A good prescription for ordering society

I remember a very long time ago, in the era of Prime Minister, not even then President LFS Burnham, when I was a Director in the sugar industry, I had occasion to enquire from an official at the then State Planning Commission about a request made months before for  approval for the introduction of a new incentive scheme in the industry. I pointed out quite insistently that the scheme had been carefully worked out, that it was a matter of vital importance to the industry, and that the delay was having a serious effect on the employees’ morale.

The official did his best to be helpful, but his final remark revealed the underlying difficulty: “Comrade,” he said pleasantly but firmly, “you have to understand: your high priority may not be the Minister’s high priority.”

Now, that was the whole point. It perfectly described a grave weakness in the system and it is a weakness that has only got worse as the years have gone by.

The Minister’s priorities indeed are not the same as a Director’s priorities. A Minister has, and rightly has, different and higher priorities.

He is operating, and has to operate, in a quite different sphere of activity. But that does not mean that in his own sphere of activity the Director’s priorities are not as urgent and important in their own way as the Minister’s. Yet action is delayed because the lesser organization’s priorities get muddled into the Minister’s portfolio of priorities and there they naturally take a lower place than they would for the Director. Thus the delay is not a reflection on either the Minister or the Director who are both doing their jobs as best they can.

But it is a terrible reflection on the system.

Half the art of good administration is to set up a system whereby a prompt decision can be taken at the level appropriate to the decision itself.

Major decisions left too low down in the system, or minor decisions accumulating too high up, can equally lead to a breakdown in good administration. It is not for a counter clerk to decide pricing policy in a shop, nor should his manager come to tell him how to wrap his parcels.

Sometimes, undoubtedly, trouble comes when vital decisions are left to be taken at too low a level. Policies that should be coordinated at the top are then open to widespread individual interpretation down below with the result that soon everyone is doing his own thing and the muddle can become appalling.

That certainly is a danger. Indeed, it is such an obvious danger that the measures taken to cure that particular disease often turn out to be worse than the disease itself. The fact is that over-concentration of decision-taking at the top is a far more deadly disease in our society than its opposite.

In our society policies have always tended to be decided and problems resolved by powerful men acting as they think fit.

And powerful men inevitably want to gather more power. It is in their nature and in the nature of the hierarchical organizations which they set up. And gathering power means concentrating more and more decisions close around the gatherers of power.  That is a universal truth of history and of human nature. Paradoxically, however, in that also lies a great danger for the powerful. This is because more and more decisions, by a sort of reverse force of gravity, float upwards to be taken at or near the top.

Empty hands and empty minds are left below with less and less worthwhile to do. The filter at the top becomes too finely meshed to permit an even flow for the countless decisions necessary to run anything, much less a country, properly. The system therefore gets hopelessly clogged up like when you use a wrong-sized strainer to strain orange juice and find you end up with very little pure juice to drink when you have finished squeezing.

The objective is to prevent this happening. This seems fundamental to me. It involves not only practical but even philosophical and moral considerations.

It really comes down to how society should best be organized – how much weight should be given to the dignity and independence of the individual working man at whatever level he is performing.

And because there is morality as well as practicality in it, it is perhaps not so strange that the best words I have found on the subject are contained in a Papal Encyclical, Pope Pius XI’s Encyclical called ‘Quadrigesimo Anno’ of 1931. There, I think, a profound truth not only about natural justice in society but also administration is clearly written:

“It is an injustice, a grave evil and disturbance of right order, for a larger and higher association to arrogate to itself the functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower associations… The state… should leave to smaller groups the settlement of business of lesser importance… it will thus carry out with greater freedom, power and success the tasks which belong to it alone.”

That, it seems to me, is not only a good prescription for ordering society but also an excellent guide for public administrators who seek out efficiency. E F Schumaker, who wrote the famous book Small Is Beautiful, I suppose said much the same thing in another way when he said in a lecture he gave at the British National Coal Board where he once worked: “At headquarters we do not want to do anything that in fact the outposts can do themselves.”


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