Coping with Bureaucracy

(Originally published July 2017)

Given the omnipresence of bureaucracy in public and private human service agencies, an interested observer might wonder why experienced child welfare staff would waste energy struggling against bureaucratic approaches to practice and management. Why not accept bureaucracies for what they are, i.e., rule governed hierarchies used to implement top-down management of organizations, instead of seeking to circumvent or temporarily impede bureaucratic tendencies? Some experienced child welfare staff follow this prescription to the letter by shaping their actions and even their thoughts to the service of policy manuals, rigid application of rules, deference to the chain of command regardless of its dictates, obsessive interest in case records and a virtual reality created by computerized management information systems and a distaste for critical questions regarding the rationale for agency policies. Every large organization has a cadre of dedicated bureaucrats who conform their actions, and sometimes their thoughts as well, to organizational requirements, regardless of context or results. Sometimes, these “dyed in the wool” bureaucrats steadily rise in an organizational hierarchy, especially when they are able to combine rigid adherence to rules with personal loyalty to a manager above them in the hierarchy. For these individuals, it is always of interest to discover what happens when rigid adherence to agency rules conflicts with loyalty to a powerful manager.


However, most experienced child welfare staff are likely to have an uneasy relationship with bureaucratic practices that harm caseworkers and supervisors and that make it increasingly difficult to work effectively with children and parents. First and foremost, policy and procedural manuals steadily expand in public service bureaucracies to the point that even experienced staff who welcome rule structures cannot usually keep track of program requirements, much less follow these requirements to the letter. To their credit, some child welfare agencies periodically undertake initiatives to reduce their requirements in policy and procedural manuals. However, as soon as these initiatives end, agency manuals once again resume their implacable growth. It is as difficult to reduce policy and procedural frameworks in child welfare agencies as it is to cut back and curb the growth of blackberry bushes!


Why is it so difficult to stop the growth of prescriptive frameworks in public child welfare systems even when it's apparent to practitioners that increasing the size of these frameworks is self defeating? One reason is that the federal government, state legislatures, child advocates and top managers believe that changing policy and adopting new policies is the royal road to child welfare reform. If child welfare systems are failing to protect children, complete permanent plans in a timely way, recruit and retain foster parents, stabilize children in foster care or achieve any number of other desirable goals, policymakers and advocates assume the best way to improve practice is to pass new laws, develop new policies and require more of x, y and z in child welfare practice. An additional reason is that the views of caseworkers and supervisors are often not considered or even asked for when contemplating child welfare reform. In bureaucratic frameworks, practitioners are viewed as tools through which to consistently implement a policy framework, not a group of professionals whose views must be considered by policymakers and child welfare managers, and whose support is deemed essential to reform initiatives.  


How do child welfare practitioners cope with ever expanding prescriptive requirements in law and policy? A common strategy is to “read” middle and top manger's concerns and focus and to adjust attention and effort to those policies and procedures most likely to be closely monitored. However, this strategy sometimes backfires when auditors or external reviewers evaluate compliance with policies that have been ignored or given erratic attention in recent years, or when new managers demand reviews of agency practices that were not a priority to the management team that was just replaced.


Management teams may decide to broaden their focus and use quality assurance staff to measure compliance with a wide range of agency requirements, but too broad a focus reduces the likelihood that performance indicators in key areas will improve significantly. Furthermore, when managers make unreasonable demands on caseworkers and supervisors over lengthy periods of time, they increase the possibility that line units will “game” practice requirements through various shortcuts, for example by driving by a parent's home and calling the “drive by” a home visit. There was a recent story from another state (not Washington, Oregon or Idaho) in which caseworkers acknowledged widespread use of fraudulent recording practices to accommodate a demanding practice model which was wasting hours of their time in documentation of each investigation.


Tort attorneys in Washington State have warned a succession of child welfare managers for at least two decades that continuing to expand policy and procedural requirements increases exposure to liability for non-compliance when children in open child welfare cases are severely harmed. These warnings have been heeded temporarily, only to be ignored when persistent pressure from influential advocates demands adoption of “best practices”. The insistent demand to add to policy and procedural requirements is a part of the bureaucratic DNA of public child welfare systems; not even large tort judgments have been able to contravene powerful political pressure to improve child welfare combined with the implicit rarely questioned belief that changes in law and policy are the most effective ways to shape child welfare practice. Rule #1:  even under extreme pressure from advocates, resist the steady expansion of policy and procedural requirements.


Discouraging Initiative and Innovation Not Directed from the Top


Compliance with steadily expanding prescriptive requirements leaves little time and energy for

individual initiative and innovation at the unit and community level. Local initiative and innovation are viewed suspiciously by managers of large public service bureaucracies who seek to achieve statewide consistency of practice rather than adaptability to local conditions, flexibility or creativity. Innovators, by definition, attempt to develop new and better ways of achieving organizational goals and, in doing so, increase the differences in practice among units, offices and regions. For this reason, top managers often dislike and discourage local experiments, pilots, and drawn out implementation of practice models. Rule #2: seek statewide consistency in child protection and child welfare services as an aspirational goal; encourage local innovation and initiative that serves the agency mission. In reality, consistency of practice is rarely achieved in state child welfare systems due to large differences in community resources and in the organizational cultures of local and regional offices. Furthermore, child welfare systems that adopt ambitious reform initiatives but are resistant to experimental pilots risk making huge investments of limited resources in practice models and programs which are virtually DOA due to the lack of commitment of key agency staff.


The most devastating (possibly) unintended consequence of managerial practices that discourage individual initiative and local innovation is to undermine the development of professional commitment and competence of caseworkers, supervisors and middle managers. Taking action, exercising initiative and engaging in small and large creative experiments is how practitioners become effective professionals with a strong commitment to agency goals. Self confidence and self efficacy are developed through risk taking and active skill development, not through rule following and waiting for direction from agency managers. Rule #3: reward risk taking and local innovation through small grants to units and offices;  periodically recognize and promote local promising practices in regional and statewide conferences and in agency publications.


Giving “Voice” to Caseworkers, Supervisors and Middle Managers


One of the most peculiar characteristics of large public service bureaucracies is that managers with the least contact with children and families have (by far) the largest influence on agency policy and access to the Governor's staff and legislators, while experienced practitioners who interact daily with families served by the agency have little or no influence on policy and no access to policymakers. Furthermore, top managers may not have ever worked in child welfare or were caseworkers and supervisors decades ago. Their knowledge of child welfare is often quite limited. In these circumstances, a child welfare director may depend on a small number of

knowledgeable program managers for information and understanding of line work.


© 2020 by Dee Wilson Consulting. Proudly created with