Bureaucracy: The Enemy Within

By Lieutenant Nathan D. Luther, U.S. Navy

The warfighter's skills boil down to the ability to achieve a defined objective. There may be many ways to get there, and the warfighter finds one that best fits the circumstances. The bureaucrat's skills boil down to implementing someone else's rules.

Shipboard leaders today spend increasing amounts of time and energy caught within what we might call the Vicious Cycle of Bureaucracy. This regularly adds to their workloads and shifts their priorities. Each of these additions and shifts forces these leaders to hone their bureaucratic skills to the exclusion of warfighting skills.

This is the unavoidable byproduct of the Navy's current structure. It can be overcome in the short-term by superiors and subordinates developing personal and trusting relationships. It can be overcome in the long-term by increasing the power of operational commanders. Since the Navy's bureaucracy is not turning today's shipboard leaders into warfighters, the Navy's leaders must declare war on the bureaucracy.

The Warfighter

Warfighting skills are exemplified in the World War II submarine skipper Commander Eugene Fluckey. His missions succeeded through sound planning and creative decision-making.

Fluckey's planning was sound because of experience and firsthand knowledge of the resources at his disposal. On one occasion, he developed a plan to launch a surprise nighttime attack in water too shallow to submerge his submarine. Weeks of unsuccessful hunting had shown him where the enemy ships weren't, and a study of area charts and some off-hull intelligence gave him a good idea of where the enemy was.

His plan, while daring, was based on his experience against the enemy. He knew he would have the tactical advantage of surprise, and hi s knowledge of his own ship and its operating area assured him he had the necessary tools to make the attack and escape to safety. Fluckey's successful attack at Namkwan Harbor on the China coast on 22-23 January 1944 sank four ships and earned him the Medal of Honor.

The skipper's decision-making was creative because he was given broad guidance rather than detailed instructions. He developed a personal relationship with his operational commander, Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood, and he earned Lockwood's trust. Based on this trust and using his own ingenuity, Fluckey outfitted his submarine, USS Barb (SS-220), with a rocket launcher to carry out coastal harassment.

During these independent operations north of Hokkaido, Japan, Fluckey decided that even more damage could be done by destroying a railroad bridge. Showing his own and his crew's audacity, Barb sent a landing party ashore with a bomb improvised from the boat's supplies. This attack destroyed a passing troop train and a portion of the tracks. The overall result of Fluckey's harassment techniques was to create the impression among the Japanese that a significant American presence was in the area and preparing for an invasion.

An organization develops its people by creating a structure in which desired skills are taught, frequently used, and evaluated. Fluckey was a remarkably talented warfighter. The Navy should seek to develop skills similar to his in all of its officers. But its overly bureaucratic structure is obstructing that development.

The Checklist Manager and PowerPoint Ace

Bureaucrats exist to carry out rules and processes designed by a superior agency. A bureaucrat is much more concerned with the "how" of a task than with the "what" because his mission is probably vague and lacking a definitive endpoint. Meeting every requirement along the way is more important to him than reaching a defined objective. The two most essential skills of the naval bureaucrat are those of the Checklist Manager and the PowerPoint Ace.

The Checklist Manager is able to turn a standard naval instruction into what all those words really boil down to: a checklist. For the Checklist Manager, the overall purpose of the instruction is much less important than its specific requirements. Checklist in hand, he sets himself to checking every box. Subordinates are tasked with secondary checklists, and superiors are shown that the right boxes are being checked at the right intervals. When the inspection team shows up, the skilled Checklist Manager's binders are well-organized and he can quickly show that all requirements have been met.

A PowerPoint Ace's skills are an outgrowth of effective checklist management. When subordinates need to be trained on their role in carrying out the checklist, the PowerPoint Ace can quickly turn the checklist into a well-animated set of bullet points, the visual manifestation of the checklist. When a superior needs to know the status of a program, the PowerPoint Ace can again project a multimedia checklist of bullets and dates and show that everything is under control.

