Jack Sim / Guest Writer

If you are an innovator and you require government help (it is easier if you don’t), you may first need to prepare and train yourself to master “The Fine Art of Vomiting Blood”. You know what I mean. But don’t get angry with the bureaucrat. Here’s why.

Singapore is a model of how a non-corrupt bureaucracy with good leadership can efficiently transform a developing country without any natural resources (except its citizenry) into the prosperous and modern city-state that it is today. As one of Asia’s most important economic power-houses, we are the envy of the world.

Yet, you soon realise that while efficiency is our strength, creativity is not. Our top leaders in government set the direction and the bureaucrats translate these directions into simplified boxes and game-rules that are fair to all and which are easy for everyone to understand because they adopt the common denominator.

Everything works well if events unfold according to the system. However, if an idea is innovative and original, it becomes a problem. In such cases, the bureaucrat’s mind works something like this:

Step 1: Does this fall into any of my existing boxes?

If Yes: Process.

If No: Step 2

Step 2: Can I not handle this? Some options include giving FAQ answers, saying this is the wrong department, refer the matter to the superior who will then refer it to his superior who is usually not available, drain applicant’s patience, and if the applicant persists and insists that I take action, go to Step 3.

Step 3: What will my boss think? And even if my boss agrees, what will his boss think?

To be fair, we have to empathise with the bureaucrat in that we cannot expect him to work according to his organization’s mission. He works only on policies and procedures which have little built-in flexibility. And at the risk of sounding cynical, the bureaucrat is keenly aware that to keep his job, he can’t rock the boat.

When dealing with bureaucrats, lots of patience is needed. Otherwise, you should look for your own solution and don’t wait for their answers. This is where many people with great ideas give up.

The point is that you need to care enough about your country and the people not to care what the bureaucrats say or do to you. State the facts and do it for the sake of the nation’s progress. Besides, bureaucrats like to support winners. Show them early signs of success, and they’ll feel safer to support you.

Meanwhile, ministers and politicians tend to be mission driven, but they too are limited by their senior bureaucrats’ interpretation and implementation of their intention into policies and procedures. The result is usually a compromise where the main body of problems is solved efficiently, while unique and innovative solutions and ideas get lost in the lalang.

As we do not have a culture of creativity, foreign talents fill in the gap. We pay (because we can afford to) the world’s best brains as our consultants to design our IRs and monumental buildings and teach us best practices. Yes, the job gets done but we continue to lament that we lack local talents.

Innovators have to understand they might be partially-helped and partially-obstructed by bureaucrats. The ratio is directly proportionate to how innovative your idea is. The more out of the box your idea is, the more uncomfortable the bureaucrat becomes.

Ultimately, you have to survive by your own determination and belief. That, and say, at the end, to yourself that you survived despite the bureaucrazy. There’s just no point trying to judge bureaucrats as good or bad. They are neither. In their personal life, they are just as creative as you and me.  It’s just that he is often frustrated: he may agree with the proposed innovation, but he is restricted from doing so. Once he arrives at the office, he follows procedure.

That said, surely there must be a better way to give the bureaucrats some space for innovation? I would like to suggest “The Right to Mistakes” policy. This practice by large French corporations assumes that the only person who doesn’t make mistakes is the one who does nothing new. Perhaps, we should learn from the foreigners again. But the big wave has to be government-led.

Will this article create repercussions for me? No. It’ll only make things better.

The Mother of All Diseases

Poor Sanitation spreading diseases that kills millions annually, Polluted Water, Deforestation leading to Global Warming, Bio-fuels leading to Food Crisis, Unsafe Sex leading to AIDS, Wars and Conflicts, we live in a world of unresolved issues. From the World Economic Forum to a war-torn disaster zone, from the UN in New York to the child dying in a new slum , we know the issues, and you may be surprised here, we do know the solutions too. Yet, the best brains and highest powers could not solve these  problems. Instead, we carry on talking, one big conference following another. We risk becoming professional “Meeters” !

1. It is not that we don’t want to solve them. The intentions are  often so noble, it makes you say “YES” in support. But advocacy is  useless unless it turns into real term action.

2. It is not that we don’t know how to solve them. Lots of scientists,  academic researchers, NGOs, social workers, practitioners has been  successful but often, they work in silos and are fragmented from each  other. They are seldom supported to scale up, nor networked across industries or other communities.

3. It is not that we lack the money or resources to solve them. With  the World Bank family of banks, all the foundations giving billions and individuals donors, all the volunteers working for free, they are ready to help. If we use these resources to create efficient market economy that facilitate , train and finance the poor to help themselves, we can solve the problems sustainably in most cases. But the reality is quite ridiculous: after all the overheads, consultancies and meetings, each dollar of resources became only a few cents when it actually arrived at the village or slums.

