Polish style bureucracy

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was a master of capturing just how bizarre bureaucratic institutions can be. Some believe that his portrayal of mindless office workers and their system was foreshadowing the development of truly totalitarian regimes, such as the Soviet Union (1922-1991) or Nazi Germany (1933-1945)

It is also common knowledge that for almost 50 years, Poland was under direct influence of communism. The old system collapsed in 1989, but Polish bureaucracy has been slow to reform. Many government officials lived under communism and whether they admit it or not, they still carry old habits with them. For example, “no” is always the default answer and from the point of view of Polish bureaucrat it can mean several things. First, you came to me so it is your job to demonstrate that you have what is needed to get the issue resolved. Secondly, I do not know how to solve your problem, so I am just going to deny you. Thirdly, I can probably find a way to get what you want, but that’s a lot of work and I do not feel like helping you. Lastly, your issue is so rare that I can literally make-up rules as I go along and not help you in the end.

It might seem like I am exaggerating but I am not. Next time you are in Poland visit one of the government buildings, preferably in a smaller city. The architecture alone will make you feel like you are in Kafka’s The Trial. Also, bureaucratic systems are not alike. I have lived long enough in America to understand its drawbacks, and yet horizontal accountability is a real thing here. Every US office worker understands that not doing your job can mean trouble. In Poland, it is still about who you know and what kind of impression you make. Are things changing? Yes, of course they are. Progress has been made over last 30 years. But progress does not mean perfection. A lot more work still needs to be done.

I am particularly concerned about this as PiS (the Law and Justice party) won another election. Programs like 500+ might be beneficial for the overall welfare of the country, but their implementation depends on a strong and well-functioning bureaucracy. The paradox is that such bureaucracy has to be subjected to proper democratic control and we are not there yet. The current system allows bureaucrats too much power. They can easily see how our wallets and private spheres look like, and I am not at all comfortable with that trade-off. The bigger problem is that while Kafka’s insight is relevant today, tomorrow Orwell’s 1984 might be more applicable.

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