Category Archives: Bureaucracy

Know your principal opponent’s favoured tactics (and devise countermeasures)

Element Descriptor

We have favourite moves, our opponents have favourite moves – ones which have worked for them in the past and they feel very comfortable deploying. If you can’t learn their basic moves, they will roll you every time, without getting out of bed.

Level descriptors

NovicePractitionerExpertNinja
You know the favourite basic moves of your opponents and how they are likely to deploy them. You have your countermeasures, painfully rehearsed, ready to go as and when required.You know almost all of the moves of your opponents, including ones they have only used on other issues/circumstances. You have the capacity to respond intelligently and effectively to these moves, naming them as you goYou know their moves and those they are likely to try out soon. You know how to respond elegantly and quickly to these, rendering their plans to undermine you in tatters. You force them to innovate, and then learn how to defeat these innovations.You are three and a half moves ahead of them all the time – you know how they will move their pieces, and you know how to slow them down, stop them, deploy your resources to best effect.

Element Overview Essay

This is a draft. If something doesn’t make sense, or you see typos, or if you have further ideas, please email us on contact@activecitizenshiptoolkit.net

So the reasons nonhierarchical groups don’t do this better, I think is number one that it requires strategic thinking, and realising that you’re going to be in a multiple iteration game/conflict/interaction, rather than one heroic victory.

Number two, we just assume often, that the truth will set us free and that our moral superiority will win the day. Er… no.

Number three, we don’t like to think about the tactics of our opponents, perhaps because oftentimes, those tactics are very successful. And we shy away from the fact that in the past, we have been constantly not just outgunned, but outwitted and outmanoeuvred and rendered impotent 

Nobody likes to feel impotent, they want to feel important, badoom Tish

The consequences of not understanding your opponent’s favourite tactics is that they never have to get out of first gear. They just keep on winning and winning and winning, on autopilot, which is kind of not sustainable, you know, for you or the species, other species, etc. and this will lead to demoralisation and decruitment. Of course, you still might lose even if you innovate and learn their ways, but at least you’ll have a little fun on the way and you never know what might happen. 

So the fixes are to study your immediate principle opponents methods and to see them as part of an ongoing history, where they might be ignoring you for as long as they can so that you exhaust yourself, just getting to the start line, at which point you’re easy pickings for being co-opted into some meaningless consultative panel.

Or they might try to smear you. As you know, “the whatever lobby” or malcontents or communists or anti technology people or “middle-class lentil eaters who hate the poor.” There any number of ways that they can try and smear you.

Usually, once they’re forced to engage in debate with you, they’ll deliberately answer a different question, or they’ll set up a straw man. As a diversion, they’ll puff themelves up often with some irrelevant other project, or they’ll talk out the clock, or they’ll do whatever it takes to avoid scrutiny.

Or they will set up “sheep and goats” and they’ll find someone who is that desperate for attention or a sense of importance that they can be persuaded to be a fig leaf, to believe they are “changing the system from within” or stopping it being even worse.. So, there colonialism is full of examples of this. And the same tactics that were used in the colonies are of course used here. Why wouldn’t you? They work. So, if you don’t have a sense, finally, of what tactics are going to be deployed against you, you have no chance of devising effective countermeasures, and there’s no need for your opponents to innovate.

Specifically once you’re on a consultative panel or whatever, realise this

Bureaucrats will try to conceal information, or slow down the delivery of it until after a decision has been made.

So, there needs to be a code of conduct whereby the price of having your unpaid attendance at meetings (and remember, the bureaucrats are getting paid to be there), and the associated credibility that comes with that (organisations will say ‘we’re consulting’) is that the organisations have to commit to behave themselves – delivering what they say by when they say. 

If there is going to be any delay in releasing information, this is communicated in advance, with an explanation for the delay given, a revised final date, and a commitment to not letting this reason cause slippage again.”

By writing reports in plain language, and without shifting the baseline against which progress is to be measured.

You could insist that reports are run through a “plain English” assessment tool (the web has plenty).

https://www.simplish.org/
https://style.ons.gov.uk/category/writing-for-the-web/plain-english/

Bureaucrats will try to exhaust you and to demoralise those who care most about an issue

One way they will do this is to call too many or too few meetings, often at short notice.

