Re-imagining our societies 3 – why don’t we replace bureaucratic self-interest with self-interest in consumer satisfaction?


Bureaucratic institutions are an integral aspect of modern society.  The way they work is at the root of the problems today.

In a previous piece, I suggested  that “one reason for our discontent is that standards and processes of service provision are dictated from the top-down, irrespective of the wants or needs of individuals or where we live.”

If we are to imagine societies which are fundamentally different from the way things are now, we have to find different ways of organising our public sector establishment.

At first sight, the driving forces of the development of our public sector institutions are the aims and objectives of each organisation. However, once established, the aspirations of individual employees become increasingly important.  As time goes on, bureaucracies take on a life of their own, driven by their employees.

Growth in individual employees’ perceptions of their well-being is an inevitable part of how their employing organisation develops. Climbing up the hierarchy of an organisation is an example of individual growth. In local government, incremental salary scales (with non-negotiable annual pay increases) motivate individuals to stay put in their jobs.

In the past, when all kinds of growth were a “natural” part of societal development, individual aspirations to grow could be accommodated. Now that growth has stalled, for reasons partly to do with lack of economic growth, the vested interests of individuals have become incompatible with their employing organisations.

When there is no perceptible growth, the vested interest of individuals – in self-growth – will be frustrated. Leading to a vicous circle of individual lack of interest in their jobs, declining productivity and perceptions by their service users of poor performance. Endless re-organisation is sometimes seen as a way get over these issues.

This description of how things are in a bureaucratic organisation is not recognised from within, and yet I suggest that it may provide a clue to what is needed if fundamental change is to be sought.

One view of possible change is to decentralise the system.  But that wouldn’t be sustainable.  Creating new bureaucratic organisations, “down below” what exists now, would merely replicate the existing problems, not solve them.

When organisations are not growing, like most of our public services, individual vested interests in growth must now be replaced with something else.  But what else?  We have no relevant experience, because we have experienced growth throughout most of our lives.

Maybe the vested interest in growth, personal and organisational, could be replaced by individual motivation to do with consumer perceptions of service delivery?  In effect, checks on performance from “below”. This would require the people and local organisations being served to be brought much closer to the service providers.

The organisations  would have to be restructured, with the vertical hierarchies replaced by horizontal structures.   Which would have the additional benefit of removing the underlying opportunity for employee motivation to climb the ladders for promotion.  Which would become an out-of-date concept. There would be no ladders.

For this to be practical, organisations would have to be much smaller than at present.  Which may be an opportunity to rethink the functional responsibilities of organisations.  Which would imply the integration of currently disparate services.

During the past 40 years or so, in the upper levels of local government bureaucracy, individual officers have had to manage multi-function services.  With no training, that I know of, to do so.  I understand the same is true of the NHS.

Since the onset of industrialism, an increasing number of professional disciplines have been created in local government. Until about 40 years ago, the disciplines were each housed in “their own” departments.   Engineers, Architects, Social Services, Town Planners, and so on.   But now senior managers have to deal with diverse professional interests, not much to do with their initial professions.  So there may be change afoot. Is cultural diversity emerging?

Cultural diversity? This sounds to me like the economy of the household.  Where we have to teach ourselves to do everything for ourselves.

It seems to fit into today’s society.  And tomorrow’s if there is no growth.

Anything we can do to enable individuals to get the services they want must surely be worthwhile.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. nigel hunter says

    Is this an argument for the reintroduction of trade guilds? Before Industrialisation they existed. For example one produced cloth. This was then sent to someone else to make clothes. Small organisations that used their talents to help somebody else’.One organisation supported another within the community to make a living.It was asort of horizontal system where a community helped another.

  2. Barry Cooper says

    Yes, this is the kind of system I have in mind.

    I grew up in Studley, Warwickshire, which in the 1960s was said to have the largest needle factory in the world. A top-down system of mechanisation. It evolved from a horizonal system of families working co-operatively. Each family specialised in a particular aspect of needle making. Cutting, hardening, pointing, eyeing, scoring, and straightening. Needles are no longer made in Studley.

    Is networking the post-industrial version?

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