The skills of the Checklist Manager and PowerPoint Ace do not build good warfighters. Using these skills regularly creates a focus on the "how" of tasks, on what rules need to be followed in any given situation. The mission of many shipboard programs is often just to follow all of the rules and then document how they were followed. In general, Checklist Managers and PowerPoint Aces do not achieve specific objectives through sound planning and creative decision-making that may be outside currently established norms.

While the skills of the Checklist Manager and PowerPoint Ace are not bad skills to have, they are far too dominant on ships today. No naval leader expects to be able to make all of his own rules, so to some extent he has to be able to manage checklists. Every naval leader also needs to be able to train others on requirements or brief superiors on a program's status, and PowerPoint skills come in handy for these and numerous other occasions. However, the more time a naval leader spends on bureaucratic tasks, the less time is available for developing as a warfighter since the two are often mutually exclusive.

The Vicious Cycle of Bureaucracy

Bureaucratic skills dominate the professional lives of shipboard leaders because there are so many requirements to meet. Let's look at how the nature of these requirements overburdens a ship's team of would-be warfighters and traps them in the Vicious Cycle of Bureaucracy.

A ship's requirements come not from a single source, but from volumes of manuals, instructions, notes, and messages. These originate from a host of superior commands at varying degrees of geographical, cultural, and practical distance from the ship.

The Vicious Cycle of Bureaucracy really begins when something bad happens somewhere in the Fleet. One or more commands analyze the mishap and determine that if a different rule or procedure had been in place, the whole thing might have been avoided. In the extreme, a whole new superior command emerges and creates a new set of instructions and requirements. At the very least, a message goes out on the incident requiring training within some period of time. During any given year, either because of a mishap or if "it's just been a while," a significant change is issued to one or more instructions.

To take an actual example, two major submarine force instructions, the 688- Class Navigation Procedure (USS Hart ford had run aground) and the Engineering Department Manual (it had been a while), had complete revisions issued at roughly the same time during the Summer of 2004.

Within a couple of months of receiving a new or revised instruction, the ship must conduct training, testing, and implementation followed by a report to the issuing command. While training materials on the changes are usually provided, these generally list all of the changes without making any distinction between more and less important changes. Some PowerPoint Ace on the ship has to dig through the provided materials and make a reasonable presentation that doesn’t show every grammar or phraseology change. Some Checklist Manager has to pick through the changes to determine which will require the ship to change its own instructions or to change how it is operating.

The ship now has a meta-program, a program to revise a program. Meanwhile all of the other programs continue unchanged, with their requirements continuing to demand leadership attention. At some point during or after the implementation process, an inspection takes place. Specifically, an inspection team sees if the ship is meeting some grouping of requirements. Every inspection results in a report of what the ship is not doing well enough.

The ship must follow on this report by defining root causes for and assigning corrective actions to these deficiencies. Corrective actions must then be tracked by a Checklist Manager. The status of these will undoubtedly get command-level attention because higher commands will require reports. So now the ship has another meta program with some kind of checklist to correct problems with a bunch of other programs.

The ship is now caught up in the Vicious Cycle of Bureaucracy that undermines its ability to accomplish tactical missions and develop as a team of warfighters.  A ship that started with a not-insignificant set of requirements is now responsible for those, the latest set of revisions and messages, new requirements, and corrective actions from recent inspections.  It is accountable for each of these to a handful of superior commands.

As the Cycle churns, it consumes more and more of shipboard leaders’ time to the exclusion of their warfighting development. To the extent that their time is driven by this cycle, the skipper, his executive officer, and the division officers become bureaucrats, managers of rules and requirements.

Ultimately, this cycle can consume a ship’s leaders and confuse their mission. A ship’s own priorities are constantly subordinated to shifting requirements and the priorities imposed by superior commands and inspection teams.

The Cycle hurts morale by minimizing professional fulfillment. Checking boxes and giving PowerPoint presentations is not as rewarding as independently planning and executing tasks to support a command’s mission. I have never seen another officer get excited when the executive officer assigns a new checklist for action. I have seen officers gets excited about figuring out how to best employ their ship in battle.

The Inevitability of the Cycle

The Vicious Cycle of Bureaucracy is the inevitable byproduct of the Navy’s bureaucratic structure. The fundamental problem with this structure is that too many uncoordinated commands can impose requirements on ships. There is no unifying vision to all of these programs since they have come from a variety of sources over the course of decades. Because they have been accumulating for so long, there are almost too many programs to count.

