Good versus evil: A comparative book review

Russell L. Ackoff and Sheldon Rovin. Beating the System: Using Creativity to Outsmart Bureaucracies. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2005, 144 pages, $14.95 softcover, ISBN: 978-1-57675-330-9.

Charles T. Goodsell. The Case for Bureaucracy: A Public Administration Polemic. Washington, DC: CQ Press/Sage, 2004, 208 pages, $33.81 softcover, ISBN: 978-1-56802-907-8.

Good versus evil is a dichotomy present in religion, ethics, philosophy, and in the case of both authors under review in this piece, government, more specifically bureaucracies. This juxtaposition has developed so that today good is a broad concept but it typically deals with an association with life, charity, continuity, happiness, love and justice; while evil is typically associated with conscious and deliberate wrongdoing, discrimination designed to harm others, dehumanizing humiliation, destructiveness, and acts of unnecessary and/or indiscriminate violence (Amy, n.d.).

We all know the case against bureaucracy. Just say the word to yourself and consider the images it evokes. Massive waste. Inefficiency. Poor service. Ever-growing organizations. Mindless rules. Reams of useless forms. The term “bureaucrat” also comes loaded with a whole host of negative connotations: lazy, hostile, overpaid, imperious, and inflexible. In short, bureaucracy and bureaucrats are unmitigated bad things – with absolutely no redeeming qualities. Most criticisms of government bureaucracy are based more on myth than reality. These agencies actually play a valuable and indispensable role in making our society a better place to live.

According to the authors of Beating the System: Using Creativity to Outsmart Bureaucracies, “countless numbers of people are being abused and mistreated by too many organizations and bureaucracies.” The authors wish to motivate readers who want to beat abusive systems and suggest ways of thinking that will enable them to do so. Beating systems at an individual level carries with it the possibility of change at a more systemic level, even though the goal has been issued at an individual level.

This book serves primarily as a rallying war cry of “I’m not going to take it anymore” but has secondary uses for system administrators to read and proactively treat bureaucratic red tape. That is, if you can find a proactive government employee.  Beating the System relates to the role of active participation in government from the perspective of the tale of David and Goliath. The appeal of the little guy taking on and overcoming the much larger, stronger, and seemingly unbeatable monolith, the system in the form of Goliath. The authors use this metaphor through the text in similar fashion with each example stressed. Part I describes through crowdsourced examples why systems need to be beaten, understanding systems and creativity, while parts II and III offer stories about people who have beat systems, a summary of why the system should have crumbled under the pressure of a system beater and finally “Rules of Thumb” (Ackoff and Rovin, 2004 p. 4) for the reader to vanquish the very systems reported on in part II. The authors consider these the guidelines to follow whenever one attempts to overcome a system.

Goodsell’s book is composed on the contrary. His thoughts are derived from a core belief: the quality of public service in the United States is vastly underrated (p. xi). His polemic is such that the flaws and the faults of bureaucracy in America are far fewer on a proportionate basis that is generally thought. The thesis of this book is that a wide gap exists between bureaucracy’s repopulation and its record. Despite endless ranting to the contrary, American bureaucracy does work – in fact, quite well (p. 4).

Goodsell’s text also emphasizes the importance of citizen participation. In addition, his text includes the following parts: a condensed history of bureaucracy in America; a discussion of arguments that support and criticize bureaucratic organizations; citizen expectations; collective ‘‘myths’’ associated with government officials; expectations and constraints on bureaucrats refocused; a collection of characteristics and motivations of people who become bureaucrats; finally, it concludes by stating that bureaucracy in the United States is an essential aspect of American society closely related to politics in that citizen participation is the key to preventing abuse or mismanagement.

Goodsell makes the case for bureaucracy in order to reaffirm to citizens that government administration is honest, hardworking, justified and capable of its responsibility. He asserts that while not all bureaucracy in America works well, they are more than outweighed in frequency and importance by instances of dedicated service on behalf of public missions (p. xi). This 2004 version and fourth edition, a reissue of a 1983 classic, previously revised in 1985 and 1994 respectively contains what he calls “new considerations” based on a turbulent decade that passed since the third edition in 1994 and includes more quiet policy success of American government, complications of public actions outside of government, stories of civil work , reworking the American business model to fit into bureaucratic topics, citizen engagement and participation, and the increasing role that terrorism is playing in fulfilling public administration responsibilities.

