The issue comes up, of course, because of the appointment of Ron Klain to the role of coordinator of the Obama Administration's efforts to control the infectious disease known as ebola. Perhaps you have heard of it. Klain's role will be to advise and serve as the central coordinating body, reporting to the President (rather than to Congress), who in turn, it is presumed, will be responsible to the people of the United States. It's simple crisis management. Every CEO needs an extra layer of bureaucracy between himself and the populace, even when that layer has no authority whatsoever.
But we in this country succeed like the winners we are when it comes to ignoring facts when a good scare is what we really want. Consider The Hill, a Washington-based journal of reaction:
Some presidents, including Barack Obama, have created czars without statutory authority backing those positions. The lack of statutory grounding means that czars exercise authority vested in other officials, which creates legal and extra-legal complications. Not to mention the absence of accountability czars have to Congress or the public because they are presidential creations and not confirmed by the Senate. Presidents have anointed czars as presidential “advisers”, thus attempting to shield these officials from testifying on the Hill, even while some of them have exercised substantial policy, spending, and regulatory powers.
That's a point, I suppose. It's also a point that no U.S. voter elected any person who ever served in the Central Intelligence Agency (with the exception of George H.W. Bush) and yet that unelected organization did not resist the temptation to both create and implement executive strategy while we as an alleged electorate still turn out in strange droves to vote in more people who beyond all doubt will continue to do what American politicians have always done: either more or less than we should let them get away with.
But what about the charge that the czar (or czarina, one gathers) presents an extra layer of bureaucracy? Is that a bad thing?
Some level of what we call bureaucracy is essential to the functioning of any social organization comprised of three or more people. The decisive factor turns on whether the bureaucracy serves the consumers of the services or whether it serves to insulate and protect the person above the bureaucracy from the people beneath it. Let's look at a common example of a simple bureaucracy. A man loses his credit card and wishes to prevent unauthorized charges from taking place. He locates the telephone number of the card issuer. He enters a telephonic contingency maze. He is immediately met with the information that the bureaucracy has changed recently and to please listen carefully, as the call may be recorded. If the man prefers to communicate in English, he must press 1. Once this is accomplished, he hears that if he wishes to activate his missing credit card, he should press 1 again. This does not apply to him, so he continues to listen. If his card has been stolen, he is to press 2. This alert concerns him because, while the card is definitely out of his possession, he has no reason to believe someone stole it. His finger hovers over the 2 button, but his indecision allows the next message to play. If his card has been lost or destroyed, he should press 3. Sighing in relief that he exercised proper patience, he presses 3. After an ominous delay, a similar electronic voice demands that in the event that his card was destroyed, please press 1. If his card was lost, he should press 2. He presses 2. If he knows his card number, the recording advises, press 1. If he does not know his card number, he must press 2. Having committed the number to memory, along with other strange minutiae, he presses 1 and is then prompted to enter the card number followed by the pound sign. If he does not know what a pound sign is, he should press the hashtag key. If he does not know what that is, he must press the little tic tac toe button. Recognizing the sarcasm of the recording, he presses the appropriate button and receives the information that his card has been invalidated and that a new card with a new number will arrive in his mailbox with two weeks. He is further admonished to hang up because the bureaucracy has completed its task and to please have a very nice day.
However impersonable this approach may feel, one must admit it is efficient for both the consumer and the credit card organization. That is because both parties stayed with the script. No one ad libbed and no one required something that the other party was unprepared to produce.
Now let us consider a bureaucratic encounter where someone makes the decision to deviate from the script. It should be noted from the outset that this deviation may be reasonable or unreasonable, the value judgment typically being the purview of the people protected by the bureaucracy.
I was standing in line at a Wells Fargo bank. I had business that I wished to transact with a teller. Any teller would do, I reckoned, and so I went in the general line. This felt appropriate since the different tellers did not appear to have their own independent lines of access. When my turn came, I approached a teller who sat placidly behind a sign that said BRENDA. I greeted her with a smile and said that I wished to cash a check drawn on the Wells Fargo bank. I had already made one mistake, as you no doubt realize. The account on which the funds were to be drawn belonged to the account holder. Wells Fargo was simply the bureaucratic layer between me and that man's money.
BRENDA looked at the check with the level of interest a biology teacher brings to doing the ten thousandth autopsy on the ten thousandth dead frog for the ten thousandth time. "You have an account with Wells Fargo."
