Ah bureaucracy – the institution we love to make fun of, to ridicule, to denounce. Paradoxically it is attacked for its abuse of power and its bungling inefficiency. Yes there is red tape, yes there is insensitivity, yes there is obfuscation. But if that is the only lens we look through, we will miss allies, and initiatives within the public service that will advance our work and our agenda. Plus, we will miss an opportunity to assist these allies do more of what they would like to do – change the world!
We will also conveniently ignore the fact that government bureaucracies are not the only system that can be rule bound, inflexible and unresponsive . Ever tried to convince a local Soccer Executive to allot some of the better soccer pitches to your daughter's team occasionally?
Bureaucracies are a necessary feature of a democratic government. Public servants institutionalize, codify, apply and implement laws and policies. Public servants know how to do this – a critical skill set I admire. This is their specialty. And many do it well. Not always but more than they are given credit for. During the implementation of the Registered Disability Savings Plan we worked with two federal departments and the disability welfare ministries of every provincial and territorial government in Canada. That's a lot of bureaucracies! In less than 18 months they turned traditional welfare systems on their head (eliminating claw back; removing asset exemptions) and created new procedures for a product that never existed before, anywhere.
However there is a weak spot inside the public service – its capacity to innovate.
Government has become so risk averse, so focused on protecting short term political priorities, too invested in the momentum of outmoded approaches that good ideas fight for a foothold. Fortunately good models are emerging.
One is Denmark's MindLab established by the Danish Government. Its mandate is to, "develop the public sector from within. We work across the public sector and involve citizens and businesses in creating better public solutions." Quite elegant and promising isn't it?
Its leader Christian Bason is an articulate voice for creating the space (physical and virtual) for public servants to innovate in genuine partnership with other 'producers' of innovation: business; non profits; individuals and families. Click here for a recent short article by Christian entitled: Use Co-Creation to Drive Public Sector Innovation. Here's an excerpt from the introduction:
Creating new solutions with people, not for them, can help drive radical innovation in the public sector. By focusing on citizens’ own experiences and resources, co-creation can help identify truly valuable services. Public managers should embrace co-creation to deliver better services and outcomes at less cost.
And stay tuned, Christian has a new book coming out this month which I will alert you to.
If a public servant doesn't open his/her window in the morning they are likely trying to figure out how to open up the space for innovation to happen inside their system and to respond more appropriately to the new ideas you are pitching to them.