Obviously, the Secretary of the Navy and Chief of Naval Operations set standards for the Navy as a whole and its specific components. A ship’s squadron, group, type commander, and fleet commander all impose requirements. Additionally, requirements come from numerous specialized commands dealing with issues such as supply, safety, personnel, voter registration, health and dental records, and environmental issues. Any one of these commands can send out a message requiring ships to take some kind of action.

These varied requirements quite often exist in isolation from one other and stem from numerous priorities and visions that may have little or nothing in common with each other, let alone with a commanding officer’s vision for his ship. In short, a ship has many bosses who don’t necessarily talk to each other.

This is compounded by the impersonal relationships between most of these bosses and ships at sea.  While commodores personally know the commanding officers in their squadrons, there is little guarantee that any other boss will have a personal relationship with every CO on whom he can impose requirements. These bosses also know that COs rotate fairly regularly.

All of this means that those designing programs for shipboard implementation can’t count on someone in the ship to really understand their main purpose and carry it out. For this reason, bosses create programs using very detailed instructions and reporting requirements to ensure compliance with their purposes.

When increasing numbers of bosses are doing this in an uncoordinated manner over the course of decades, the requirements pile up in a nearly exponential fashion. Such is the case for ships today.

The Way Forward

The solution to this problem is not eliminating requirements en masse. Most requirements are rooted in good intentions and are honest efforts to solve a problem or improve a practice. The problem is the volume and disconnectedness of the requirements.

The short-term solution to this problem lies in establishing trusting personal relationships throughout the operational chain of command. Such relationships create flexibility in the "how" to allow for focus on the "what."

The model here is Commander Fluckey again. It was his personal relationship with Admiral Lockwood that allowed him to push the boundaries of accepted submarine tactics. There was no established program for what Fluckey did, except his own vision of how to use his submarine to best take the fight to the enemy. The evidence of Fluckey's previous successes and Lockwood's estimation of his character were all the admiral needed to free Fluckey from the bounds of established practice.

Solving the problem of excessive bureaucracy requires interaction between operational commanders and ship COs. Everyone should start from a mutual understanding that the "what" of ships is to be ready to execute operational tasking.

Commanding officers should develop coherent plans for overall warfighting readiness that include the purposes behind most requirements. By taking advantage of the give and take of their relationships, operational commanders should be willing to let some requirements go unmet to allow COs to implement their plans. These commanders must also provide top cover to the COs since every unmet requirement is likely to upset someone.

By freeing commanding officers to implement their own visions in this manner, they will be able to develop the warfighting skills of their subordinates. More time will be spent getting the ship ready to execute its mission requirements and less time spent making requirements the mission.

The long-term way to prevent shipboard leaders from being consumed by bureaucracy is to change the structure that creates shipboard requirements. Giving a single operational commander the authority to coordinate requirements before imposing them on ships will lead to streamlining and a common vision.

This is not to say that one commander should develop every program. The supply community should still develop programs for dealing with supply issues, the medical community for medical issues, and so on. When such a community develops a program that applies to a ship type, however, the type commander should get a cut on it.

Through the type commander's personal knowledge of ships under his authority, he can determine how to best implement these various programs. Ships on deployment might not be given revisions until after they return. Ships already meeting the purpose of a program through their crews' own initiative might be given the latitude to continue on their present course.

Doing this will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers since it increases the power of operational commanders at the expense of other commanders. Continuing down the present course, however, is the wrong answer if the Navy wants to develop shipboard leaders with warfighting skills.

In the worst case, a ship might be lost because its officers do not have the necessary warfighting skills to execute the ship's mission. If this happened tomorrow, what would the response be? Would the bureaucracy be able to face itself in the mirror and admit that it had failed to develop the right skills in its leaders? Or would the bureaucracy merely chum out more requirements for ships to review, train and test on, and implement?

Lieutenant Luther studied bureaucratic politics as a political science major at Stanford University and is a division officer on board USS Toledo (SSN-769).

 

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