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On the fairness of bureaucrats: a story not often recognised as a fairytale

By Mark Randell - posted Wednesday, 26 March 2003

Justice. Somehow, we seem predisposed to a sense of justice. Listen to the schoolyard cries: "It's not fair!" From an early age we have a sense of just what is "fair" and what is not.

Perhaps we derive our sense of fairness from our parents, perhaps from our peers; perhaps we are born with it as some sort of Kantian a priori "sense".

Some of us, however, seem to diminish that sense along the way, or perhaps subsume it to the norms of the peer group in which we find ourselves. Thus, office workers might end up with a different "sense" of fairness than military personnel (warning: this is not a scientifically-tested statement).


Take bureaucrats, as a group (no offence intended to individuals). The bureaucratic idea of fairness may be easily described. It is: the unwavering application of a specific rule or procedure regardless of the circumstances.

That is, bureaucratic "fairness" consists of an equality of response to all applicants, regardless of the circumstances of their application. That equality of response is seen as "fair" - everybody is "treated equally".

But, of course, it is not "fair".

What is needed is not equality of response but equality of outcome. And the only way to achieve equality of outcome is to allow the applicant to define what outcome is required. Thus, we assist each person to successfully achieve their own goal. Now that seems fair.

What is needed, in fact, is facilitation by the bureaucracy to assist the applicant in reaching their desired outcome (by the way, I saw a bumper sticker that read: "Civil servants are neither". Guffaw).

The task for governments - and the ideal of good governance for the 21st century - is to shift bureaucracy to a position in which it is a facilitator of community wants, needs and aspirations.


The reason many of us feel that bureaucracy is an obstacle, rather than an assistance, lies in exactly that situation described above: bureaucracy does not respond to us, to our circumstances, to our position. One rule is applied to all, one procedure, one perspective. Flexibility is built out, as it is thought to be a nuisance, unmanageable, unable to be implemented in a world where everyone wants something slightly different.

The reason that bureaucracies insist on a "one-size-fits-all" approach is that they are concerned that they cannot deliver a tailored response to all. The mistake they make is that they are not required to "deliver".

What is needed is not that bureaucrats deliver something to us, but that bureaucrats assist us in achieving our own goals. The difference is in the "locus of responsibility"; it is that old (and previously discussed in this column) difference between "clients" and "cases", between "customers" and "citizens".

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About the Author

Mark Randell is the Principal of Human Sciences, a community development consultancy based in Fremantle, WA. He has worked in the commercial, government and academic sectors.

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