How bureaucracy works

Listen up, kids, because you might learn something here. This is where we give you some valuable analytical tools.

Non-Catholics often find Catholic politics completely impenetrable in that, even if the media get the actual facts of a story right, they don’t have the background knowledge to make sense of the information. This is assuming the best of intentions and ignoring for the sake of argument those people with a habit of serial misinterpretation or, alternatively, making stuff up. That’s why you get this disconnect where Catholics watching Newsnight or reading the Guardian feel that they’re getting this discussion of another “Catholic Church” in a parallel universe. And don’t even start me on Liberal Conspiracy.

But, before I head off into a rant, there’s another side to this, in that Catholics are often baffled and bemused by Church affairs. Even well-informed, attentive Catholics who know there’s such a thing as the Magic Circle find themselves scratching their heads at the bizarre and inexplicable things the Magic Circle does. Whereas if you have the right analytical tools (like a knowledge of bureaucratic organisations) a lot of what seems inexplicable at first sight turns out to be absolutely bog-standard.

Let us take as our case study the Catholic Education Service. As luck would have it, CES is very much topical in the Catholic press at the moment, as many Catholic schools are showing interest in Michael Gove’s academies scheme as a way of escaping the dead hand of CES. It’s also the case that, regardless of what you think about academies, Oona Stannard has vastly exceeded her remit in her anti-academies campaigning, and not for the first time. But here’s an interesting question – who is Oona Stannard’s line manager? Technically, I suppose, it would be Bishop Malcolm McMahon, the BCEW’s point man on education, but I suggest it is not very likely that +Malcy will be eager to crack the whip. He’s never struck me as having anything of the Simon Legree about him.

Anyway, you may remember some years ago there was a big stink in the press when a bunch of dangerous criminals were released early and went on to commit serious crimes. Who had authorised their release? Was it a minister, a Home Office official, someone in the Prison Service? Had they been through proper parole hearings? In fact it turned out that these dangerous crims hadn’t been released on anyone’s instructions; they’d been released by a computer programme, so it wasn’t anyone’s fault. Nice one.

The logic of bureaucracy will be a familiar one if you’ve ever had dealings with CES. Let’s say you have a concern about the content of lessons in your local school. You talk to your head teacher, and she tells you that she’s just a functionary carrying out the policies of the diocese and CES. Since you feel strongly on the subject, you contact your diocesan bishop. He tells you that, while of course he has a pastoral concern for all the schools in his diocese, detailed educational matters are up to CES and you should really talk to them.

So then you contact CES, which is a trial in itself. After having your call transferred multiple times and having to spend hours listening to “Greensleeves”, you eventually get a human being on the other end of the phone. You put your question, and are told that (a) CES does not comment on individual schools, and (b) in any case, CES does not make policy but is simply an executive agency responsible to the Bishops’ Conference.

At this point you may give up or, if you’re really enterprising, you might contact Malcolm McMahon. If you do, then it’s a fair bet that +Malcy will tell you he’s not a micromanager and you should really direct your questions to CES.

You may think this sounds very much like a system where nobody is responsible for anything, and you would be right. You may suspect this opacity is deliberate, and I would have to agree with you. You may wonder why they haven’t just developed a computer programme to do this, and all I can tell you is that CES have been struggling valiantly with the problem, but are having trouble getting their Sinclair ZX81 to cooperate.

Here’s something else, the appointment of former Labour MP Greg Pope as deputy director of CES. Those people kicking up about Mr Pope’s voting record on abortion and such may have a point, but it’s not necessarily the most interesting point.

The pertinent question would be, was there a pre-existing deputy director’s position? I don’t think there was. So did the Magic Circle create a feudal appanage for Greg Pope out of the goodness of their hearts? I think not.

The appointment of a deputy to the blessed Oona is a recognition by the bishops that there is in fact an Oona Stannard problem. But how do they respond to that problem? By reverting to the same instincts that come into play whenever they have to respond to a problem, by (a) throwing money at the problem and (b) finding a politician to suck up to. This is what I mean by a bureaucratic organisation, with its own ingrown culture, developing its own internal logic. And what seems at first sight to be bizarre turns out to be quite explicable.

Actually, I blame Hume for a lot of this. But that’s another story…


  1. Greg Lawrence said,

    August 8, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    When you say you blame Hume, do you mean Basil? Or David?

  2. Mark P said,

    August 9, 2010 at 2:03 am

    I’ve lost track of the various dissident groupings. Some of them seem to have decided to be awkward and break with the usual naming scheme, which is very inconvenient when you are trying to work out which group is up to what.

