26 October 2008

PERFECT example of bureaucracy vs. process

What is the world coming to?!  Two posts in a month?

Well, when life hands you perfectly fitted, hand-picked, juicy, gift-wrapped, actual too-good-not-to-share learning-rich examples on a silver platter... you've just gotta take 'em and share 'em!

bureaucracy (by Bennett)One such example was handed to me a little while ago -- thanks to the US Department of State via the US Postal Service. 
No, the Postal Service didn't deliver something to me from the State Department.  It's more like the Post Office was the instrument of the State Department's bureaucracy.

A perfect duet of two bureaucracies operating in perfect bureaucratic harmony.  Though, when I think of "bureaucratic harmony" it sounds like an out-of-key dirge played in a decaying public school building by a poorly equipped elementary school ensemble.

But, enough of the musical analogies... We've got a bureaucracy to pick on and how and why my experience at the post office that week provided me such rich fodder for a blog post about processes.

This experience crystallized a way to teach the distinction between: Process, Procedure, and Bureaucracy.

So, the context of the lesson is in the State department's requirement to verify the parentage of minors (children under 16) applying for a US Passport.  To avoid issuing passports to minors (or in particular, to adults in the company of minors), the relationship between the minor and the adult must be established.  In a typical example, parents must demonstrate that they are, in fact, the children's parents.  When applying for a passport for a child, parents must show that (a) they and their children are US citizens and that (b) the children belong to them.  The State department requires that the children and both parents be present while applying and that the parents supply the child's birth certificate.  So far so good.

image The lesson appeared when we were applying for a passport for a child for whom we already had a passport.  In other words, we'd already provided the necessary documentation to prove we are our child's parents when we first obtained the passport.  We appeared at the post office with an expired passport in hand and all the other documentation, except for the birth certificate (for the child who already had a passport, and thus we'd already proven our relationship).  Since we'd already provided the birth certificate in order to obtain the original passport, we figured the post office merely had to ensure that we were still who we said we were by looking at our government-issued ID (which is also required when applying).

Even if there was risk of someone else finding our child's passport and attempting to represent themselves as our child's parents, their IDs wouldn't match the names, and even if they did, in such a case whether or not they were *us* wouldn't matter.  Imposters with that level of sophistication could get anything they needed.  But, under normal circumstances, if someone else were to try to pass themselves off as us, their names wouldn't match up.   In other words, if adults show up claiming to be a child's parents, then their names should match that on the application and the child's documentation.  If the names don't match, then additional documentation would be appropriate, as in the case of adoption or other name-mismatching situations.

Anyone can buy a birth certificate, so, in fact, the longer we exist, the better the chances of identity theft.  Therefore, the earlier someone gets a passport, the more likely it was obtained with authentic data.  So again, the best "proof" that we are our child's parents is the fact that we had a prior passport along with the other documents.  However, the State department's bureaucratic procedures, dutifully executed by the Post Office, required that we present a birth certificate nonetheless.

At Entinex, we define a Process as the high-level depiction of a value-adding activity that produces an outcome.  Processes are the activities that are necessary for the product being worked on (or work being done) to achieve the outcome the customer of the work desires to have.  If the proper outcome is achieved, as long as the cost and schedule was within the customer's expectations, the customer ought not care how the outcome was achieved.  The process can be the same from context to context.  In fact, minimizing unique variants of a process in a given organization makes it easier to manage.  In our passport example, if the State department had issued a process rather than a procedure the process would simply be: Establish and Confirm parent and child's identity, relationship and citizenship.

image The how of the process we define as a Procedure -- the specific steps needed by the process to produce an output.  There are likely many ways (i.e., many possible procedures) to accomplish the process' expectations.  Procedures are best applied to very particular contexts and ought to change from context to context.  From a value stream perspective, procedures actually consume value.  The intention of any organization ought to be to minimize the gravity of the procedure since if/when the procedure takes more time or resources, it costs more and therefore raises the cost of the process and often reduces its value.  Procedures are served best minimally.  Had the Post Office been allowed to create their own procedure(s) to accomplish the above process, they could have created procedures to check for artifacts that identity has been established/confirmed by means of some level of reasonableness.  The Post Office could have different procedures for first-time applications, subsequent applications, and name-mismatches.

However, instead, the State Department issued a procedure that was not context specific and wasteful.  It didn't give the Post Office (or anyone else) the flexibility to find the most appropriate way to determine identity or relationship, or to distinguish between the permutations of application situations.

In other words, the State Department established a bureaucracy:  A procedure in absence of context

Bureaucracies are often intended to compensate for lack of competence or trust, or as input to an over-engineered system.

Take your pick on this one.

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At 08 November, 2008 22:24 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ref: Child's birth certificate.

It is to do with the new requirement that both parents have to give their consent for a minor to have a US passport. This came into effect recently, I think Feb 2008. Anyway bottom line is
"Previous U.S. passports are not acceptable as evidence of relationship". You can go thru the divorce name change arguments etc. but this fact holds (for the process designers) and as such is a valid Business Rule or Requirement of the process.

