Into the Woods

A week at Cub Scout camp provides some lessons about bureaucracy.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend the better part of a week with my son at Cub Scout camp. I love the outdoors, so I was looking forward to it. And in all the important ways, it didn't disappoint. Kevin had a blast with his buddies, refused to be denied during his swim test, and made progress on several badges by learning about everything from first aid to the reproductive differences between amphibians and mammals.

Still, there was something vaguely unsettling about the experience. It took three days before it dawned on me what it was: I was living in a bureaucracy. I'm a longtime observer of the federal government, but only from a comfortable perch on the outside. This was uncharted territory for me.

The reminder that I was no longer in my comfort zone began with the quasi-military aspects of Scouting that I quickly recalled from my own youth-reveille in the morning, taps at night, formal assemblies and flag ceremonies twice a day. (The experience was fully authentic: After four nights in a canvas tent on the most uncomfortable cot known to man, I examined it closely and found both the distinctive "U.S." stamp that indicated Army issue, and the telltale engraved date of its creation: 12/13/41.)

More than that, though, the camp was run according to the characteristics of all bureaucracies, military or civilian-with an emphasis on rules and a culture of obedience.

Many of the regulations were well-intentioned, but wearying to enforce with a large group of 9-year-old boys. No running, for example, was allowed anywhere in the camp. Other principles were fraught with irony. The Scouts were lectured, for example, on "leave no trace" camping, while the camp's "commissioners" rumbled by on gas-powered carts.

Some rules were pushed relentlessly despite perverse consequences. These included guidelines governing the use of pocketknives, the most important of which involves the "blood circle." (The name, as you might guess, is a big hit among the boys.) It works like this: Before opening his knife, a young Scout is supposed to hold it at arm's length and make a full circle, to make sure no people are within range of being cut.

It's an eminently sensible safety measure. In the real world, however, few of the boys followed it consistently. And even when they did, violations of the blood circle by passersby were common. These would inevitably result in a Scout shouting, "You're in my blood circle!" and proving the point by leaping to his feet and waving his knife-blade fully extended-in a wide circle. That this practice was clearly more dangerous than whittling within a few feet of an observer was lost on the Scouts-and, apparently, many of their adult leaders.

Several other regulations that didn't exist when I was a Scout were clearly, and laudably, designed to prevent the possibility of child abuse. For example, the shower rooms at the swimming pool were divided into three sections: women, men 18 and over, and boys under 18. Adults were not allowed in the boys section under any circumstances. I completely understood the rule, but as a practical matter, it merely meant I repeatedly had to stand in the men's shower room listening to Lord of the Flies unfold next door.

On the positive side, several benefits of living in a rule-driven environment were clearly evident. The camp was safe, the boys quickly learned to take on new responsibilities, and the very real discipline they learned and demonstrated on the BB gun and archery ranges was important and impressive.

By the closing campfire, I had a new appreciation of what it's like to live in a world defined by rules and regulations, and to inhabit a culture in which the highest value is placed on avoidance of rocking the boat. I also better understood how such a culture gradually becomes so ingrained that its inhabitants and leaders have a hard time imagining alternatives. To those who would launch efforts to change the traditional bureaucratic culture of federal agencies, I can only offer the two-word Scout motto: Be prepared.

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