Last week on a teleconference, my fellow GCE Julien asked if I was planning any holidays for the summer. I told him about the plan my boyfriend and I have to backpack southern Mexico in search of amazing food, charming pueblos, and Mesoamerican ruins. But then I kept talking, and all of a sudden I was delivering a full lecture about the Maya and the Aztec, and where the Olmec and the Toltec fit in, and how the Inca are a whole different thing, at which point I could practically hear Julien’s eyes glaze over through the phone line. I had outed myself: I’m a bit of a history geek.
So it won’t surprise you to learn that I’ve thought being a GCE — about innovation and bureaucracy — in the light of history. After all, if bureaucracy is just a fancy word for the collective processes of an organization like a country or a big company, and if innovation is just a fancy word for disruption, then both concepts are basically as old as recorded history.
In doing my research, I came across a short article (behind a paywall, sorry!) that argued that bureaucracy is an old but crucial innovation in and of itself, which hadn’t really occurred to me given the reputation of bureaucracies. And tucked within that piece was this doozy of a sentence:
This, then, is the central contradiction of bureaucracy: it is a foundational innovation that may actually serve to suppress innovation.*
Think about that for a minute. Really consider it in any context in which you’ve interacted with a bureaucracy, whether in the public service context or in the context of another large organization. What was once a brand new innovation of public administration could also be a system that is inherently un-innovative. Or to steal an overused Internet phrase: maybe the conservative nature of a bureaucracy isn’t a bug, but rather a feature.
Personally, I don’t know if I agree or not. If you agree, it becomes a rather disheartening outlook on our ability to push transformational change within a bureaucracy. If you disagree, you might cite a few examples of successful innovation in bureaucracy, but then find yourself butting up against your own lived experience; after all, there’s a reason that bureaucracies have their reputations. Or maybe both things it’s both true and false at once, that being — after all — in the nature of a good contradiction. There’s no right answer here.
As part of the GCE training Nesta is delivering, one of the core skills they highlight for public sector innovators is “political and bureaucratic awareness.” I thought I understood what that meant when we first talked about it a few months ago, but I’ve realized in thinking about bureaucracy in the light of its long history that this, at its core, is a deep, theoretical competency rather than simply a knowledge skill.
In being aware of your bureaucracy, you’ll find yourself thinking about the very bounds within which that bureaucracy operates: its power distributions, its organization structures, its mandate and purpose, etc. And it’s in that intellectual exercise where, I think, you can discover how to successfully navigate a system meant to — perhaps — crush the suggestions of change. Not understanding who likes who but rather who interacts with who and for what purpose and in what ways and what all the intervention points in that interaction.
For all of the times you’ve ever had an idea and then immediately realized there’s no way your chain of command would go for it, you’ve scratched the surface of bureaucratic awareness. But if you truly understand your bureaucracy, I suspect you might discover there’s more than one way to get an idea green lit.
I mean, if the powerful, elite bureaucrats of Téotihuacan can get the Pyramid of the Sun built despite there being absolutely no comparable precedent in the history of the Americas, then you can probably find a way to get your cool idea a few champions in your organization. Where there’s a will, there’s a way –even if there a few forms to fill out in the process.
*Roger Smith (2016), Bureaucracy as Innovation, Research-Technology Management, 59:1, 61–63