4. It is not that irreconcilable differences are so large that they cannot be bridged. People of opposing sides often want the same thing : Peace, time with family and friends, happiness, an efficient economy, jobs and good governance.

The problem is Global Bureaucrazy and it exists in both public service, private businesses, NGOs and virtually at all levels of organizations.

Bureaucrazy defies logic because it is a monopoly. It facilitates the following traits in various levels of powers:

1. Self-preservation. Serving self instead of serving the public, thus they work in silos.

2. Inaction. Do nothing new, take no risks and make no mistakes.

3. Blame game: Blame others, claim their credits.

4. Arrogance and a superiority complex. Fortified positions beyond  reproach.

5. Diminished spirit of enterprise: Absence of a sense of mission.

6. Unnatural rule-based behavior in the rank and a willingness to  explain item is beyond their control.

7. An unnecessary sense of competition and comparison with those who  share their mission and who should be partners instead.

When bureaucrazy becomes a culture, people get used to it so much that it becomes invisible. Politicians and CEOs come and go. Bureaucraps may stay forever. Politicians speak, but bureaucraps write their speeches. The invisible hand rules quietly.

Bureaucrazy is the legal cousin of corruption. Its impact can be more devastating than corruption because of its ubiquitous nature. In many other countries, corruption thrives in an environment of heavy bureaucrazy which serves as its substrate for life.

In Singapore, it is different. Our obsession for clean governance has led to method of eliminating corruption that is equivalent to fumigation: it kills the good bugs ( creative innovations) along with the bad bugs( creative cheats), leaving us with a sterile squeaky clean society, but without space for new locally-bred ideas.

Bureaucrazy may involve a wide array of unproductive behavior like self-preservation, image profiling, unnecessary consultancies, office politics, innovation killing, and a great continuous loss of capacities and energy. The problem is it is legal, legitimate and can stay in power forever, even beyond the reign of a bureaucrap, it is a culture that self-perpetuates.

It is not against the law to do things slowly, block new ideas and  solutions, lose files, give FAQ answers that do not address the questions, simply ignore critical issues or to refer aggrieved customers to run in circles elsewhere. The politicians or corporate CEOs are quite powerless when this culture permeates the whole organization.

Take the example of a school.

Mission :To provide wholesome education to children to prepare for a better tomorrow.

Situation : X billions uneducated and X millions dropped out of schools. To get continued support from funders, school principals need to show results and so they do their best to look good. In Singapore, it has become a ranking race where some principals even advise lower performing students to transfer themselves to other schools in order not to spoil the school’s ranking. In this process, compassion and care-giving turns into indifference and self-preservation. An escapism mentality takes over their commitment to solve the problems. Eventually, the bureaucrap become a victim of the bureaucrazy he created too. When you measure with limited or wrong KPIs, your organization may end up working against the mission.

Networked Solutions

To break the bureaucrap syndrome requires a new way of measuring wholesome and longer-term sustainable performances (having only a few KIPs may create limitation and unnatural behavior), new networked organization structures (instead of hierarchy), new incentives schemes ( measuring results and not effort), removal of dinosaurs (identifying them by peers’ check & balance system) , a new generation of mission-driven people, and the recognition of the doers regardless of positions through auto-reporting (this eliminates distorted reports by bureaucraps). Can it be done? Yes.

The new enlightened generation of politicians/ people who wants to serve regardless of whether they are in or out of office. A new breed of people who demand excellence of  themselves and their organization. An organizational structure that appreciates the value-creating bureaucrat and exposes the value-destructing bureaucrap.

It all boils down to intention. If bureaucrats are trained to find solutions rather than to follow rules, they’ll become mission driven rather than stifled by rules.

To be sure, there is a bit of bureaucrap in each of us. We defend our tuft and sometimes do things we never should. Knowing it exists is the first step to eliminating self-interest and opening ourselves back to drive our mission.

As a die-hard optimist, I believe bureaucrazy can be defeated. The universal demand for Goodness will eventually lead us to accelerate the reduction of grand scale wastage by installing natural & healthy organizational systems that facilitates and appreciates talents and innovation at all levels of our society. Simplify the filtration system and there’ll be less chokages.

In an efficient marketplace, demand drives supply because there is a choice element for the consumer. If we break the monopoly of bureaucrazy and add a dimension of competition inside it, we can create transparency and efficiency. Privatization of public services is one way. But the change requires a whole cultural revolution in the way we appreciate everyone as a changemaker.

Already, there is now a trend of preference for conferences that are action work-shops rather than talk-shop.

About the author:

Jack Sim

Founder, World Toilet Organization

Schwab Foundation’s Outstanding Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2006

Ashoka Global Fellow 2007


Picture from Infocomm Gallery.


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