Why is the government slow, inefficient, and stupid?

I'm not anti-government. I'm pro civilization. But I'm also an anarchist, of a sort. I think institutions should be dissolved and reformed regularly. What really happens is that institutions add bits and pieces over time, in response to things that happen, as solutions to interim problems, until finally the bits and pieces take over and nobody can move.

Do you know the The Gormenghast trilogy?

In this amazing story by Mervyn Peake ...

... a doomed lord, a scheming underling, an ancient royal family plagued by madness and intrigue - these are the denizens of ancient, sprawling, tumbledown Gormenghast Castle. Within its vast halls and serpentine corridors, the members of the Groan dynasty and their master Lord Sepulchrave grow increasingly out of touch with a changing world as they pass their days in unending devotion to meaningless rituals and arcane traditions. Meanwhile, an ambitious kitchen boy named Steerpike rises by devious means to the post of Master of the Ritual while he maneuvers to bring down the Groans.

A subtext of the story is that over time, in the kingdom of Gormeghast, ritual after ritual has been added to the daily life of the royal family, to the extent that there is barely enough time in the day for the Lord to do anything but serve those rituals, and in fact, the Master of the Ritual is ultimately in charge. This fantastical depiction of a fantasy kingdom is the future of all institutions that are not occasionally rebuilt.

There are other elements to this problem. Consider technology. Back when the Year 2000 problem happened, people learned that a good portion of the critical computing technology, such as that used in banking, was based on mainframe computers using ancient programming languages like cobol, where values were hard coded rather than represented as variables, and data was stored on ancient media. That is actually a good thing in a way, because those systems were proven to work. Shifting a system to the most current and advanced technologies virtually guarantees unforeseen bugs and opportunities for exploits by nefarious crackers. In critical technology, traditional and proven is good. But there are limits. In the video below Rachel Maddow points out that key data used in the US nuclear defense systems are stored on 8 inch floppies. Where do they even get those floppies?

In a way this seems the opposite of adding rituals over time, but it actually isn't. It can create new rituals, and stupid rituals.

The intersection of ancient technologies that were once new and modern context that demands new rules (such as documentation of communications or transactions) results in bizarre outcomes even more troubling than the use of 8 inch floppies to hold the data needed to run and control the nuclear arsenal.

By now I'm sure you know that we're talking about emails. Rachel also talks about the official government method of dealing with emails.

When you get an email, or send an email, you print out a copy of it and put it in a box. All of the emails. There are no exceptions.

If everyone printed out every email, there would be about six billion emails printed out, at least one page, often many more, per email. I estimate that if this policy was generally applied across all email uses, 2 or 3% of all paper use would be dedicated to this purpose, not counting storage boxes.

How do State Department officials and employees handle this problem? Simple. They ignore it. But how many things do we do, especially in the government, and other institutions, can't be, ignored, and thus serve as glue poured into the precision gear boxes of our administrative institutions? A lot of them, I suspect.

Check it out:

(Image above from the Gormenghast website.)


More like this

It is unfair to have expected Ms Clinton and her staff to report every hacking attempt on their email servers--- most servers are attacked scores of times every day. They would need to hire someone who *ONLY* did that reporting.

As for civilization, I cannot imagine why you are "for" it. Humanity will not survive civilization, which I suspect is a good thing.

By Desertphile (not verified) on 26 May 2016 #permalink

Having worked in local government I can attest that there is truth in what you say, although I'd add that the metaphore of ritual glosses over what is going on in people's heads. It's messier and more complicated than you can imagine, not just because of the practices that build up over time but because of the diversity of opinions and factions.

I've also been through restructuring, seemingly perpetual, mind-numbing restructuring, a process which requires that... (wait for it)... the people guiding the restructuring actually know what they are doing -- including how to herd cats. Nor does it help that managers tend to be disconnected from what it is that the worker bees are doing and why they do it in the first place.

It may not be a completely apt comparison, but I'm thinking Kathleen Sebelius and the ACA as just one example of what a crap storm can look like when change is bungled.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 26 May 2016 #permalink


"In Herbert's fiction, sometime in the far future, government becomes terrifyingly efficient. Red tape no longer exists: laws are conceived of, passed, funded, and executed within hours, rather than months. The bureaucratic machinery becomes a juggernaut, rolling over human concerns and welfare with terrible speed, jerking the universe of sentients one way, then another, threatening to destroy everything in a fit of spastic reactions. In short, the speed of government goes beyond sentient control."

By Desertphile (not verified) on 26 May 2016 #permalink

In reply to by Obstreperous A… (not verified)

Who gives a crap about the emails!?!?! When did email become the legal & official Substitute for a signed paper???
Just as with a phone ANYONE can make believe in email, so there is little or no way to prove that person X actually made promise Y.
Also so what if they are using old computers with 8" floppies?? Do they work? Yes! Then why change them?
OH! Right! If they don't have the newest Windows operating then no one can hack them, and it is my right not to be inhibited in hacking by using an old system I know nothing about!!!! And you have a responsibility to spend huge amounts of money changing out a working system & use an unstable one in its place!!! And I was using a DEC mini computer with 8" floppies as late as 2011 and still have a system using a DEC mini computer with dual 10" Bernoulli disks!

