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Bureaucracy maintains status quo

City Life

July 12, 2010|Steve Smith

Last Thursday, Daily Pilot columnist Joseph Bell articulated a question for the ages. He was commenting on the specifics of a financial plan offered by Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry that promised to create "a leaner, more efficient, more effective and better-managed" city government.

According to Curry, the plan is already working and helping the city avoid drawing from its reserves. Bell then asked: "If this could be accomplished so readily under the stress of economic necessity, why wasn't it done before the crisis required it?"

Here's the answer: The Newport Beach City Council did not make any changes prior to the recession because it is a large bureaucracy, and like almost every other bureaucracy, public or private, its primary mission is to preserve the status quo. Bureaucracies do not like change and so their resistance to it becomes a daily activity, often at the expense of the greater good of the organization.

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Here's a case in point from the private sector: About 15 years ago, I owned a business that sold organizing products for homes and offices. One day, I received a call from the office manager of a division of a large and well-known company with a local branch. Over the phone, she ordered a large amount of office products for the local office, but there was a catch: "You have to deliver it by Dec. 31," she said.

As it was mid-November, that was not a problem. When I got to the office, I inquired about the deadline and was told that the money had to be spent or it would be taken out of the department's budget for the following year. It was the old "use it or lose it" mentality.

That story is not new, in fact, it happens — I am guessing — thousands of times every year before the end of the fiscal year for businesses and governments. Everywhere throughout the country these enterprises are spending money for products, people and services they don't really need, just so they can preserve the status quo. This is waste, and the price is paid, ultimately, by the taxpayer and consumer, always the same people.

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