Make sure the bureaucrats can’t call meetings at short notice when they know some ‘awkward squad’ people are not going to be able to attend.

Have regularly scheduled meetings, planned months in advance.  Don’t let the bureaucrats cancel them just because “oh, important person x can’t come, so we’ve rescheduled for this  Wednesday morning at 10am)


So, within any meeting, whenever there is a promise of delivery of information, get it agreed (and minuted) that

“Information about x is going to be delivered to everyone on this panel by date y in format z[ e.g. pdf]  by named bureaucrat a.  If this deadline is not met, it will be escalated to bureaucrat a’s boss, bureaucrat b.”

Inconvenient commitments getting mysteriously “forgotten” from the official minutes and “attritional evaporation”

If you’re only meeting once a month, it can often be the case that memories have faded, scraps of paper have been lost. The chair of the meeting says “can we take the minutes as read?”  If you say “er, no, chair, there was I think a commitment that bureaucrat a would do x by y” then the bureaucrat or chair can smile and say “well, that’s not our recollection/it wasn’t there in the draft minutes”.  Then it can become a bunfight about memory etc, and someone else will pitch in and say “look, can we just move on, we’ve got a packed agenda tonight and shouldn’t get bogged down in the detail.”  And so a commitment that WAS made gets dropped, and this demoralises those who fought for it, and makes them more suspicious of the whole process. They then probably drop out, leaving ever-more-pliable people still on the committee… This is an attritional “evaporation” process.  

What to do about it

Those attending the meeting have to write their OWN version of the minutes, and circulate that straight away.

“Hi, bureaucrats a and b,

Thanks for meeting with us earlier today/last night.  Attached please find our minutes of the meeting, structured around a series of agreed actions, with named individuals and deadlines. 

This is to the best of our ability an accurate account of what was agreed. If you feel that it was NOT, please let us know straight away. If we do not hear from you, we will regard this as an agreement that our account is in fact accurate.”

Yours sincerely

xxx”


Members of the community/student groups have to know how to use the Freedom of Information Act, and be willing to use it if the organisation plays silly-buggers.

Bureaucrats will try to “stack” panels with clueless and/or vulnerable people, to dilute the voices who are demanding proper action

You spot them – often people with no connections to everyone else on the panel who are employed directly or indirectly by the organisation, who make long vague speeches which then get enthusiastically backed up by the bureaucrats, wasting time and energy.

This is a tricky one to deal with, because you can get into fights about who is “representative” and of what which nobody wins, and the fight demoralises and delegitimises everyone. These sorts of people are best just “contained” – asked to keep their irrelevant comments brief etc.

Bureaucrats will try to baffle you with bullshit – long words and jargon, irrelevant factoids based on shifting-baselines, with inconvenient facts then lost in the data smog

Learn how to decode their language, but push for “plain language” in the code of conduct as well.

Rewrite their reports as short briefing papers, highlighting a) what has NOT been answered b) what has been buried and c) how much more succinctly and clearly the reports could have been written.


Bureaucrats will push important agenda items to the bottom, so there is less time to address substantive points and more time for ‘safe’ irrelevant/side issues.

Keep a close eye on the agenda, and demand as part of the initial “code of conduct” that agendas are a) always circulated a week in advance as DRAFTS, b) that there are mechanisms both before and at the start of the meeting for the agenda to be re-ordered c) that both the agenda-setting and chairing of the meeting is rotated between the organisation and those in attendance

Bureaucrats can play a long-game, waiting to “take back control”

Members of the community group have to continually explain other newer members as to the ways bureaucrats slow things down.  Otherwise, as there is turn-over of membership in the panel, the bureaucrats can dust off old tricks and slowly return to their old power games…

Various popular reading on it

https://hbr.org/2016/07/how-to-stop-people-who-bog-things-down-with-bureaucracy

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Bureaucratic incentives

Element Descriptor

You can’t “win” in bureaucratic games. Sorry, finished that sentence prematurely. You can’t “win in bureaucratic games unless you understand what is motivating the behaviour of the bureaucrats (aka “civil servants”) who are busy trying to ram through all sorts of stupid, albeit dressed up as “green” or “sustainable” – or whatever other meaningless drivel is being pushed at the moment – through the ‘democratic’ processes of your city/state. And unless you understand the tactics, and devise, share, refine countermeasures. If you don’t do this, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

