The "Phantom Legion" Problem
February 12, 2024
Everything is presented as rock-solid until it falls apart.
Of the many signs of systemic decay in the late Roman Empire, one of particular relevance to our era is the Phantom Legion, military units that on paper were at full strength--and paid accordingly--but which were in reality no longer there: the paymaster collected the silver wages and recorded the unit's roll of officers and soldiers, but it was all make-believe.
When the Empire's wealth seems limitless, graft, embezzlement and fraud all seem harmless to those skimming the wealth. Look, the Empire is forever, what harm is there in my little self-interested skim?
This rot starts at the top, of course, and then seeps into every nook and cranny of the system. When those at the top are getting fabulously wealthy on modest salaries while claiming to serve the public, the signal is clear: go ahead and maximize your own private gain at the expense of the public and the state. Civic virtue--the backbone of the Empire--decayed into self-interest, incompetence and indulgence.
The "Phantom Legion" Problem has another wrinkle: the legion is reported at full strength, but the actual number of soldiers is far lower than the reported number, and the competence of the officers is so low that the legion is incapable of performing its duties. In other words, the numbers don't reflect the actual utility-value of the legion as a combat unit: the soldiers may be ill-trained, ill-equipped and poorly fed, and the officers inexperienced, corrupt or just waiting for their term of duty to end.
In the present day, this is how The Phantom Legion Problem manifests: the agency / institution is reported at full strength and fully capable of performing all its duties, but beneath the surface it's lacking experienced staff and competent leadership, and much of the staffing is in unproductive, dead-wood administrative positions.
Taking healthcare as an example, we find experienced frontline caregivers are retiring and not being replaced with equivalent numbers of staff with the equivalent experience. We find caregivers are burning out due to crushing workloads, or quitting the profession in order to have a family and get their life back.
Meanwhile, the number of administrators increases, soaking up the system's funding with endlessly expanding compliance data entry, reports, etc., all of which adds additional burdens on those actually providing care.
There's always enough money to increase administrators' salaries, but not enough to maintain essential systems or hire more caregivers.
The Phantom Legion Problem plays out in many ways in modern bureaucracies. The number of sworn officers in a police department may appear adequate but if many are assigned to desks, the PD is not actually at full strength.
If administrators are advanced due to their PR and financial skills rather than on their competence in actually leading the organization, the Phantom Legion problem is already terminal. the rot starts at the top, and those actually carrying the weight fulfilling the organization's mission burn out, get disgusted and give up.
The problem with The Phantom Legion Problem is there is every incentive to hide the decay of systemic competence and capability behind glowing annual reports and ginned-up numbers. Only those within the organization know the truth and they are under pressure to keep quiet, lest they find themselves on the slow train to Siberia.
Here is how systems decay and collapse: everything is reported at full strength, but the numbers don't reflect reality. Everything is presented as rock-solid until it falls apart. Everyone outside the system is in disbelief while insiders wondered how it held together as long as it did.
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