At 09 November, 2008 21:52 , Blogger Hillel said...

Hi Anonymous,

If your argument (more to the point, your defense of the rule) were to hold together, the child's birth certificate also wouldn't establish evidence of relationship.

And, in our case, both parents were present, and, the prior passport used the same evidence as what they required the first time, as though he didn't have a passport.

In other words, the process designers didn't validate their requirements (i.e., make sure the requirements withstand the test of the actual user environment). So, while they may have declared their Business Rule or Requirement of the Process "valid", they did so without actually testing to see if it holds together. In other words, it wasn't truly "valid".

At 10 November, 2008 13:06 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The argument hinges on the validity of the stated fact that only a birth certificate and a traceable change (i.e. adoption, guardianship papers etc.) can establish the parental relationship for a minor (not an expired passport). What follows from the validity of that fact is self evident regarding the process, its value and any acquisitions of bureaucracy. In essence the birth certificate is not needed to prove the child is a US citizen that can be done with the previous passport. What you are debating is the validity (or usefulness) of these rules http://travel.state.gov/passport/
get/minors/minors_834.html from the dept of state. On balance I do not see any good reason for these rules to be changed; certainly we should at least consider the fact that there may be some value in these rules before making criticism.

At 10 November, 2008 13:39 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let’s say there was a difference between the child’s current legal guardians and the parents listed on the child's birth certificate. When there is a difference like this all the legal documentation that establishes the changes from the birth certificate to the current legal guardians needs to be presented, so that permission from the current legal guardians can be established. These changes will include adoption, parents name changes etc. What you are saying is that if there was a difference (current guardians and birth parents) it would have been allowed for when the previous passport was granted. This is OK for most cases, but considers court orders (custody) arrangements of guardianship that are dynamic or temporary. In these cases the link between the birth certificate and current guardians needs to be reviewed. You can argue in your particular case this did not apply, but how does anyone know that unless they review the child’s passport and current guardianship status.

At 10 November, 2008 13:42 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry last line should read

"but how does anyone know that unless they review the child’s Birth Certificate and evidence of the current guardianship status.

At 10 November, 2008 13:42 , Blogger Hillel said...

Anonymous, you're failing to realize that the birth certificate is only a valid proof of parentage if there have been no changes in the child's status. If there has been some sort of change in the child's status, neither the DOS nor the USPS would know it from the birth certificate and appearance of parents alone. Especially in these days of widespread identity theft, these paper-based forms of ID verification are insufficient, and therefore the requirement to appear with both parents and a birth certificate is no more "assurance" than appearing with a prior passport.

At 10 November, 2008 14:07 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If there has been some sort of change in the child's status, neither the DOS nor the USPS would know it from the birth certificate and appearance of parents alone.".

That's the whole point, all of the documents establishing the link from the birth certificate to the current ID of the guardians needs to be presented each time a passport is granted for a minor.

There are many issues with ID thefts etc. but I see no reason to alter this process of establishing the current child's guardians by linking to the legal documentation trail to the birth certificate.

At 10 November, 2008 14:25 , Blogger Hillel said...


If the supposition in the bureaucracy is that the parents' appearance, pictures, and names align with the child's named parents (on the birth certificate), and instead of providing a birth certificate, the re-application includes all the same information + the prior passport + the appearance of the parents with their IDs, then there is no operational difference between a prior passport and the birth certificate since the prior passport established everything in the first place.

The failure of this procedure is that it assumes names don't change over time and/or that identities aren't stolen.

Since the birth certificate is only a reasonable level of assurance, not a guarantee, then for the majority of situations, the prior passport is just as reasonable an assurance.

I suspect, however, that I/we and the DOS (and those in the child-protection field) might disagree on how we respectively define "reasonable level of assurance".

We're TOTALLY in favor of ensuring children are positively identified with their rightful parents/guardians, and our only point in bringing up this post is that given the holes in the procedure and combined with not-uncommon situation, the procedure was too restrictive and doesn't account for variation in the possible inputs defining the scenario as the business rule is applied.

Feel free to disagree, but it is possible to "write tests" that the procedure, as it currently is defined, will fail in two modes: (1) bad input still produces outcomes within expected ranges, and (2) a subset of good input causes an unhandled exception.

At 10 November, 2008 19:57 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good discussion, I have pretty much had my say here.

I see where you are going and understand the appearance of redundancy; however I tend to give the Passport Office the benefit of the doubt here.

If the requirements had not had changed from when your child’s passport was first issued, and details of the birth certificate noted, I would tend to agree with you.
However the new requirement:-

Effective February 1, 2008, 22 C.F.R. 51.1 requires that U.S. passport applications for children under the age of 16 require both parents’ and legal guardians' consent.

Gives new meaning to how the ‘birth certificate’ is used. The process of recording and auditing this information now has to pass a higher threshold if indeed the passport is to be used in place of the birth certificate to establish relationship. Also the difference between guardian and birth parent has to be explicitly recorded.
As I stated I feel this example is not a clean one, in terms of your point, although I accept the underlying principles you are articulating.

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