Sunday, September 21, 2008

Machine Politics

Political machines are self perpetuating systems generally based on personal loyalty and patronage. In the United States people generally think of political machines in terms of large cities. For example: the Richard Daley machine in Chicago, Tammany Hall in New York. But a political machine can exist at any level of government. At the state level we have had Huey Long in Louisiana and Thomas Catron in New Mexico. At the national level, Tom Delay ran a comprehensive and relatively effective national political machine.

The nature of a machine depends on the power structure of the society in which it is embedded. In societies where political power is influenced by election, the basic mechanics of the machine center on getting votes. In hierarchical societies (feudal, tribal...) machines center on fealty often coerced by violence.

Political machines are not an aberration. They are based on an essential part of being human. As a social animal, we live in groups. We band together for mutual support and protection. We form friendships and animosities. We try to help our friends and expect them to do the same. When someone thwarts our plans, we will undermine him in order to accomplish our aims. Political machines are not unalloyed evil. In order to maintain a power base, a machine may be extremely response to their supporters. In many cases this improves government services. In supporter's areas, the trash is picked up and the roads are good.

Political machines are about power. Its members may espouse, and believe in, a particular ideology, but the heart of a machine is not ideological, it is personal. A machine must have a way to reward supporters and punish enemies. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the machine mentality is an enemies list.

For political machines the source of power is the machinery of government. Government taxation provides a base of money. This money provides direct means to reward in the form of jobs and contracts. Withholding jobs and money provides a means of punishment. Government regulation provides another carrot and another stick. Businesses can be shut down through regulation or over-vigorous enforcement. Conversely, the skids can be greased by removing regulations or declining to enforce them. Taxation itself is a great lever. Taxes can be reduced on friends and increased on enemies. All of this requires that the machine controls the levers of government.

City machines are perhaps the easiest to understand and examine. The Daley organization controlled on the order of 30,000 patronage jobs. There was a strict hierarchy based on electoral politics. The city was divided into wards and precincts. Political appointees were responsible for estimating and delivering the votes in their area. At every level of the machine, there were rewards and punishments. The plus side is government responsiveness. An influential person gets his requests answered. A important precinct might get better city services. On the other hand, precincts where the machine lost might find themselves without city services and city jobs.

Electoral politics are used to ensure control over government, but machines are personal. By cooperating with the machine, you should personally benefit. By defying, you are personally punished. Reward can be through direct payment, perhaps by being given a job that may or may not require work. More profitable is the ability to steer government money. A lucrative government contract can act as payment. If you are the person deciding where the contract should go, that power is worth something. Typical forms of personal payment can be bribes, kickbacks or jobs for friends. Political machines thrive on graft. When personal profit takes precedence over public good, everyone suffers.

In national politics the same basic mechanics exist, but because of the scale the details change. On a national level, campaigns are won with money. Loyalty can be bought with campaign money.

Direct contributions to particular candidates and parties are restricted. Campaigns that address large numbers of individual voters can raise tremendous amounts of money. However, each individual contributor is not that important to the campaign. If you want to gain attention, you can become a "bundler". A bundler gathers together the campaign money from a set of individuals. The bundler may not put up all the money himself but becomes personally powerful by being able to control a large donation. There have, or course, been scandals where bundlers paid the money to the individuals who turned around and contributed it. The bigger the bundle, the more powerful the bundler becomes.

At the national level, lobbyists for industries and particular points of view are very important. Lobbyists must be able to argue persuasively, but another important function is to provide monetary support for those who support them. This support provides access to the political process. Tom Delay took this to a new level. First, he steered contributions to his political action organizations. That made candidates beholden directly to him. He also inserted himself into the lobbying firms themselves. Access required political approval in hiring. This made lobbying itself a patronage job.

At the national level, the personal loyalty and reward structure of machines remains the same, but the amount of money available is much larger.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Rules and Reality

For the past few years I have been consulting with large businesses on software projects. As a result, I see a lot of different companies and cultures. Recently I have been working with a very profitable media company with a more extreme schizophrenia than most companies.

Part of the business involves coordinated release of merchandise from many different manufacturers. The list of manufacturers is constantly shifting. The product standards are high and manufacturers must work off the latest artwork. The artwork is constantly being refined and the time-lines are short and getting shorter. This creates a business need for rapid processes. In addition to a shifting cast of manufacturers, the company relies on contractors to do much of its essential work. Many contractors have worked in the same capacity for years, but there is also a churn of contractors and contractor employees.

Another part of the business is concerned with protection of intellectual property. Protection often requires tight control on access. That is, no one should be allowed access to company property until all the correct agreements have been drafted, reviewed, revised, and finally approved. This desire for protection has bred a culture of slow deliberation. Every formal decision involves slow and ponderous study and documentation (with periodic formal reviews).

These two strains, the need for rapid response and the slow processes that protect, exist in many organizations. In the case of this media company the culture has fractured. The protective processes are so slow and insular that they must be subverted. As an example, access to buildings is controlled by key cards. Getting permission to issue a key card is difficult and slow. The need for access may evaporate before a card can be approved. As a matter of common practice, those without key cards simply follow a carded employee into the building. Carded employees understand the situation and do not question when someone enters behind them. One morning I followed someone to the door only to find that neither of us had cards, so we both waited by the door for a carded employee. That employee let us in without question or hesitation.

For the software system I am examining, the development process involves asking people who use the system for their requirements. A fair number of those requirements are essentially "We have a way to subvert company policy because we cannot possibly follow it, but it is difficult and cumbersome. Could you make the subversion easier?"

For both individuals and organizations there is often a disconnect between our rules and what we actually do. Because people and the world are more complicated than our notions of them, some disconnect is inevitable. The healthy side is when we recognize the need to be flexible to accommodate novel situations. The unhealthy side is hypocrisy and self deception. If you cannot follow the rules the fault may be yours, but do not discount the possibility that the rules or their implementation is broken. Besides, strict adherence to any set of rules is not much of a virtue.