the Industrial Age. Information age problems are complex problems, not complicated one. In other words, it's effectively impossible to ID all variables and therefore break it down effectively.
So for 21st century complex problems the process is by definition inefficient. Current conflicts are a mix of complicated and complex systems.