A short story about Bureaucracy

An Argentinian perspective on bureaucracy, by Esteban Chinetti

Public Sector Bureaucracy – In Argentina and the UK

It would be a major understatement to say that both countries, Argentina and the UK, have their own way of doing things. Different cultures, different resources and different priorities as a society. However, working for the public sector has a lot of similarities in each. In my career to date, I’ve primarily been involved with public organisations in Argentina, but I have also worked with several others, including the US, Brazil, Switzerland, UK, Canada, Norway, Paraguay, Iceland, Uruguay, Mexico, South Korea and Peru.

So, what do most public sector organisations have in common?At a glance, they share the common traits of being bureaucratic (to varying degrees) and of working towards a specific goal (whether providing a service or performing a task, for example). These two characteristics can be at odds at times, but I believe there’s also a strong synergy. Where any individual organisation stands on the bureaucracy / objectives-driven axis often says a lot about how they perform and also provides insight in how best to work with each other.

Bureaucrazy?

Our inclination is to consider bureaucracy a negative thing. And without doubt, in some cases, it is. But an element of bureaucracy is desirable when running any process: having more steps, eyes and/or signatures could mean there’s a reduced risk of gross oversights, of running into scope misalignments or accountability grey zones, and it can actually improve transparency.

The flip side of being too bureaucratic is that it can lead to short-sightedness, inefficiency and higher costs for the taxpayers. Getting to the right mix of red tape and expeditiousness is perhaps the hardest aspect to balance in the public sector.

When talking about being goal-driven, public sector entities usually have clearly stated functions, agendas or objectives. It’s why they exist in the first place: to attend to what society requires. It can be argued that the more bureaucratic an entity is, the less chance that it will be good at delivering the service, providing the process or ensuring people receive what they need.

But having a means of measuring how effectively these objectives are delivered will always help an organisation detect problems and discrepancies, resolve scope or quality issues, and course correct when running into deviations. The negative side of this could be too many checks, too strict processes and / or too much effort placed on the “means” without ensuring the “ends” are also being addressed.

My Argentinian Perspective

Each country or organisation has its own specific strengths and weaknesses. It’s a natural thing: we cannot do everything perfectly all the time. Constraints, political decisions, the context… all push for some aspects to be prioritised and others to be deemed secondary. In Spanish, we would say “la frazada corta” or “la coyuntura”.

My most relatable example is naturally from Argentina. Public organisms (and most organisations, really) are very adaptable to change. Maybe the institutions per se are quite static. But the people within are fiercely creative in finding ways of changing how things are done, what the applied rules should be, or what the new objectives must become.

Regular political and economic turmoil create a straining, nerve-wracking environment, but the hard lesson they teach relates to being always ready to face the unknown, and to be extra creative. But (yes, there’s always a “but”) for these reasons, people are less prone to invest heavily on any given project, initiative or agenda. There’s always a catch!

What I’ve learned in the UK

After almost four months working in the UK, I’ve noticed a remarkable capacity for planning: the level of detail, care and quality of plans, forecasts and initiatives is truly impressive. The projects I’ve been involved in or observed have arrived exactly where they were intended to arrive, delivering without major variation and with all stakeholders committed towards a common goal. Arguably, it’s the best way to ensure the value for money of taxpayers. The catch is that you sacrifice speed of action and adaptability in favour of doing things right, without ever having to step back.

The bottom line when engaging with a new public sector organisation is understanding where they stand on the bureaucracy / objectives-driven axis. Context is key. And knowing, at least in a broad sense, where an organisation stands in relation to its culture, social mandate and political reality, is a really important angle through which to engage.

If you’d like to speak to Esteban about some of his ideas on the benefits of bureaucracy, understanding organisations’ strategic priorities, or where all that paper went after the celebrations when Argentina won the World Cup in 1978, you can drop him a line at esteban.chinetti@the4oc.com