Letter from the editors – 11 February 2022

[ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN SUIDERNUUS, 11 FEBRUARY 2022]

 

Is it just us, or have you also picked up on the creeping bureaucratisation of the private sector?

It is an insidious thing that manifests itself in all kinds of surreptitious ways. Think about how, when you phone to try and solve a problem with your service provider, you get through to an electronic voice and then you go into an electronic queue, and while you wait you listen to an electronic tune.

Bureaucratisation always involves a measure of depersonalisation. It’s maddening stuff. It turns you into a number, a mere statistic. No one cares to listen to you. Rather, your problem gets categorised as some kind of thing in common with other people and then a solution that fits the general ballpark gets assigned to you. But it’s never quite a fit for your problem, is it?

If what we’re describing rings all kinds of bells, then you have also picked up on the creeping bureaucratisation of the private sector. Of course, technology is a great facilitator for this, because you don't speak to other people anymore but to robots and machines that are programmed to find a fix for your problem. No more human touch. Ouch.

But corporate bureaucratisation also happens through people. In other words, people get programmed to give you a robotic and evasive answer to a fairly straightforward problem not because they are stupid, but because through centralisation they are robbed of the power to make decisions on their own. And that’s bad not only for you but for the person who is disempowered and therefore robbed of meaningful engagement in the workplace.

We have had a vivid experience of something like this in the past few weeks.

When we started printing Southern Post end-January, we had to approach all our points of sale afresh to get the paper back on the news stands. Despite not having been printed for two years, this was, to our surprise, relatively easy. Most people welcomed us back, remembered the old process of delivery and payment and agreed to reinstate these. Even the pick-up of papers for the towns of Arniston and Elim re-commenced like clockwork.

Everything went smoothly, until we got to one of the large chain stores in town – a strategically important sales point for us.

Initial agreement was obtained to deliver 100 papers of our first edition. But when we pitched up with the copies they were refused.

Why? Head quarters’ permission was needed.

It has been almost a month now. We phone regularly, but the standard answer is: no answer from head quarters. Despite the fact that our bar code is in the system and only a price adjustment of R1 has to be made there is simply no progress.

Sounds a bit like Kafka’s The Castle where the protagonist K tries to get access to the enigmatic authorities but in the process dies waiting.

In the meantime, spare a thought for the person who works in a machinery that so scorns him that he cannot even take a decision about what goes on the shelf to serve the local community. How can such person develop and flourish in the workplace?

It invokes economist Eric Schumacher's prescient book: Small is Beautiful with its evocative subtitle: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered.

While big business helps to drive prices down so people can live easier, Schumacher contented that it generally manages this because it does not value resources, nor culture and people. On the labour side, big capital taken to its extreme yields a system where workers are devoid of decision-making powers and privy only to a slice of the production or service process of the entire firm so that they cannot coherently address a simple issue outside their narrow purview.

This is at root a description of a process of bureaucratisation.

Put simply: it is an approach that dumbs down employees and dodges accountability to clients or customers. Certainly not a win-win in the long run, is it?

Makes one think. If next time you sit in an electronic queue listening to an electronic voice feeling the insidious creep of corporate bureaucratisation perhaps you want to lodge a complaint. Sadly, your complaint is likely to end up in the inbox of an outsourced mailbox managing operator sitting somewhere in Turkey …

Best wishes,

The editors