    There’s the CIRA, although as there was a split in RSF I suppose it’s possible that there was an armed split too.

    There’s the RIRA and as I understand it a second group calling itself the RIRA.

    There’s the ONH.

    There is a South Derry Independent Republican Unit, or possibly was as I haven’t heard anything about them in a few years.

    There’s the RAAD.

    Then you have the groups which don’t have armed groups, Eirigi and the post-INLA IRSP.

    This may be garbled however. Can anyone who knows better set me right?

    • Mark P said,

      August 9, 2010 at 3:09 pm

      How did I manage to post that as a comment to this post? It should have been a comment on the “Sons of Anarchy” post, obviously.

  3. HAL said,

    August 9, 2010 at 2:27 am

    Its been suggested that these Kafkaesque machinations of the CES can be traced back to the circular aspect of the rosary beads and the stations of the cross.Rev Koskov my local priest has suggested its to do with the mixed messages/pennance received in the confessional and church go’ers wondering if the confessor actually can forgive, nobody is sure anymore and although Vatican 2 is blamed by many, the upcomming announcements expected by the Holy Father during his visit and his recent chat with Oona Stannard should clarify things.

  4. Chris Williams said,

    August 9, 2010 at 9:31 am

    The precise way that (if true) accountability fails to work in Catholic schools is almost exactly the same to the way that it wholly failed to work in British police forces between 1964 and 2002, and very similar to the way that it usually fails to work now: up to a certain level, the issue is too important to consider, then over that level, it’s too trivial. The only level at which it can be considered is by the people about whom you are complaining. Job done!

    This leads me to muse: how much of this assemblage is a unique property of CES, and how much a propety of C20th bureaucratic norms?

  5. mundabor said,

    August 9, 2010 at 10:47 am

    “By reverting to the same instincts that come into play whenever they have to respond to a problem, by (a) throwing money at the problem and (b) finding a politician to suck up to.”

    This truly sums it up and also provides some answers.

    When responsibilities are not clear, it is because there is a will at the top that this be so or an inability to provide that is be otherwise; cowardice and incompetence are never computer-generated.

    We Italians say “il pesce puzza dalla testa”: the fish stinks from the head down.

    Every competence problem is a leadership problem.


  6. The Sanctimonious One said,

    August 9, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    The same analysis could usefully be applied to the NCSC/CSAS set-up and to pretty much anything that goes on under the auspices of the CBCEW. These agencies are the last bastion of the mediocre.

    Mundabor has got it spot-on: this is really a crisis of leadership. If the trumpet sounds an uncertain note, who will answer the call?

  7. Recuso said,

    August 9, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    “il pesce puzza dalla testa”:

    You don’t realise just how apt this is. The CES in the Dead See endorses some strange arrangements involving the separated brethern and the objectively disordered.

  8. invocante said,

    August 10, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    The third of Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics is:

    “3.The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.”

    Once Conquest’s Third Law is grasped the behaviour of the Magic Circle and th eChurch Hierarchy beomes fully explicable!

  9. Danny said,

    August 10, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    Some people just find Catholic Church politics just not that interesting, just a bit of feedback

    • August 10, 2010 at 11:07 pm

      Obviously you found it interesting enough to comment about how it wasn’t interesting.

      • Danny said,

        August 11, 2010 at 6:35 pm

        No not really.

        As someone brought up in a working class Catholic environment in the west of scotland I even have some interest in what might be called ‘Catholic culture’, but the internal politics of the church have always been alien to me.

        I’m still checking this blog on a daily basis to see if there’s anything interesting to socialists.

        I wouldnt want that to be confused by the visitor statistics as a level of interest, as if this emphasis continues I’m going to stop reading it soon.

        Obviously SS can blog about whatever they like, and maybe there is a audience for a Catholic ‘insider’ blog, but I wont be reading it, which is a shame for me as I used to enjoy the posts here.

    • August 13, 2010 at 3:55 am

      I don’t see how all this isn’t “interesting to socialists”, as it concerns the inner workings of a rather large and influential Ideological State Apparatus. Everything about how people relate to one another under capitalism should be interesting to socialists. Actually, as a socialist I find it much more interesting than gossip from the increasingly irrelevant groupuscles – but then, many socialists seem to think that that’s what’s important.

  10. Danny said,

    August 13, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    Well socialists are interested in everything, but to different degrees I’d suggest.

    One or two articles on the internal politics of the Catholic hierarchy, might have been interesting to me, Catholic atheist that I am, but its now the main purpose of the blog.

