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Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy and Government Dysfunction

Bureaucracies had the strange habit of becoming “immune to their own mistakes,” historian Yuval Noah Harari once pointed out. The more power they accumulated, the more they could “change reality to fit their stories” instead of the other way around. But what makes government organisations so prone to mismanagement? Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy offers an explanation at the personal level. And few TV shows illustrate its dynamics better than the Australian political satire Utopia. Here’s how happy and highly motivated people can turn an organisation into a breeding ground for inaction and dysfunction.

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy lays the government’s notorious inefficiency at the feet of bureaucrats who have abandoned their organisation’s mission. It was coined by Jerry Pournelle, an American scientist, writer and one of the first-ever bloggers. On his aptly-named blog The View from Chaos Manor, he explained the term as follows:

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people:

First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.

Jerry Pournelle

So it’s not that people stop working hard. It’s that they’re working hard towards opposing goals. And it’s the individuals who pursue the benefit of the bureaucracy itself who tend to win. We might even go as far as to speculate about this being the reason why governments rarely scale themselves back or abolish themselves entirely.

Pournelle’s Precursors

Jerry Pournelle made his observation in 2010. But he wasn’t the first one to notice the absurdity of governmental institutions:

  • The Dead Horse Theory is a satirical meme about the government’s tendency to continue to ride a metaphorical dead horse. Since dismounting is not an option, they employed other “far more advanced strategies” such as “threatening the horse with termination” or “appointing a committee to study the horse”.
  • The Permit A38 played a key role in the 1976 animated film Twelve Tasks of Asterix. The protagonists Asterix and Obelix are tasked with obtaining the infamous permit at the Place That Sends You Mad, a building full of incompetent and useless bureaucrats. The “small formality” almost drives the two heroes insane.
  • Purposeful Stupidity goes back to a field manual created by the predecessor of the CIA in 1944. It suggests a variety of tactics to undermine an enemy’s society. This includes bringing up irrelevant issues at work or referring matters to committees so nothing ever gets done. If that doesn’t sound like features of modern bureaucracies…

What’s special about Pournelle’s hypothesis is that it highlights the motivations of the individuals involved. Let’s put the law to the test by taking a closer look at the political satire Utopia.

Utopia and the Iron Law of Bureaucracy

Utopia (aka Dreamland) is an Australian comedy series about a team of bureaucrats working at the fictional Nation Building Authority (NBA). The newly established government agency is set to deliver Australia’s much-needed infrastructure projects. Fortunately for the audience, it’s hilariously mired in politicking, bureaucracy and inaction.

Creator Rob Sitch (who also plays the NBA’s CEO Tony Woodford) had no problem coming up with material. According to the comedian, all the producers had to do was observe the news, speak to people working in government and turn their experiences into comedy gold. Let’s take a closer look at the “office besieged by absurdity” by summarising and analysing the sixth episode, Then We Can Build It, of the first season.

A New Stadium for Tasmania

The story picks up with Jim, the jovial and notoriously optimistic government liaison, telling Tony that the cabinet wants to allocate more funding to Tasmania’s infrastructure. Jim is keen on getting a major project for the small island state on the road. To the dismay of Tony, Tasmania’s actual needs seem to be irrelevant as long as the Prime Minister can make a big announcement. At least Tony can convince Jim to consult with the local community first.

Meanwhile, the office hires Marvin, a hopelessly upbeat motivational expert from the US. Not because it’s necessary. But because Rhonda, the NBA’s overly enthusiastic media manager, noticed there’s still money in the budget for professional development (and it’s not enough to send everyone to Bali). A multi-day in-service begins, which Nat, the NBA’s Chief Operations Officer, struggles to find useful as it keeps her from getting actual work done.

Utopia and Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy
Rhonda (left) and Jim (middle) discuss the infrastructure report with a frustrated Tony (right)

Tony returns from consultations in Tasmania where he quizzed the locals about what they really need. Better roads, rails and industry development make the top of the list in his report. Jim and Rhonda meet Tony at an opulent lunch (using up the catering budget). They wilfully misinterpret Tony’s report to push the idea of a new stadium for Tasmania’s capital Hobart.

