'Those Idiots!': Bureaucracy and the Fundamental Attribution Error

We need to question each and every rule, regulation, and law that limits people from exercising their good judgment.
by | September 28, 2010 AT 9:00 AM

One day, after being sent home on a mandatory furlough, a group of employees at the Arizona Department of Security were being paid overtime to catch up on their backlog.

“Only in government,” State Senator Russell Pearce told the Arizona Republic. “That sounds like a bureaucratic quagmire where they are not thinking.”

Ah, yes, let’s round up the usual suspect: the unthinking bureaucrat.

Without question, the act of forcing people to take a furlough one day and then paying them overtime the next day is idiotic. Officials in Arizona weren’t being idiots, however. They were simply caught between two conflicting legal requirements.

On the one hand, officials were required by state law to furlough workers on six days throughout the year, including Friday, August 20. At the same time, they risked federal fines if they failed to process welfare applications in a timely manner. So they called workers in on Saturday, resulting in overtime. The Arizona Republic estimates 175 workers were paid time-and-a-half for their efforts.

Given the requirements of the two sets of competing laws, managers behaved reasonably. But the natural inclination on hearing the story is to pull your hair out. “Furloughs on Friday, OT on Saturday -- who are these morons?” Understanding their circumstances, however, what officials did makes sense

It’s hard to entirely blame lawmakers either, however. They wanted to schedule mass furloughs to create energy savings, rather than allowing employees to take their furloughs on days of their own choosing. And of course, the federal government, which is footing the bill for the program, wants to ensure that states don’t cut their costs at the expense of beneficiaries—hence the fines for states that fall too far behind.

Taken individually, everything makes sense, and when you put it all together, the result is sheer madness.

Newspapers love these “stupid government” stories. But like the legislator above, readers tend to jump to the wrong conclusion. After reading about a really bad result, it is natural to blame some nameless bureaucratic nincompoop. More often, however, the truth is that complex systemic forces, often residing in multiple agencies, are creating conflicting demands. The result is more awful than any single human, no matter how inept, could produce on their own.

That’s the story of many public construction projects. Of course it makes sense to protect wetlands, and preserve historic buildings, and ensure access to the disabled, and to promote fire safety, and to encourage energy conservation. But put it all together, and to the taxpaying public it appears to be a bunch of boards and commissions engaged in petty power struggles while buildings don’t get built.

Unpack a disappointing result, and you’ll often find these conflicting demands. At the site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, there are 19 government bureaucracies with a say in the rebuilding effort. Not surprisingly, that effort has been slow, costly and frustrating.

Psychologists call the tendency to attribute observed behaviors to the character of an individual, rather than their circumstances, the fundamental attribution error. If you ask someone what time it is, and they turn and walk away, you think they are a simply a rude person. In reality, they may not speak English. Only by putting yourself in their shoes can you appreciate their actions.

So it is with government officials seeking to deal with conflicting demands and complex rules. If we observe a foolish outcome, we assume it is done by a fool. But in government, it is more likely a reasonable person functioning within a foolish system.

This insight may help to modify our feelings about those who work in government, but it shouldn’t excuse the poor results. We need to reexamine the structures that produce these circumstances, and question each and every rule, regulation and law that limits people from exercising their good judgement.

That advice sounds great, of course, until you get a scandal like the one in Bell, Calif., where public officials apparently looted the public treasury with impugnity. Such a scandal will almost certainly prompt a slew of new rules, safeguards, and procedures -- bringing with them their own idiotic inefficiencies.