The banana principle

At lunch on Sunday, I found myself sitting between a doctor and the master of a Cambridge college, who were having a competitive whinge about the ways in which bureaucracy and de-professionalisation were wrecking their lives. Actually, said the Don, the colleges were still run pretty sensibly, which is to say without management. The university as a whole is being persecuted by the Government, just as the Health Service is. The doctor complained bitterly and with every reason that the number of administrators employed by the NHS has risen from something like 5,000 to something like 100,000 in the last fifteen years. What’s more, they all change their minds about what needs doing every three years or so.

I found myself wondering whether there is any natural upper limit on the number of bureaucrats. Some people doubt there can be. Certainly, introspection suggests that managing work can easily expand to fill all the time available for actually working.

But there is a more hopeful example in the banana. Bob May used to go around, when he was the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, that we shared 50% of our genes with a banana. In fact we share them with almost any multicellular organism. They are the necessary “housekeeping” genes, which regulate and make possible the transactions between our separate cells, and keep us functioning as organisms, rather than cancerous agglomerations. So, I suppose from the point of view of the original, autonomous bacterium, they are all a part of the bureaucracy.

The moral of this is not very comforting: in nature, 50% of everything is bureaucratic. That is the limit to which our human institutions must also tend, if we are to take cultural evolution seriously. I expounded this theory, and then, since it was a buffet lunch, went off to get some more food. When I returned, the table was deserted.

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4 Responses to The banana principle

  1. A bureaucrat thinks he has done a good day’s work if he has lifted a piece of paper from an in tray, perused it, gone to lunch, come back, perused it again, rubber-stamped it, placed it in an out-tray and gone home. What he has really done is wasted other people’s time and money, people who are really producing something. A manager thinks he has done a good day’s work if he has had more than one meeting. The more meetings he has the more work he disrupts. They are parasites.

  2. oliver morton says:

    Not sure about your view of all this as cumulative. There’s a school of thought which holds that the simplicty of bacteria is not a mark of their primitive state but an adaptive achievement — a great simplification of the sort we might all aspire to. The idea is that LUCA, our last common ancestor, was a much more complex thing — or community of things — and that bacteria deliberately downsized themselves. Not sure where this takes the moral you want to draw. Yes, bacteria get by without bureaucracy. But at every level other than the biochemical they don’t really amount to much, do they.

    On another aspect: It’s possible that some Cambridge colleges don’t need management. But at the same time, they live in the area on the accountability/power diagram known as harlotspace, which ain’t good.

  3. jonathan says:

    Who suggests this about downsizing? At first sight, if bacteria had downsized from a more complicated LUCA, then surely there would be a lot of different ways to do it and you wouldn’t see such strong conservation of housekeeping genes.

    I have a memeory of Stephen Jay Gould pointing out somewhere that the biomass of bacteria is larger than of every animal put together, but in any case they ain’t doing so bad.

    Bureaucracy seems to be one of those topics like political correctness in which faceless people have so obviously ‘gone mad’ that there is little need provide any independently verifiable facts to your audience. So myths abound. The NHS Confederation, for example, says that
    there are 26000 managers in the NHS
    and that spending on them has gone down as a proportion of healthcare spend. (The number, they say, is less than the number of NHS beds, in contradiction to the Observer last week). Of course they’re the managers speaking, so who would believe them? On the other hand, its not unprecedented that people talking down large public services want to talk up private provision.

    The Oxbridge harlotry works because it gets more teaching and research money, and better qualified students, than anyone else, and so unsurprisingly often produces a good product. Any claim that the college system adds value for all that investment because it isn’t tightly managed is hard to prove, and certainly hard to square with my experiences of some occasional shocking amateurism in both teaching and management. But who listens to an ex-whore?

  4. Stephen says:

    Both the Don and the Doctor were being naive. Cambridge colleges do have managers, they’re just disguised as other things: secretaries, bursars, heads of department, masters, deans, committee chairs. And of course they do other things than manage, but fewer other things than if they didn’t manage.

    The NHS was the same. Instead of having adminstrators who did nothing but adminstrate the institution was managed part-time by doctors, receptionists, nurses, porters, technicians and others. You can’t provide good robust healthcare for 60 million people by employing on average one administrator for each hospital!

    Administration, bureaucracy and management in the public sector has moved from being a part-time job to being a full-time job. The people who used to do it part-time (and probably moaned whole-heartedly about having to do it) are now moaning about having it done for them. That’s at least partly because they think they can do it better. They may, or may not, be right.

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