"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, October 3, 2014

From an Instrument to an Institution: Why Do They Still Exist?

My posts for the past several weeks have focused on the disconnect between Bureaucracy World and the real world.  The bureaucracy in question has been that of the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and its local extensions, the local public housing authorities.  My take on them has been critical, but not compared to what else is circulating on the Internet.  A quick look at Facebook alone will reveal how much national discontent with HUD exists, and how far it has spread (check out the “Occupy HUD” page, as just one example).

At the core of the disconnect is the lamentable fact that HUD has ceased to be an Instrument, and has become an Institution.  Understanding the difference between the two, and why the latter seems to be the inevitable fate of the former, will help to clarify what has gone wrong, not only with HUD, but the rest of the “War on Poverty,” and why we have situations like the concentration of Housing Choice Vouchers in poorer communities.  Such an understanding will also help with the analysis of just about any group or organization.  So much so, in fact, that I will use it beginning next week to address the situation in the Conshohockens, where a very different reality is underway.

I was blessed during my undergraduate years to study under a history professor who impressed several lessons upon me, all ultimately about the difference between knowing something and actually understanding it.  These lessons were already old when I first encountered them in the mid-1960s, but they have stood the test of time.  One of them is the distinction between an Instrument and an Institution.

An instrument is designed to fulfill a function, and when first organized, its focus is on doing just that.  With the passage of time, however, the purpose for an instrument’s continuation diffuses, morphing into a focus on maintaining the physical structure—size, personnel and most of all, budget—more than actually accomplishing the task for which it was formed.  The instrument becomes an institution.  This slow, almost imperceptible transformation seems to be the fate of all instruments, and certainly those that arise from good intentions.  The organization survives, it may likely grow, but it increasingly solidifies its right to continued existence by the fact—and length—of its existence itself.

The rule of an instrument’s inevitable deterioration into an institution applies to virtually all creations of man as well as to man himself (See Paterno, Joe), but I will take a very narrow perspective, and offer the following thesis: American history has taught us that government-created instruments are more liable to suffer this transformation, and are much more resistant to correction.  The general impossibility of the formal goal such instruments are charged with, from winning “The War on Poverty” to protecting “America’s National Interests”) is tacitly accepted, and keeping things from getting worse is considered success.  So the instrument enters the fray, slowly but surely recognizes the impossibility of “victory,” and turns the inevitable disillusionment into individual methods of balancing continued commitment with career advancement and eventual retirement.  Those who labor within an institution must accept their obvious inadequacy and the ultimate futility of what they are trying to accomplish.  How they work through that dilemma determines whether they are on the instrument or institution side of the bureaucracy’s internal struggle.  Staying on the instrument side is difficult to sustain, and those who manage to do so should be celebrated, not cast into the same rhetorical pit with those “bureaucrats” we all love to castigate.

Let’s not forget the military in all of this; the Pentagon has pretty much defined How To Succeed at Bureaucracy, but then again, “America’s National Interest” is a very elastic phrase, and one that trumps “help the poor” just about every time.  But I digress.

The Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which administers the housing subsidy programs, is excellent an example of this unfortunate evolutionary process.  It is simultaneously a sad commentary on how even a failed approach must be continued to avoid making things even worse.

I’ll bet that each and every one of you can quickly name another program—or even an entire department—of the Federal government that you believe fits this description, one that has ceased to serve the purpose for which it was created, and now exists largely to perpetuate its own existence.  Like shooting fish in a barrel, right?

But how about closer to home?  Let’s start with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania itself.  In searching for such instruments-become-institutions at the state level, we need look no further than how alcohol is sold in Pennsylvania.  Few examples of my subject—at any level of government—stand out more blatantly than the Pennsylvania State Liquor Control Board.  Does the reason for which it was created even still exist?  If not, shouldn’t the whole system be eliminated?  Anything further I might add to that subject would be just piling on, but those two questions should be asked of each and every institution, particularly those of government.  Tune in next week for that.

Okay, that was easy.  Dare I come still closer to home?  I know full well the passion that can arise when certain local sacred cows are questioned, as I have sat through a number of such confrontations (and, in truth, contributed to a few).  Local police forces are one.  For a very long time, separate township and municipal police forces were necessary.  These were the days of slow travel and even slower communications; crime was overwhelmingly local, and best combatted by locals who knew the territory.  But that was then.  This is now, and things have changed.  Criminals routinely use the highways to range over the territory of several municipalities, and their information gathering systems range much farther than that.  Still, periodic trial balloons floated about combining local municipal police departments into more regional ones go down in flames before the impassioned opposition of local residents.  Paradoxically, these traditionalists are sustained by the information revolution, which greatly facilitates local law enforcement while keeping the payroll down.

But I propose to offer next week an example on an even more fundamental level, that of a municipality itself.  I do so at considerable risk, because I know from experience that when my take on recent urban history gores someone’s sacred cow, their anger and astonishment will be unaccompanied by any continued appreciation of what I am trying to do, however well they understood my point when it was aimed at someone else.

I know better, but I can't resist.  Next week I will ask the question "Does West Conshohocken Still Have A Reason To Exist?"