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Stupid Rules

Entry 2049, on 2020-06-24 at 15:46:21 (Rating 4, Comments)

Regular readers of this blog will know that I often cogitate on the reasons why we have so many dysfunctional and inefficient systems in place. These systems range from simple rules to hugely complex institutions, and their degree of sub-optimality seems fairly constant, with the bigger instances seeming to be much worse then the more minor ones simply through scale.

I have various theories on why things are run so poorly. One is that the people making the decisions are both arrogant and ignorant as a result of the Dunning-Kruger Effect (see "Too Stupid to Know" from 2018-08-21). Another is that most promotion strategies reward exactly the wrong type of person. And another is that no big organisation can ever run efficiently simply because of its size and complexity.

Now it's time for an example, so it's time to hear from my friend Fred (not his real name) again, who works in a large organisation in a similar role to me. Here's an interesting little tale he recently told me...

This story happened during the later stages of New Zealand's COVID lockdown, when the worst of the effects of the pandemic had been overcome, and the country was starting to return to normal, while still partaking in a significant amount of paranoia.

Fred was required to visit an academic organistion which was physically located next to the public hospital. He would normally have entered the building directly and had to walk maybe 10 or 20 meters to get to the office he needed to visit. But while approaching the usual entry to the building he was intercepted by an officious looking individual in a high-vis vest.

This person told him that the entrance was closed for health and safety reasons, and that he needed to access the building through the hospital's main entrance, where visitors were being processed in a way designed to reduce the spread of the virus.

So Fred proceeded to the main entrance, where he entered a crowded foyer with many people milling about aimlessly; some patients and some visitors. He waited around for a while to try to get a clue about what to do, but nothing was very clear, so he just walked confidently through a space which said "staff only". No one seemed to notice so he continued looking for a way to get to the other building.

There was no obvious entrance to the stairs, so Fred had to take the lift, which was limited to 2 people at a time. So after waiting in a small crowd near the lift he ascended to the next floor with one other person. Arriving at the floor he needed he couldn't remember the exact path to the area he needed to get to, so he talked to a person at a nearby reception desk.

After being given instructions, which turned out to be wrong, he finally found a corridor which lead to the other building. This involved a journey of about 200 meters past various medical facilities, waiting rooms, etc.

So, finally he arrived at the department he needed to be at.

Clearly this was a horribly inefficient process, which wasted 10 minutes of his time and involved a detour of about 300 meters, but things were far worse than just that. Fred estimates he came within 2 meters of at least 50 people on that extended perambulation, and many of those were of unknown health status. Of course, considering they were in a hospital it is not unreasonable to expect that some of them, at least, might have been quite sick!

The alternative would have meant contact with probably no people at all, and any which were encountered would be academics - not patients - who were more likely to be reasonably healthy. Not only that, but there was no check at all as he entered the hospital. After lurking for a few minute he just walked in without being challenged by anyone.

Now I'm sure the genius who invented this system thought it was a good idea. Ensuring everyone went through official checks is exactly the sort of officious but superficial solution we would expect from people with plenty of ideas they feel are good, but no practical thoughts regarding how the world really works. In fact, what was achieved was the opposite of the original intention. By walking so far, past so many potentially sick people, instead of just going directly to an academic's office (who was far less likely to be afflicted with the virus), Fred increased the chance of COVID infection by orders of magnitude.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Rules like this exist everywhere, achieving the exact opposite of what they are intended to do, or at the very least resulting in many cases of unintended consequences. But nothing ever gets better because there is no mechanism to fix these problems. The leaders don't want feedback, because then they might need to admit they were wrong. They are far happier sitting in their ivory towers, pretending everything is OK, while those who disagree are just rejected as being unable to accept change.

It's hard to prove this one way or the other, but I suspect no rules at all would be better than most of the stupid rules the bureaucrats put in place. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm too anarchistic. I freely admit anarchy can't work. But bad bureaucratic systems don't work either. There must be a better way for society to control itself. What it is, I don't know, but I'd love to hear some suggestions.

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Comment 1 (5327) by Anonymous on 2020-06-24 at 19:57:23:

Obviously it is not the rules that are put in place that are the problem.
It is the failure of those putting the rules in place to ensure the necessary staff are informed about what is required and see that they (the staff can) practically carry out the rules effectively. I think we are seeing the same effect at present with the rules surrounding people put in isolation. Nobody seems to know what is required (the people making the rules are not effectively setting up staff and advising them just what is required, and then policing the situation to see those rules are carried out))

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Comment 2 (5328) by OJB on 2020-06-24 at 21:38:19:

Well, I don't think that is obvious at all. An equally good (or better) explanation is that the rules were just stupid, and no level of explanation would have made them any better. I agree that your explanation is also possible: maybe what Fred saw wasn't an inevitable result of the rules, and they would have worked really well if they had been follow properly. But I doubt it.

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