The Bane of Complexity

“The more complex the functions which the state assumes, the more subordinate the bureaucrats on whom the citizen’s fortune depends.”
– Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Colombian writer

I recently had a run in with the complexity of the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, shunted from one telephone number, website and office to another, without result. What was once a simple process of making of an appointment has turned into a frustrating Kafkaesque affair, matched only by Cairo’s infamous Mugamaa – a centralized all-in-one building for the Egyptian government similar to a massive termite hill, without the insects’ efficiency.

This confusing experience was compounded by incorrect medical advice, received from a cursory computer algorithm. No one had bothered to do the most basic real life checks (blood pressure, weight etc.) before coming to the wrong conclusion… which was then sent to me by phone message.

In all these cases, the complexity of government services is heightened through the application of digital technology, and the loss of common sense. What were once simple affairs – an annual check up, an appointment for a test – are now mammoth Sisyphean tasks.  

What is behind all this? At one level, it is the application of a patchwork of software programmes, each attending to a narrow goal without any larger human picture in mind and often executed in the name of cost savings. What humans can often do well and intuitively (what the best diagnosticians do) – connect the dots through good judgment bred by experience – is handed over to the machine on the premise that it does things better and with less error.

However, at another level, the problem is due to the boundless “complexification” of the state until it becomes an unrecognizable morass, an instrument of torture falsely presenting itself as public service. On top of it all, we ironically pay for our suffering through our taxes.

Steven Teles, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgetown University, calls this excess of complexity a “kludgeocracy,” after the term “kludge” meaning “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular problem.” Teles’s focus is America, its byzantine tax codes and multi-dimensional health care system(s).

One article by Teles points out the US’s tortured checks and balances and the contradictions of its competing ideologies; however, an overly complex ‘kludgeocracy’ affects many nations. Narrow agendas can be hidden in complexity serving private, not public, interest. Policy wonks also simply like to complexify. They feel it is a better reflection of of reality, forgetting, as they unfurl it, that it is an undesired obstacle to those needy of an efficient service, whether a health system, public transport or paying one’s taxes.

Indeed, Teles makes the point that high levels of complexity (and the hidden agendas and costs therein) lead to distrust by the citizen who is flummoxed by the multi-tentacled beast in his face. We all become serfs to such systems, unable or unwilling to expend the resources required to effect change, we give up, and it wins. Humanity in politics is lost in favour of burgeoning bureaucracies.

Can anything be done? Teles puts forward practical steps to restructure the American political system and diminish the likelihood of complex, patchwork solutions. And, every solution will need to be customized to national or local circumstances. However, behind it all, lies a mindset: whether citizen, politician or bureaucrat, we can be busy focused on a task, agenda, or our bureau, or, critically, we can stay in context, in the real world. It is no use designing a traffic system without consulting the drivers affected, nor a health care system that is cheaper and faster, if it misdiagnoses ailments and the consequences and costs are high for individuals and society. As Teles points out, what is required is more direct and transparent action that attends to clear and concrete tasks.

Another answer may be to become consistently aware that bureaucracies need to remain small, and therefore regularly cut down to size. Like the cycles of nature, they can grow for a few years, and, then, astonishingly, shrink. Furthermore, with some training, even bureaucrats would find that such an approach would make their jobs more meaningful and satisfying.

Like taxes, bureaucracies will always be with us, however, they need not become self-referential worlds of their own, distant, and dismissive of human needs. This would become more possible if we all regarded each bureaucracy as a way to deliver a specific result, a service, not as a complex instrument of an endlessly expanding set of regulations that complicate our lives, sabotage initiative and lower morale and, like many problems involving politics, existing only for itself.

As I experienced with the NHS, and as writer Laurence Gonzales said, “bureaucracies force us to practice nonsense. And if you rehearse nonsense, you may one day find yourself the victim of it.”