    This is not an attack on anyone, surely its ok to give a bit of feedback without getting into an argument, and good luck to anyone who enjoys reading it. I just dont anymore.

  11. robert said,

    August 13, 2010 at 11:36 pm

    yes these Catholic posts are becoming too much of a good thing. There always used to be the occasional post on Catholicism but the blog used to vary its repetoire with posts on the left, Ireland, popular culture etc. Lets hope once the Pope’s visit is over our host decides to give it a rest.

  12. shane said,

    August 13, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    It must be unenviably difficult for Splinty to cater to both his old readership (broadly Marxist) and his new readership (broadly not-so-Marxist). Surely this blog must be one of the most internally diverse (both in posts and the comment boxes) in the blogosphere?

    • August 14, 2010 at 7:54 am

      Ah, if only the Marxist and the Catholic commenters were, in fact, “broad”.

  13. Garibaldy said,

    August 14, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Speaking of bureaucracy, what is going on with charging people £25 to see the Pope? I find this utterly and completely contemptible, and frankly unbelievable that they would do this. Big Ian has a field day

    • shane said,

      August 14, 2010 at 4:28 pm

      It’s the English hierarchy who are making people pay. But even with the ‘pilgrim tax’ this is still going to leave them in debt for decades, lol. Believe it or not the bishops of England and Wales are still paying for John Paul II’s visit in 1982.

      There was a robust debate about this on Fr Z’s blog a few weeks ago.

      • Garibaldy said,

        August 14, 2010 at 4:39 pm

        Thanks for that Shane. These people should be ashamed of themselves. Behaving like the money lenders more than like Jesus. Especially given how many Catholics in Britain now are low-paid workers from eastern Europe, £25 could represent a significant part of a day’s work (apart from possibly missing work to attend). Shameful and disgusting, whether on the basis of secular or religious morality. Especially when that church sits on so much wealth in buildings, valuable metal etc.

      • The Sanctimonious One said,

        August 14, 2010 at 5:11 pm

        Shane, there isn’t a single diocese in England and Wales still paying for the 1982 visit. A number of dioceses paid their share almost immediately.

      • shane said,

        August 14, 2010 at 5:32 pm

        The whole visit is a dog’s dinner. I suspect Gordon Brown thought the papal invitation would help shore up Labour’s Catholic vote. Brown, who is of course the son of a Church of Scotland minister, also presented the Pope with a book of his father’s sermons – which, I think it’s safe to say, is hardly likely to end up in the Vatican Library any time soon.

        There’s also chaos beginning to emerge about tickets already booked for Birmingham. The site for beatifying Cardinal Newman has been changed from Coventry Airport (yes…you read that correctly…an airport) to Cofton Park (formerly known as Austin and Rover Car Factory) because the costs were running out of control. Only a few weeks ago the organizers hadn’t been able to confirm any of the venues scheduled; the British government had to step in at the last moment. Some elderly people are now worried about problems getting to the event, even though they’ve already got tickets. This letter was reproduced on the Telegraph blogs

        Dear Lord Patten,

        I am writing to ask for your assistance, please, on an important matter relating to the forthcoming Papal Visit. Specifically, this is about the Mass of Beatification at Cofton Park on 19 September.

        Our parish priest has asked me to be the co-ordinator (Pilgrim Leader) for the Parish for the Papal Visit.

        The difficulty is that we have been told that pilgrims will have to walk for about a mile from where their coach drops them off to the site of the ceremony. This has put off the more elderly (and, in most cases) more devout members of our parish from attending, including our two fairly aged priests, one of whom is over 80.

        I would imagine this difficulty is reflected across all parishes in the country and that a large number of people will feel excluded, because of this hurdle. The purpose of this letter is to ask you, please, to find a way for coaches to drop off and collect pilgrims from the site of the Beatification Mass. I imagine the logistics involved will be immense, but believe it can be done.

      • shane said,

        August 14, 2010 at 5:34 pm

        TSO, thanks for the clarification. Austen Ivereigh made that claim on his (Jesuit) America magazine blog:

        “The costs of Pope John Paul II’s 1982 visit are still being paid off by the Church of England and Wales. The organisers do not want to see the same happening again.”

  14. Maria said,

    August 16, 2010 at 10:04 am

    In the interests of justice (though I’m certainly not a fan of CES) there was a pre-existing DD post, it’s just been vacant for a while. Also I’d suggest what you would categorise as CES passing the buck, is in fact the local school/Bishop passing the buck – CES can’t actually tell schools to do anything. The problem goes much further than CES and takes in the whole Catholic education establishment in this country.

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