The Problem of Administrivia

Friday, January 20, 2017
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I have often said to my public sector colleagues that We have seen the enemy and it is us

By that I simply mean, more often than not we get in our own way. Someone wants to try something innovative but there's a myriad of reasons why they can't: policies, directives, compliance, because it flies in the face of the way we've always done things. But everyone knows we wrote the rules, we enforce the rules, and we reinforce the culture.

It's easy to say its complicated, and there's a lot of moving pieces 

One could highlight that often whenever someone looks for the flexibility they think they need to try something new they are denied permission to do so. That those who would grant them license see themselves as gatekeepers that enforce existing rules rather than enablers looking to forge new, better -- 21st century -- ones.

And so we continue to ask for permission rather than beg forgiveness

But this surely this is madness. Bureaucrats assembled, huddled in a boardroom somewhere, parsing sentences into the myriad of its different possible meanings. Expending scarce resources through repetitive discussions, constant email traffic, and the endless 'what ifs', 'ands', and 'buts' about what is possible and what is not.

All the while Rome burns

A large part of the "innovation problem" in government is quite simply the degree to which public servants prioritize their organizations' own internal machinations over creating public value for Canadians.

In my old unit we referred to this as administrivia (you may know it as 'feeding the beast') and our rule of thumb was to avoid it whenever possible. We realized that the organization often doesn't understand the true opportunity cost it pays for administrivia.

The work is often low value that is either speculative, over-engineered, for 'back pocket' products, and/or faux deadlined. It produces not only a burden on individual civil servants but can also clog up information channels. In short, it's a tax on productivity, a barrier to innovation, and it undermines civil servants' ability to create public value.

But it's also sexy

It creates a false sense of urgency, importance, and sometimes even achievement. It can give you an immediate goal or deliverable that is achievable in the short term. It creates an incentive system to prioritize tactics (the next deliverable) over the strategy (the long game). Administrivia creates a strong incentive to shorten your shadow of the future, ignore the horizon and focus inward. It's easy to be enthralled, especially if you have trouble connecting your work to more tangible outcomes out there in the wild.

The allure of administrivia is dangerous and I fear that it has supplanted far too much meaningful work across the system. How much time does the average public spend focused on the internal machinations of their own department?

Technology isn't helping

We wrongly prioritize electronic communication, creating confusion and leaving too much room for interpretation. It amplifies the adminstivia tax. Instant communication creates false urgency. Email can reinforce or level hierarchy depending on how it used.. The spirit and tone with which someone writes something writes isn't necessarily the same with which it is read.

If there is anything I've learned about electronic communication, it is that it always creates more ambiguity than face-to-face communications. This is not a new lesson, but those who don't learn it and take it to heart are doomed to repeated it. My advice is pick up the phone, schedule a meeting, look your colleague in the eye and find common ground together.

It's one way to cut the adminstrivia - the other is taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture.