Bureaucratic radicals

This is a work-out-my-thinking post, inspired by a remarkable twitter convo on radical ideas started by Abhay Adhikari earlier this week, then specifically by suse cairns ‘s reply and the many other back and forths that led me to flippantly write ‘bureacratic radicals’ Credit and thanks to the many on that thread.

Activists, agitators, revolutionaries: they want change and they want it now. We all know these fabulous people, and so much has been, and will be, achieved by urgency and energy.

I want to suggest that it is not the only way to effect meaningful change. A raging righteous fire burns down the forest in days; but the thick woods have a habit of growing back. A glacier is slow, tedious, far less gratifying to watch; but the rock is ground to sand.

To be that glacier, in the ponderous, cautious landscape of a major cultural organisation, I suggest becoming a Bureacratic Radical.

I’ve been in management roles in museums the last fifteen years. The radical approach to change doesn’t resonate with me. The goals? Yes. The methods? No. I try to use of the apparatus of governance, processes and formal power to effect radical change. There are other routes, such as being the CEO, or a funder, or having the credibility and base of an activist group. But for me, not options.

What does this involve? – mindset

First, recognise that bureaucracy is neutral. It’s just a machine. The machine was built for a purpose by people. It’s being operated by people. Therefore it can be changed, or operated differently, by people. (Historically, it has been in the service of privilege and power — leading to non-neutral museums. But that’s how people use it, not the bureaucracy itself.)

Secondly, recognise that many of the conservatives are not opposed to radical goals, or to change. They simply want rectitude and order, and the clamour for change feels like it disturbs a core value.

Thirdly, see that conservatism does good deeds. At the end of the year, the financial accounts must balance. Auditors must grant a clean bill of health. Otherwise the organisation will cease to exist. This is the existential fear of a CFO; and a worried CFO will block you.

Ok. Bureaucracy is neutral, many are scared of disorder, and conservatism has benefits. What next?

What does this involve? – examples

Hack templates

A project or departmental plan is often a key document. As a manager, you can usually add or change subsections. Add things like,

  • Community consultation approach
  • Diversity training
  • Commercialising Collections

Specific example, at a previous organisation, I changed exhibition project briefs to have a compulsory section on audience engagement during development. For some, this meant evaluation. But for others it meant going out: taking objects to refugee centres, talking and gleaning new stories. If it’s in the template, there’s an opening to write. If you write, there's an opportunity to get a mandate.

Even better, formally review templates and set formal review dates on whether they’re working better. This reassures people who work in cycles of board policy papers. And if that formal review identifies ‘how will we consult a linguistically diverse community’ as a necessary step – there’s your mandate. And formal time limited activities reduce fear; review them openly and transparently. 90% of the time, they’ll have been a success so will carry on.

Example. At Museums Victoria, I instigated a Review of Exhibition Processes. Doesn’t that sound nice and bureaucratic? To cite one of the many things that came out of that, one of the legal and governance team identified that how we defined objectives was a problem for reporting. We were mixing ‘institutional objectives’ and ‘audience outcomes’ as if they were the same thing and that made it confusing when reporting to the Board. (See opportunities. Seize them!) So from a conservative department, at the heart of formal power, there was a mandate to create a template that would articulate and bring into the open whenever there was a clash between an organisational goal (charge high ticket prices and make more money!) and an audience goal (‘widen access!’).

Argue from the wellspring of power positions

Old Power takes its authority for granted, and rarely examines the formal source of that power. The source of bureaucratic power is in the documentation — especially policies. Know them; see how they can be interpreted in the interests of change. (This is ninja level)

You can go back to the founding article. Museum Victoria’s statutory instrument, the Museums Act 1983, define one function as:

to control, manage, operate, promote, develop and maintain…
(i) for the holding of public exhibitions;
(ii) for the assembly, education, instruction, entertainment or recreation of the public or any sector of the public;

See that word buried in the list — Entertainment! So now we can argue for fun. We can argue against, say, old white man history scholarship for something lively and engaging — even something for a sector of the public. (I should say that fun wasn’t a hard sell at Museum Victoria, I’m just using an example.)

Another one is role descriptions. Make sure you know exactly what is in them (my experience is that these are public documents, or can be made so very easily by asking internally using Freedom of Information legislation as your backup). It may be that someone’s role contains obligation that aren’t being discharged and you can just ask them to be involved. So, turns out the head of facilities is responsible for disability access? Cool: invite them to the meeting where inclusion for an evening event is being discussed. The org sees them as dealing with lifts and ramps – but the meeting will usually change in tone by their presence.

