The Absurdity of BureaucracyHow Implementation Works

The Absurdity of BureaucracyHow Implementation Works

Nina Holm Vohnsen

Print publication date: 2018

ISBN: 9781526101341

Publisher: Manchester University Press


The absurdity of bureaucracy offers an ethnographic portrayal of an attempt to make and implement evidence-based policy set in the Danish labour market system in 2009. It departs from the author’s puzzlement that the civil servants she met during her research would maintain a double stance towards their work; they were convinced they were in the process of constantly improving the welfare system while at the same time they found the outcome of their decisions and the system they constructed in the process deeply absurd. The main protagonist of the book is the randomized controlled trial Active – Back Sooner which was a central component of the Danish Government’s Action Plan on Sickness Benefit meant to reduce to the cost of sickness benefit and to secure the ‘active labour force’. It is the continuous planning and disintegration of this effort and the myriad of decisions made in relation to it that is the primary object of empirical portraiture and theoretical discussion. Based on 12 months of participant observation and ethnographic interviewing in the Danish Ministry of Employment and one of the implementing municipalities the book documents how rejected reasons and alleyways of action return to haunt the decision-makers (be they caseworkers, the government administration, or politicians) creating an absurd world of contradictions and dilemmas. The book documents how ‘going wrong’ is built into the very nature of decision-making and suggests that the analysis of absurdity is central to any understanding of how policy develops and how implementation works.