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  • Geoff Mulgan

FIGHTING BUREAUCRATIC INFLATION AND THE CURSE OF WEEDS


I’ve spent a fair bit of my life as a bureaucrat. This may be why I have a deepening antipathy to unnecessary bureaucracy. I keep seeing a pattern of bureaucratic inflation. It’s like weeds spreading in a garden.


In the case of organisations, each new process makes sense in its own terms, particularly against a backdrop of new complexities and risks. This particular road to hell is paved with the best intentions. But the aggregate effects of the new bureaucratic processes is that ever more time and energy is wasted.


Such inflation is resisted by good leaders and every organisation can benefit from periodic culls. But most of the time people just put up with them.


Here are four bugbears which I see almost every day:


Forms: every week I receive lots of requests that require me to fill out a form. It could be a reference for someone; an ethics approval; input for someone doing research or a project; feedback of any kind. I've just filled in a form requesting some health data, which required me to fill in lots of information the organisation already has on me. In almost every case a short email would do the job perfectly well. But forms seem to proliferate without limit unless challenged.


Contracts: in my past few jobs I have had to draft and sign literally thousands of contracts, for grants, investments and jobs. Usually, I’ve found that contracts can be cut by up to 90% without losing their value. I tried to radically prune any I had control over. Legal contracts too tend to expand without limit unless challenged.


Commissions: I was once asked to give a talk and then sent a 20-page contract to sign. Almost any simple commission – like a talk – can be handled with a brief email. Again, if you want you can add in a clause to cover every possible eventuality. But it's much better to apply common sense and proportionality.


Meetings: most meetings are too long. Time is needed for deep reflection, or for a group to get to know each other. But more functional meetings can usually be quick. Many organisations seem to schedule one hour as the default time for meetings even if they only need 15 minutes (or just an email exchange). This is an extraordinary waste of time. All organisations could benefit from a bit of reflection – and teaching – on meeting design and how to be careful with people’s time. Otherwise the length of meetings tends to expand unless challenged.


In each of these cases the expansion happens in part because of perfectly rational concerns and motives (I've just filled in a long form, related to a talk, with a series of boxes to tick about data use which probably made perfect sense to the person who created it). Another factor is the spread of ideas associated with the new public management and performance management ideas often promoted by the big consultancies. Again, these usually make sense individually. But in aggregate they take up vast amounts of time and sap morale (as when teachers or police spend many hours each week filling in forms – which happened in the UK when these ideas were at their peak).


Then there's the influence of the self-regard of people within the bureaucracy – whose status may grow if more time is devoted to their interests (their pay might also go up - it's fairly obvious why lawyers might want longer contracts).


Good leadership struggles against these ugly patterns of inflation and weed proliferation, culling unnecessary processes and liberating time for things that matter. Leaders can also encourage their teams to solve these problems - for example by asking them to work out proposals on how to cut forms, meetings or paperwork by a half.


I used to be sceptical of red-tape busting exercises and targets but am now a convert. Really good bureaucrats know that while bureaucracy is vital to making the world work you can have too much of a good thing.