Human Resources

Legislation and policy will require certain things in this area. In Victoria, Australia, mandated Public Sector values include accountability. This gives me as a manager the ability to neutrally raise questions such as ‘how can we increase our accountability to our local audience?’

Hack KPIs

You’ve got to do them. Is there a way to make them better? Extending scope of existing eg reporting number? Include Diversity. Analyzing staff satisfaction survey results? Seek correlations you care about such as seeing if bullying or happiness correlates with, say, gender. If you find them, create a way of reporting on this analysis.

Process thinking

Activists have usually done the hard work of analyzing and understanding the problems, and are seeking to implement solutions. But presenting solutions to Old Power doesn’t suit the need for process. There needs to be a shared analysis of the problem first. And then the solution can be done. This is not challenging the rightness of the solution per se, but it is working with the grain of the kind of conservative thinking we need to overcome.

Radical elements of new projects often get derailed by whataboutery and the Slippery Slope fallacy. Process thinking can fix this by resolutely defining the scope of the project and the group’s role in enabling that project. So imagine a little project working with refugees in the collection over a weekend. A steering group might suddenly argue that a project like this will lead to a reduction in the budgets for school programs next year and blah blah. Don’t argue with this. Just decree it out of scope for this discussion. Take it up with the project’s authorizer, don’t argue that point here.

Not only does this help the project team, it also demonstrates how serious you are about following good process. Kudos and trust from sections of old power; political capital to spend later.

Forcing transparency

Old Power often operates well in the dark, behind closed doors. Create total transparency and rigour. For instance, I introduced formal Prince2 methods for project quality review. (Didn’t call it that, obviously: mention Prince2 and people in the culture sector generally scream and run away. Bear with.) This is an open process with a few steps:

  1. Team present the thing, share documents etc.
  2. Comments are captured in a spreadsheet (it should be blue!)
  3. Each comment is responded to by the team (no, red is better!)
  4. The Project leader makes recommendations (keep it red, because …)
  5. The formal approval group see steps 2,3,4 and they either agree or disagree with the Project Leader’s recommendations

The key here is that this is a public document, shared with everyone. There are no corridor stitch ups. Also, the team has had a right of reply to every comment- empowering. Compare the old ‘show the designs to the director’ approval route.


In leadership training through the lens of Henry V — best course i ever did — the compulsory and most important thing to study is the final act, in which Henry consolidates peace by marrying and ‘building the garden’. The goal of radical bureaucracy is to make radical ideas banal. Ideas that were unthinkable twenty years ago are now just routine. So the key is for agitation to always look like it can be welcomed into the corridors of power. Che Guevara in cosy slippers. So use corporate templates, formal reports. Weave it into the organisation’ fabric.

Sell your soul

You won’t like this but maybe it’s a bargain. Maybe if the CEO cares about winning a design award, and they’re concerned this community project will be ugly… OK, take it on the chin. Hire the star designer and make it look great. (sidebar: design a way in which consultative projects always look beautiful is a great design challenge.)

A board member really wants their star object in prime position with a label written by a professor? Fine. Give them that. But commission a critic to give a lecture on its acquisition too.

Risk management

The very heart of formal processes. Scary tables in excel, formal reviews, a language that feels off putting to change agents. But it doesn’t have to be. A desire for greater commercialisation of Collections through merchandising might’ve met with opposition from collection manager and thus the director of curatorial. Don’t argue with them. But document the risk of not monetising key assets in financial terms through a corporate risk process and allow the CFO to tackle it…


It’s far from enough on its own. Activism is also required. And, working within the bureaucracy, you may arouse the ire of activists, to whom you may just look like more of the same power. This is OK, we have the privilege inside the building we can wear that.

Sometimes operationalising the radicals is really hard because they actively resist, for a range of reasons. For example, at Museums Victoria, a Community engagement Committee had made great progress in evolving practice over seven or so years by being a small collegiate group of those that care, sharing best practice and advising. I suggested that they could become a group that also exercised some formal judgement on projects; to be asked ‘does this project brief and plan follow inclusive principles?’ as part of approval. This felt anathema to their culture of discursive consultation and they said no. My attempt to give them greater agency came across as despoiling the principles that had made them successful.

Got to be assertively neutral through a conflict. This can be personally hard.

If power bites back – think like tai chi, not like boxing. Roll back, absorb, apologise for the miscommunication, you were only trying to follow the best process and work professionally. Regroup and continue.


Is this all quite disengenous? Maybe. I haven’t worked out where I stand on that.

My previous roles have been in organisations doing amazing work but with pockets of old wrong stasis. I’m now working in an organisation remarkably and consistently committed to a fairly singular definition of good, and in a position of greater formal power. I don’t yet know what that will mean. But I do know I expect and hope my team will hack me too 😉.