Kennedy School Lecturer Presents Findings on Bureaucracies

Kennedy School Lecturer Jorrit J. de Jong discussed possible solutions to bureaucratic inefficiencies and his new book "Dealing with Dysfunction" at a talk at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation on Wednesday.

"Dealing with Dysfunction" consists of a series of 14 case studies conducted by the Kafka Brigade, a research group co-founded by de Jong. De Jong described how his group studies organizations.

“Even if the symptoms are similar, the underlying causes of bureaucratic inefficiencies can be very different,” de Jong said. “Therefore, if you want to do something about it, you have to really do the diagnosis first before you start suggesting remedies.”

Although it can be time intensive to conduct research that treats each case individually, de Jong stated that broad solutions such as eliminating bureaucracies are not effective.

“The bureaucracy was created to uphold certain values that are inherently attached to democratic government,” de Jong said. In addition to preventing nepotism and promoting accountability, de Jong added that bureaucracy is important.

Matthew R. Andrews, a Kennedy School professor and a panelist, responded to de Jong’s argument and reiterated that bureaucracies are not inherently bad. He added that bureaucratic inefficiencies are not created to make life hard for people, but rather are a side effect of cultures and states changing their rules over time.

“[Bureaucratic inefficiency] isn’t necessarily an indication that an organization is against you,” Andrews said. “It is this kind of intersection of views that conflict, layers of solutions that have emerged over time in response to specific issues, that over time kind of create I guess a cornucopia of madness.”

While de Jong stressed that every case of bureaucratic dysfunction is unique, one of the common themes amongst the cases he examined was a difference in values between departments within the bureaucracy.

“You see at the level of the structure that there’s problems with alignment and coordination and as a matter of statecraft there’s an issue of what are we really trying to accomplish here [as an overall organization]?” de Jong said.

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