Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Servants in charge

with one comment

A recurring problem is that those supposed to perform work on behalf of someone else, after a sufficiently long time, end up being in charge of that someone else and/or that the authority vested in them takes on its on life and wanders from the vester to the vestee.

Consider a “democratic” state developing into one of the modern “we the politicians” (or, worse, “we the civil servants”) instead of the “we the people” that once was intended, or a true monarchy developing into a pro-forma monarchy with all power resting with the erstwhile advisors and executors.* Consider the shift of power from elected politicians to bureaucracies and government agencies. Consider how mere administrators often end up being those in charge, as with e.g. the typical college or university, or within many businesses or individual departments and teams within a business.** Consider staff at an old-people’s home behaving like they are in charge of the residents instead of being “the help”. Etc.

*Whether this development is a bad thing in the case of a monarchy is open to debate, and might well depend on the individuals involved at any given time, but it does fit the general pattern of gradually shifting power very well. (Also note some of the below and an excursion on etymology.)

**Here, unfortunately, the swing is so large that it is often taken for granted that the administrator is supposed to be in charge, and where a degree in e.g. business administration might be worth more than one relating to the field at hand for the chances of being put in charge.

To get some idea, even if in a highly over-simplified manner, assume that someone is given the authority in an office to make schedules, handle vacation requests, etc. These are basic tasks of coordination that do not require “true” decision making around how the business is conducted externally (e.g. with whom a contract is made on what conditions) or internally (e.g., for a software business, what features should be implemented and how). However, these tasks still bring some degree of decision-making power, increase the chance of meeting invitations and of having easy access to someone of true power, and also give indirect influence, in that the power can be abused to reward or punish. Moreover, an impression can easily arise that this type of administrator is a “somebody”, despite the choice often originally having been made on a “who can we spare from the real work” basis. Let time pass, and chances are that more influence will drift the way of the administrator, e.g. to pre-filter applicants for jobs and to perform performance evaluations—until such a point that the administrator determines that he is the boss. Worse, such situations can often arise when administrative tasks have rested with a “true” decision maker and are now divested to give him more time to focus on his true work.

Something similar applies in politics, with the difference that a greater block of power is usually delegated—but with a critical point still coming when the helper decides that he is the one in charge. Consider e.g. the drift from monarchs as active rulers with mere helpers to, first, monarchs as passive rulers (still with the final word, but only involving themselves in rare circumstances) with ministers-of-this and lords-of-that to handle most of the actual ruling, and to, second, figureheads subordinate to the erstwhile helpers. Similarly, consider many situations from “Yes, Minister” where it is clear that “Sir Humphrey”, the civil servant, sees himself as in charge and “Jim Hacker”, the elected politician, as a mere unfortunate obstacle to work around. (Of course, neither cared that much for the will and the weal of the voters.)

A particularly perfidious case is when the influence of the individual is lost through an intermediary layer, as with a typical democracy, as with a share-holders’ meeting, or as with an organisation like the local PTA, home-owners association, or similar. Looking e.g. at my own situation with building management (BM) and Wohnungseigentümergemeinschaft* (WEG), which forms an excellent analogy for how democracy fails on a country level: The presence of the WEG makes each individual apartment owner powerless against the BM (which, in my case, happens to be incompetent and/or corrupt): the BM formally works for the WEG and is paid by the WEG, while we owners are members of the WEG and pay a monthly fee to the WEG. If I am dissatisfied, I cannot fire the BM, not even with regard to just my own apartment. I cannot shorten the monthly payments, because I nominally pay to the WEG, not the BM. I cannot, without considerable effort, lobby within the group, because there are no mailing lists, most members do not themselves live in the building,** and the yearly meeting is controlled by the BM, which invites, sets the agenda,*** chairs, and, very importantly, determines the location**** of the meeting. Then there is the issue that many owners do not bother to show up to the yearly meeting, at all, and merely give a signed power-of-attorney and some instructions to the BM… Of course, the BM also controls what information is given to the owners when it comes to voting and can angle the information so that the de-facto decision by the BM becomes the de-jure decision of the WEG. If in doubt, most of the other owners have so far appeared to be intellectually limited, poorly informed, and easily led by the BM—the BM sees the duty of the WEG as rubber-stamping BM decisions and too many of the owners appear to agree. For all practical purposes, the hired help, the BM, is in charge, while we owners are next to powerless. The similarity with the often highly un- or anti-democratic system used to rule a typical nominal democracy is almost spooky. On the upside, the BM has hitherto never tried to allow non-owners a vote; on the downside, there is no choice between different BM-candidates every few years, which makes it all that harder to replace a poor BM with another.

*Roughly, “apartment owner association”. All the owners of apartments in the house are members and it is nominally the decision making entity for the house.

**Instead, renting to others.

***This includes one-sidedly ignoring several suggestions made by me, which were thus never on the agenda and never put to a vote by the nominal decision maker, the WEG.

****No, the meeting is not held in the house, nor in the vicinity of the house, but, and likely deliberately, quite far away. The last time around, about an hour ahead of the meeting, I checked for the best way to get to the latest location—and found that it would take me around that hour, with a mixture of walking, train, and bus. In effect, I had the choice between missing the meeting and grabbing a taxi. (I chose the former. I grant that I should have checked this sooner, but it never occurred to me that such a ridiculous distance was on the table, even after prior years.)

Excursion on monarchy to democracy shifts:
The situation is often complicated by a shift from some form of monarchy to some form of democracy, often (as with some current European countries) leading to a half-and-half situation with a monarch as head of state and an elected (or “elected”) politician as head of government. Here, no-one might care about the monarch (in terms of politics) because the source of power is the people, and too few care about the people as the politicians and the civil servants were in charge long before the people became relevant.

Excursion on “nominal” and “nominally”:
Have I used these words often above? Not as often as they deserve to. The core of the overall problem is that X should be in charge but that Y is, and often in exactly the constellation that X holds the nominal power but the true power resides with Y. Indeed, in e.g. the previous excursion, I had to hold myself back not to say “nominal[ly]” once or twice per sentence.

Excursion on etymology and drifts over time:
Etymology can give many clues to things going wrong. The word “minister”, e.g., effectively means servant, while “administrator” goes back to the same root. In parallel, “secretary” is etymologically related to “secret” and likely implied someone within confidence, but has since often been used even for very powerful persons, including as an equivalent of “minister” in the governmental sense.* The root of “chancellor” goes back to something like a door-keeper. A marshal once took care of horses. Etc.

*While the old use as roughly “assistant” is disappearing, with exactly “assistant” taking its place. Even in the past, however, secretaries could be immensely powerful by granting or not granting access to the person assisted, by whispering the right things in his ear, etc.


Written by michaeleriksson

November 17, 2022 at 11:23 pm

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] with my recent text on servants in charge, a major problem is that government budgets and whatnots are often given priority over everything […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: