Creative Bureaucracy – unleashing the creative potential of bureaucrats

This article was originally published in a special supplement of Tagesspiegel, a daily newspaper in Berlin, to coincide with the first Creative Bureaucracy Festival in 2018. It was published in German. I think it’s still relevant so here it is, slightly updated and amended to acknowledge the passage of time.

Working in government should be one of the more exciting things you can do.

Governments are dealing with almost all the most important areas of life.  The challenges of our era – climate change, ageing, cities, migration, globalisation, digital and so on – are complex, converging and need creative thinking by bureaucracies at all levels.

Yet people still think that working in the bureaucracy is a boring career choice.

The media are rarely friendly to the bureaucracy. The focus is on those things go wrong and who is to blame.

It is no surprise if bureaucrats feel dispirited about their contribution to the world.  They are continually told that the bureaucracy is inefficient or that it should be more like the private sector and that, by implication, they have less to offer than those outside government.

In 2018 I surveyed bureaucrats in Adelaide about creativity for the SA Institute for Public Administration. Did creativity matter for the state and city? Did they think they were creative? How did they express that at work?

The results of that survey, along with the work I did with Charles Landry in the book  ‘The Creative Bureaucracy’, have important implications for cities and governments.

The Australian context is obviously different to Germany and Berlin. But our systems of government have things in common. Both are federal systems.

Australian bureaucracies have been subject to multiple reform programs over the last few decades.  These have often been about efficiency, cost cutting and freeing up employment arrangements.

In 2016, Adobe repeated its global survey on attitudes to creativity. Australia was not included in that survey but Germany was. Germans associate government investment in creativity with innovation, productivity, competitiveness and happier citizens. 80% thought that, as a country, Germany was not living up to its creative potential. 83% thought that creativity was key to unlocking economic growth.

How much were they thinking about investing in creativity within government?

My smaller survey was of just over 200 people. Around 88% thought creativity was very important for the future of the state and the future of the public sector.  Yet only 23% thought their organisation expected them to think creatively at work.

Almost all participants saw themselves as creative – it was ‘highly’ or ‘very highly’ important to 89% of them. Yet many believed that their organisations were not interested in their contributions. Only 28% thought the public valued what they did.

While bureaucrats believe that the top skills they will need for the future are ‘strategic thinking’ and ‘managing complexity’ only 24% were engaged in helping to shape their organisation’s vision.

One consequence of years of reform and budget cutting is that governments have tended to ‘outsource’ their ideas functions. They contract consulting firms and experts to explore complex areas and report back on policy options.  This process can bypass people already within the organisation. The knowledge of people at middle and lower levels of bureaucracies – even at senior levels – can be disregarded.

Some think this process of ‘outsourcing thinking’ has benefits because it draws in fresh approaches. It can cut through a sort of narrow or self-serving view of the world. Obviously it’s best if systems are open and connected to the world but it also erodes the contributions of those within. It sends a message that people who want to contribute their ideas need to leave in order to do so.

In conversations with senior managers, some express frustration that their teams lack imagination. Outsiders trying to spark changes say that ‘middle levels block’ and the only way to get things done is to go straight to the top of a bureaucracy.  Those within say that bureaucracies feel fragmented and are overly secretive.

Many of the comments in the survey were about the limited range of conversations it was possible to have within organisations.  People want to be engaged. They want to share their insights and explore ideas. They want to have more natural conversations with each other and, especially, with managers.

People feel their own untapped potential.  84.5% think they could contribute more creatively at work. On average bureaucracies tap around 61% of people’s potential. If they created the right conditions for people to make a contribution governments could, in theory, have access to nearly 40% additional resource.

More than 90% want to work in a ‘values driven organisation’. Governments should already be ‘values driven’, so this should give them an advantage.

When we asked what gets in the way of their creative contributions, there are some common themes.  Hierarchies tend to squash new ideas that can’t survive multiple layers of decision-making.  Silos narrow thinking in ways that mean problems can’t be dealt with in real world ways.    Even though people don’t describe their workplaces as ‘full of fear’, many still refer to fear of change, fear of consequences, of getting things wrong.

Very few reported that they got their best ideas sitting as a desk, yet many organisations partly judge performance by the visibility of a person sitting at a desk. Most say they did their best thinking in conversation (often with family and friends or children), walking, showering or in the garden.

We are at a time where ‘talent’ is highly valued. Cities across the world compete for ‘talent’.  Yet many of the most talented are employed by bureaucracies and, oddly, not developed or extended in ways that will help them develop their potential or contribute the most value.

This has consequences.  Those with ambition won’t want to work in government, or will be hard to hold on to.  Others start to turn off, they get frustrated. People lose their sense of optimism or they channel their energy into ‘side projects’ and dreams of working on their passion projects.

In this era there are no safe havens. People know that they need to develop specific skills and take actions and initiatives to build their own ‘brands’.  The era calls on those who stand out and ‘make their mark’. Yet bureaucracies are often designed for an era where people expect to be anonymous, to fit in and not take credit.

Governments unable to draw on the potential of their ‘trapped talent’ are unlikely to be equal to the challenges of the era.

There are also ‘spillover effects’.

Government employees, as a large proportion of city workers, can either spread optimism or pessimism in the way they feel about their work and their city.  They can help shape city atmospheres in positive or negative ways.

So it is heartening that most of the comments in the survey were from people who longed to be engaged, to be challenged and to contribute. For example:

‘Challenge me’

‘I would love more opportunities to contribute’

‘I’ve been in the same organisation for 30 years and I want to see change!’

So how do we start to draw on the potential of bureaucrats? It is both easy and hard to deal with this question.

Organisations are beginning to offer more options –mimicking the approaches of start-up businesses and entrepreneurs.  So there are increasing numbers of public sector co-working spaces, accelerators, funds and time for ideas.

Leaders also need to be interested in the potential of their own organisations and people. Leaders need to learn, to experiment and change. They need to understand the power of their organisational culture – what it supports and what it limits. Many may be unaware of how their organisation feels – after all they only experience a small fraction of it.

But we also need the ‘bottom-up’ energy of bureaucrats to lead the way.  Bureaucrats can be less ‘adaptable’ and bravely express their thinking and ideas.  For this to work well there needs to be a critical mass, networked.

A movement of bureaucrats?  Just as we have witnessed through other movements in recent years it can be a startling way to reframe stories and agendas. This may be disruptive but could also bring benefits for individuals, organisations and citizens.

What do you think?




























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