Written by George Fripley
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Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Have you ever wondered why government works the way it does? Well, you're not alone.

Many great thinkers have spent years studying government and how it should work. These individuals are often overlooked, but they provide important insights into how bureaucratic systems work. To find the origins from which modern government has grown we need to look back at the classic ancient civilizationsof Rome, Greece and China. There are four little-known philosophers from this period who have provided great guidance to government over the last two millennia. These are Obstrucius, Burocrates, Futilius and Dillayus.

Obstrucius - The first and greatest

Not many people have heard of the great government philosopher Obstrucius. He lived from 550 BC to 470BC in a time when China was still fragmented. He is an often forgotten philosopher who had many signficant and valuable ideas about how governments should be run. The view that he eventually came to was that every employee within a bureaucracy could probably use the same advice. Unfortunately his guide for bureaucrats is now lost, but some of his quotes remain. The list is extremely lengthy, however I have included a selection of some of the more pertinent ones that the new government employee should become familiar with. There is no record of the death of Obstrucius and it is widely rumoured that he is immortal and continues to run governments all over the world.

By three methods may we run government: First, by obstruction, which is noblest; second, by procrastination, which is easiest; and third by out-sourcing, which is dearest.

To be able to practice the five paradigms everywhere in government constitutes perfect virtue: delay decisions, cover one's arse, show no initiative, don't communicate and remain anonymous.

He who speaks without jargon will find it difficult to achieve promotion in government.

The will to confuse, the desire to delay, the urge to reach complete anonymity…these are the keys that will unlock the door to public service excellence.

A public servant who commits a mistake and doesn't correct it should follow government paradigm number two.

Burocrates - The Greek perspective

The pre-eminent Greek philosopher was Burocrates. Born in 450 BC, Burocrates studied early democracy and saw government in a holistic manner. He regarded it as a form of art, and viewed public servants as artists whose job was to provide aesthetically pleasing processes and outcomes in a manner that was not rushed by the mere inconvenience of time. He was a contemporary of Socrates, and it is rumoured that these two philosophers spent many hours discussing the relative merits of democracy and royal rule, over large amounts of wine. He met his death in 385 BC when he found himself in an argument with another contemporary, Aristophanes, who accused him of having all the characteristics of a the popular politicians he studied: a horrible voice, bad breeding, and a vulgar manner. During the quarrel they both died when their brains dribbled out of their ears due to the banality of their arguments. Unfortunately Burocrates is not widely known and few, if any, academics have seriously studied his work. However, he leaves us with some notable quotes of his including:

The pure art of government should be unsullied by the ticking of the clock.

Where the path appears straight and without danger, extra care should be taken and your pace slowed.

A quick decision is like a premature ejaculation. It deprives the bureaucrat of respect and leaves him feeling unsatisfied.

The vote is a precious thing, its value priceless. Never have so many people been kept happy by such a futile act.

Let a politician announce decisions and keep him happy for a day. Let a politician think he made the decisions, and keep him happy for a whole term of government.

Futilius - The study of committees.

Ancient Rome had a philosopher who made a career out of investigating the bureaucratic process of committees - Futilius. Futilius carried out his work in the time of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Gaius Julius Caesar and Augustus and studied the public service of the day. He was born in Rome in 99BC and died shortly after Julius Caesar in 40 BC, only three weeks after he was himself asked to chair a committee as he seemed to know so much about it. He decided to put his theories to the test and was brutally stabbed to death by the committee's executive officer, who insisted that he had done the world a favour even as he was led to his death (by lion in the colluseum). As with Burocrates, he developed a great deal of advice that has stood the test of time. Similarly, he received little, if no recognition for his work. Five of his best known quotes are included below.

Chairs should every night call themselves to an account; What decision have they delayed today? What proposals opposed? What innovation resisted? What public servant frustrated ? Other people's projects will abort of themselves if they be brought every day to this account.

Be extremely vague, even to the point of deferral. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of confusion. Thereby you can be the director of the public servant's demise into insanity.

All public servants servicing the Board pass through three stages. First, they are ridiculed. Second, they are violently opposed. Third, it is accepted that they are too difficult to change and they are ignored.

All Board meetings are based on procrastination. There is no place where the brakes are not applied. Offer the public servants hope to lure them in, and then trap them in a cage of frustration.

Where no policy exists, ask for a new one; where a policy exists, ask for a new one; where there is no need for a policy, insist on a new one.


Dillayus - Out of the shadow of Futilius


At the same time that Nero was striding through the corridors of Rome, Dillayus was contemplating the complex area of government decision-making. He was born in Rome in 5 AD and grew up reading much of the work of Futilius. He identified areas that Futilius had not spent much time researching and ended up specialising in the study of emergency situations where decisions appeared imminent. He is perhaps not as well known as Futilius, and might not have had the same standing, however he did produce a large body of work that remains relevant. He died in 64 AD after being in trapped in the great fire that swept Rome. He found himself distracted by Nero's fiddle playing and was unable to decide on the best course of action until it was too late. His gems of wisdom include:

When in doubt, employ an outside expert to review all information.

The pure joy of procrastination is unrivalled by other experience in government.

When all other means of obstruction have been exhausted, all that is left is public consultation, the mother of all delaying tactics.

There is never enough information to make a decision. Those who disagree are not in possession of all the facts.

When all is lost and a decision is inevitable, take solace in the fact that you did everything possible to prevent it.

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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