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Jobsworths and Box-Wallahs...

We've all been behind the glass in bureaucratic purgatory at some point.Having waited in line at the department of motor vehicles or similar our number finally comes up and we interact with the bureaucrat, who has some issue with your missing some mysterious form you'd never heard of before, not enough proof of identity or verification, or just payment method ('we don't accept cash'), so our transaction cannot take place.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor on

We've all been behind the glass in bureaucratic purgatory at some point.

Having waited in line at the department of motor vehicles or similar our number finally comes up and we interact with the bureaucrat, who has some issue with your missing some mysterious form you'd never heard of before, not enough proof of identity or verification, or just payment method ('we don't accept cash'), so our transaction cannot take place. We leave fuming, convinced the bureaucrat takes pleasure in inflicting this injury in revenge for their terrible job.

There are words in many languages for these people (The polite ones, not the swear words!). After the early dynamism and 'can-do' attitude of the 18th century British Industrial Revolution, that society slowed to Victorian bureaucracy: subsequent colonization of India trained a vast sprawling civil service which also became more and more impenetrable and lethargic over time.

The 'Box Wallah' is a deregatory term for a corrupt Indian 'civil servant' who delights in tying you up in bureaucratic red tape, while the English equivalent,  having arguably historically trained the Indian Box Wallah apprentices, is the Jobsworth.  ('More than my Job's Worth' to break the rules).

When the rubber hits the road - when change is attempted in organizations - it is this entrenched attitude that thwarts strategic change. The English are so familiar with this cultural challenge there was a much loved TV comedy called 'Yes Minister' (some choice quotes in video above) - political red tape is fun...

While some are gathering to attempt to craft change in the way the US government do business, there are many others who view vast sprawling bureaucracy with dread - an expensive time and money sink run by incompetents. The same thinking pollutes large businesses, where often the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing.

The reality is there are huge numbers of employees, even in this bad economy, who are Jobsworth lifers: it's more than their job's worth to risk change.

That is of course unless new processes are clearly part of their job description, and where their job performance depends on them helping rather than hindering. To be fair to the Jobsworth or Box Wallah, the change needs to be at group level. Many counter clerks are merely enforcing the rules they are instructed to follow: making those rules clearly available before you take a ticket and join the line to be served, with an expectation that the time invested will result in a successful transaction results in everyone being reasonably happy.

The 1956 book Union Democracy: The Internal Politics of the International Typographical Union by Seymour Martin Lipset, Martin Trow and James S. Coleman is interesting in this context.

The word 'social' is currently very fashionable in computing circles: this book is widely cited in the deeper sociology and political science fields,  particularly around organizational studies, and provides valuable historical context.

Wikipedia:

The book attempts to address what factors affect the power structure and decision making processes in organizations. It concentrates on the micro-level political systems existing in them, especially democracy and oligarchy.

The difficulty of maintaining democracy in organizations and preventing Michel's 'Iron law of oligarchy' (an oligarchy is a political system governed by a few people) coming into effect is the focus of this book.

Wikipedia again:

The iron law of oligarchy is a political theory, first developed by the German syndicalist sociologist Robert Michels in his 1911 book, Political Parties. It states that all forms of organization, regardless of how democratic or autocratic they may be at the start, will eventually and inevitably develop into oligarchies. The reasons for this are the technical indispensability of leadership, the tendency of the leaders to organize themselves and to consolidate their interests; the gratitude of the led towards the leaders, and the general immobility and passivity of the masses.

We are now talking virtually 100 years ago - the principles of union democracy were essentially intended to counteract and prevent the onset of the iron law of oligarchy, while many generations of management culture have similarly grown to keep businesses agile at scale.

Despite the best of intentions, many unions famously fall to oligarchical control and this study of the International Typographical Union is essentially an academic case history of this.

Clearly the goal of modern social computing is to engender and facilitate change, but the technology tools that can help this happen don't have built in change management. Only conscious effort to create work flows and processes where it's well worth it for the Jobsworths of the world to change their ways will successfully bring about uptake and change.

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