Boston Needs Bureaucracy

(This is the full text and title of a letter that appeared in the Boston Globe on 1/10/10)

We all hate bureaucracy – big, rule-based, inflexible.  But the impersonal efficiency of bureaucracy is exactly what big organizations need to run effectively.  So the James Michael Curley legacy that is most damaging to today’s Boston is not the corruption or ethnic-neighborhood chauvinism or even the patronage described by Peter Canellos (“Curley’s People”, Jan.1, Ideas), but the pattern of delivering public service entirely on the basis of personal relationships.  If you want something done, you have to know someone who works in city hall.  Even within City Hall, inter-office coordination is more about calling your cousin than oiling a functional machine.

In contrast, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg sits on top of a corporate-style bureaucracy.  This allows him to express a vision, set policy direction, even get personally involved in starting particular projects – and then turn things over to his staff to implement.  Like a progressive private sector CEO, Bloomberg understands that today’s technology allows policy and oversight to be centralized, middle-management to be thinned, and front-line staff empowered to take creative initiative.  Of course, it doesn’t always work as well as desired, either in the private or public sectors.  But the cultural norms aim towards that mode of operation.

In Boston, Mayor Menino is full of energy, ideas, and deep commitment.  The goals laid out in his latest inaugural address are worthy and important.  But he can’t do everything or be everywhere — once the spotlight of his attention passes and key staff have to move on to other projects, implementation of his visions often falters.  There are many smart, well-meaning, capable public servants in Boston.  But their ability to act is too often swallowed by the traditional culture of personal connections.

So all of us who deeply care about Boston welcome the new Chief of Staff, Mitchell Weiss (“He’s bringing Boston fresh attitude”, Jan.3).  And, despite our dislike of the word, some of us hope that his main focus will be on creating an efficient, public service bureaucracy.

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