J S Mill long to describe bureaucracy as a “vast network of administrative tyranny” in 1837. How many of us have thought since then that bureaucracies are a necessary evil?
In a world in which new worldviews, new paradigms, new ways of thinking and organising are desperately needed, do these necessary evils have a place? Especially, do bureaucracies have a role in community development?
I suggest that they do, as a transitional catalyst towards a more socially just, more equitable, more sustainable world. Community development itself needs to take on some big issues and it needs the space in which to operate.
The big issues that community development has to work with in the 21st Century include: climate change, growing wealth inequality, war/terrorism, peak oil, increased claims of participation and rampant consumerism. These are not discrete issues. They are all intimately connected, inter-related, feeding back on one another. In short, they are complex.
If we are to face these issues we will need flexibility, creativity, adaptability and dialogue (not debate). We will need a new consciousness. Community development is one of the vehicles that could stimulate such consciousness. How do we stimulate something new?
Out of the Void
We require space. Trouble is that as soon as we find some space we humans are inclined to try to fill it: Silence – fill it with speech; Open air – build a skyscraper; Empty stomach – buy McDonalds.
If we search through most of the mythologies and stories of the beginnings of time and life we find an uncanny similarity. The world came out of nothing, out of the Void, out of “the Nothingness”. Intuitively we have known that space is the birthplace of “things”. Today, science is catching up on this intuitive knowledge. Furthermore, science tells us that 99.99……..% of the world is actually space.
Can we envisage that? Think of an average family home in a Western suburb. If that was the world, matter would be a microscopic speck of dust on the mantelshelf. The rest would be space.
Space – yes. Empty – no. Space is full of energy, vibrations and thought. (Who’d have thought that?) It is where our creativity, our intuition, our “flashlight” ideas come from.
|Graphic: Ben Gilberti|
It doesn’t need to be that way. With some re-thinking of their purpose, bureaucracies could help to create the space in which community development takes place. Bureaucracies could act like a gardener. They could till the soil, provide some nutrients, ensure that the soil is irrigated, make sure that the soil is not deprived of sunlight, and then have faith that the seeds in the soil will sprout and flourish in their own diverse, harmonious and magnificent ways.
Unfortunately most bureaucracies are acting more like open-cast miners. They push aside the natural growth, dig in one direction, displace people, plants and animals in the process and end up with a sterile pit.
OK, enough of the metaphors. What role can bureaucracies really play? Firstly, bureaucracies have to give up on the idea that they are in control, that they know best, that the resources belong to them. That’s not easy. Systems thinking says that systems have three distinguishing features: elements, connections and purpose. Elements in a system are easy to change. In a bureaucratic system we could change the Managers, the Administrators, the Clerical workers etc. and still have the same bureaucratic system. Changing the purpose is not so easy – yet that is what needs to happen if bureaucracies are going to create the space in which community development can occur in order that the big issues can be worked on.
OK, OK! That’s what bureaucracies need to give up. What can they do to create the space? Well, I’ve given it some thought and here is a quick brainstorm of some ideas: (a later blog will expand on these suggestions)
- allow outcomes to emerge
- provide opportunities to network and share ideas
- provide organisational (not project) funding for community groups
- acknowledge volunteers
- pass on information
- start thinking big picture, rather than getting trapped in detail
- maintain connections and relationships
- be open to two-way learning
- connect, connect, connect
- remove red-tape (don’t drown in paper-work)
- be open, honest and transparent
- recognise success but don’t steal it
- view failure as a stepping stone to success
- encourage innovation and a “try-it-and-see” attitude
- go with the flow