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IRS Scandal Shows What Happens When Bureaucracy is Pushed Too Far

Bureaucracy allows us to do big things. But like every tool, it needs to be maintained and wielded with care and control.

State and local government leaders watching the scandal over the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) targeting of conservative groups should know this: Somewhere in most larger governments is a festering problem that is going to look really ugly when it inevitably is brought to light. This is most likely to happen because a bureaucratic system has been strained to the failing point. When it fails, the result may or may not be branded a scandal, depending on how salacious and embarrassing that failure can be made to seem and what advantage the relevant political players might stand to gain or lose, but it certainly won’t be pretty.

There is a pattern to this stuff. It starts when a legislative body adopts a policy that is difficult for government workers to carry out. In the IRS’ case, it was the policy of allowing certain groups tax-exempt status without clearly spelling out the rules. But in reality, it could just as well been a policy for protecting children from abusive parents or for granting exceptions to building codes.

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Often the lawmakers establishing the policy seem to have little understanding of the scale of the task assigned. The resources made available to implement the policy all too often are allocated on the basis of budget and political circumstances that bear little relation to the workload. We hear of cases, for example, where just a handful of building inspectors are overseeing thousands of structures or individual child protection workers are handling hundreds of cases. Even modest-sized governments often deal with very big numbers, and the technology that would allow fewer people to do more is often woefully inadequate in government.

But scale isn’t the only issue. It’s not hard to see why timely and clear communication up and down the hierarchy is elusive when, as Paul C. Light wrote in his 2009 book A Government Ill Executed, some front-line government workers must report “upward through nine layers of management occupied by formally designated officers ... and sixteen layers occupied by informally designated officers.”

In these circumstances -- Light calls them “barriers to decision” -- government employees who are committed to the mission of the organization find that they must exercise extralegal discretion and authority to make the system work at all. Organizational studies call this “street-level bureaucracy.” Jobs entailing more discretion and judgment require more training, but some senior managers in state and local governments tell me that it’s been years since their mid-level and front-line workers got the training they needed.

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So, inevitably, mistakes will be made. Of course, these failures should be recognized, reported and corrected quickly, but that too requires clarity of mission, sufficient resources, effective two-way communication and adequate training. And it requires an atmosphere in which every misstep is not regarded as a criminal offense.

Bureaucracy is a tool. It persists as a form of human organization because it allows us to do big things, both in terms of scale and importance. But like every tool, it needs to be maintained and wielded with care and control. If not, horrible things happen -- things far worse than a delayed tax exemption.

Consider the debacle at the IRS as a reminder to take a deep, hard look at conditions in your own government. The reputation you save may be your own.

Mark Funkhouser, a former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, is president of Funkhouse & Associates, an independent consulting firm. He can be reached at
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