Cargo Cult Administration

Many physical scientists learned of the curious phenomena of the Cargo Cult from Feynman’s commencement address at Caltech, as reproduced in his book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!”.

In the address, Feynman cautions us against the conceptually similar notion of Cargo Cult Science, where people go through the motions of mimicking a scientific process, while never comprehending the essential nature of science.
The Cargo Cult Scientists follow some process that bears a superficial resemblance to science without understanding the true nature of what they are doing and the results are worthless.

It is increasingly obvious that many administrative actions are really manifestations of Cargo Cult Administration. These administrations are following processes that only superficially resemble actual administrative actions: administrations talk of “best practices”, and “stakeholders”, and “consultation” and “transparency”, but do not act accordingly.
Rather policies are put in place that are either irrelevant or inconsistent, if not actively counterproductive.
No consideration is made of whether the actual issue at hand is essentially comparable to whatever “best practice” is being applied was developed for, much less whether its implementation is effective.
Stakeholder groups are assembled based on criteria other than whether those consulted actually have a stake in the issue, and others who clearly do have a stake are ignored and shut out.
Consultation becomes a pro-forma process, either intended to reinforce preconceptions or to provide a distraction with the input received promptly discarded.
Transparency is opaque, or a one-way mirror, and rarely leads to actual reception or adoption of feedback. It is forgotten that transparency is a means, not an end.

“Cargo cults often develop during a combination of crises.”
So it is with Cargo Cult Administrations.

Under stress, administrations fall under the leadership of figures, often lawyers, or advised by lawyers.
The leaders emphasize policies which on examination are seen to have a common core purpose of protecting the leaders from legal action, with the emphasis on process rather than results.
The underlying actions often have purpose in establishing or enforcing a social order in which the administrators take leadership roles and take control of distribution networks, changing the balance of power and role of other leadership groups within the society.

The Cargo Cult mentality occurs in many contexts, but the most insidious and damaging is surely its emergence in administrations in crisis.

Comments

  1. #1 Bolan Meek`
    near Stagecoach, Texas
    August 16, 2013

    Your critique may have merit, but without examples to illustrate what you are criticizing, the force of it is diffused. Name some names, please.

  2. #2 Steinn Sigurðsson
    August 16, 2013

    I can not do that.

  3. #3 Steinn Sigurðsson
    August 16, 2013

    Actually, to be precise – I may not do that at this stage without getting myself into serious real life trouble.
    At least I can not name topical names of realistic examples that I had in mind without getting into serious real life trouble.

    Sometimes obliqueness is necessary.

  4. #4 Kevin Hoover
    August 17, 2013

    Ug. Commas both inside and outside quotes. Basic punctuation required.

  5. #5 Steinn Sigurðsson
    August 18, 2013

    It is always September, somewhere.

  6. #6 KnightBiologist
    August 18, 2013

    I like this essay. I can tell you these phenomena run rampant in the corporatized (privatized) charter schools that are all the rage here in Arizona. How many countless hours of teacher’s time is wasted in staff meetings were a bureaucrat spins one cliche or buzzword after another? I’ve heard the, “we want your input” line, only to see the person who makes any suggestion shot down on the spot. Teachers learn very quickly to shut up and put up with the BS so they can get through their lunch hour meeting unscathed and get back to what they really love. (Did I mention these meetings take place during lunch half-hours? We’ve got nothing better to do apparently). This is not the only example.
    Sorry I had to rant there but your cargo cult administration idea struck a nerve of recognition.

  7. #7 Miguel V.
    August 19, 2013

    If we live in permanent crisis or at least the perception of it, we can be permanently ‘lead’ by cargo cults.

  8. #8 Eccentric & Anomalous
    August 20, 2013

    This ‘cargo cult administration’ theme seems to be more and more prevalent in public university administrations, where the state seems more and more intent in decoupling itself from the task of higher education (thus creating a crisis)..

  9. #9 Eric Lund
    August 26, 2013

    Consultation becomes a pro-forma process, either intended to reinforce preconceptions or to provide a distraction with the input received promptly discarded.

    Or, as Sam Goldwyn so eloquently put it: “If I want your opinion I’ll give it to you.” The problem may seem worse now than in the past, but it has long been with us.

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