KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Working with one hand tied behind your back

with 11 comments

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

– Lewis Caroll: “Through the Looking Glass”

(Warning rant ahead)

I’ve spent my entire career working in aid bureaucracies of one sort or another. This post is not about any specific experience – but is a bit about all of them.

What is it with bureaucracies that makes them expect you to achieve extraordinary things, yet seemingly deliberately put obstacles in the way to prevent you from achieving them. Here are some of the ways we make things hard for ourselves:

1. Wrapping ourselves in red-tape. In large organizations there is a guideline and a procedure for everything, frequently written in unclear bureaucratic language,  often trying to mitigate every possible risk, however unlikely, except the risk that the guideline will be too complex to understand or follow. Given the difficult in drafting guidance, and getting agreement on it, the guidance is likely to be out of date with recent developments, or unintentionally conflict with other existing guidance, or by buried in some obscure corner of the intranet that no-one visits. Of course guidance is necessary, but I can’t help but feel that the way much guidance is written gives the impression that following rules is more important than achieving results, and that fundamentally all these rules exist because we don’t trust our staff to be  responsible and accountable (not you and me you understand – but those other idiots who don’t know what they are doing or can’t be trusted). I expanded on this theme more in a previous blog: afraid of responsibility – try regulation.

2. Looking for savings in all the wrong places. Most aid agencies are currently extremely cash strapped, and need to look for ways to get by with less. It’s therefore understandable that we seek to take cost cutting measures in order to live within our limited budgets. It’s perhaps also understandable, if regrettable that devoting resources to innovative new programmes takes a back seat to “focusing on our core business”. But this means we become less, rather than more able to adapt to the changing environment, and more likely to become less relevant. We often also economize on the things that enable us to improve our productivity and motivation. For example rather than making strategic, but difficult choices about priorities, we scale back evenly across the board, regardless of the impact on results. Similarly we maintain long-standing programmes and long-term staff, and scale back on things like travel, equipment, and on actual programme funds in order to maintain our core infrastructure. The problem with this is we often have people, but without any discretionary resources to enable them to actually be effective in their jobs. Similarly we buy cheaply and cut corners on areas such as IT equipment (e.g. buying 1 hour laptop batteries instead of 8 hour ones) in ways which relatively speaking save little money, but which can make it much harder to get things done.  Sometimes these things are more about appearing to be frugal rather than actually saving any money (I remember one senior former colleague insisting that everything be photocopied ort printed only in black and white and never in colour).

3. The Frankenstein consensus. Getting agreement across different stakeholders, or even internal departments and personalities can be difficult. But to try to keep everyone happy, or to get an idea through all the internal committees and processes and reviews, an all too common approach is to take on board as much feedback as possible uncritically and without regard to whether the resulting project is still recognizable or is still able to meet the initial purpose for which it was proposed. Similarly where different partners might have different approaches and systems they are trying to align the tendency is to go towards the lowest common denominator – the one that is easiest for everyone to adopt, rather than the one which will lead to the highest (if more challenging) standard.

4.  Egos. We all have one – but in the public service world where pay is based on grade rather than on contribution, and standard office sizes are mandated, and company perks are few, then soft power becomes very important. Who has the ear of leadership, who manages the biggest budget, who can tell you about the latest job opportunities, the corner office are all expressions of relative importance. In this context there is too often a confusion between defending ones own views or interests because we believe in them, and defending them because of pride, the need to save face or not be seen to admit we were wrong, or to change views because we need to keep favour with those more powerful than ourselves.  Similarly while I believe in the importance of building good personal networks and relationships in the workplace, too often personal perceptions or petty rivalries get in the way of collaboration and common agreement on substantive non-personal issues.

