Bright line bureaucratic rules that make no sense

Some friends of mine have put together a clever blog.  (If you follow me on facebook, you’ve already seen me trying to help them out.)  It’s called “A Kid’s I View” and it offers travel posts that kids write.  As a mom, I see it as a good resource for kids’ writing exercises; and as a mom who travels, I see it as a helpful place to look for travel ideas.

The biggest hurdle for my friends right now is to get content at the site.  Unlike some bloggers we know, most kids are not spontaneous writers.  Even nagging parents seem to lack the power to push their kids into writing.  When you think about it, the only people with the real power to push kids to write are teachers.  With this in mind, my friends are approaching various school districts.  Their sales pitch is that, at no expense to the school or the students, children can become published authors and, with a little luck, win cash prizes for their writing.

So far, some private schools and some public school districts have been intrigued.  One school district, however, instantly slammed the door in my friends’ faces.  The reason?  That school district has a hard-and-fast rule that it will only work with non-profit web sites.

I can understand the thinking that drove this rule.  “We’re a big school district and, even though we’re kind of broke, there’s still a lot of money here.  If we started using for-profit websites, people would think that we were trying to channel public school funds to those sites, which would look terrible and might encourage corrupt behavior from our staff.  If we use only non-profit sites, nobody can accuse us of wrongdoing.”

The problem with that line of thinking, of course, is that it rests on two completely fallacious assumptions:  (1) that for-profit sites suck funds out of school districts and (2) that non-profit sites are always on the side of the angels.

As my friends’ site demonstrates, a for-profit site can provide a benefit to a school district without imposing any costs on the district.  From the school and student point of view, it’s a fun, safe, colorful place where kids can experience the thrill of being a published author.  More than that, it’s absolutely free.  No money at all flows from school and student to the site.  To the contrary.  If a kid does well, the site sends money to the student.  More than that, if a teacher is able to encourage enough students to write (and frequent writing is the only way for someone to become a good writer), the teacher can earn money for his or her classroom.  This site puts the lie to the notion that schools appear corrupt (or are actually corrupt) if they deal with for-profit sites.

There’s evidence that the district is equally wrong with its assumption that non-profit organizations have a purity that allows the school districts to deal with them with impunity.  The most stunning example of this is Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea empire.  Mortenson wrote a book — Three Cups of Tea — describing his transformative experience following a disastrous hike in the Himalayas.  Thanks to that Himalayan sojourn, he was inspired to start schools for girls in Afghanistan.  Oprah got wind of him.  His book climbed the NYT’s bestseller list and became so popular it is now part of many schools’ curricula.  Inspired by their classroom reading, thousands of children raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund those schools.

Except, if Jon Krakauer is to be believed in his book Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, Mortenson is a con man.  His transformative Himalayan sojourn never happened.  He didn’t build most of the promised schools and, of the few he built, many stand empty.  Most egregiously, Mortenson used his organization (funded in significant part by school children) as his own personal ATM, siphoning off millions of dollars to fund his lavish lifestyle.  (As far as I’m concerned, the early tip-off that Mortenson wasn’t on the up-and-up Oprah’s embrace.  I acquit Oprah entirely of participating in the fraud.  I’ve just noticed that she has a knack for falling for scams.)

As the Mortenson con shows, the school district’s bright line rule allowing it to deal only with non-profit web organizations provides no assurance that it will be insulating its students from scams or other improper conduct.  Meanwhile, this same misguided policy shuts the door entirely on services that could, without cost, benefit the school and the students.

I wish my friends much luck.  They’re going to need it if that school district’s rules are the norm, rather than anomalies.

By the way, if you want to read an entire book devoted to foolish bureaucracy, I strongly recommend Philip K. Howard’s The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America.  Don’t let the book’s title fool you.  It’s not about lawyers.  It’s about bureaucracy, and the way in which its growth stifles initiative, innovation, flexibility and adaptability.  Keep in mind as you read it that government equals bureaucracy.  The bigger the government, the bigger the bureaucracy controlling our lives.

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  1. says

    Back in 1969, Peter Drucker wrote: “Any government which is not a government of paper forms degenerates rapidly into a mutual looting society.” This is as true when the forms are electronic as when they are paper. The regulatory state must either:

    –establish very precise rules controlling the behavior of its agents, which inherently will force real-life situations into a procrustean bed and will result in bizarre and counterproductive government actions


    –give these agents significant discretion, opening to door to widespread corruption and maliciously tyrannical behavior by individual bureaucrats 

    Prof Drucker’s observation makes the point that the growth of government *inherently* increases the bureaucratization of life, the corruption of society, or both. 

  2. suek says

    I read “The Death of Common Sense”…

    Terrible book.

    I expected that the final chapter would be a “how to fix the problem” type chapter – something to offer hope for the future.

    That _wasn’t_ how it ended – just purely discouraging. Not wrong, mind you, just discouraging. Because he _wasn’t_ wrong.

  3. Charles Martel says

    David’s Drucker quote points out the almost unsolvable tension between our expectation that the government play no favorites yet deliver almost personalized, tailored service. It reminds me of the fight-or-flight dilemma Rocky Mountain elk face during mating season when the males battle one another for the herd’s prime rumps. They temporarily escape those irreconciliable impulses by indulging in displacement behavior, namely, grazing.

    We need a permanent form of displacement behavior for the government. In this case, as David suggests, grazing would mean shrinking the size of government. The smaller the conflicted bully, the easier it is to deposit him in some handy trash container when he starts throwing his diminutive weight around.  

  4. Danny Lemieux says

    No, no, no, Charles M…I like your idea of grazing. We could schedule periodic “time outs” whereby armies of government bureaucrats and politicians would have their behavior forcibly displaced by being given lawn mowers wherewith to groom the edges of roads and highways in remote areas of our fair nation. 

    The more aggressively they behave in plundering our resources, the more displacement they would suffer.

  5. dianemadeline says

    The National Writing Project has sites in all 50 states. I took a five week Summer Institute w/ them last year and it was without doubt the best professional learning experience of my career.
    One thing that is emphasized again and again is giving students opportunities for authentic writing. Publishing that writing is always a goal. Your friend’s blog seems like it really fits the bill. Maybe your friend could get in touch with her local writing project and ask if there is a way to get info about her blog out to teachers who would like students to be published.


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