In Beating the System, the most abusive type of system is a bureaucracy. In such an organization, work is broken down into small, simple, repetitive, machine-like tasks. This facilitates their automation. Bureaucrats are usually empowered to say no, even to reasonable, logical requests. The authority to say yes comes from the top and it takes time to get there. So much time in fact that the cost in time of getting to the top outweighs the actual request or need itself.

Creativity is the method of choice for beating systems. Creativity, according to Ackoff and Rovin, consists of (a) identifying an assumption that constrains the options available in a situation, (b) denying that assumption, and (c) exploring the consequences of that denial. What can organizations do to reduce the need for system beaters? Empower their employees. Ackoff and Rovin believe that those who formulate rules and regulations often assume that their subordinates, the implementers of the rules, are not intelligent enough to know when an exception is warranted. Consequently, they require that the rule be applied without exception. This reduces these subordinates to unthinking bureaucrats and results in system users’ disrespect for all rules and regulations made by the organization.

What Beating the System fails to address however is “why” would you need to defeat the bureaucracy portion of the system as organized and executed? Feelings of “being wronged” are not enough to warrant action-this is merely one person’s opinion of a system. The rally cry of “I’m not going to take it anymore” is not a very rational stance to take particularly if one is looking to make change to the system, not just “defeat” it. The model of “just because I think so” isn’t well grounded. While systems can be both large and frustrating, “defeating” the system doesn’t always improve the citizen experience a mild warning issued by Ackoff and Rovin.

Beating the System and Goodsell both address the reputation of bureaucracy as illustrated via media, politicians, and the public which tell a story of a bureaucracy that is bloated, inefficient, stifling, indifferent and in short a problem, a hurdle to ordinary citizens with bureaucrats charged with being lazy, incompetent, devious, and dangerous. Inside and outside of government, bureaucratic bashing has become commonplace to lay blame as government stalemates occur; particularly today, over a decade since the Goodsell’s book was published before the curse of the “fiscal cliff” and sequestering, these more current items do not help reformat emphasis placed on Ackoff and Rovin’s idea of a degenerate government. Additionally, The Case for Bureaucracy identifies that the worst offenders of bureaucratic bashing lie within our academic institutions where upon examination of textbooks and images in intro to American government text, a majority of authors speak negatively in their portrayal of America’s administration institutions (p. 3).

Ackoff and Rovin have published and clever and quick read and they attempt to really embody their end goal and that is to arm the reader with semi-proven techniques and strategies to make change as the reader sees fit.  Living up to its promise, Beating the System delivers anecdotal information on how to use creativity to outsmart bureaucracies via a ten point “rules of thumb for system beaters” as well as draws attention to what can be done to minimize the need to beat systems and to work toward making systems unbeatable if you are an administrator to an organization or system. However, the anecdotes are inane and I disagree to the authors’ points of how they exactly use creativity to beat systems. Too many anecdotes glorify the “cleverness” of the system beater.

Goodsell’s book is a well-written and seemingly well supported manuscript which uses case studies, statistical evidence, and anecdotes to back up the case for bureaucracy, something that the case against bureaucracy has not been able to do very well. While most against bureaucratic methods lack empirical evidence for support of their argument what they have maximized are feelings of the American public in regard to government, democracy, politics, and bureaucracy in general creating a very powerful sentiment against bureaucratic methodology. In fact, Goodsell reveals that specific, personal experiences overall within bureaucratic institutions are reported as good (p. 25) and that bigger data, comparing government sector to private sector shows returns to be more favorable for government institutions than private ones (p. 35, 139). The majority of Goodsell’s book is debunking anecdotal myths of bureaucracy primarily with empirical evidence, a powerful combination.

A text authored in 2008, Building Strong Nations, helps Goodsell close up his chapter six bureaucratic bigness and badness reconsidered by providing more evidence to link bureaucracy and politics in the public eye as well as in practical performance. The most important conclusion to be drawn from this book and its connectivity, is that although bureaucracy and democracy usually are discussed as concepts un-or distantly related, they are, in reality, closely linked in the modern state. In particular, the ability of the state to provide effective public services tends to contribute to public trust and, ultimately, to public participation. Goodsell quotes a former professor in stating that “success of democracy itself depends on a successful bureaucracy, for without it no elected government can succeed” (p. 21). Bureaucracy’s resilience and reliability make elections count by assuring that the winner’s program will be enacted. Bureaucratic institutions strengthen democracy by bringing citizens into the social mainstream and into active citizenship (Goodsell, 2004 p. 141). This portion of his writing serves up the perfect system through partnership of politics and bureaucracy. A solution to bridge the bureaucratic shortcomings, in fact, combining elected and appointed official for a more complete public administration proving to be much more powerful and realistic than the picture Ackoff and Rovin paint which is essentially the wild west of attempted change or influence.

