Home Month and Year March 2020 Shifting From Desk Dictator to Municipal Champion

Shifting From Desk Dictator to Municipal Champion

Brad Field

You can’t get a lightbulb changed without a work order…

That saying paints a picture of a common government problem – the rigidity of bureaucracy. In Calgary, it’s so bad that a couple of years ago, the city hall program tasked with finding efficiencies ground to a halt due to red tape. Yes – bureaucratic processes held up the committee looking at reducing holdups created by bureaucratic processes. You can’t make this up.

The word bureaucracy at its root actually means rule by desk. In a rigid bureaucracy, we have a desk dictator, lacking flexibility. How on earth does that create innovation, align with progress or move broken economies?

The answer is: it doesn’t.

Rigid bureaucracy is how we’ve arrived at today. We’ve stifled creativity, quashed engagement and created forests worth of paper trails. In my years working with smart and capable city employees, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard “I want to, but my hands are tied” when suggesting a process efficiency or pointing out areas for streamlining. While they typically want to do the best job possible, they absolutely cannot move outside their lane. It’s not the people who are broken; it’s the system.

Our opportunity now lies in taking the rigidity out and innovating within the public sector. I don’t advocate removing all processes, but it’s high time we start looking at modernizing many of them.

This isn’t always the easiest thing to hear, or to say for that matter, but reducing the size of governments is the quickest way to reduce unnecessary red tape. Also, how about applying innovation and technology to eliminate administrative areas of paperwork? Technology doesn’t take jobs away from people; it just changes the scope of the work. As our workforce continues to trend upward on tech-savvy skills, municipalities have an opportunity to trend with them. Maybe with a few automated forms and a person tasked with solving problems for citizens rather than finding barriers, a local microbrewery wouldn’t have had to wait 11 months for approval to put a couple of picnic tables outside for patrons to enjoy a pint.

Breaking down the resistance within a bureaucracy that has come to value routine over innovation will take a focused effort with strong leadership. We need to reward employees for creative thinking about how to break down barriers and we will need to attract some fresh faces with new perspectives and priorities. The change required is profound. Instead of rewarding safe, process-driven behaviour, a new vision for an agile public service would reward trying new things and taking calculated risks, even knowing that some of the attempts will fail.

If we treat our departments like they’re individual business units or companies, it would be possible to define key performance measures like those we use in the private sector. City departments should be encouraged to collaborate both internally and externally and share resources. This would foster a more action-motivated workforce.

Leadership and leadership alone can counter this syndrome. Our current Calgary leaders appear more focused on theories of urban planning than on the hard work of motivating and managing thousands of employees. Innovating, inviting private sector best practices into the government system and reducing our government footprint may seem like unsexy topics. Still, our opportunity lies in shifting bureaucrats from desk rulers to municipal champions. That leadership is needed.