Used to be a story, it took various forms, about efforts to reduce paperwork. Rumor was it was all going digital. This was the late 70s and people were looking ahead but were not entirely confident in the digital future.

So someone wrote a directive telling people to shift where possible from paper to computer files. Fair enough until someone pointed out that valuable information could be lost.

So they modified the directive. You were still encouraged to get rid of as much paper as possible, but you had to make three copies and send those copies to be archived in three separate locations.

Progress is hard.

One of my pet peeves is the suggestion that government is inherently or exceptionally wasteful or inefficient. I spent my time around the military and major corporations. I can easily cite examples in both of vastly inefficient, and highly efficient operations on both sides.

The main differences I see are that government gets all the jobs nobody else wants to do. Usually ones which they can't figure out how to show a profit or make work outside of government. Government implicitly suggests oversight and budgets. Any major error in government is a scandal waiting to happen. Private industry can very easily cover its mistakes because budgets are proprietary information. Executives are largely free to cover up their bungling as long as they can keep the investor class happy. This usually involves sacrificing long term viability for quarterly profits.

Art you have expressed just what I want to say rather more concisely than I would have managed. Thank you!


The inherent problem with digital, and it is a huge problem for future historians, is the ever changing nature of technology, the 8" floppies are a prime example of that along with many of the early programming languages. As the hardware and software required to access that digital information becomes unattainable or unfathomable, that information is lost for good. The same is true for magnetic based storage mediums which are prone to decay, or have random bit flipped by stray cosmic rays etc.. Until we get a widely accepted storage medium that is not subject to those errors what choice do we have but to resort to hard copies for anything that needs long term preservation. In a twist to this though newspapers.com is presenting digitized versions of 100s of years of newspapers from across the globe while the paper versions moulder away in libraries and museums etc.

By Douglas Alder (not verified) on 26 May 2016 #permalink

But I’m also an anarchist, of a sort.
I don't understand. You don't mean like a Trump supporter...
I think institutions should be dissolved and reformed regularly.
You may think that from time to time, but somehow I doubt that you really believe it. Am I wrong?

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 26 May 2016 #permalink

Hmm, where's my tags...

But I’m also an anarchist, of a sort.

I don’t understand. You don’t mean like a Trump supporter…

I think institutions should be dissolved and reformed regularly.

You may think that from time to time, but somehow I doubt that you really believe it. Am I wrong?

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 26 May 2016 #permalink

OA #9.

I said those things because they are true and I meant them.

In short, yes. You are wrong.

Fair enough. I stand corrected, and no offense intended.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 26 May 2016 #permalink

Hmmm, we used to make "backup" copies on 3.5" floppies. Then later be confronted by the dreaded "Disk error. Reformat?" error message. See also: http://xkcd.org/1683/

This also reminds my dim brain of the A. E. van Vogt story, "The War Against the Rull." The Military Technology Director had to explain why they lost the war because of their *superior* technology!

OA: No offense taken. I admit my position is a bit different than most.

I'm an anarchist but I don't want to destroy institutions. I want to cause them to cease to exist. and be replaced by clean versions of their former selves.

Myself, since I freely use hyperbole, and sometimes wonder aloud about how ideal situations would work, I tend to assume others do as well. Because of that, I often don't catch the drift of what's actually going on.

I sympathize with what you're saying though. I can tell you from personal experience that generalized restructuring can be a weird, nightmarish hell on wheels and very wasteful. Just my two cents, but it's not something I'd recommend without specific compelling reasons and opportunities. As always, the devil's in the details.

In practice, the closest workable thing I've seen to what you describe is a team approach where teams are formed from pools of expertice and desolved when a project/task/problem is finished. And in conservation, of course, there is adaptive management based on science.

Off topic, I wish I could remember the name of that sci fi story about the world that regularly leveled itself in war. They had sacred museums that they maintained in order to rapidly rebuild... Does that ring a bell with anyone?

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 28 May 2016 #permalink

Obstreperous, sounds like "The Mote in God's Eye" by Niven and Pournelle.

There's a quote attributed to Harry S Truman.

Whenever you have an efficient government, you have a dictatorship.

Truman may be regarded as a great president, but on this, he was wrong. Dictatorships, even non-totalitarian ones, may be effective at many things, but they are very inefficient in comparison with democracies. That goes for communism, Nazism, and even apartheid.

By Julian Frost (not verified) on 28 May 2016 #permalink

Greg #13,

Ship of Theseus?

Thomas P @ 15

Yes, that's it it!


By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 29 May 2016 #permalink

You have provided absolutely no hard evidence that the government is "slow, inefficient, and stupid?" Your headline is just a clickbait strawman. You must really be a Rethuglican, not an anarchist.

Off topic, I wish I could remember the name of that sci fi story about the world that regularly leveled itself in war. They had sacred museums that they maintained in order to rapidly rebuild… Does that ring a bell with anyone?

You may be looking for A Canticle For Leibowitz