Back in 2003 I was working for the state government in a fantastic job and I was happy. Or so I thought.
The fact that I worried all day, everyday, I assumed was just a part of my make-up. After all there was a lot of fear in government – people afraid of doing the wrong thing, of each other, of those in power, of citizens, of the media.
Most of the work I did was signed by others – as their work. I was so used to expressing the thoughts of others, I really didn’t know what I thought.
Almost everyone I worked with was smart, friendly and well intentioned. The few that weren’t would seep into my thoughts and make me over cautious. I’d sit in meetings wondering if I was allowed to speak, or how far I could go.
I was surprised how little space there was to talk about things. Even the most senior people went silent when asked for ideas or for their thoughts. Meetings rarely got into the real issues we were trying to deal with.
Then the government created the ‘Thinkers in Residence’ program and, with the help of my team and others, I secured two thinkers – Herbert Girardet and Charles Landry.
The idea was that they would live in Adelaide for two to three months and work intensively on programs around being a green and creative city respectively. Neither of them had been a public servant. They weren’t versed in the rules I took for granted.
So they came into our workplace and they were nice to everyone, oblivious to signs of power and importance, deeply interested in ideas, enthusiastic and optimistic. Through them we made new connections – we got out and about, met people we’d never normally meet, and talked about things in new ways.
An unexpected thing happened. I started to see my world through their eyes – and it did not look good. Each of them had fun. I rarely did.
They made me realise you could work seriously and have a lot of fun.
Each of them was open, engaging. They wanted to talk with people all over the place. With Charles in particular we pushed the envelope. We did a ‘Myers Briggs’ of the city. We met a historian and talked history of Adelaide. We met a Feng Shui expert and walked with him around the city. We met recent migrants, entrepreneurs, young people across wider Adelaide – it was fun, it was interesting and it felt liberating in a way that was new to me.
When they completed their residencies and left – I felt the loss. The air felt heavy again.
But I was lucky the connections with Herbert and Charles continued in their own ways. Charles and I talked a lot about government. Why was it hard for people to break through? What was creativity in the context of the bureaucracy. Why it was so hard for many career civil servants to express themselves, and why that was a loss to their organisations and to cities?
Late last year Charles and I brought our thinking together in ‘The Creative Bureaucracy’ as a starting point for a conversation. It’s an attempt to try and get beneath the usual conversations around leadership, silos, politics etc.
As Jerry Hirshberg, author of ‘The Creative Priority’ has written – a bureaucracy is a ‘perfect idea killing machine’. Yet in our era we need an engaged, smart, creative government more than we ever have.
We have serious problems to deal with. But we won’t do that well if we drain our government organisations of the energy, the autonomy, the outward focus they will need.
As we know, being serious or self important is not necessary for solving serious problems. The smartest people are often the lightest, kindest and funniest.
Our government systems need people to bring forth their best talents. Instead of making people fit a mould, we need systems that adapt, learn, inspire and act.
We waste so much talent and potential.
There are many signs for hope. Individuals and governments are changing systems and acting with imagination, learning as they go. SA has been pushing the boundaries in many areas.
Our cities are shaped – both their physical design and their atmospheres – by many people in government, in deliberate and unconscious ways. If we want our cities to be uplifting places, we need to care about the atmosphere of their bureaucracies.
We want our bureaucrats to bring energy and imagination to their organisations – and have it built up and extended. We want them to have fun in the process.
Imagine how our cities and systems might feel with the amazing boosts of energy of thousands of engaged and inspired people.
The Creative Bureaucracy is now available from Book Depository.