During the summer, the Elephant, the great prime minister, was invited to a far away region of the Savannah Kingdom to attend to government matters. Since his absence would be long, the Elephant agreed with his wife to send letters via the Messenger Pigeons Postal Service (MPPS).
The Elephant reasoned that any letter sent in his name could be stolen by a political enemy and used against him. To avoid this, the Elephants asked their servants to send and receive the letters using their own names instead of those of the Elephants. In this way, any connection between the Elephants and their correspondence would be broken.
The letters arrived well at their destination, but when the Elephants included gifts or food, the packets arrived incomplete and sometimes they arrived with only the packaging and without the food. Each time that something was missing in a shipment, the servants complained at the postal offices and demanded that the contents be delivered complete, but the pigeons’ response was always the same:
“We wish we could help you with this matter, but we do not have records of which pigeons organize, label, and transport the packages among the offices. You know how things are: we have a lot of work and we are only a few pigeons. Most of the time we cannot comply with all of the regulatory procedures. The best thing to do would be to come back another day to see if we have found something in the warehouse or if one of the pigeons has returned the food that was lost.”
Tired of complaining to the postal offices, the servants told the Elephants that they were unable to recover any of the mailed gifts. So, Mister Elephant, very angry, went to the central mail office to speak personally with the MPPS director pigeon. Upon entering, he was received with honors given his post as prime minister. The director pigeon told him:
—I am very sorry about this situation. If we had known that the shipments were yours, I assure you that none of this would have happened. But I will speak immediately with my subordinates to have them conduct an exhaustive investigation on the issue and punish the functionary pigeon responsible without delay. In the regulations we have exhaustive processes to avoid these kinds of situations and so, through them, we will be able to detect who is guilty. When it is ready, I will personally give you the report.
The Elephant returned to his house feeling reassured knowing that the investigation was in process.
The next morning, someone knocked on his door, and upon opening it he found the postman pigeon who had delivered the incomplete packages to the Elephant’s servants.
—Mister Prime Minister Elephant—said the pigeon, removing his cap and holding it between his wings—I ask you to please withdraw the request you made to investigate the loss of your gifts in the mail. You see, I have been working as a mailman for many years and I am just a few months from retiring. I have never committed any violation of the regulations nor have I opened a single card in all of these years. I am a humble but honorable pigeon and I do my job with dedication and commitment. But in the office there are many bad pigeons who open the packets and steal everything that touches their wings. Since they do not follow the internal procedures, they know that there are no records to show which packages passed through them, and so they take advantage of the lack of controls and the disorganization that rules the mail system to hide their bad deeds and never be discovered. To protect themselves from this investigation, the office pigeons wrote a report saying that the last pigeon who touched the packages is responsible for their care. And that pigeon is the one who delivers it to the recipient.
The pigeon presented the dangers that he faced with the investigation:
—Since I always follow the regulations, I signed the record before going out to deliver the mail. That is the proof that has been sent to the central office to demonstrate my guilt. This morning, they told me that they will declare me guilty and will fire me, revoking the right to my pension. Within the mail service, it is well known that the senior officials look for any excuse to fire old employees because it saves them money in costs, and they publish it as an accomplishment in budgetary efficiency. The only way to avoid this is for the investigation to be withdrawn. I ask you to please speak with the director pigeon and end this matter. Although I did not take any of the things that were stolen from you, I am going to have to pay for their entire worth in order to maintain my job and future pension.”
The pigeon’s story moved the Elephant and he left immediately for the MPPS central offices. Upon his arrival, the director pigeon told him:
“I am glad you came. I just received the investigation report about your opened packages. The postal office records show that the postman pigeon had access to all of the packages and thus is responsible for any loss that occurred. Tomorrow the administrative procedure to remove him from his post will begin. We will make the postman pay all of the damages, we will disqualify him so that he cannot hold any other public post, and we will take away his retirement rights. As I promised you, this crime will not go unpunished.”
The Elephant told the director pigeon that he was withdrawing his petition for an investigation into the matter. Then he took the report in his trunk and ate it. He also demanded that the postman pigeon not be punished.
The great Prime Minister Elephant returned to his house and continued writing his annual report on how much public administration of the kingdom had improved during his rule, highlighting the speed with which government officials resolve the complaints of citizen animals and the many budgetary efficiencies that represented enormous savings for the treasury.
The strength of a public organization lies in its capacity to assign responsibility for errors and poor performance to the workers in its lower ranks who are not essential, as well as in its capacity to hide these errors from the public. This allows the high level politicians to freely conduct the actions necessary to ensure stability and the flow of necessary resources in the organization.
Since the origins of society, better forms of organizing the government apparatus have been sought to make it more efficient and trustworthy. Max Weber described an “ideal” organization model known as bureaucracy, in which the people in charge are hired with a fixed salary to conduct specific tasks in a rational, systematic, and hierarchically organized way.
According to the bureaucratic model, each one of the bureaucrats responds only to his/her immediate superior and cannot be easily fired because the organization depends in large part on the stability of its members so that they can specialize and become better and better at their specific tasks.
But this model has demonstrated that it has diverse flaws in the real world. For example, bureaucrats tend to be more interested in keeping their posts than conscientiously carrying out the tasks assigned to them. So the workers spend a lot of time doing what Eugene Bardach called “games”: they create complex activities that are difficult to track, they do the least possible, just enough so that it appears that they are doing something, and they monopolize processes to make themselves indispensable, among many other “games”.
On the other hand, Michel Crozier described bureaucracy as a series of “vicious cycles” in which more and more regulations are created to regulate violations of the existing rules. These vicious cycles cannot end because areas of uncertainty will always exist where bureaucrats have the freedom to decide their own actions. After all, if they did not have the freedom of choice, they would become machines, ceasing to be human.
Bardach, Eugene. The Implementation Game: What Happens After a Bill Becomes a Law. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1977.
Crozier, Michel. The Bureaucratic Phenomenon. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu, 1964.
Barenstein, J. Análisis de la burocracia estatal desde la perspectiva weberiana [“Analysis of the State Bureaucracy from a Weberian Perspective”]. Mexico. CIDE, 1982.
Weber, Max. Economy and Society. Johannes Winckelmann Edition, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1964, Mexico, D.F. See the section on Legal Domination in Bureaucratic Administration.