Dilbert & the Registrar


The very word makes me shudder.

Why? Because it holds a lot of negative connotations: red tape; a lack of responsibility; hiding behind ‘rules’ that some shadowy committee created; poor service; and a lack of personal attention or care.

Obviously, I’m not the only one who thinks this way. My Oxford Reference Dictionary defines it thus: “government by the officials of a central administration; such officials, often regarded as inflexible or unimaginative; excessive official routine.”

But it hasn’t always been this way. Max Weber, a social scientist writing in the early 1900’s, described and defined bureaucracy in very scientific, rational terms. Weber had philosophical and practical reasons for why bureaucracy is needed.

  • There should be a clear division of labour. This makes the organization efficient by eliminating duplication.
  • It should be impersonal which keeps you from getting better service than me just because you know, or are related to the staff.
  • There should be a clear hierarchy and chain-of-command so that you only have one boss who can tell you what to do (I once had two bosses. What a gong-show!).
  • The officers do not own their office: it can’t be bequeathed to their family members and it can’t be inherited (it is not a monarchy).
  • Official business must be conducted in writing. This holds me accountable, and it prevents you from getting what you want just because you can yell louder than another customer.

Really, bureaucracy is about being rational, logical, and fair. So why do we have such a visceral response to the word? In a word: Dilbert!

Students have come to despise bureaucracy because we sometimes take its principles too far:

  • Impersonal becomes a lack of care and attention to student needs.
  • Centralized decision-making means too much distance from, and not enough knowledge of the student or the problem.
  • Official business only in writing means long delays in response.
  • What should be simple becomes ridiculously complex. The rules become excessive and prevent action or solutions.

In short, they don’t feel the love. To be fair to Max Weber, he anticipated all these issues. The Dilbert-like Registrar’s Office has just ignored his warnings.

What’s the solution? Three words:

  1. Leadership
  2. Goodness (or fairness)
  3. Responsibility

Watch for future posts on these three topics. In the meantime, share your personal stories of Dilbert-like bureaumania with us. Post your story as a comment.


One thought on “Dilbert & the Registrar

  1. Here’s one story of my own experience with bureaucracy at it’s “finest”. My office is responsible to audit student progress towards degrees. The way we do that is to have students apply for graduation and submit a program checklist of how they plan to use their courses to meet their degree requirements. Then we go over that with a fine-toothed comb, taking into account all the rules and policies that apply, and we produce a report for the student explaining what works, what doesn’t, and what they have left to complete. It’s supposed to be a helpful tool. However, I discovered that on the report we had posted in big, bold letters, some very unfriendly, unhelpful words: “Please do not contact us about this.”
    It felt an awful lot like we were hitting “Send” and then running and hiding. Where was the accountability and responsibility?
    We fixed that just two months ago.


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