On Bureaucracy

For many, the word bureaucracy will conjure up the vision of a grey faced civil servant mindlessly stamping form SPT-67 while staring blankly ahead, occasionally glancing at the clock. Those of us who work in public service know that this isn’t a reality.

Actually, we trip up our users and ourselves by mistake while trying to do the right thing — and this often leads to delay and frustration. This post isn’t about the externally held vision of bureaucracy — nor the organisational logic explored by Max Weber in 1922.

No. It’s about the internal ‘bureaucracy’ that we make for ourselves by putting in place process and governance which can go a little too far (for further reading see the end of this post). We commonly see this kind of process overkill ‘bureaucracy’ in processes like:

  • Recruitment and on-boarding new staff
  • Procurement
  • Project reporting
  • Estates management
  • ‘Human resources’

We might share some examples of the kinds of things we’ve seen in a later post.

Also, bureaucracy might not be the right word, but for the lack of a better one (suggestions welcome). I’m going to use ‘bureaucracy’ in inverted commas for the rest of this post.

‘Bureaucracy’ is only a thing if you let it be. Yes, ‘bureaucracy’ can cause friction for those trying to get stuff done — but it’s an important friction. After all, without friction we’d all fall over.

And here’s the thing: ‘bureaucracy’ doesn’t arise because of malicious or vindictive people eagerly putting barriers in the way of progress. It doesn’t stem from a love of dusty rules over living breathing humans. It isn’t even there half the time. It’s just in your mind (you might just need to understand why you are being asked to do something). And then, when you understand why, the ‘bureaucracy’ goes away. It evaporates. And behind the veil of complexity are mostly real live humans who want to help.

But if it was that easy, we wouldn’t be talking about it. ‘Bureaucracy’ is still a thing. It’s usually a product of two (or more) people not working well together. I think there are probably four underlying causes of the thing we call ‘bureaucracy’:

  • Sloth or lack of willingness to learn by someone trying to complete a process to get something done. What that person may see as ‘bureaucracy’ could well be a logical and easy thing to do — if only they would engage. We probably all do this sometimes. We use ‘bureaucracy’ as a scapegoat for our own laziness.
  • Ineffective communication between the teams trying to get stuff done and the teams there to help them do it. It takes two to Tango.
  • Sometimes processes, forms, guidance etc. may be unclear, poorly designed or under-supported. Nobody wants to run a poorly designed process — it’s painful for everyone — but sometimes people don’t have the time or skills or money to invest in improving how they do things.
  • And bad leadership — pure and simple. Some people do just want all the control — they are fearful of risk or ego-driven or unsure how to do what they should be doing. We should help them to let go — but this starts with us leading ourselves.

The trouble with ‘bureaucracy’ is that it cuts both ways. It makes the people responsible for helping us operate and keeping us to the rules feel disempowered and worthless, whilst simultaneously making the people who are trying to get things done feel frustrated and confused. With these symptoms, it can be hard to figure out which of the above causes is actually in play. But if we’re trying to get stuff done and bust ‘bureaucracy’, it’s important that we diagnose which of these three causes is the root of our problem. If we don’t, we will do the wrong thing and bad things will happen.

So how do we solve this? As people, trying to get a job done to the best of our ability, we can’t know everything. We can’t know every rule, every trick, every person. We can’t build trust with everyone. We can’t hold everything in our heads. It all comes back to relationships and communication. If we are going to hack ‘bureaucracy’ (and at least 200 of us want to) then we need to collaborate — work together to pool our skills, time and problematic processes to solve these problems. And that means we need all the people. As Joanne Rewcastle succinctly put it:

So we need everyone. We need both people frustrated by ‘bureaucracy’ who want to fix it and people who own the ‘bureaucracy’ who want to improve it. [I’m looking for a better word for this so if you think you might own a thing that gets called ‘bureaucratic’ by other people and you have a better name for it then please let me know (Is it an internal service?).]

That’s why we’re organising a hack — to bring people together in a safe space to hack just a few problems. But this time we aren’t hacking tech, we’re hacking ‘bureaucracy’. Lots of people have already fed their thoughts into this google sheet — it’s still open so tell us what you think. We’re already getting excited about it so if you’re up for the OneTeamGov Bureaucracy Hack, watch this space to sign up soon.

Further reading