In the meantime, Marvin quizzes the eager team of bureaucrats about what drives them to work for the NBA, introduces hotdesking, sets up a boxing session for lunch and shadows team members while delivering passionate platitudes. Everyone’s captivated and excited by Marvin’s outgoing personality. Except for Tony and Nat. Rather than Marvin’s autographed book, they’d prefer getting results.

Tony and his team try to make the idea of building a giant stadium for a small city work. But it’s hard to justify as Tassies neither need nor ask for it. Even the idea of getting them their own Aussie Rules Football team is floated. The reasons why the project isn’t feasible fall on deaf ears with Jim and Rhonda. Jim has already locked in the name for the new arena. Only when a frustrated Tony threatens to resign over the project, the stadium is finally cancelled.

Fed up with Marvin, Tony has his PD session cut short and bids him farewell with the rest of the hyped-up team. Since the stadium was cancelled, a new infrastructure project is needed. Jim suggests building Tasmania a film studio.

Pournelle’s Iron Law Applied to Utopia

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy seems like the perfect lens through which to view the NBA’s interpersonal dynamics and dysfunction.

Tony and Nat belong to Pournelle’s first group of people. They’re devoted to the NBA’s official goal of delivering meaningful infrastructure projects. Jim and Rhonda are their counterparts, dedicated to the government itself, its benefits and preservation. They’re bullsh*tters in the scientific sense, indifferent to the truth. In the subplot, this dynamic is mirrored in the conflict between Nat, Rhonda and Marvin. Nat’s voice of reason is wilfully ignored and drowned in toxic positivity. While they’re all smart and capable people, it’s their agendas that distinguish them.

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The rest of the team are lovable but somewhat clueless yesmen. They’re often pulled back and forth between the two groups. Oblivious to Tony and Nat’s troubles, easily impressed by Jim and Rhonda’s empty talk and welcoming of every distractive office fad.

Most of the comedy in the series comes from maximally exploiting Pournelle’s dichotomy. The creators are stirring the constant conflict between those who are committed to the official mission and those whose primary concern is optics. One exchange from the episode illustrates those little power games nicely:

Jim: Well, we’ve been right through the report…
Rhonda: Mmh, it’s very exciting.
Jim: …I tossed it around with the folks upstairs and it’s pretty clear what Tassie is crying out for.
Rhonda: Loud and clear.
Tony: Do tell.
Jim: A new stadium.
Tony: That’s fourteenth [on the list].
Jim: Well, it’s not in order of priority.
Tony: I did the report, it’s in order of priority.
Jim: But that’s highlighted.
Tony: By you.

There’s no arguing with someone who has mastered the art of ingratiating wilful ignorance. While Nat and Tony are perpetually frustrated trying to ‘change the story to fit reality’, Rhonda and Jim exuberantly work to ‘change reality to fit their stories’. Tony is CEO. His protégé Nat is second in command. But it’s Jim and Rhonda who have gained and are keeping control of the organisation, which matches the last aspect of Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

Why Bureaucracies Still Function

It’s fair to ask how, given the iron law, bureaucracies still manage to function. I think one reason is implicit in Pournelle’s remarks. Employees dedicated to the bureaucracy’s goal may lose control over the organisation. But they’re never entirely eliminated. The Rhondas and Jims of the world know the place wouldn’t function without competent doers like Tony and Nat. They’re still needed to make their utopian projects a reality.

That said, conflict is inevitable. Tony is always on the brink of resigning while Nat is perpetually tormented by human resources. Despite his exasperation, Tony’s unceasing sense of duty and hope seems to keep him at the agency. Actor Rob Sitch once explained his character’s backstory: Before heading the NBA, Tony had left the public service and vowed to never return. Until Jim convinced him to change his mind. This time, Jim promised, it would be different.

Closing Thoughts

How do kafkaesque bureaucracies become “immune to their own mistakes”? By abandoning the organisation’s mission and making sure nobody disturbs them in their land of make-believe. If Utopia is anything to go by, Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy is a scarily accurate way of looking at government dysfunction.

Watching the series you cannot shake the feeling that it’s a documentary masquerading as a parody. The episode about building Tasmanians a pointless stadium aired in 2014. A decade later, the real Australian government finally found an excuse to build Hobart an arena at taxpayers’ expense. Tasmania is getting its own Aussie Rules Football team.