There’s an old joke that goes, “Those that can, do. Those that cannot, teach. Those that cannot teach, administrate.” While, superficially, it’s a knock on teachers, it needn’t and shouldn’t be taken that way. How many coaches do you see who are capable of performing at the level of the athletes they train, for example? The knock on administrators, on the other hand, is increasingly warranted, because administrators, or more specifically the metastatic growth of the administrative class, is a major societal and economic plague.

Consider this story about a college professor that reported that college administrators are more uniformly ideological and more progressive than the college faculties that draw the ire of non-liberals and free-thought advocates. The takeaway is the power the administrator has over the employee. The subtext is that the administrator would rather hide from controversy than do the right thing. The conclusion, one that is supported by countless other examples, is that the administrator is more interested in self-protection than in the betterment of the institution.

Anyone who’s worked in a large company has witnessed the phenomenon of the middle management fiefdom. Past a certain size, company leadership cannot ensure uniform commitment to company goals. Past a certain size, company loyalty breaks down and “pocket tribes” arise. Middle managers look to protect their jobs by gathering loyal minions, and reward that loyalty by protecting and rewarding those minions, even if they underperform. Again, anyone who’s worked in a large company has almost certainly met or heard of slackers who have rabbis protecting them from layoff or even criticism.

Exacerbating the problem is the cyclical nature of business, in both the private and public sectors. An organization grows. As workers are added, managers are either added or promoted to oversee them. A structure is formed, org charts are prepared. When work levels off or ebbs, and the time to lay off or allow attrition to do its thing comes, middle managers have the ability to a – protect their own, and b – protect themselves. As a NASA guy I knew once told me in candor, budget cuts always got passed down to the contractors, preserving as much as possible the organization’s ranks. Inside companies, middle managers have the ability to pass on cuts to the lowest ranks i.e. the worker bees. This changes their ratio vs the workers they supervise. When the next growth phase comes along, it’s hard to resist following the old pattern of adding managers along with new workers – and that pattern serves the existing managers as well. New layers of management are created, new org charts are prepared. Thus, the ratio of managers to workers ratchets upward in favor of managers. Pretty soon, you have twice-yearly reorganizations, because there are managers who don’t have enough workers to supervise, and have to find other ways to fill their ranks, and people whose sole work output is writing memos to each other.

A strong boss or leadership team can rein these abuses in, but again, the problem lies in size. The problem is compounded by those middle managers who prioritize the game of self-preservation over the success of the company. They’re more apt to protect each other from those who seek to do right by the company rather than by their clan, and thus the “outsiders” are culled from the ranks. Fighting this tendency is a mighty task for a boss, and takes someone who’s got both the power and the guts to take hard action. And, it takes single-minded focus, something that bosses don’t often have the time for.

I’ve witnessed this phenomenon first-hand, heard it anecdotally from friends and acquaintances, and read it in news far too often. Many of you have as well. It’s also an obvious problem in education, and not just in colleges. As even a liberal, pro-teacher, pro-public-education publication like The Atlantic observes:

American public schools are bloated at the top of the organizational pyramid, with too many administrators and not enough high-quality teachers in the classroom.

Ever wonder why we keep increasing spending-per-pupil and getting zero return on that additional spending? The growth of the administrative class is a huge part of the problem.

Again, this is precipitated by the difficulty in effectively managing large organizations and instilling focus and priority on their missions over self-protection and fiefdom-building.

It also manifests in the “use it or lose it” mentality that comes forth at the end of each fiscal year. Tell me if this doesn’t sound familiar: A supervisor notices, a month or two before the fiscal year restarts, that he’s not on track to spend the entirety of his budget, or that some jobs have “leftover hours.” Fearing that next year’s budget will be trimmed by whatever didn’t get spent, he finds ways to burn those hours rather than allow the company to reap the benefit of efficiency. This is how it worked at the defense contractor that employed me for a decade, and it was almost certainly driven by the form of the contracts (if you’re being paid cost-plus, you’ve incentive to drive the cost to the upper limit, since it rewards your employees). It’s also rampant in governments, which don’t have the excuse of form-of-contract to do something contrary to efficiency. As bad as it is at the federal level, it appears even worse at the state and local levels, especially in big cities.

Government’s culpability in this extends beyond its internal practices. Most interventionist government policies, from minimum wages to labor rules and mandates to licensing and permitting to various entry barriers, regulatory requirements, and favoritisms, benefit large companies over small ones, since the former can more easily absorb the costs and burdens of those policies. Voters themselves are to blame, since so many voice desire for ever-tighter government control of business (aka economic fascism, even though most recoil from the proper term). The Press is also culpable, since far too few report the correct source of the problems they decry (probably because their own organizations suffer from middle management bloat).

Then there’s the matter of the “Deep State.” Yes, this is how the “Deep State” got created. The armies of bureaucrats, whose primary mission is self-preservation and not the effective execution of the will of the people via those they elect, stand in the way of fixing things, because fixing things would start with eliminating many of their brethren.

The cost is not merely economic, not merely bottom-line dollars, inefficient spending, or reduced productivity. Such a system stands in the way of talent, of innovation, of organizational nimbleness, and of meritocracy. When managers, administrators, and bureaucrats are more committed to protecting themselves and their fiefdoms than to the organization’s success, good people lose and society suffers.

How do we address this? What can we do?

The biggest obstacle is the “concentrated benefit vs diffuse harm” (or vice versa, depending on your perspective) matter. If you’re part of the problem, you’ve enormous incentive to fight, to kick and scream rather than accept that you and your peers are behaving in ways that are bad for your organization and bad for the nation. Who would write himself or herself out of a job? If you’re not neck-deep in the problem, you’re less likely to fight that fight with all your might.

There’s little we can do in the private sector unless we are at the top of the food chain of our company. But, we can decry it in government: in the number of layers of bureaucracy, in the overlaps, in the use-it-or-lose-it behavior that politicians tolerate, etc. And, we can decry it at all levels. Indeed, we may do the most good at denouncing it locally, especially in public education.

Awareness is step one. Pay attention. Look for it. And, point it out to everyone you know.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.


Like this post?