Level descriptors

NovicePractitionerExpertNinja
You have – and can communicate – a basic understanding of how hierarchical organisations constrain behaviour and reward conformity/obedience/secrecy. You understand and can explain using local examples, the Peter Principle and Pournelle’s LawYou have a more detailed and local understanding of the history of the local organisation you are dealing with – the past and present big fish, where they came from, and what has happened to unlucky/dissident bureaucrats in the past.  You can explain ‘evaporative cooling’ and you can explain the different techniques bureaucrats use to gild the turd, and hide from scrutinyYou know the ins and outs of the various departments in the local government bureaucracy, how they fight like cats in a sack, who plays dirty, who leaks what to who and when, which politicians are under the thumb, which ones are on the outer. You know who the likely next bosses and their foibles. Meanwhile, you can confidently and accurately predict the kinds of spin specific Sir Humphreys will use to blameshift in any given scandal.You can compare and contrast the bureaucratic cultures within your local authority with those of neighbouring/comparable authorities, and trace the lineages/tensions with national cultures.  You have written extensively on the reality-distortion fields of bureaucracies in general, and the consequences for effective climate policy (hint, no such thing exists).

Element Overview Essay

This is a draft. If something doesn’t make sense, or you see typos, or if you have further ideas, please email us on contact@activecitizenshiptoolkit.net

So unless you’ve worked as a civil servant or looked at them closely, you don’t understand the nature of bureaucracy probably. So, these are the causes and then there is the standard sort of, “Yes Minister” model where there is a mindless accrual of power. And, yes, Minister was infamously written from a public choice theory perspective. Bless it. 

The consequences of not understanding the pressures and incentives on bureaucrats is you just misunderstand what makes them tick. You’re not going to get them to tick differently. These are intensely hierarchical organisations. But also the real power isn’t necessarily the same as the one in the organisational chart: you must never take it literally. 

Bureaucrats, if they want to climb the ladder or even survive, must never be in a position where they have to take the blame or someone else could pin the blame on them. They must never embarrass their political masters or their bureaucratic masters. And if mistakes are made, they have to bury them. They have to be incredibly small c conservative, because if they do take chances stick their head above the parapet the best possible outcome is they get away with it and someone else takes the credit(probably), they may well make their superiors jealous and nervous about them as a free thinker and as a potential square peg in a round hole or whistle blower. So if they want to climb the ladder, it’s a tricky business.

The incentives?  Well, I guess the pension a lot of the time, I mean, some come in wanting to, quote “change things”, unquote, they tend not to last long. There’s a good book – Beyond the Stable State by Donald Schoen who later was an educational theory guy that talks about this.The fixes? So, to understand how bureaucrats work we have to observe them, we have to look at what they do when they’re under pressure, we look at their behaviours. God help us all. We are doomed as a species, I can tell you that for nothing.

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Local Climate Strategies

Element Descriptor

Local climate policy is usually full of nice sounding words with no real delivery mechanisms behind it. Being able to understand that, and explain the causes, consequences and remedies for this emptiness is essential. If you can’t do all of that, succinctly, why are you even bothering? Seriously?

Level descriptors

NovicePractitionerExpertNinja
You know the recent history of climate policy, the headline goals and the current performance of your local authority. The big sources of carbon locally, what is – and could – be done about them. You understand the basic structure of the policymaking apparatusYou have a reasonable grasp on the entire history of climate policy making and (lack of ) implementation in your town/city. You can explain both the trail of broken promises and memory-holed documents, and also the reasons for these failures, and what could still, at this late stage, be done to make the response less inadequateYou have a thorough and detailed grasp of the entire sorry history of climate policy shiny promises, from the year dot. You know why each hype cycle came undone, and can see the patterns, and the influence of local political and policy factors, but also the influence of national and international factors. You know where the bodies are buried, and can spot a silence at fifty paces. You can anticipate what nonsense will be floated in the coming months, and explain why it is nonsense. You can’t change anything though, because this is, after all, Groundhog Day all over again…Your face graces a dartboard in the Town Hall, because of your history of being willing and able to call bullshit on whatever smoke and mirrors is being perpetrated now by officials and come-and-go political actors. You never have to look up a Three Letter Acronym, and you can see the path dependencies and lock-in of today- and tomorrow’s policies. You even, on your good days, can explain how other local authorities have done it better elsewhere for the same/less money.

