The disobliging functionary

There are few problems in Guyana which are more intractable than the problem of bureaucracy in all its deadly guises. We are caught in a trap whose four walls continually close in, rather like the torture chamber in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. The four encroaching walls of the bureaucratic trap are Red Tape, Committees, Unnecessary Meetings and Disobliging Functionaries.

Committees pose a major threat. They are a snare and delusion in trying to get anything done. They are often created not really to solve problems and get work done but to give the impression that action has been taken and to postpone the fatal day when an actual decision must be made. Many committees also have the subsidiary purpose of providing places for idle but self-important hacks anxious for the maximum of paper-prestige and the minimum of work. That would be all right if such committees simply did not function, but unfortunately they sometimes do and then they take up an inordinate amount of the time, energy, and temper of executives who actually have work to do. In fact, one of the first laws of Committee-Dynamics, a volume of which I am now compiling, is that the less a man enjoys serving on committees the more likely he is to be pressed to do so. Another of these laws is that whenever a problem causes a committee to be set up the committee very soon becomes more important than the problem.

One sickening feature of the cancerous growth of committees is the tendency to call them something else, perhaps with a view to exaggerate the importance of what is being done. But such a tactic should fool no one. Make no mistake about it: a Task Force, an Advisory Sub-Committee, an Investigating Commission, a Preparatory Working Group, a Project Team – none of them are anything other than simple, old-fashioned, time-wasting committees dressed up to sound as if some dynamic new way has been discovered to solve problems and make progress. But I learnt ever since, I think it was in Third Form at school, that stinking gas never smelt any sweeter if you called it hydrogen sulphide.

However, it was not my intention to rail on and on about the absurdity of most committees, since I have written on this repugnant subject on other occasions and no doubt will write again. I wanted instead to say something about that other bulwark of the bureaucratic fortress: the disobliging functionary. Here is a most insidious creature. Perhaps his outstanding trait is his unwillingness ever to take a decision. He has become absolutely expert in either referring problems up or delegating them down; somehow nothing whatsoever is ever ripe for decision at his particular desk. There are hundreds of such decision-evaders in all parts of the public service,  and decision-evasion is just as deadly to a nation’s business as tax-evasion, if not more so in the long run.

Another trait, closely allied to the disobliging functionary’s pathological reluctance to take decisions, is the built-in defence mechanism which causes him never to say no to those above him and always to say no to those below. In the presence of the big boys he is the yes man par excellence and the no man unparalleled in the company of his juniors.

In other words, this functionary’s main aim is an easy life. He seeks first of all to avoid making any decisions since any decision just might come in for criticism. He seeks to keep his superiors happy at all costs and will therefore never contradict them. And the last thing he wants is to allow any ideas to surface from bright young people below since any such ideas might actually mean more work for him to do, indeed – horror of horrors – may even make him have to think!

There is a marvellous passage in Christopher Logue’s translation of Virgil’s Iliad when the narrator is describing the sycophancy surrounding and endangering the Great King. For these slavish sycophants, he notes with exasperation, there is never any question of the great man being in the wrong: “And so,” he writes, “if at noon the King cries it is night – behold the stars!”

That sums up our perfect functionary. Anything for an easy life. Even if it is midnight he will agree with those who have the power to say the sun is shining, however much this leads to absurd stumbling in the dark. But our perfect functionary will be all right anyway; he never stumbles because he never makes a move.

Comments  

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