Can we hack bureaucracy?

by Milica Begovic, Mao Kawada, Alberto Cottica, and Noemi Salantiu

In the tug-of-war between creative individual and conservative, hierarchical culture, the latter is winning.

Worldwide, about one billion people work for public administrations at various levels. In the face of ever evolving technology, they are facing challenges in delivering services to citizens in a timely and efficient fashion.

Our hunch is that a whole slew of bureaucrat hackers are operating under the radar, coming up with better solutions for the public sector. What would happen if we could put in place light infrastructure that connects civil servants to each other and links them to networks beyond organizational and geographic boundaries? It would accelerate solutions and the design of new ones, leading to a more responsive and modern public sector.

This is how our idea for Bureaucrat Hackers was born. Even if one out of 10,000 civil servants hacked existing rules and procedures to co-design and deliver better solutions, this would generate a mass movement.

In recent years, many governments have attempted to increase the pace of innovation in public administration by creating public sector innovation labs (and we’re proud to have our efforts included among the top 12 global resources for public sector innovators by Apolitical). Yet the impact of these labs depends on their ability to change the mode of operation of those outside of the labs themselves; and powerful sectors of public administration have shown to be resistant to change. It’s probably not surprising, then, that a few years on, many innovation labs remain in struggle to achieve senior status and recognition.

As Jesper Christiansen in ‘The Art of the Innovation Lab’ and Indy Johar in ‘10 Provocations for the next 10 Years of Social Innovation’ argue, many of these teams, either by mistake or by design, have operated at a level largely misaligned with the scale of their mission. Labs are often addressing problems but not necessarily the conditions for change; hence, they are designing solutions without necessarily building the infrastructure that can embed and scale the solutions. The policy labs have grown into centralized hubs of niche expertise more akin to the delivery units than teams capable of questioning fundamental ways that governments, well, govern. At the same time and ironically, the field has grown very siloed (see graph below- research by Nesta’s Skills Team) with few if any mechanisms for horizontal, organic flow and penetration of knowledge, expertise and perspectives across different silos.

Through our respective work in this area as UNDP and Edgeryders, we find that ‘innovative’ roles in the public sector are often practiced by individuals who are not necessarily in senior position, nor by those who have specific mandates to be ‘innovate’. Yet sympathetic, open-minded, dynamic civil servants can be fundamental enablers of change, as they discover new ways to step outside citadels of restrictive and regulated administrations and work more effectively with external partners in civil society and the private sector — the most recent piece in FastCompany seems to agree with this analysis as well.

The examples are emerging. In Bologna, bureaucrat hackers found a new way of enabling citizen volunteer efforts that at the time defied existing rules and procedures. In Ukraine, the public procurement office hacked the way government uses data to save over EUR 60 million in the first year through indirect price comparison nudge to the suppliers. Perhaps the most striking example of bureaucrat hacker is the Costa Rica’s vice minister of transport who joined in the efforts of civic groups building illicit walkway crossing, funding research and building infrastructures.

Can we shine some light on these efforts? Is there a need for deeper learning and exchanges across countries and domains of practice? We are now co-designing a Bureaucrat Hackers fellowship programme which aims to:

  • Acknowledge and celebrate innovators in public administrations across countries, types of public sector organisations, and interests.
  • Encourage them to continue on their path by creating an associated ‘fellowship program’. Fellows are nominated not only on the basis of what they have achieved in the past, but largely based on what they are trying to achieve for the future.
  • Permanently connect them into a wide peer-to-peer support network with feedback loops and horizontal and cross silo multiplication for enhanced impact.
  • Put innovative practice on the radar of senior management, with increased recognition of innovation as a key factor in promotion.
  • Mobilize a movement of public servants who design and execute novel solutions for stubborn policy issues, indirectly addressing issues of decreasing legitimacy and trust of citizens in institutions, effectiveness of governing and development.

The programme would test the hypothesis that civil servants can be the agents for change by identifying ways around rigid rules and processes- our intention is to help turn those behavior into a feature and not a bug in the system. Through our mechanism to identify, recognize/reward and amplify early signals of new practices, we will not necessarily change the culture but as Euan Semple mentions in his book “change things that affect people in the hope that doing so gives them a good reason to adapt their behavior.”

At the end of the month, a number of bureaucrat hackers will join us for a bit of a hack-the-fellowship-idea session at the beautiful coast of Turkey. Stay tuned for update and if you have a story of a bureaucrat hacker, drop us a line at @elami5 and @mao_kawada.

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