“Servants of the Letter”

Posted by jlubans on March 14, 2023


Latvia’s Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš recently said something that brought to mind the long slogs I sometimes had as a manager trying to improve an organization’s productivity.
To quote the report about what Mr. Kariņš said, “Latvian society should stop being ‘servants of the letter’* (implying following bureaucratic rules even in extraordinary situations)”
Most of my career was spent in university research libraries. Many, no surprise, will claim the campus is a bastion of liberty, innovation, and progressive thought.
Well, not always.
When it comes to change - especially territorial - the faculty and staff often respond in orthodox and fogey-ish ways, just like what you’d expect in any bureaucracy.
Hence, any effort to cut through the cherished red tape becomes a Herculean task.
Let me illustrate Kariņš concerns with a personal, multi-faceted example:
My father, upon my mother’s death, inherited her Latvian farm.
After Latvia’s independence in 1991, he went about reclaiming the farm which had been confiscated by the Soviets in the mid 1940s.
During the Soviet era, the farm - around 170 acres - had been collectivized and turned into a dairy.
After independence the farm was abandoned; a tumbledown, desolate version of what it had been when my mother grew up there.
It had been stripped of everything of value and the original farm house and barns and fences all were gone.
What remained were two or three roof-less, door-less and window-less dilapidated concrete structures, presumably of what had been the dairy.
My father petitioned to reclaim the property; he followed the process to the letter as required by Latvian law.
To conclude, he went to the town board and made his case. They knew from the documents that he, as a graduate of Latvia’s military academy had fled from the invading Russians at the end of WWII and that he was now a naturalized US citizen.
Regardless, they saw no difficulty in assigning the property to my father; he was the rightful heir, etc.
But, but, there were unpaid taxes which were now overdue.
“Taxes?” My father asked incredulously.
“Yes, of course”, responded the board, most of whom probably had held some office under communist rule.
“Let me get this straight”, my father asked.
“The communists destroyed the original farm and stole anything of value, but you are saying there are taxes to be paid?”
“If anything, I am owed reparations!”
Incapable or unwilling to consider any other option – even a conciliatory discount - the board responded, “Yes, while we may sympathize with you, the taxes must be paid; it is clearly stated in the taxation code. We have no alternative.”
My father, infuriated, told the board to forget it (not the exact phrase but you can probably imagine what he said).
A few years later, my cousin, Mara, and I partnered to re-claim ownership of the farm.
Mara had lived under Soviet rule and knew how to “work” the system.
Since the board were “servants of the letter” one always had to figure out how to cut through the red tape, how to “grease the administrative wheels”, how to get around the bureaucratic power-tripping.
She was adroit at doing just that.
Implicit in what the Prime Minister says is that if you repeat my father’s experience thousands of times in government, healthcare, education, and even in retail services you get an idea of how being servants of the letter can retard a nation’s progress and invite, inevitably, corruption.
Another Latvian/American friend, who owns a large, active farm in Latvia, always brings a “white envelope” with her to any meeting with a local bureaucrat.
She slides the envelope across the desk and voila! all is approved with smiles all around.
Play the system straight and you get what my father got, obdurate resistance to common sense or decency, just as bad as whatever the Soviets provided.
For Kariņš, "… we have to get rid of the fact that we are servants of the letter once and for all. We are a free, independent, sovereign state. We can make independent decisions on our own." (emphasis added)
As a manager I was forever promoting the notion that we were not rule nor tradition-bound; “we can make independent decisions on our own.”
That always sounded good to me and when we threw off those self-imposed shackles and other limitations we got surprisingly positive results.
And if we didn’t, we did better the next time.
Kariņš words apply to any bureaucracy, on or off campus.

*(In Latvian: Vienreiz jābeidz būt burta kalpiem.

My book, Fables for Leaders, which champions independent decision-making, is available. Click on the image to order.

And, don’t forget Lubans' book on democratic workplaces,
Buy here.

© Copyright text by John Lubans, 2023


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