Good and Bad Bureaucracy - RSA

Good and Bad Bureaucracy


  • Design
  • Social brain

The other day I received an interesting idea for a new RSA project. “Sounds promising”, I replied to the sender, “just stick it in the project proposal template we use for such things, so that we can assess it properly, and we’ll take it from there”.

The other day I received an interesting idea for a new RSA project. “Sounds promising”, I replied to the sender, “just stick it in the project proposal template we use for such things, so that we can assess it properly, and we’ll take it from there”.

Back came a slightly caustic but rather elegant reply: “Okay - I guess even projects that seek to limit bureaucracy have to endure it!”

Amused but also chastened by this response, I wondered whether one person’s “system” is another person’s “bureaucracy”, and why bureaucracy should necessarily be a pejorative term. For example, in his RSA 21st Century Enlightenment lecture  Matthew Taylor spoke about the degree to which the 20th century saw us enslaved to the logic of bureaucracy, as well as those of the market, and of science and technology.

It wasn’t always so. Max Weber described bureaucracy, at least in its ideal form, as a rational, benign and efficient form of administration: one that enshrines the dominance of legalism and professionalism in the management of public affairs over the more capricious “charismatic” or “traditional” forms of governance.

Technically, the term doesn’t come with much baggage. It just describes a systematic organisational approach to managing a complex operation.

A major blow to bureaucratic prestige came in the late 70s and early 80s, when the Thatcher government vigorously challenged the culture of officialdom in UK public services, , inspired in part by arguments from public choice theory. This partly fuelled, and partly coincided with some wonderful parodies of “bad” bureaucracy in action, such as this scene from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and of course the archetypal self-serving bureaucrat, Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister. It’s hard to think of the word now without thinking of “Dear Humpy”.

Ever since then, the stock of the bureaucrat has been rather low. We only think of people engaged in endless box-ticking, with mindless conformity to convention. Starting in a new working context, we might see it all around us, but eventually stop questioning and then become inured to its comforting routines.

We are now supposed to be entering a “post-bureaucratic” age in which information will be placed in the hands of ordinary people, rather than pettifogging officials, to do with what they will.

But despite our growing awareness of the limitations of rationality, and the power of complexity, uncertainty and emergence, formal systems and processes still matter enormously.


How can we recapture the Weberian spirit? What does “good” bureaucracy look like, and how do we restore its place in public and corporate administration? In doing so, how do we help organisations and individuals diagnose and weed out the bad, thereby freeing up their energies for something more useful?

I would say this matters right now for (at least) three reasons:

Firstly, with major cuts in public services on the horizon, and the resulting shrinkage of organisational capacity, “lean” and ingenious approaches to administration are needed now more than ever. While our developing RSA work on ingenuity argues that imposed resource scarcity is a strong driver of efficiency and creative problem solving, there are also risks. Amidst the frenzied talk of a “bonfire of the quangos”  there are real risks that the immolation of some useful and valuable parts of our bureaucracy might leave us exposed and vulnerable. And we won’t know until we miss them.

Secondly, the financial crisis could in part be ascribed to a failure of bureaucracy, if we can accept that it is synonymous with regulation. Embedding a forensic, tenacious and legally assertive form of bureaucracy into some aspects of our financial system may never prevent systemic crises of the kind we have witnessed, but at least give us earlier warning.

Thirdly, the call for a more entrepreneurial, capable, resourceful and self-reliant form of citizenship - which has been voiced by the RSA for some years and now resonates with Big Society agenda – is a call for people to self-organise. Organisation requires a system for coordinating effort. This is what we might mean by good bureaucracy. But the system needs to serve a purpose, and that purpose should not be sustaining the system (bad).

What are the best rules of thumb for identifying good from bad forms of bureaucracy? That which helps from that which hinders. The open source movement has generated emergent forms of collective organisation which, refined through trial and error rather than centralised diktat, perhaps give us a useful set of “good” bureaucratic principles.

Are there simple “bureaucracy barometers” that can help organisations, people, processes, and systems self-diagnose the extent of their bad bureaucratic habits? If not, could we develop such a thing to help organisations sharpen themselves up culturally and professionally? How high would the RSA score I wonder?

As so often is the case, Dilbert gives us a handy starting point: "You know you're in a bureaucracy when 100 people who think A, get together and compromise on B."

I feel a project idea coming on. Now where’s that template I need to fill in?

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