5. Planning paralysis – The public sector often has elaborate planning frameworks, increasingly replete with “SMART” indicators, planning retreats., complex consultation and approval mechanisms – all of which lead to late, complex plans often with unrealistic objectives (because we really aspire to change the world) but which are under resourced, with unverifiable indicators, and unrealistic timelines. A principal challenge is the difficulty to prioritize when there are so many important issues to deal with and interest groups to please – so we often end up including everything, overpromising and then underperforming (whereas we might be better off under promising and over performing). In fact often lip service is paid to important issues but the real test is to whether the organization puts resources and senior level managerial support behind them, and staff members can be left guessing what the real priorities are they are expected to deliver on. Another challenge is that once the marathon planning process is over, a plan is approved and budget allocated, relatively less effort is spent on systematically following up to make sure it is achieved.

6. Risk aversion – since we are spending public money, and rightly don’t want to be seen to waste it on “bad ideas” we are often unwilling to take calculated risks in order to innovate and try new approaches or incrementally improve our work.  We stick with the tried and tested, even if we know that potentially better solutions are out there because we prefer a predictable to an unpredictable outcome. We’re also often unwilling to admit when something isn’t working, but if we don’t acknowledge failures (or less than optimal outcomes) then how can we change what we are doing, learn from our experience and alert others so they can avoid making the same mistakes? (more in failure here)

So what can be done about this? We could easily blame the system, I know I have. But we also need to remember that we are part of that system and take some responsibility for the way things are as well as in trying to make things better. Of course doing this alone can be a difficult and risky business – but working together and supporting each other, together with a bit of top-level support we might be able to change things for the better. We certainly can’t if we just give up, or if we wait for someone else to change things for us.

I hope to come back to some of the issue above in later blog posts to try to get some discussion about what might be done to improve things in each of these areas.


Written by Ian Thorpe

January 25, 2012 at 5:47 pm

Posted in rants

11 Responses

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  1. […] What’s wrong with every bureaucracy you’ve ever worked in? Ian Thorpe, who it seems knows quite a bit about this topic, gives us a good rant about working with one hand tied behind your back. […]

  2. […] my last blog post was a bit of a rant, I thought I’d share something a bit more optimistic that deals with some of […]

  3. Hang in there Ian! Check out page 28 of the CIA’s Simple Sabotage manual from 1944 (page 32 on the Scribd toolbar):

    Sound familiar? :O)


    January 26, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    • Thanks – that is genius! It’s a shame that we often don’t need the CIA when we are perfectly capable of sabotaging ourselves.

      Ian Thorpe

      January 26, 2012 at 3:26 pm

  4. […] background-position: 50% 0px; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } – Today, 8:43 […]

  5. […] slow sort of country!” said …Via Advertisement GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  6. It’s interesting to realise that many big professional companies (think of e.g. the big consultancy firms) are bureaucracies as well, while on the whole remaining reasonably nimble and not necessarily falling into the traps you mention. What would you think makes the difference?

    • Of course some private companies do also fall into the same traps – you only have to read Dilbert. But on the whole I think the difference is that for private companies if bureaucracy gets in the way of the bottom line (i.e. profit or at least growth with the promise of long term profit) then they become uncompetitive and have to shape up or go out of business. The same is not true in the public sector where the bottom is in keeping the donors/paymasters happy which is not necessarily the same thing as providing value for the beneficiaries – especially when the two are far removed from one another.

      Ian Thorpe

      January 30, 2012 at 8:40 pm

  7. […] The UN is often spoken of as being very bureaucratic, and not in a good way. And those of us who work here have all had days when we struggle with trying to maintain optimism and getting things done due to the challenges of following myriad rules written and unwritten (see an earlier blog post “working with one hand tied behind your back”). […]

  8. […] A lot of people join the UN and are motivated in their work here by the ideals and mission of the UN. However in our day-to-day work it can be all too easy to lose touch with our higher purpose and get bogged down with bureaucracy, compliance, reporting, process and the rough and tumble of our every day work. In talking to people one thing I often hear, that also seems to apply to the rest of the aid/development world is that while we can see that the world is rapidly changing, we are frustrated and lack confidence that the current system is sufficiently nimble to modernize the way it works and adapt to the changing circumstances, or even overcome some of the internal challenges we face in getting things done efficiently. (Here’s a previous blog post I wrote about this in a moment of frustration – “Working with one hand tied behind your back”). […]

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