In praise of small ‘b’ bureaucracy

(c) Cathy McCray (Creative Commons License)

Stick with me here, but I’m going to try to argue that for those working in international development, bureaucracy is something to lean into, rather than reject.

I realise this is a hard sell, as bureaucracy is the one thing that everyone agrees they hate. Frustration at the time wasted through infuriating processes, jumping through hoops, needless form-filling and endless signature hunts are one of the biggest causes of work stress worldwide.

Fairly or not, the United Nations has become a byword for bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is not unique to the UN, of course. People I know who’ve worked in the private sector and in government say that bureaucracy can be just as bad, or worse in other sectors. Nevertheless there has been much discussion about how excessive bureaucratic ‘friction’ undermines the UN’s work.

I spent four years in an UN headquarters post, and so I felt my full share of these frustrations. I’ll admit to wanting to strangle someone most days. But it also forced me to spend a lot of time thinking about bureaucracy: sure, how to avoid it, but also how to make it less painful and time consuming. 

At heart, I think, bureaucracy boils down to two simple tasks: sharing information and documenting accountability. When we like it, we call it “checks and balances”; when we don’t, we call it “red tape” – but it’s all bureaucracy.

Any organisation that grows bigger than a few dozen people has to start creating these sorts of processes – trust and a spit handshake simply aren’t enough outside of a small, family-sized operation. This is especially so for the UN. The UN works on issues across the spectrum in every country on the planet, and its 100,000 or so employees represent every possible nationality. The scope for nepotism, waste and corruption is immense, and every story of mismanagement damages the UN’s most important currency: its credibility.

Good bureaucracy, bad Bureaucracy

Often it seems that the default response to bureaucracy is to try to get rid of it. But we can’t. And, I would add, we shouldn’t.

My own theory is that bureaucracy is a bit like cholesterol. There’s the good, healthy type, which I call small ‘b’ bureaucracy. This kind of bureaucracy efficiently shares relevant information among the right people, and ensures there’s a virtual paper trail that shows who has taken which decision when.

Then there’s the bad type, which I call big ‘B’ Bureaucracy. This is the type that furs up the arteries of an organisation with delays, personal power politics and unnecessary work. It disempowers and demotivates people, leading to cynicism and burnout. It is so pervasive that many people end up living with it, seeing it as an essential cost of doing business in the UN.

But how does big ‘B’ bureaucracy develop in the first place? I think there are four major factors at work here:

The first is that in organisations above a particular size, a split tends to develop between people focused on process (HR, finance, travel) and those focused on projects (delivering services to the public). These people operate according to different incentives. People working on projects see the processes as tedious distractions from their objectives, while people responsible for processes have less stake in the success of the project but worry about deviations from the agreed process.

The second is that personalities and human calendars complicate what otherwise might be relatively simple functions. Often these processes rely on sign-off from a single person. Such obligatory points of passage give huge scope to people to exert somewhat twisted power by ignoring requests. More innocently, they can also gum up a whole process for weeks if someone is travelling for work or off sick.

The third is that the UN, like many organisations, tends to accumulate processes over time. There’s the politically expedient tendency for senior management to adopt new processes and safeguards across the entire organisation. There is also a culture of risk aversion among managers who are so busy they don’t understand what they are signing off on. There is safety in numbers, they think, so they multiply the number of people who need to sign off on something.

Finally, the UN, government departments and NGOs aren’t exposed to the same market forces as the private sector, and so there’s perhaps less pressure to do away with inefficient processes that raise costs. They still damage the UN’s bottom line – its ability to effect change in the world – but that bottom line is less tangible than a company balance sheet.

Trust in God, but tie your camel

Bureaucracy is not something that just ‘happens’ to bureaucrats – it is the very water in which they swim. So just as with cholesterol, the answer is not to try and do away with it wholesale. Instead, the focus should be on finding ways to replace big ‘B’ bureaucracy with small ‘b’ bureaucracy and trust that a more efficient way of working becomes, over time, a habit.

But how do you pull this off?

The first step is to push decision-making down to the lowest level whenever possible. The head of a division doesn’t need to be signing off on everyone’s travel plans.

The second step is to look for ways to reduce the number of steps to achieve a particular task and ensure that a single person is held accountable for the achievement of the end goal (issuing a contract, for example), rather than spreading the responsibility across multiple people. That single point of accountability can shift depending on the particular task and circumstances, so that a process is never held hostage to someone’s holiday schedule.

The third step is to bridge the divide between process-focused staff and project-focused staff. The latter need to appreciate that they have a responsibility to properly document what they’re doing, while the former need to understand that they are working in service of the overall aims of the organisation. Process-focused staff should also be evaluated according to how responsive they are to their project-focused colleagues. Process people should be incorporated into project teams, and everyone should do occasional day-long job swaps so that they can experience life ‘on the other side’.

The fourth step is to look for creative ways to nudge people towards better practices and reduce the additional workload wherever possible. I’ve just had a car registered in France, and the experience was surprisingly pleasant: the relevant internet site had prefilled the forms I needed to submit and allowed me to print them off with a helpful checklist of the additional documents I needed to provide. It’s not rocket science, but multiplied across thousands of transactions every day, these kinds of tweaks can make an enormous difference to the emotional well-being of an organisation.

There are no statins for bureaucratic cholesterol, unfortunately. But with a bit of focus and a solid commitment to changing the office culture, I reckon it’s possible to get organisational health back on track. 

4 thoughts on “In praise of small ‘b’ bureaucracy

  1. R. McGrath says:

    ‘ … for those working in international development …’

    Can you confirm that your article addresses only, as you have written, international development. If so I have only marginal interest in your argument, however you appear to be referring to the whole UN system in which case you must also be referring also to conflict and disaster/emergency response which would make your comments far more contentious.

    1. Oli Brown says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment – indeed, I use ‘international development’ as a shorthand for the entire UN system, including humanitarian response and peacekeeping operations. I don’t have personal experience of big ‘B’ bureaucracy in peacekeeping – but this piece by Anthony Banbury ( certainly mirrors some of the frustrations I mentioned.

      I’d go further and say the laws of organisational physics that drive big ‘B’ bureaucracy apply in all large organisations, including government and the private sector. And all organisations need to guard against the brambles of bad bureaucracy taking over.

      I’d really welcome your thoughts and ideas on this.

  2. Dawn says:

    I really like your point about the divide between the “process” and “project” staff and your suggestions for bridging it. This really struck a chord. I think across UN agencies there’s a spectrum of how pronounced it is, but it is tangibly there.

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