BASIC BLACK: Your call is important to us

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Arthur Black

BUREAUCRACY: Where they shoot the bull, pass the buck and make seven copies of everything.

For me, Toronto's City Hall is one of the most stunning edifices in the world.

Not because it's beautiful (although it is) – but because it so perfectly marries form and function.  You're familiar with the building?  The hall itself, where politicians meet and policy is hammered out, looks like a hovering flying saucer, graceful and svelte.  It is bracketed by two high-rise, silo-like towers full of offices.  Years ago, some anonymous wag summarized it perfectly: “the pearl of democracy surrounded by the oyster shell of bureaucracy”.      Ah, bureaucracy.  What is it in human nature that compels us to grow this cancerous carapace of delay, resistance complication and rigidity around our best intentions?  Bureaucracy is not just an infection exclusive to democracy.  Totalitarian states are even worse.  Think of communist Russia.  Think North Korea.

A friend of mine says she can tell how hidebound a firm or institution is by making one phone call.  “If the person who answers the phone can't help you,” she says, “you know you're dealing with a bureaucracy.”

So what about companies that greet you with an outright lie?

I'm talking about phone Inquiries that are greeted by a recording that croons “Your call is important to us.”

No.  No, it's not.  If my call was important to you, you would provide gainful employment to a human being who could actually interact with me, rather than a pre-programmed Hal-like robot.

But that's what bureaucracy does.  The truly sinister thing about bureaucracy is, it really is a cancer, feeding on and eventually destroying the host it supposedly serves.  The writer Robert Conquest says: “The behaviour of any bureaucratic institution can best be understood by assuming it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.”

Think Blackberry.  Think Goldman-Sachs.

Or if you really want to be creeped out, think the much-vaunted U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The 9/11 attack by terrorist was a supreme embarrassment to American security establishment.  They'd been caught flat-footed by a gang of fanatical amateurs armed only with box-cutters.  One of the main recommendations following the attack: all emergency and rescue personnel needed to have one secure radio frequency merged into the Department of Homeland Security for ease of communication.

Uh-huh.  So a decade-plus later, how's that working out?

Well, after an outlay of $430 million to build and operate that frequency, an internal survey reveals that out of 479 workers surveyed only one knew how to find the frequency, 72 percent of the staff didn't know it existed and 50 percent of the department's radios couldn't have accessed the frequency even if the employees knew where to look.

The inspector-general of the Department of Homeland Security admitted that if anything, the U.S. might be more ill-equipped to deal with a terrorist attack than it was pre 9/11.

Something to think about the next time a voice on your phone tells you “Your call is important to us.”

Organizations: Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of

Geographic location: Toronto, Russia, U.S.

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