Iron Law Corollary

Yesterday, when I arrived at work, I had a nice little e-mail about an application I’d sent in for our company. I’d half expected it: The application got kicked out the day before over a requirement that never existed before, with an additional requirement for information never demanded from utilities before. When that happens, it usually gets kicked out again, and, sure, enough, back it came. One was a brand spanking new requirement; the other reason was legitimate, but I don’t think it was mentioned the day before.

Ah, well. I fired up the CAD software, modified the drawings, and had it resubmitted in the first few minutes of work. No big deal.

It did get me to thinking about something I’d notice in dealing with various agencies over the years:

The number of rules and requirements of an organization are inversely proportional to the organization’s actual workload.

The reason is simple. When an organization is busy, the last thing it needs is to increase its workload. When an organization isn’t busy, this causes two things:

1. Time to think “You know, it would really help us if we require this,” since their work is already slack, and

2. The fear that someone will notice the organization isn’t as busy and will decrease size and funding, or eliminate it entirely.

Both reasons match well with author Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

In any organization there are two kinds of people:

  1. Those dedicated to the goals of the organization.
  2. Those dedicated to the organization itself.

In every case the second group controls the organization.

It’s seldom that increase in regulations and requirements stems from a dedication to the goals. Once you depart from that, increased regulation and requirements serve only the organization itself.

In some organizations, an uptick in regulations and requirements indicates a downturn in the economy. We noticed this with several. During the housing boom, when there was much construction, regulations remained constant. It was only after the Great Recession that these organizations suddenly decided they needed additional requirements. When different districts have different requirements, you know something up.

Yes, it varies from district to district, and by the individuals who require it. There was one representative of a different organization than the one I dealt with Friday who rejected our paperwork because of how we folded a required map. It can get downright Kafkaesque at times. Or Monty Pythonesque:

Naturally you have little to no recourse when dealing with these agencies, and the persnickety ones know it. It’s like when a former marine told of why they took early morning runs through officer country: Because we can. And if you give them more than they want, thinking it will sandbag them with work, they, in turn, are apt to make it a permanent requirement. Been there, done that.

After a few decades, though, and retirement slowly draws closer, you realize that one day all this will be someone else’s headache. Oh, we’ll have different sets of hoops to jump through, but at least it won’t be these, and dealing with the quirks of one district and not several. The realization that one day this too shall pass does wonders for moral, and cuts down greatly on invectives.

Who knows? Maybe I’m completely wrong. Maybe they really do need all these nit picky requirements to do their job. I’ve never walked in their shoes, so what do I know? Maybe we need to add more information to make their jobs much easier. I should mention that to whomever takes my place.