government image

Overcoming bureaucracy

By Anna Campbell

Bureaucracy (a word I always have problems spelling) is blamed for many of society’s ills. What exactly does it mean? 

According to the Google online dictionary, there are two definitions of bureaucracy:

  1. a system of government in which most of the important decisions are taken by state officials rather than by elected representatives
  2. an excessively complicated administrative procedure

It seems that the first definition is part of life in a governed society i.e. the government sets up a bunch of bureaus that make and administer the rules for us. 

Last weekend, I received a speeding ticket from a fresh-faced young officer. As much as I grumbled about the wasted $80, I broke the rules and the fresh-faced young man was doing his job - c’est la vie!

It is the second definition that causes us so much angst. Bureaucracy in the form of excessively complex administration procedures is present not only in government departments – but is well and truly part of our everyday work and personal lives. 

This type of bureaucracy manifests itself in many ways: over-the-top paperwork or regulatory requirements, tedious meetings, continuous consultations, and endless “cc” copied emails. 

Of course, paperwork, meetings, consultations, and copied emails are often needed, but how do we know when we have crossed the line – from productive to excessive?

For me, there are a few warning signs:

  1. the use of hierarchy or power to intimidate, stonewall, or refuse to answer/process a request
  2. people in organisations who love (or generate power from) being ‘in the know’ and having secrets
  3. the process becoming more important than the outcome; we forget about why we are doing something in the first place
  4. resistance to change – “that’s the way we have always done it”
  5. decision-making bottle necks created around key organisational people – and hence no decisions are made, or the process is very slow

We have probably all seen these signs and even been part of the problem at some point and time.

Therefore recognising the signs and being determined to move an organisation beyond such behaviours is imperative for all of us. So what can we do?

  1. create an open-communication environment where there is trust throughout the organisation and decision making is dispersed as widely as possible
  2. accept and learn from failures; resist smugly saying “I told you so” or re-litigating mistakes – move on!
  3. consultation doesn’t mean consensus; recognise that consensus on every decision is not always possible, but decisions must be made regardlessly
  4. ask why, why, and why again if unsure about the introduction of a process, or its steps
  5. have an opinion, it is okay to change it when you have listened to others and it is okay for it to end up being wrong – but sitting on the fence is one sure way to create inertia

A willingness to achieve an end goal and overcome bureaucracy comes from deep within a person. 

I learned this early in my career when I was a post-doctoral fellow in Australia. It was there I worked alongside internationally-recognised cereal geneticist, Professor Rudi Appels, who at the time worked for CSIRO in Canberra.  

We worked together on a national wheat molecular marker programme, which was multi-disciplinary and required competing groups to collaborate. 

Like any of these programmes, there were conflicts and I remember Rudi telling me about one particular outcome he wanted to achieve. 

I knew the people he had to “muster” to make it happen, and I asked “how are you going to do that?”.

His determined response was, “we ignore the conflicts and remind people of what we are trying to achieve”. He did just that and we achieved our outcome in the end.

To overcome bureaucracy, we need to remind ourselves and others of what we are trying to achieve and override individual agendas, secrets, power-plays, and excessive paperwork. 

Sometimes this can be done individually, sometimes it has to be done via lobby groups or organisations. 

Look around and take note of people or organisations who achieve a lot, invariably they are focussed on the outcome – over process.