The Importance of External Voices


This subject came up in a recent conversation with a good friend, and I feel like it’s worth thinking aloud about it a little bit.

External voices — even sharply critical ones — are important in the life of a bureaucracy. The bigger and more hidebound the bureaucracy, the more this holds true. When it comes to massive, lumbering federal agencies such as the military services, external change agents are peculiarly essential, often acting as the lone well from which the energy of change can be extracted.

This runs contrary to the conventional wisdom upon which most modern bureaucracies operate. Problems are to be solved internally, the wisdom holds, through a process approved by the hierarchy and carefully managed to yield solutions that address issues without threatening interests. For most senior officers or civilians who have logged decades serving the Air Force, for example, the idea of taking advice from someone outside the service is not just unconventional … it’s totally foreign. It threatens basic assumptions about who is in charge, how to process information emanating from an “unauthorized” source, who is legitimately “authorized” to opine on matters of policy, and whether interaction with certain external actors is consistent with traditions of team play.

But to those outside bureaucracies (and, to be fair, to scores of astute and thoughtful servants who toil dutifully within them), the need for committed external actors is unmysterious for reasons of basic organizational behavior.

Bureaucracies, by their nature, will in every instance choose the course of action most supportive of their interests. Given a choice between admitting the full extent of a problem and downplaying it, a bureaucracy will always choose the latter, because to choose the former might threaten confidence in the organization and its leaders … and might beg intervention from outside the bureaucracy. Above all, bureaucracies are closed and unitary. They will never willingly cede the power to adjust policy to an outside actor, and will therefore never signal a level of weakness that might tempt the attention of outside actors with the authority to intervene.

This leads bureaucracies like the Air Force to grapple for total message control. No one (actually or perceptually) representing the bureaucracy can be permitted to communicate freely beyond its boundaries. The message must be vetted, approved, and scripted … such that it concedes enough to be strictly true (or at least not strictly false) but doesn’t publish information that could be used to threaten the interests of the bureaucracy.

Because the bureaucracy will never fulsomely confront its problems, the only consistent way to rally resources and energy behind reforming those problems is for external actors who are unbound by the bureaucracy and who have sufficient knowledge and expertise to effectively elucidate issues to lay them bare and stoke discussion around them. Whistleblowers aid this effort, but can’t do so consistently given the effectiveness of the bureaucracy in deterring them … often by reprising ruthlessly against those who dare talk out of turn.

External actors therefore perform a vital and important service to a bureaucracy by forcing it to confront problems it would otherwise ignore until long past the point where they might be addressed in the normal course of things. Without this forcing function, bureaucracies are inherently and endemically self-defeating by their very design. As much as anything, a bureaucracy is a power structure … an arrangement of authority purpose-built for consistency, stability, and predictability. These conservative purposes are reflected in a structure that doesn’t just do work, but controls exactly how that work gets done, how results of that work are processed, and how they are communicated.

Of course, external action to nudge a bureaucracy isn’t always effective, and in fact it works anecdotally at best. External actors have no formal authority of their own. Instead, they seek instead to marshal, channel, and direct either the formal authority of other agencies with the power to act … or issue constituencies internal to the bureaucracy itself, which will relent enough to confront a problem and engage on an internal policy change when failing to do so threatens other interests enough to make the decision rational.

No matter how impassioned or committed they might be, external actors will struggle to do this effectively on a consistent basis because they lack the resources and are generally assigned little credibility unless and until it is earned. But if they are skilled at exposing the difference between the  bureaucracy’s claims and the realities of key issues, external actors (such as this blog) can be successful at waking people up to problems, emboldening internal actors trying to solve those problems, and creating leverage for other external players to wield in coercing the bureaucracy to address needful issues.

None of this would be necessary if bureaucracies saw their interests in the same way others see those interests. In theory, what’s best for the Air Force is also best for its airmen, for their families, and for the country, as an example.

But this flags a timeless and intractable fact of organizations and life within their structures. Not only do groups naturally assess interests differently than individuals, but at some level of abstraction the bureaucracy becomes the interest it is protecting. Even when taking internal or external advice would make sense in every observable way possible, the bureaucracy will resist because to take advice from some random individual or segment of disempowered actors is thought to demonstrate weakness … that the bureaucracy didn’t come up with the best idea through its approved processes.

Applied to the 2016 Air Force, these ideas show why it’s so important that senior leaders have begun to embrace the legitimacy of external actors more often, and have resisted internal pushes for change less forcefully, caving to pressure more often. It’s a signal that the service understands it can no longer afford a face-saving, stonewalling, self-protective bureaucratic approach in all cases … because the resulting delays in problem recognition and solution set development can threaten interests to a greater degree than the perception the Air Force needed help from its own people or (gasp!) “outsiders” in figuring things out.

As social media quickens the communication cycle and makes it nigh on impossible for federal bureaucracies like the Air Force to hide inconvenient truths from external actors, the roles of those actors will likely increase in the short term. Hopefully, this will in turn trigger a longer-term adaptation toward embracing more open communication, more democratized problem identification, and more collaborative solutions. The rhetoric of empowerment will hopefully become reality, and power will hopefully once again array itself across the Air Force rather than concentrating in a tiny number of power centers.

In other words, hopefully social media has given external actors the potential to modestly renovate one of the world’s most stubborn and hidebound bureaucracies. At the very least, it has exposed the importance of external actors.

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