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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Laird

Escaping the ‘iron cage’ of bureaucracy

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

One of the major motivators for public service staff who are exploring new ways of delivering their services is the dream of escaping the (often) overbearing bureaucratic processes of government. The German political economist Max Weber called this the “iron cage”. This term will ring true for many who firmly believe that it is unnecessary bureaucracy that is holding back the development of their service and the fulfilment of their staff team. They want to spend less time box ticking and form filling and more time using their professional judgement to make real time decisions about services.

A perfect example of where staff can feel stifled by the bureaucratic process is the public sector recruitment process. The mere mention of this will send shivers down the spines of many readers. As an example, in a local authority setting, if a manager identifies a need or opportunity for a new staff member (or in some cases simply wants to replace a departing team member), it can take months to get approval to even advertise for the role. The manager’s time is taken up by a paperwork battle, which by the time they’ve filled all the forms and got all the right approvals, services have already begun to suffer or it’s too late to grasp whatever opportunity there had been.

Speeding up this sort of process sounds appealing, but before we agree to toss all bureaucratic processes aside in favour of a ban on paperwork and procedures, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the case for bureaucracy.

Max Weber spent a great deal of time in the 1920s thinking about bureaucracy. He examined it from the perspective that in a society that was getting ever more complex a certain amount of “rationalisation” was inevitable in order to make day-to-day processes efficient, reliable and repeatable with any consistency. He argued that rationalisation and bureaucracy was the most efficient form of organisation and was indispensable in the modern state. There’s no doubt that in a huge and complex system like the public sector which processes billions of transactions a day there must be some form of consistency and process to avoid complete chaos. However, at the same time, Weber criticised bureaucracy for “dehumanising” individuals by trapping them in his aforementioned “iron cage” in which they are merely “cogs in a machine”.

The opposing concept of “adhocracy” (a term first used by Alvin Toffler in the 70s) emerged as a rebellion against the over bureaucratisation of modern life. Adhocracy is based on spontaneity and flexibility with little standardisation of procedure or decision making hierarchy. This flexibility can work well in fast-changing services where organisations that identify and act on new opportunities the quickest have a competitive advantage. This way of working can seem very attractive for public sector workers who feel they have no ability to react quickly to anything! On the other hand, adhocracy may become chaotic or inefficient in organisations where, for example, work may be duplicated by several teams or started then abandoned if there is no defined process to see it through. Poorly defined working roles may prove ineffective where team members are unaware of the scope of their roles, and thus desired or necessary work is not carried out. As you would expect, this approach may lead to confusion amongst customers, who may expect a similar response to the one their neighbour received when using the same service!

The good news is that there is a happy medium between the over-bureaucratised public sector environment and the “free for all” culture of, for example, a micro technology start-up. Many public service spin-outs have taken the opportunity to reset the balance as part of the transition process, They haven’t simply lifted and shifted their old processes – they have looked to remove the unnecessary paperwork and devolve as much decision making as possible to the front line. In fact, genuinely empowering staff is the key that will, in one fell swoop, remove many of the frustrations that have existed.

Reviewing your processes with 4 simple questions

It’s advisable to review all of your processes and procedures periodically to ensure they are not simply adding a burden to you and your team. Ask the following questions:-

  1. Is it statutory? i.e. is there a legal requirement to do it? If the answer is “no”, then ask:

  2. For whose benefit does it exist? If the answer is anyone but “the customer” ask:

  3. Does it contribute to achieving your organisation’s vision and mission or increasing sustainability? If the answer is “no” then the only remaining question is:

  4. How would you remove it? This may involve convincing your boss or service commissioner to change their own processes and procedures – so good luck!

The challenge is once you have escaped Weber’s “iron cage” that you don’t allow it be gradually reconstructed again as fresh, well-meaning rationalisation creeps in… This mustn’t be allowed to happen and leaders must jealously protect the areas where an adhocracy approach is most valuable.

Andrew Laird, Mutual Ventures


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