Creative bureaucracy

‘The Creative Bureaucracy’ highlights the human perspective. It understands people are at the heart of the system. It puts the lived experience of working within or with a bureaucracy centre-stage. A bureaucracy is not only a structure or ‘organigram’ with functional relationships and roles. It is a group of people with lives, emotions, aspirations, energy, passion and values.

Most work in a bureaucracy because they want to make a difference in big and small ways. They see their work as meaningful. It’s the context that is frustrating.

Bureaucrats often have strong principles, great intentions and good ideas. Of course there are ‘pen pushers’ as in commercial organizations. Add to this the human frailties of power play, factionalism, individualism, egotism, micro-politics, jealousy or blatant resistance. But is the individual at fault or dysfunctional organizations or systems? Humane systems bring out peoples’ better selves.

Who is this bureaucrat? They are not automatons. It is the head of a department, the assistant fire officer, the teacher, the youth worker, the district nurse, or planning manager, someone who protects the environment, the parking attendant, the cultural programme manager, the business development officer, the CEO. Bureaucrats can contribute at all levels – senior leaders, middle management and those with more routine tasks.

We ask: Is there an inner logic to all organizations across cultures and time that constrains and reduces people? Or can we think afresh?

Bureaucracies are beginning to transform. There are changes on the horizon. We know of bureaucrats across the world, attempting to rethink possibilities. It is easy to emphasise negative experiences and many feel frustrated. Yet many long to be engaged. Their energy is ready to be tapped. People mostly were initially drawn to working in the bureaucracy because of shared values. Working in a bureaucracy that allows people to express these values triggers their desire to contribute. The challenge is to create the conditions in which they can.

Bureaucracies created solely in pursuit of efficiency are extraordinarily wasteful of human effort and talent. A creative one engages people so that they extend their potential and build their energy. This unleashes and helps harness their discretionary effort – the unrealised resource that can make organizations more successful.

Every individual has a vast storehouse of “discretionary” effort that they either give or withhold on a daily basis. It is the difference between how people perform and how they could perform. It’s both in the power of employees and a factor of systems that can encourage or prevent people making contributions. Studies, including our own, show that when people do not feel aligned to the organizational mission and/or culture, the organization can lose between 30% to 50% of their potential contribution. Instead of performing more strongly, having ideas, solving problems, helping others out, they are frustrated, bored, stressed or close themselves in.

Enticing individuals to give this extra effort is beyond simplistic notions around management systems. Fundamental is an attitude of leadership that sees the organization as a joint endeavour. This requires systems that allow rather than curtail and that create a dynamic which leverages strengths: a positive, respectful atmosphere; an ethos that sharing and helping out is good and will be reciprocated; creating excitement about a project, a target or a goal; people need to feel they have agency and that everyone counts.


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.