Drawbacks of Bureaucracy: Whistleblowing and Penn State

23 Jan

Although Eric Silver’s article Why Child Sexual Abuse Goes Unreported: A Sociologist Explains has received the most attention for what it has to say about whistle-blowers, it also has some interesting insights on bureaucracy.

To sum up, bureaucracies are important to us because they break complex tasks into manageable pieces. The individual tasks are simpler and can be accomplished. Silver’s example is keeping grocery stores stocked, and other examples are easy to come by: the roads you drive on, schools you attend, most payroll processes. If a bureaucracy is working well, you won’t notice it working at all.

In an ideal bureaucracy, people follow procedure and don’t undertake tasks outside their original scope of work. Just as the bureaucracy breaks down tasks, so too the worker compartmentalizes, and is satisfied with not necessarily seeing something through from start to finish.

Unsurprisingly, this is not an ideal way to approach complex moral issues. Silver points out that there was probably some “reporting upward” — individuals doing their small, bureaucracy-sanctioned part to end the child sexual abuse that was going on. But those small “rights” didn’t add up to the institution “doing the right thing.” And so long as everyone acted within the strict confines of the bureaucracy, it never would have.

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