An 88-year-old man builds a house for himself and his wife, who has Alzheimer's. When, because of minor code violations, building inspectors ask a Canadian judge to order the house bulldozed, the inspectors look like monsters. (Read the news story)  Bureaucratic tyranny, an all too familiar story. 

But the building inspectors likely aren't monsters. Bureaucrats are under constant pressure from politicans and the public to be both fair and flexible. That's not as easy as it sounds.

The easiest way to be fair is to be rigidly consistent  create rules and enforce them the same way for everybody.Yet the very act of trying to establish regulations that are fair in every case is doomed to failure. It may be fine to strictly enforce every clause of a building code on a developer, not so when it's an elderly man with limited finances. The problem is, once bureaucracies start making exceptions they open themselves to accusations of favouritism. After all, we loathe corrupt bureaucrats who bend the rules for their friends, for payoffs, or because they can't be bothered to enforce them.

So what's the solution? How can a bureaucracy be both reasonably consistent and reasonably flexible?
  • Front-line bureaucrats must have some discretion to make exceptions with the approval of their supervisors. Exceptions should be permitted to honour the spirit rather than the letter of the law. No exceptions should be permitted when safety is at stake.
  • Citizens must have the right to appeal decisions directly to senior managers and must be informed of that right.
  • Appeals can be decided by a panel of senior managers groups are harder to corrupt than individuals. And those decisions, if they of high importance, can be overseen by an independent auditor.

Checks and balances cost time and money, and politicians need to put that into their budgets. They must also instruct government lawyers to approve regulations that give bureaucrats the discretion to be humane, even if such discretion carries some risk of legal action and occasional bad publicity because of perceived inconsistency, unfairness or favouritism. Without these instructions, people who write and vet regulations usually lean toward protecting governments, not citizens.

Most bureaucrats are like most of of us we want to do our jobs well, but we also want to keep our jobs. Ultimately the fault in many cases of bureaucratic misconduct lies not with front-line workers and their supervisors, but with a poorly designed system. The people at the top, including senior officials and politicians, must ensure that bureaucrats can behave like sensible public servants, not monsters.