Shortcomings to the information contained in Goodsell’s work are lack of current event coverage (after 2004) and lack of pedestrian readability. Given that each year, a number of increasingly severe examples from which to draw information occur therefore could make way for further explanation in a book like this one. In all actuality, a book of this nature could be released with new cases and examples, citing current information each year. It would be interesting to see with modern culture affecting the state of bureaucracy, where events like Hurricane Katrina, gulf oil spills, re-election of Bush/Cheney, gas prices, food legislation, Fallujah, war, peace, school shootings, mortgage scandals, fiscal cliff and many others would contribute to the overall theme and tone to this work.

The timeliness of the information, not the actual argument I find to be more detrimental to the book’s longevity and relevancy. Secondly, the dense discussion, while compelling, lures with provincial storytelling only to overwhelm with complicated data references in text (some visuals). It’s not a novice read to be sure as is Ackoff and Rovin; however that bares little significance to the avid researcher or student of public administration. Bureaucratic systems can be complex, so a book should not be overtly simplified for the sake of increased readership. The information contained within is powerful and noteworthy.

Beating the System closes with advice for system beaters and suggestions (for organizations) for making systems unbeatable. The Rules of Thumb for system beaters recap methods that have been featured in the anecdotes: do the unexpected, do not rely on experts, ask for forgiveness (rather than permission), do not accept the first “no,” do not assume “the boss won’t go for it,” find allies, and clog the system. In my opinion, Beating the System is not for a scholar, academic, researcher, or student of public administration to consume. It is a bore and wholly unrealistic. I’m not even convinced that these dated “stick it to the man” stories are true; furthermore, if they are…so what? This book, to me, represents all that is wrong with public participation and waivers back and forth between remedying the system and calling for a cult revival to raise up against something as ridiculous as a traffic ticket. I’m unsure who might benefit from reading this text. Perhaps if one was trying to rally a grassroots campaign against an increase in the cost of postage, or if one maybe had no examples of frustration in bureaucracy for which to address the need for a solution, you could potentially borrow from Ackoff and Rovin’s “friends” that helped make this book a reality [show].

For balance, Goodsell provides a fuller picture of governmental action than do Ackoff and Rovin. Using survey data, empirical studies and other statistical tools, in addition to examples he is able to provide evidence for his contention that indeed government is accomplished, and not the tornado of chaos and inefficiency that is at times portrayed as. By providing for a richer of the role government plays in American society, he closes an often exaggerated gap between the notorious reputation and performance of government.

While both books show concern for the fairness of bureaucracy in how it serves the American people, they take vastly different routes to illustrate this concern. Ackoff and Rovin claim to recognize that not all systems need to be beaten and those that do often abuse without intent; however this is not the primary argument for which they base the remedy [the Rules of Thumb for System Beaters] (p. x). Instead, they push forward as though many of the problems in the system are as a result of deliberate abuse or thoughtlessly applying a rule or norm, fully suggesting that bureaucracy is benefitting from ill-satisfaction of constituents. Goodsell on the other hand while making the case for bureaucracy, fully admits that the system is not perfect. He contends and maintains it is however, the best system by far of any other government and doesn’t think that at present it has all of the answers, meaning that it is an organism in development continuously. He finally suggests that creatives, just as in Ackoff and Rovin, must personally become engaged [participation] in order to improve the state of bureaucracy overall.

Goodsell’s combination of qualitative and quantitative support to some of bureaucracy and politics most talked about issues make The Case for Bureaucracy a worthwhile read and proves to be a valuable source for a more nuance view of government. The Case for Bureaucracy proves particularly helpful in citing how public behavior can be measured and results applied to improve the inner workings of government and politics as a total system via evaluation and problem solving something Ackoff and Rovin seemingly have less use for as they prefer examples on a more dramatic and theatrical level.


Ackoff, Russell L. and Rovin, Sheldon. (2004). Beating the system: Using creativity to outsmart bureaucracies. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Amy, Douglas J. (n.d.).

Goodsell, Charles T. (2004). The case for bureaucracy: A public administration polemic. Washington, DC: CQ Press, A Division of SAGE.

Vigoda-Gadot, E. (2008). Building strong nations: Improving governability and public management. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.

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