While the words BRENDA spoke did not quite properly form a question, as you will no doubt observe by the punctuation indicator, I was familiar with this particular bureaucracy and in fact had been expecting it. I informed her that I was not. No, definitely not. Not indeed. Not at all. Never had been. Never would be. No, ma'am. Not I. Not me. Not this man. Heck no.
BRENDA then said that she would appreciate it if I would show her two forms of photographic identification. Actually, what she said was, "I'll need two picture IDs, sir." I do not suppose that the reader will need me to mention that BRENDA leaned heavily on that last word, almost as if she were grinding it into the center of a deserted highway in an attempt to inflict agony onto the ancient concrete.
I presented BRENDA with my valid driver's license.
She glanced at my license. Tossing it on top of the check I had also presented her, she responded that she need two picture IDs.
I admitted I had only the one. Were there any exceptions to the Two-Picture rule?
There were, she admitted, moving into the contingency portion of her mental script. If I were a Wells Fargo account holder myself, for instance, then I could cash this very same check by presenting more than zero and less than two photographic identifications.
Oh! I said with naive optimism. And how many photo ID's would be required of me to secure the honor of becoming a Wells Fargo account holder?
Just one photo and one other form of ID, she replied, the latter not needing to have my pretty picture on it.
I explained that if one photo ID was good enough to get an account which would only require one photo ID to cash a check, we could skip the step of opening an account for me and move directly into the process of cashing the check. I further explained that since my own identification was clearly not the true issue at play, it might be assumed that the friendly Wells Fargo people were trying to coerce account "membership" by making the process of cashing a check arduous unless such a bonding had been formed.
She was not persuaded. I told her I wanted to speak to her manager. She invited me to have a seat while the manager was located. I told her I was going to stay right where I was so as to coerce the haste of the bank manager coming to my assistance. "Are you refusing to move? asked BRENDA.
"I am refusing to move," I said.
The manager came. She cashed the check. I mucked with the bureaucracy and lived to fight another day.
If the customer can therefore be successful when he or she improvises against the betterment of the bureaucracy, what happens, then, when the bureaucracy deviates from the script?
The actual result is often what you and I mean when we speak of "customer service." Here is a common example from everyday life. A woman walks into a Wal-Mart carrying a vacuum cleaner that she purchased there. The machine works just fine, as far as she knows. Her issue is that the same day she bought this very vacuum, her girlfriend bought one too and they only need the one. The women flipped a coin and our customer lost. She walks into the store pushing the machine. The "greeter" does not see her. Had the greeter observed her, he would likely have asked to see the woman's receipt, upon which he would have marked some written coding. This did not happen. This particular woman did not save her receipt anyway, so it doesn't actually matter. She waits in line at the area of the store called CUSTOMER SERVICE, a sign that implies this is the only place in the block store that provides the stuff. The clerk calls the woman and she wheels the vacuum over to the desk. "No receipt? You don't have no receipt? Oh, I don't think we can help you without a receipt. Edna, can we help this woman? She got no receipt? Huh? No? No, I'm sorry, lady, but you got no receipt so we cannot help you today. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
Another employee steps out of the restroom just in time to recognize the customer. The restroom person works as a cashier and is was she who rang up the purchase. The customer also recognizes the cashier and without a word being exchanged between the two, the cashier whispers something to the customer service person. The service individual smiles as the cashier walks around the desk and wheels the vacuum back behind the counter. The service person rings up some numbers, opens the cash drawer and counts out the money to the customer. Yay! Satisfaction is mine, sayeth the Lord!
It is tempting to believe that there used to be a time in this country when customer service of this sort was widespread. That belief is mostly the result of selective nostalgia. We have always required a number of deviants in our social organizations, deviants who have retained in their memories and who display in their practices that they recall the stated purpose of the bureaucracy: to provide efficient service. Sometimes we call these people whistleblowers. Sometimes we say they are gadflies. I always consider them as the only thinking people in the organization. That guy with the funny haircut leaning against the wall paging through a comic book. That girl with the strange tattoo, eyeglasses and a ponytail. That old man with the illegal smile. That crazy lady talking to herself on aisle seven. Our future, I hope, lies with those weirdos rather than with the automatons, the conformists and the nihilists.