Do we need hierarchies: In government and beyond?

Charles Darwin, in 1832, while traveling in South America, encountered some indigenous tribes and termed them as ‘miserable’. The sentiment was triggered by what he experienced in the Continent, impoverishment to name it. Interestingly, the reason he mentioned for the appalling situation was their ‘egalitarian society’. When responsibilities and duties are not divided, one expects each individual living in the territory to be their ‘best self’ and take care of each other, without being reprimanded if one fails to do so. Darwin’s conviction that hierarchies are necessary for groups to function and thrive opened an area of research, which many later dwelled deep into. Over time, much emphasis has been laid on the ‘Equality’. We have read about how class culture was challenged in the West. The revolutions and protests were aimed at dismantling the hegemony of the nobility. Rightly so, the idea of striving for an egalitarian society was tagged as ‘utopian’. In the present day, society is stratified according to the access to wealth, resources, power and status. What would be the reasons that make it so tough to shift from a hierarchical society to an egalitarian society? The answer, in my view, is people themselves. Nobody ultimately wants to eliminate hierarchies, literally. We all benefit from it since its existence is ‘relative’ in nature. So, no matter who you are, you would fall somewhere within the ladder. Yet, it is difficult to accept it, forget praising it. Moving on from societies, let’s look at the systems and structures that govern societies. Both private and public organizations have intact hierarchies, based on which the establishment functions. Many researchers, in the past, have investigated the underlining relationship between hierarchies and productivity in organizations. I am particularly interested in how hierarchies play their part in Government set-ups and if at all it enhances or negatively affects productivity. The ubiquitous nature of hierarchies in public administration (the action arm of Democratic Government in the country) gives an impression, that the answer is ‘yes’. If hierarchies exist, so clearly, across the various organs of the government, are we convinced that this is the most effective way of getting deliverables on time? Is there any other way? Have we really explored the options? The substitute of a hierarchical construct would be a flat structure. Henri Fayol, touted as the founder of modern management methodology promulgated Scalar Chain and Unity of Command, out of the 14 Principles of Management. It emphasized the importance of superior-subordinate relation in an organization and receiving orders from one boss only. Soon after, Marx criticized Max Weber’s explanation of the importance of hierarchies in the bureaucratic setup. Marx elaborated ‘the hierarchy of bureaucracy is the hierarchy of knowledge. The superior knows the specifics and the staff knows the generic part. There are rarely times when there is an overlapping of the two’. Weber and Marx, both had starkly different opinions but here I would like to share what my experience has been, after working so closely in the last three years. Bureaucratic hierarchies are a subset of how hierarchies exist, flourish and replicate in the society, in general. The ones in the position of power, at the top of the ladder, talk about ideas like rule of law, equal treatment, fairness, decentralization, collaborative participation, inclusiveness, shared norms. But what they ensure in their routine working is efficiency, accountability, transparency and timely deliverables. Even if they are not great at ensuring the success of the latter, the bureaucrats don’t blame hierarchy as a reason for it. One, because they are its prime beneficiaries and secondly it suits the narrative of ‘hierarchy being a means to keep things or people in ‘order’. This reminds me of the concept of ‘Legal-Rational Authority’ given by Weber, where he talks about how power, authority, and hierarchy once embedded legally in the organizational structure, can mitigate dissent. The government does not just delegate responsibilities and duties, which go hand in hand with the existing hierarchal structures, but it also gives it ‘pervasive’ powers rather than’ domain-specific ones’. Hierarchies become problematic when they are generalized, and domination becomes universalized in nature. Like, say, how political power cuts across all sections of societies and classes and creates its hegemony. It wouldn’t be a hyperbole that bureaucratic hierarchies have also evolved in the same manner. I have had numerous experiences in the last few years, where I was convinced that the staff person (say the field officer) had a better understanding of a subject like Open Defecation than the administrator. Hierarchies and seniorities come in the way of taking the decision by these domain experts. It is bizarre that the Director of the Women & Child Development who has been posted to the Dept. couple of months back is expected to guide people who have been serving in the very same domain past 25 years. Having said that, in the government structure, hierarchy often comes along with the delay in decision making and centralization of power. And playing the devil’s advocate, the government employees also lack imitativeness and wait for orders from their superiors as their risk taking ability is quite low. Hierarchy, in the governments, fulfills the deep need of order and security, other than bestowing the power to expedite timely deliverables. In the long run, hierarchies add structure and regularity to the mammoth government institutions. It assigns roles, duties, and responsibilities and inherently has the tendency to incentivize. Also, practically speaking, it also prevents the accumulation of power. In terms of growth, it provides a clear indicator of how far we have come from the baseline and how fast we are climbing the ladder. Clerks know exactly when they would be becoming the Head of Accounts staff, and how much they need to put in to achieve the feat. This clarity, is often, criticized in the Government. Because if one knows the exact ‘when’ and ‘how’ of climbing the ladder, there are no surprises. It is difficult to push the employee beyond a point, imbibe risk taking abilities and seek performance-based hikes when everyone knows the hierarchies are established, and due promotions are entrenched in the system. So, maybe Darwin was right. Egalitarian societies and structures can be aspired for, within the hierarchical structures.

Sanyukta Sharma
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Sanyukta works on Public Policy & Communication Strategy with Chief Minister's Office, Government of Haryana. Earlier she was a research associate with IIM Ahmedabad, Chief Minister's Good Governance Associate and Project Associate - Health and Social Policy, Harvard Project for Asian & International Relations.