The Creative Bureaucracy & South Australia

The world is changing dramatically. Are public bureaucracies and governance systems up to the complex challenges they face? The discretionary effort of employees is declining as disenchantment grows. This is heading for crisis proportions.

Therefore in collaboration with the South Australian government’s Change SA programme and other local authority partners we are currently undertaking a global overview and literature search on innovative approaches to running bureaucracies.

This will clarify how there should be a new organizational ethos which should shape the characteristics and operating dynamics of the early 21st century public bureaucracy? Is this radically different from the efficiency and effectiveness paradigm associated with the late 20th century? Does being resourceful, strategically agile, responsive and creative lie at its core? What characteristics are needed for the 21st century public bureaucracy?

The bureaucracies we have were developed to solve the problems of their time and reflect the culture of their age. At their best they sought systematic procedures to bring transparency, fairness and equity to decision making. Yet as they evolved weaknesses appeared. Bureaucracies were once seen as benign and modern if somewhat technocratic. Has the efficiency focus created a neo-bureaucratic centralism? This needs reassessing in the context of the co-creation ethos, user driven service innovation and the desire for personal empowerment.

Changes are already afoot in the organisational practices of the public sector, commercial companies and wider world. It includes a shift to involving users more in exploring policies, products or solutions; a shift from hierarchical to network thinking, a breakdown in traditional disciplinary boundaries, and cultural cross-fertilization. These have implications for how bureaucracies need to operate. The 21st century bureaucracy should combine the best of the 20th century bureaucracy with an ethical framework that understands the evolving lessons and innovations about what makes a good organization work.

The creative bureaucracy thesis seeks to marry two seemingly incompatible concepts – creativity and bureaucracy, which seem to be in tension. Creativity focuses on resourcefulness, imagination and flexibility, bureaucracy on order, systems, certainty and predictability. The power of integrated, joined up thinking is recognized and new generalists are required able to grasp specialist knowledge as well as able to range across disciplines.

There is a need to shift the negative perceptions of bureaucracy and those that work in them. Many people who work in bureaucracies are not expressing their full talents. Can we create conditions to better harness their imaginations, creativity and competences?

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