A core mission of the World Health Organization (WHO) is to serve as the world’s pandemic alarm system. In this, it failed, badly. The cause of this failure can be traced to a common theme: the nature of bureaucracy itself.

It’s a common theme on this blog. Reaching inside a bureaucracy to get it to adapt, no matter how urgently needed (compromised warning of a global pandemic), is very hard: for the bureaucracy to answer against the need for development is to argue their way is perfect. A perfect bureaucracy is a laughable logic contradiction (only evolution calibrates perfection), yet bureaucracy rarely adapts.

No matter the budget bloat (and the WHO is legendary for it), cut a bureaucracy’s budget and its leaders will say they cannot possibly carry on its mission without it. In the WHO’s case, mission failure will take on the form of news of village, a nation, even, suffering bad outcomes from the budget trimming. The WHO, like most bureaucracies, will allow mission failure before it will adapt (like its travel budget), and it will blame its failure on the budget cutters.

This is the Washington Monument Syndrome, and the phenomenon applies to any bureaucracy. Take the Board of Education as another example: bloat or no, a cut to its budget will be taken out on the most photogenic way to show lacking, like the [kid’s textbooks5. It will never come out of administrative bloat.

Another aspect of failure comes in trying to hold personnel in a bureaucracy accountable. High positions in a bureaucracy are almost always based on politics and seniority, so with shake-ups or cuts, the entrenched senior stays, while the rookies are cut.

When I worked for a bloated bureaucracy, I nicknamed this phenomenon “jellyfication:” the system starts as a skeleton, functional and load-bearing. But it begins to accumulate fat-jelly, as veterans figure ways to avoid work. Since everyone is paid on the same scale, seniors get “paid” in less work. Nowhere, but in a bureaucracy, are the rookies given the hardest problems, that take more, or harder, work. The best doctors are not sent to the easiest patients, the best salesmen are not sent to the easiest clients. In a jellying bureaucracy, the rookies do a greater amount of the real work, so when the cuts happen, the skeleton of the most-functional is cut, leaving just the fat-jelly, no longer able to walk.

Right on cue, the incompetence of such a jelly-creature compromised the integrity of the WHO, when objective credibility was most in need.

The jellification is in personnel microcosm. But in macro the evolution is the sam.: The WHO was once a big-beast its finest hour was in smallpox eradication. It was a monumental achievement. But, finding no pandemics to justify its budget, entrepreneurship for budget will seek out things like alcoholism in Russia or teen vaping. The entrepreneurial missions hollow out the skeleton for the core ones. With fundamental failure of core mission, it also resists reforming its roles in the jelly-fiefs. Big-beast skeleton eradicates smallpox, whereas jelly-blob is too compromised to resist its kowtows. Private companies consolidate their core endeavors all the time.

If we can’t demand reforms of the WHO now, when? Mark my words: a year from now no significant adaptations will have been forced on them. I bet the blob will be made bigger, but no more able to shamble.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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