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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sennett on bureaucratic respect....

Sennett's treatment of "bureaucratic respect" (chapter 6 in Respect in a World of Inequality) is one of the stronger and more even handed presentations on the bureaucratic form I have seen lately. As a context for governance, bureaucracies are quite capable of functioning as a means for providing order when the emerging political economy required it, and it emerged initially as a means of enhancing a sense of belonging and respect of a type which we now view with contempt (e.g., Whyte's Organization Man). Its potential in those regards are still seen in the self-respect and regulated autonomy provided by military and those few remaining "old economy" corporations (probably more mythical than real since not one example comes to mind).

But as Sennett indicates, the model of bureaucratic respect, even in its heyday, did not apply for long to the governance of social service programs where the assumption of dependency triumphed over the assumption of autonomy when it came to treating those in need or welfare support. He highlights the "riddle" that bureaucratic governance was never quite been able to resolve -- how to provide support while fostering active autonomy for the recipients of welfare.

He follows this discussion of bureaucratic respect with a weak chapter on welfare reform ("liberated welfare") that makes it evident that the anti-bureaucratic model has not been the answer. His metaphor of the "disk" having replaced the pyramid provides little or no insight, and the observations about flat organizations and shorter time horizons prove superficial (he is much better at exploring that in The Corrosion of Character).

However, he does end the chapter with observations about public service workers interviewed in the UK who seem to have retained their sense of self-respect based on the idea of the usefulness of their work -- this despite widespread negative comments about public bureaucracies and programs. But as he points out, this is the self-respect of the craftsperson taking some pride in the work itself rather than in value to the agency or value to the public being served. This was an observation that I thought deserved more follow up -- but alas the chapter ended and I am now hoping it gets picked up in the final chapters of Respect....

More to come....

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