The Creative Bureaucracy Festival, Berlin, 2018

When you mention the term ‘creative bureaucracy’ people laugh and say ‘isn’t that an oxymoron?’.

But Sebastian Turner, publisher of Tagesspiegel, Berlin’s leading daily paper, found the term ‘creative bureaucracy’ inspiring when he first heard it from Charles Landry.

It crystallised something he’d been thinking about. Why did his paper ‘listen’ to everyone except government bureaucrats? He was tired of reading multiple articles about bureaucratic failure.  He believed that effective government was essential to a functioning world. But it needed inspired bureaucrats. They were unlikely to be inspired by continual criticism.

‘The Creative Bureaucracy and its radical common sense’ was written by Charles Landry and myself. It was released late in 2017. Charles is an expert in creative cities and has thought widely about the challenges of this era. I work as an urban strategist but was a government bureaucrat for more than 20 years. We were each concerned with the whittling away of policy imagination within government; the sense of trapped talent in bureaucracies; and the need for imaginative approaches by governments in an increasingly complex world.

Turner thinks big, then acts. In 2009, he created Falling Walls. Inspired by the fall of Berlin’s wall, it finds new areas where walls need to fall across science and the future of society. It’s an international conference with satellite events all over the world.

In 2017, he created the Global Solutions Summit to bring people together around the most pressing issues of our times.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke at the Summit in 2018. It feeds in to the agenda for G20 summits.

He took the idea of a creative bureaucracy and turned it into a Creative Bureaucracy Festival to celebrate and highlight creative thinking in public bureaucracies. Turner plans for it to be an annual event.

The Festival  ‘founders’ met at the end of June, 2018.  Only a few months later the Festival was held on the 7th and 8th September, 2018.

Charles Landry had a big role, drawing on his own network of ‘creative bureaucrats’ and inviting contributions from across the world.  ‘Founders’ were invited to curate a ‘slot’. A large contingent from Australia attended and spoke, including myself. Almost everyone, I believe, paid their own way.

Tagesspiegel threw its organising and event skills behind it. Humboldt University contributed their main building on Unter Den Linden.

What made the event original was not necessarily the format. There were seven concurrent sessions, most in German. In that respect it was like a conference or Festival of Ideas.

It was the spirit of the Festival that struck a chord with participants. It felt like an idea in the process of being invented. More like learning together rather than learning from experts. No-one has it worked out. We’re all trying to consider the implications and opportunities.

Despite the event being about government it wasn’t dominated by ministers or departmental CEOs. There were no acknowledgements of politicians or bureaucrats in the audience. They were there, but they were there to listen.

It’s amazing that we’re in an era where politicians and senior bureaucrats attending sessions to listen feels unusual, but there we are.

Only about a third of people in each (English) session were bureaucrats. The general public attended, along with those from business and the community. It wasn’t a free event but tickets were under €30 for the weekend.

The first evening was a ‘Fuck-Up’ night. Leaders of public projects that had gone wrong spoke about the reasons and what they had learned. One project was a health care card. Another was the program around refugees. The most controversial project of them all, to people in Berlin, was the unfinished airport.

Berlin Brandenberg Airport construction started in 2006 with a plan to open in 2011. For many reasons to do with planning and design, changing project requirements, a lack of co-ordination and project management, it is unlikely to open before 2020. The CEO, appointed in 2017, spoke at the event.

It’s hard to imagine an Australian or UK equivalent. I’ve never heard leaders of failed government projects tell the stories of what went wrong.

But hearing the stories is very helpful. It makes the complexity clear. It draws you in on the challenge – how could it have gone differently? What would you have done? How hard would it have been to be in that situation?

If you work in government you are accustomed to failure. So many things go wrong, or don’t quite work. Yet we rarely talk about why something failed.

The result is that problems are downplayed or directions shift before lessons are processed and learnt.

A fear of the media and ‘headlines’ reduces bureaucratic courage. This won’t serve us well in a world of increasing complexity and converging challenges.

Governments that try to do big things (and sometimes the small) will inevitably fail at some point. For the good of citizens, cities and the world, governments need to ‘learn’ through reflecting on, not avoiding, the big challenges.

In this context the print or mainstream media is the most feared. So Tagesspiegel engaging with this challenge is refreshing. Perhaps Tagesspiegel will also help bureaucracies feel less afraid of ‘headlines’.

The closing event at Klunkerkranich, a nightclub on the top of a car park at the Neukölln Arcaden, shows how we can reinvent the mundane for the conditions people want now. It’s not just a ‘hang out’ for cool people in the evening – it’s a place for the community during the day – offering a green oasis. After all every western city has a bland car park serving an ordinary shopping centre ready to be reimagined.

I assume Turner created that experience as a metaphor. Everything has the potential for good, to be interesting, to make a difference. We need to recapture the potential of bureaucracies, if they are to be the organisations we need them to be.

For me it is amazing that the creative bureaucracy has moved from being a small book, a think piece, to an ‘international’ festival in under a year.

A number of cities at the Festival said they want to develop their own festivals and responses to the idea of a creative bureaucracy.

More important is if it can feed a renewed positive spirit within and across bureaucracies and bureaucrats.

Because we need bureaucrats to be able to bring their full potential to our world.

One thought on “The Creative Bureaucracy Festival, Berlin, 2018

  1. This is great. As someone who has worked all over the place including over a decade in the Australian Government public service, I found this fascinating. In the Australian context the public service is a great national asset, akin to other great nation-building projects of the era, like the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Yet after years of neglect and outright vandalism by successive lacklustre government it can range from inspired brilliance to sad mediocrity, so more of this approach is needed. By the way there is an organisation in Canberra called ThinkPlace working with government departments on innovative approaches to policy. DESIGN Canberra also organised a forum on some of these themes a couple of years back:


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