Creative Bureaucracy

The world is changing dramatically. Are public bureaucracies and governance systems up to the complex challenges they face? The discretionary effort of employees is declining as disenchantment grows. This is heading for crisis proportions.

Therefore in collaboration with the South Australian government’s Change SA programme and other local authority partners we are currently undertaking a global overview and literature search on innovative approaches to running bureaucracies.

This will clarify how there should be a new organizational ethos which should shape the characteristics and operating dynamics of the early 21st century public bureaucracy? Is this radically different from the efficiency and effectiveness paradigm associated with the late 20th century? Does being resourceful, strategically agile, responsive and creative lie at its core? What characteristics are needed for the 21st century public bureaucracy?

The bureaucracies we have were developed to solve the problems of their time and reflect the culture of their age. At their best they sought systematic procedures to bring transparency, fairness and equity to decision making. Yet as they evolved weaknesses appeared. Bureaucracies were once seen as benign and modern if somewhat technocratic. Has the efficiency focus created a neo-bureaucratic centralism? This needs reassessing in the context of the co-creation ethos, user driven service innovation and the desire for personal empowerment.

Changes are already afoot in the organisational practices of the public sector, commercial companies and wider world. It includes a shift to involving users more in exploring policies, products or solutions; a shift from hierarchical to network thinking, a breakdown in traditional disciplinary boundaries, and cultural cross-fertilization. These have implications for how bureaucracies need to operate. The 21st century bureaucracy should combine the best of the 20th century bureaucracy with an ethical framework that understands the evolving lessons and innovations about what makes a good organization work.

The creative bureaucracy thesis seeks to marry two seemingly incompatible concepts – creativity and bureaucracy, which seem to be in tension. Creativity focuses on resourcefulness, imagination and flexibility, bureaucracy on order, systems, certainty and predictability. The power of integrated, joined up thinking is recognized and new generalists are required able to grasp specialist knowledge as well as able to range across disciplines.

There is a need to shift the negative perceptions of bureaucracy and those that work in them. Many people who work in bureaucracies are not expressing their full talents. Can we create conditions to better harness their imaginations, creativity and competences?


There are an increasing number of examples of rethinking how organizations work. The Sunday Times in Britain annually surveys ‘best public sector’ organizations. 200 organisations competed and the views of 45,000 employees were canvassed. The lessons repeat themselves and reinforce academic work. The need for clarity and a compelling narrative for the organization, clearly articulated and well communicated by the leadership, a culture of openness, involvement and empowerment, a sense of dynamism and crucially ‘walking the talk’.

The central thread highlighted is to find structures as well as personal qualities in managers and leaders that harness the potential of people and trigger them to use their discretionary effort.

‘Gov. 2.0’ seeks to reshape civic life through technology. Here citizens become problem solvers, and the role of “public service” is seen as the imagining of new, creative solutions to old, intractable problems. Active citizenship here is beyond voting and getting involved in campaigning. Public institutions are a “platform” rather than a “service provider”.

The open data movement, triggered initially by Washington’ ‘Apps for Democracy’ process is a response and now is a world-wide movement. Opening out public data for citizen use unleashes energy, motivation and commitment and saves money in creating solutions.

Civil Servant 2.0 a Dutch initiative discussing the use of social media in public service. The values are based on the user as the producer, the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ and crowdsourcing notions, collaboration and networking. It shifts the self-perception of civil servants. The British government organization NESTA has set up a Public Services Lab to explore further innovations in public service delivery.

Calgary’s Community Standards Process focuses on intent and principle so encouraging officials to focus on the spirit rather than letter of a law or rule. Calgary recognized getting people to comply with bye-laws requires different tools and personnel with different skills than are normally found in enforcement jobs. Rather than controlling actions or behaviours they encourage new behaviours by involvement in creating laws and a rewards system so it becomes self-regulating. By co-creating bye-laws afresh compliance increased dramatically.


The methodology in exploring a bureaucracy and its capacity to react to changing circumstances and to fulfil the potential of employees is threefold. First, the broader context of the city is reviewed. Second, an attempt is made to grasp its structure and systems. Lastly we probe what would make people perform better. The aim is to understand the balance between structure and people. Does the system determine the experience of working or do the attitudes of people shape the system.

Together these help draw a map of the organization, its dynamics and what creates barriers to change. A series of questions helps uncover what drives the different levels of employee. They are of two types. Some act as a psychological ‘check’ reminding people of the ‘now’ and its real challenges. Others are positive encouraging people to reimagine rather than closing down. The goal is to establish what provides motivation and how personal ambitions can be aligned with the organizational dynamics.

Questions include: What gives you energy? When are you most alive, excited or committed? What gives your organisation life? When this organisation works at its best, what happens? How close are you to reaching current goals? How would the organization need to change for you to achieve your aims? What’s good or lees good about working in your bureaucracy? What is creative in it? What should it be doing? What’s standing in the way? How could you by-pass blockages? What is blocking: the system of people? What does creativity and creative leadership mean to you? What new forms of governance could make things more creative? What would the rewards be for you and your organisation? At what level of energy and commitment are you working? 100%, 80%, 60% or below 50%?

The Problem

Deep seated pressures operating world-wide are forcing organizations to change their ways of working, yet there is opportunity in the crisis. Five are of crucial significance:

There are increased demands to be empowered as educational standards rise and expectations for more fulfilling jobs. More educated employees want more say and not instructed or consulted in tokenistic ways. They want to be involved in decision making. This is part of the democratic impulse. Organizations operating with empowered employees are more productive, satisfied and innovative.

New business models, secondly, are evolving which are more open, collaboration based and increasingly focused on co-creation. This process has reached a head of steam and increasingly shapes the external environment. Whilst private, community and public sector organizations have different aims, operating methods and criteria for success there is an alignment on these basic principles.

Communication methods, thirdly, are moving from one way narrowcasting, which reflects a hierarchical top down organizational approach and attitude. Instead two-way, multichannel, simultaneous, immersive, iterative, conversational forms are dominant which are far more controlled by the user and less by authority. The new social media are an expression. The emergence of the Facebook and Twitter generation are creating a new knowledge ecology. The structure of institutions is increasingly being decoupled as bureaucracies everywhere, struggling to manage order, cannot hold their own against novel open institutions enabled by new media which often cause unpredictable results.

The weaknesses of strict hierarchical organizational forms are increasingly apparent on organizational effectiveness and efficiency. It changes notions of what management and leadership is and how managers and leaders should operate. They are less controllers and more enablers providing broad direction, strategic focus and vision.

Finally the crisis of public finances is exacerbating the above. All governments face a convoluted and exacerbating crisis of decreasing incomes and increasing demands on expenditure. This has dramatic impacts of threatening proportions likely to create political and social instability unless novel solutions are found.

The ‘creative bureaucracy’ idea is not a plan, but a proposed way of operating that helps create better plans and better future ways of operating. It is an adaptive, responsive and collaborative organisational form that in principle can harness the initiative and full intelligences of those working in them and respond to the changing demands of those they seek to serve.