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  • Writer's pictureJames Newport

Don’t let the bureaucracy grind you down

Updated: May 13, 2022

How to handle being part of a system that doesn't work

A civil servant that we interviewed told us this story:

They were working on a complex and novel policy proposal. To ensure the proposal took account of the long-term, they wanted to understand future trends in the policy area. Fortunately there was a large community of academics that knew a lot about the area, so it would just be a case of consulting with them! When they suggested this, they were met with significant resistance from their team. The reasons weren’t very clear, but it seemed to be something to do with the risk of exposing half complete policy plans. Our civil servant persevered though, they continued to make the case for academic engagement and did eventually bring in a team of academics to discuss the trends in the area. Unfortunately it had taken several months to get to that point and the proposal was at a late stage, so the actual value this provided was limited.

The above story isn’t unique. The government is bureaucratic and risk averse. This isn’t too controversial to say. Civil servants will regularly complain that:

  • Things take too long and it’s often not clear why

  • Too much sign-off is needed for minor things

  • They feel hemmed in by huge networks of stakeholders, even when trying to make small or obviously positive improvements to a system

How can you manage to get important work done in a bureaucratic system and how can you ensure you don’t get frustrated and burnt out? The rest of this post offers some solutions.

The are four main reactions to finding yourself part of a malfunctioning system:

  • Understand it

  • Accept it

  • Fight it

  • Flee from it

Understand the bureaucracy

There is always a reason that the system is the way that it is. Sometimes that reason is good, sometimes not. Often seemingly convoluted processes are built up without anyone having any holistic oversight. Instead they come from lots of actors trying to get the system to meet their complex or specific needs.

Empathise with the people in the system. Be curious. Ask everyone why things are the way they are. Ask people what they care about and what their managers care about.

Validate that you are not crazy for thinking the system is not working correctly. Big bureaucracies are ships built at sea. Many processes aren’t explicitly designed and those that are often aren’t designed with a full understanding of the problem.

Understanding is key to both acceptance and successfully working to fix the system. And if you start in a new area and it looks like a part of the way things work is broken, maybe it is, but maybe things are that way for a reason. (See: Chesterton’s fence).

Accept the bureaucracy

This is how this system is. It might be better in the future, but this is how it is now. We often waste energy wishing things were otherwise. We imagine a better system and become frustrated with the inadequacies of the one we are in. When something we care about progresses slower than we expected, that is frustrating. But it’s also an opportunity to update your expectations. Learn how to connect with how things really are and avoid the painful sense of dissatisfaction.

Fight the bureaucracy

Does that team really need to be part of this process? Is there a reason that email needs to go through your entire management chain? Is there really any risk here? If not, try making this point. Find ways to meet the needs of the people who are insisting on the bureaucracy being there. Find the people who are likely to veto your work and find a way to avoid their veto. Join up with other teams that are fighting the same fight. Talk to us about this!

Make sure you prioritise. It’s understandably frustrating that a HR process slowed you down unnecessarily, but is improving it the best use of your time in government? (it might well be, but there will be lots of other things that you can improve)

Most people in the world can only sit at the receiving end of government bureaucracy. You have an opportunity, by being in government, to affect real change here. Connect with that fact if you find it motivating.

Flee the bureaucracy Don’t risk burning out trying to get things done in a system that isn’t working with you. Some parts of government are less bureaucratic. Many leaders and managers will really empower you to make things happen. If you don’t feel like you can do important things in your unit, think about leaving. You might also think about leaving government.

If you want to talk to us about how you can deal with bureaucracy in your area - sign up for IGC coaching.

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