James Reeve
Feb 11 · 7 min read

tl;dr — We’re having a ‘bureaucracy hack’.

  • It’s in July.
  • It’s probably near London. Though we wish it wasn’t London — but that is where decision makers and quite a lot of the users are.
  • The subjects of the hack are wide ranging so we’re going to ask people to do some pre-work before we publish a shortlist.
  • You should tweet at us (use #bureaucracyhack) if you’ve got a problem and you want to start developing it. We can help you define the problem, find users and process owners.

So if you want to know more, Dear Reader, onward:

This post is about where we think we should take the idea of a ‘Bureaucracy Hack’ which we recently floated on twitter.

This one’s a no-brainer

The thing is, vague ideas are pretty easy to sign up to. Everyone is behind ‘ending world hunger’ or ‘fewer mosquitoes’. It’s not until you get to the detail that you have to make hard decisions about how. So we started off by defining what we thought we mean by ‘bureaucracy’ — so far so good. But then, looking at the google sheet where people had been logging their ideas, we realised that people have hundreds of different thoughts for how to run the day. We can’t mash these all together (it wouldn’t work) — nor should we. We have to do the hard work to make these ideas simple — then test them back with the people who might want to come. So that’s what we’re going to do here.

What people said

User feedback: Midnight civil-servant frustration

What people did agree on is that ‘bureaucracy’ arises when there’s discord between the people who govern a process and the people going through a process (to create value). So at this hack we will probably be working on how to do good, simple governance of the processes which let us get stuff done. What’s not to like?

Well, there will be a natural tension here which might feel uncomfortable — between process creators and process users. But it’s digging down into this tension which is where the value is. By understanding one another we can build trust and empathy. We need to create a safe space for productive conflict — unfiltered, passionate debate about things that matter. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when we see whole groups of people committed to an idea or approach.

There were some other key themes that came out of all the ideas, let’s take them one by one:

Choosing the right problems

As with lots of things in life (and work) — getting to the right answers starts with figuring out the right problem. This is going to be the hardest bit. We need problems which are hard enough to be worth the effort but not so hard that they can’t be solved in a day. We think that the characteristics of a good problem are:

  1. Could be solved (or prototyped) in roughly a day — day-sized
  2. Can be easily grasped without too much domain knowledge — approachable
  3. Leads to a real difference — makes time for public servants to create more value — tangible
  4. Is a problem we can actually do something about — actionable
  5. Happens in lots of different places in the public sector — structural

We think there is probably scope for us to tackle about 3–5 problems of varying sizes and complexity.

Choosing the problems will be hard — so we’ll need to do some work ahead of time to define some useful problems and make sure we can get the right people there (see below).

Structure of the hack (before, day, after, location)

On the day we’ll get everyone together at the start, pitch each of the problems that are available then allow people to go off and get cracking. At the end of the day we’ll come back together to show & tell and reflect. We figure that for the day everyone is together, if we can provide warmth, WiFi, space, time and lunch then people will have most of what they need. We’ll also try to find good facilitators (volunteers welcome) to help teams to perform at their peak throughout the day.

We’ll take care of you

Everyone said that hack should be about one day. We figure it’ll be a long day (9am-5pm) because there will be quite a lot to do, and it’ll be a weekday because this will be work (but also fun).

However, we also know that getting the problems right will take some prep, so we will be asking people to put together problems that could be solved on the day and doing pre-work like gathering evidence, finding other people who want to tackle the problem, carefully defining the problem statement, testing it with users etc.

There’ll also be follow-up work, making sure we cash in the work we’ve done and actually take things forwards. We’ll support teams to get to a clear set of actions and set things in motion before the day is out.

The most contentious and difficult question was one of location. Lots of people said ‘not London’ which is a really good ambition — but also lots of people pointed out that many decision-makers might be located in London. We don’t want to make a tokenistic choice of a non-London location, so we will take a look at the problems that form and where the users (participants) are before making a decision.

Getting the right people there

The whole thing hinges on people. If we get the right people there then the problems will melt away. If we don’t, we’ll be stuck in the same circular pit of helplessness that we find ourselves in at work. We will help to get the right people there by using the power of our networks (and hopefully some goodwill and good luck). But you will have to find out and then tell us who those people are! You’ll also need to bring users — people who face the ‘bureaucracy’ daily and process owners — people who can make the difficult decision to change how ‘things get done around here’.

We’ve got a plan

Is this event a OneTeamGov thing?

We think that this should be a #OneTeamGov event because we believe in and will embody the OneTeamGov principles. One of the messages that we heard most clearly at OneTeamGov Global 2018 was that some people didn’t want to get involved because there wasn’t enough focus on action or impact. We want this hack to be a new step in the journey for OneTeamGov — carving out a space for the people who want to do things (like hack) to make change happen.

So what?

So we’ll bring together good people with good problems (which will take some preparation) on a day in July. We don’t know where yet but it’ll be right for the people with the problems. We’ll spend the day together coming up with an approach to cracking the ‘bureaucracy’ — and start solving it then and there. We’ll be there to help you throughout the day to make sure your solutions turn into real change.

So what does this mean for you?

There are lots of ways you can get involved. Most importantly we’d love it if you have a problem that meets the criteria above. If you do, start thinking about defining it, who might need to be there and who the users of the process and process owners are. Who are the experts that might need to be there and who are the decision makers whose minds we need to change? We’ll post a ‘call for problems’ soon — so keep an eye out.

We will need some help to fund the event, so if you’re a company who are interested in helping out financially, email contact@oneteamgov.uk.

If you want to volunteer, let us know now via twitter or comment on this post👇. We’ll be inviting people to volunteer formally when invitations go out later in the year.

Save the date in your diaries 📅. We’re going to aim for the 3rd July.

Finally, if you love the idea and have lots of free time on your hands…join the organising team. DM me on twitter @jereeve or let us know @OneTeamGov if you’d like to join up.


UK policymakers, service designers, digital professionals and others working out how we can make government more effective. #oneteamgov

Thanks to Debbie Blanchard and Prateek Buch

James Reeve

Written by

Husband, Dad, Chemist and Civil Servant @ DfE, all views my own.


UK policymakers, service designers, digital professionals and others working out how we can make government more effective. #oneteamgov

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