Bureaucracy and change: it’s hard.

Before starting
Please note that all thoughts and opinions are my own, albeit infinitely informed by the diverse, talented and committed people with whom I work.
These thoughts and opinions are in no way to be taken as representative of the government for which I work.

The challenges of bureaucracy

Public servant? Me too.

We all know the public service is a difficult system to work in. Bureaucracy was designed over a hundred years ago, just after the industrial revolution, based on cutting edge thinking about what was required for a centralised organisation to design and deliver large-scale, fair and reliable services to the public.

There are many aspects of that bureaucracy that we still aspire to: efficient and effective delivery, fair and reliable services — but other facets are outdated and counter-productive.

We no longer want intractable hierarchies — we know that they thwart effective communication. We do not want meticulous organisational division of responsibility and outcomes, because we know that the challenges that we face don’t segment themselves tidily according to our organisational structures.

We don’t want to limit ourselves to impersonal and rigid engagement approaches, because we know that people need trust to work together effectively, and we need to work with a vast range of different stakeholders to find and appeal to our common interests.

But we’re working in a system that’s been designed and trained in the traditional bureaucratic mode, and its processes, technology and culture all work together to make it a very difficult mode to break.

In the same way, our operating approach is actively constraining our ability to learn and adapt. The diagram below attempts to capture the main drivers, and their impact on our behaviour and culture.

Time pressure

Hand holding a stopwatch
Hand holding a stopwatch
Pushing down on me, pushing down on you

At the centre of it all, we have constant time pressure. I know, this sits at odds with the stereotype of government as slow-moving.

But the truth is nowadays in much of the bureaucracy we’re working hard with limited resources, navigating outdated decision-making systems, obsolete technology and 24x7 media cycles while trying to address growing demand. This makes for an environment that is relentlessly operational — focused on processing and survival rather than learning and reflection.

The service delivery frontline, where “street level bureaucrats” make policy and government tangible to our public, is similarly constrained. These areas face constant cost cutting and structural redesigns, combined with a social and economic environment which increasingly relies on government to fill the gap in maintaining social living standards.

Frontline workers are already at full capacity trying to service existing demand — they rarely have the luxury of time to invest in learning and behavioural change.

But we know that adapting behaviours and working differently requires personal space and time — and neither of these are commonly available or valued in our operating model.

Then within this general condition of time scarcity, we have three other drivers that constrain our ability to change:

  • the knowledge economy
  • risk digestion
  • and our personal vulnerability

The knowledge economy

Small squirrel eating a nut that it’s holding in its paws
Small squirrel eating a nut that it’s holding in its paws
Cute but territorial and an inveterate hoarder

Bureaucracy was originally formed to create a structure in which technical specialists could do what they were good at, repeatedly and consistently, at scale. Government has adopted this certainty and matured bureaucracy on the foundation of being the biggest player in the room, the body with all the authority and power, and therefore the player with all the answers.

This is a problem.

The reality of our current environment requires us to be learners, not answer-owners. It needs us to model humility and the ability to listen and work with our stakeholders; to understand the value of diverse perspectives and appreciate that there is no single ‘right’ answer to complex problems.

But our working operations require the opposite. We must know things and have answers — to forecast the future, to write the strategy, to inform the Minister. We hold our information close and tend to value knowledge over learning.

We squirrel away contacts and insights and evidence and learning — sometimes because our personal vulnerability means that our territorial knowledge makes us feel more powerful, and sometimes just because we’re so busy that we’re not making reflective space to identify other stakeholders who may benefit from sharing.

Regardless of the rationale, information tends to be hoarded rather than shared. By not proactively reaching out and sharing what we learn and know, we lose the opportunity to evolve our thinking by testing with other colleagues, let alone external stakeholders.

This knowledge economy — where knowledge is the currency that is bartered or saved — means that capabilities like curiousity, learning, active listening and collaborative engagement are neither legitimised or valued. And these are critical capabilities for a workforce working in a complex environment with multiple stakeholders to navigate a pathway through wicked problems.

Risk digestion

Close-up of a cow’s face
Close-up of a cow’s face
Super-processed output

We often talk about how government is risk averse, but it’s rarely a useful conversation. We tend to focus on on how ‘fear of failure’ is stopping us from taking the risks we need, and how public servants are scared to take on risk because they’ll be punished.

What we need to talk about here is not about the risks associated with specific experiments or innovation projects. It’s the way that our systems and culture are constructed to squeeze out perceived risk at every step of decision-making and engagement.

We live in a hierarchy where decisions are made at every level. Every individual is trained to take orders from the top and digest them for their subordinates’ consumption. Then in turn we digest our subordinates’ production in anticipation of our managers’ requirements as we push content back up the line.

Without cross-hierarchical interactions and engagement, teams self-monitor and self-regulate to ensure that they deliver their interpretation of what their managers want. And in turn executives’ directions are diluted by layers of middle management risk minimisation down to the workers.

As a result, roughage that may exist at either end of the hierarchy, whether coming up from the coalface or down from the executive, is often processed out into flavourless pap by the end of the digestion process.

The opportunities for change, driven either by top-down initiative or front-line insight, are systematically winnowed out through micro-interactions embedded in formalised systems of engagement that sterilise genuine debate and engagement.

Our personal vulnerability

Fully-inflated puffer fish on a blue background
Fully-inflated puffer fish on a blue background
U can’t touch this.

At the end of the day, for a system to change, its participants need to change the way they behave. And behavioural change is notoriously difficult. It can be supported by the environment, but ultimately it’s an individual endeavour. And an individual needs to have the confidence, space, resources and support to learn and embed a different way of doing things.

As noted above, our system — with its time pressure, emphasis on knowing the right answer and processing knowledge up and down the hierarchy — does not encourage the feeling of psychological safety that is so critical to learning. The system creates an environment where individuals are effectively held perpetually in the ‘fight or flight’ zone, trying to make the right decisions to manage risk under tight timelines and unrealistic expectations of certainty.

Without insightful and carefully tailored, long-term interventions, it is unrealistic to expect that individuals in this environment have the capacity and confidence to prioritise their own learning, create time and space for it, legitimise it for their subordinates and maintain the line with their peers and managers — and this is an issue at every level of the bureaucracy.

**********

In the coming blogs that sit around and across this framework, I’d like to share what I’ve seen at work over the last five years in the public service. This learning draws on the Nesta States of Change program, incorporating odd pieces of research and the wide range of practice that we’ve come across along the way, but most of all it’s based on my experience of the challenges and opportunities we’ve faced in the state government context.

I’ve discussed this thinking with innumerable practitioners, specialists and academics domestically and internationally, and my big takeaway is that these learnings are not unique to any one jurisdiction. We all share the same challenges, as well as the same commitment to change.

All of these discussions continue to build on and expand our shared understanding of how we can best get these massive systems to shift. I look forward to feedback and an ever-expanding conversation around learning — both in theory and practice.

Pragmatic opportunist working in government to help good things happen. Genetically optimistic and perpetually plotting. All views are my own.

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