Unfolding plans 12 – are we a bureaucratic nation?

Sugata Mitra is a very interesting man.  Get to see him if you can.  I’ve mentioned him several times both around his school in the cloud work and also the development of self-learning environments.  That reminds me that I must do something about my wish to create a self-learning work environment (number eight on my list of things for this year).  But today I’ve been thinking about something else.  A conversation I was having with a supplier reminded me of something Sugata had said.

‘The Victorians created a global computer made up of people.  It’s called the bureaucratic administrative machine.  In order to keep that running, you need lots and lots of people. They must be identical to each other so they created a system, called school, to make parts. They must have good handwriting, they must be able to read, and they must be able to add, subtract and do division’.

My question on the back of it is, are we a bureaucratic nation?  Is this what puts the so called great in Britain?  Is our ability to organise, document and manage what put the backbone into Empire?  Is bureaucracy within our DNA?

Just over the road from our offices in Seaham there is a nice walk that takes you along the cliffs along the coast.  When I say nice you will need to accommodate the vagaries of the weather but on the right day it can be very pleasant.  The cliffs are high, very steep and the sea boils away below.  They can be a dangerous place to be.

You know this however because it is made absolutely clear.  Signposts are everywhere that there are dangerous cliffs ahead and that there is a risk of falling.  In case that’s not clear there are signs showing people tumbling over the edge.  If you get anywhere close there is a fence, with wire and more signs reminding you of the danger.  You can be left in no doubt at all that you proceed further at your own imminent peril.

Contrast this with a visit to Majorca where I walked up to the edge of a much higher cliff and was able to peer over the edge into an admittedly much more welcoming sea some distance below.  There was one sign, some way back from the edge and no fence.  It was if the authorities were saying if I am stupid enough to go to close then on my own head be it, or whichever part of my anatomy I happen to fall on.

Alright, this is not really a bureaucracy issue but demonstrates a potential difference in our approaches.  In Britain it seems that we are more than willing to be nudged and guided into better behaviour even if we ignore it most of the time.  We accept it because it is on our nature and this is the same with administration.  Our default position is to add more, to create a process, to develop a form.

I need to use the technology at our disposal to drive out unnecessary paperwork and process yet I’m beginning to wonder if this is made harder by the fact that bureaucracy is something we like to do, because we are good at it.

Perhaps we are not a nation of shopkeepers but a nation of bureaucrats.

2 thoughts on “Unfolding plans 12 – are we a bureaucratic nation?

  1. Hi Phil,
    My background is actually Systems Analysis and I know exactly what you are driving at with your very interesting ramblings above. Rule No 1 in a Systems Analyst handbook is Technology should never just replicate an existing bureaucratic process, we should actually use the Change in using Technology to make the process better and as in recently used Terms “leaner” or better flowing.I noticed in your other ramblings that you are almost compelled to think about that just like me.That coffee/tea machine setup seems to be very prevelant in Sedgefield offices.I noticed it since I joined Durham City Council and had many meetings in the Sedgefield offices.I also noticed that in your other writings about street/roadworks and conduits.To illustrate my point I will give you an anecdote from my youth.The passport issuing service in Germany is handled by the city administration on behalf of the Federal Government.It used to be handled by the Passport administrators and there were roughly 5 of them in an office with a strict rule of no physical contact between public and administrator.You handed your application with photo to an administrator over a wooden barrier and he would either except it or reject it if it was not filled in correctly and send you back to the end of the queue until,the required changes were made satisfactorily.The city administration also handles on behalf of the federal government the issue of car number plates, ID CARDS and registration of your permanent address of residence.
    This used to be physically separated departments for each of the services.In 1985 the city invited a group of students to look as to how to improve this.They came up with a radical idea.All services are handled by a centralised computer system already and they hold all the data we need to handle ALL the processes by one and the same person.No physical separation is needed.Instead of the customer needing to join five different queues he now can do all his business within the one queue and the one person can handle all five different services.Throw in a meat counter number issuing machine and you have the perfect first come first serve queuing process.
    This system has been a resounding success with customers and with administrators as they were not constantly bombarded with complaints but could really give customer satisfaction as the client could walk away with number plate,passport, ID CARD, registration of new permanent address of residence and new driving license all in one go.( note: In Germany it is compulsory to register new address of residence within 3 months of moving and with it get your driving licence,ID Card and car number plate changed to that new district of residence).
    I am sure there are similar services over here where joined up thinking together with a more “lean” approach could improve the customer experience.Or has it all just stopped and improvement is taken as far as we can go because we have implemented a CRM?
    Where are the transactional Websites that we were promised in the big channel move?Ok I can order a brown bin collection service and pay for it online.Is that really as far as we can take technology?

    But then I got excited when I heard about Ebay style arbitration service for civil disputes.Judges available via e-chat just like on Amazon?Wow! I can’t wait.What about Electronic planning application forms that check whether our application has any chance of success without a human arbitrarily deciding we are never going to get that garage approved.Or self checking benefit forms that have benefit rules/algorithms already build in and self check that the form was filled in correctly and the reasons for benefit entitlement have half a chance of success?
    I worked on a Prolog rule based dangerous goods loading system in 1986, so why not rule based forms in 2015?
    I hope my ramblings do not sound too much of a moan and groan but inspire to not stop where we are now.Science fiction has always been a force for good!Not everything that Jules Verne ( and he was laughed at by his contemporaries) wrote about came true but we landed on the moon and gone to Mars.So how much further can we go on Planet Local Government?

    1. Hi Heiko, it is lovely to hear from you. I hope you are well and thanks for your comments. You’re reply is as long as a blog and makes interesting reading. I like to write the blog as it helps me to get my own thoughts in order and is a useful reservoir to draw on when I need to look back. Local government can be very frustrating but also an enjoyable challenge. Progress can seem glacial and it is more to do with changing the people than changing the technology. I’m sorry it has taken me so long to respond and keep in touch.

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