Bureaucracy and whistleblowing

From The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), January 1997, pp. 1-2

Brian Martin

Not long ago I read a stimulating and disturbing book by Zygmunt Bauman entitled Modernity and the Holocaust. It is an analysis of the Holocaust -- the mass extermination of Jews and other peoples by the Nazis -- and how it relates to social institutions in modern society. Bauman believes that the Holocaust has profound implications for our understanding of society, but its study has been relegated to a few specialist areas.

The term "modernity" refers to characteristics of society that have developed only in the past few hundred years, including bureaucracy, rationality, science and, more generally, the separation of ends from means. For example, some scientists may work on solving particular puzzles involving reaction rates that are important for modelling the dynamics of nuclear explosions. The scientists work on the way to solve the problem, namely the means. The government and weapons lab administrators decide how to use the research, namely the ends.

Bauman's argument is that bureaucratic rationality was one of the essential factors that made the Holocaust possible. Hitler's goal was to remove the Jews. Various means were tried, such as emigration, but when these failed extermination was the "logical" conclusion, given the premise. The efficient and compliant German bureaucracies carried out the required tasks to reach the "final solution".

The usual explanation of the Holocaust is that it was either a reversion to barbaric behaviour or as something that only related to the Jews. Bauman says, to the contrary, that the Holocaust was made possible by precisely those features of society that make it "civilised". These features remain today.

The "ideal" bureaucracy is highly efficient, with workers doing their tasks efficiently and reliably. The goals of the bureaucracy are set by others, such as government, owners or top management. The ideal bureaucracy is like a well-functioning piece of equipment. The controller decides how to use it and the machine responds. In the jargon of social science, bureaucracy is a "purposive-rational system." The bureaucratic organisational form, with its hierarchy, division of labour and standard rules, is found throughout government, industry, churches, trade unions and political parties.

A large fraction of whistleblowers are employees in bureaucracies. By speaking out, they challenge business-as-usual inside the organisation. There are at least two types of bureaucratic whistleblowing.

(1) Procedural whistleblowing. The target here is improper procedures, such as faulty record keeping, neglect of duties, diversion of resources for private purposes, false claims, misuse of money, favouritism, stealing, bullying, blackmail and the like. Some workers are not doing their jobs properly or are actively subverting the aims of the organisation. Procedural whistleblowing exposes the problem that the bureaucracy is not working like it is supposed to, that it falls short of the purposive-rational ideal.

(2) Goal-related whistleblowing. The charge in this case is that the organisation's goals or purposes are inappropriate. For example, a pharmaceutical company could be challenged because it puts the pursuit of profit above public safety, even though it obeys all laws and regulations.

Many bureaucracies seek their own survival above all else, even at the expense of their original goals. Goal-related whistleblowing can challenge bureaucratic elites to pursue the original, formal stated goals of the organisation.

Both of these sorts of whistleblowing are important, and often they are combined. The message from Bauman is that challenges to procedural shortcomings are not enough, and even bad, if the goals are wrong. The German bureaucracies mounted a program of exploitation and extermination that was far more deadly than any sort of spontaneous anti-semitism could have been.

Jews were identified, categorised, sent to work camps and death camps. Detailed records were kept of ancestry, belongings, labour output and so forth.

It is possible to imagine procedural whistleblowers in Nazi Germany who pointed out that some categories of Jews were being given special treatment, that goods produced by slave labour camps were being diverted for private use, or that there were rorts associated with purchase of chemicals used in the gas chambers. Procedural whistleblowers might expose those who protected Jews, such as Oscar Schlindler. Since there was massive corruption in Germany, no doubt such whistleblowers existed.

By contrast, goal-related whistleblowers would have challenged the extermination program itself. They also might have tried to gum up the works, to make the bureaucracies less efficient in their deadly business.

The lesson from Bauman is that we need to pay at least as much attention to the goals of bureaucracies as to their methods. But challenging goals is especially difficult, since there is no formal way to do so. The procedural whistleblower at least has the option of appealing to rules and approaching appeal bodies that are supposed to administer justice (even though they often fail to act against corruption). The goal-related whistleblower has the more overtly political task of challenging the fundamental direction of the organisation.

In countries occupied by the Nazis, there were many dissidents -- but not enough. The tragic fact is that the leaders of the most influential institutions -- churches, corporations, scientific organisations -- did little or nothing to oppose Nazis plans. (An excellent account of nonviolent opposition to the Nazis is given by Jacques Semelin in Unarmed Against Hitler.)

Some of the problems with bureaucracies and how to go about challenging them are covered in a new booklet entitled Challenging Bureaucratic Elites written by three of us in the group Schweik Action Wollongong. If you'd like a free copy, let me know.


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