Element Overview Essay

This is a draft. If something doesn’t make sense, or you see typos, or if you have further ideas, please email us on contact@activecitizenshiptoolkit.net

The causes of this being done badly is that climate policy has done badly: circular there isn’it? So the documents are out of date. They baffled you in bullshit. They deliberately neglect to mention that this is the third or fourth go round on this rodeo, and that nothing got done the last time, nothing’s gonna get done this time and there’s just an overwhelming stench of failure.

So you have to battle through the feel-good propaganda and the marketing campaigns because that’s mostly what local climate policy seems to be. If you don’t do that, you will be endlessly surprised. It will be Groundhog Day every day. And you run around playing “whack-a-mole”. exhausting yourself other people not seeing the Bigger, Longer patterns. Most councils will probably have a 20 plus year history of environment policy. Many of them got exercised 10 years ago, at the latest in the run up to Copenhagen.

This history has been memory-holed, but it can be retrieved. We have the internet, we have newspaper archives, the ability to track down and interview older councillors, activists.

So if you want to understand local climate policy, you’re going to need a historical overview, you’re going to need a theoretical overview that will probably be around placemaking and the sustainability fix and all of that good stuff. But at the same time that you understand climate policy, you’re really I can’t emphasise this enough. You are going to need other elements in the toolkit. You are going to need bureaucrats and their tactics, morale maintenance at an individual and collective level, and you’re going to need abyss-staring at expert or ninja level.

Because this really is the bleakest element that you can imagine. We can’t even get this right at a local level.

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Local authority structures

Element Descriptor

Local authorities are oddly opaque. It’s almost as if they don’t want the voters to know how they function and how they can be influenced. Crazy, huh? Without that knowledge though, success, however defined, is extremely unlikely.

Level descriptors

NovicePractitionerExpertNinja
You can explain the basic political structure of your local authority, and the different types of role elected councillors fulfill. You have a basic grasp on the officers too, and the decision making processYou have a detailed and historically formed (‘they used to do it like that, now they do it like this) view of the local authority, its culture, the differences between the official set up and what ACTUALLY goes on.You know the official story, the real story, where the bodies are buried, how the last reorganisation consolidated the power of THIS faction over that one, how the power games are played, who is good at them and what games are on the horizon.After an hour in your presence, people fundamentally ‘ get it’, now and forever – the scales fall from their eyes, they understand a panel from a subgroup from a regulatory committee from a scrutiny committee, a directorate from a cold steel rail. For all the good it will do them.

Element Overview Essay

This is a draft. If something doesn’t make sense, or you see typos, or if you have further ideas, please email us on contact@activecitizenshiptoolkit.net

This is something that most activist groups seem to have a very shaky grasp on. And I would say this is partly because councils are so badly reported in the national  press. And not much better reported in the local press, though you do get obviously more detail. So people just aren’t used to thinking about how their local authority works. And you can’t pick it up by osmosis in the same way that you kind of sort of do with watching Channel Four news or reading the Guardian or whatever. It’s a bit like climate policy in that way. You might slowly gradually pick up a sense by reading mass media, but for the national but you ain’t gonna do it for the local.

Also local authorities, I think, call me the Mad Conspiracy Theorist deliberately bad at explaining how they are supposed to work, let alone how they do work, and how citizens might be involved as more than just cheerleaders. So it’s very hard to find this information.

The consequences of not knowing how local authority structures work in both the official story and the real story is you have no chance of influencing them you’re stumbling around blindly. So the solution is, figure out, do the spade work to find out how they’re supposed to work. Then talk to activists, current councillors, ex-councillors, journalists, there are people around who will tell you how these things really work. Then you could set to work making it easier for other people to understand how local authorities do and don’t work, and actually try changing it (you don’t have to take this crap).

Development Resources

More to follow on this, but for now, here’s a great graphic Solvi did about Manchester City Council.

Assessment Resources

Bureaucrats and their tactics – understanding, combatting

Element Descriptor

You can’t “win” in bureaucratic games.   Sorry, finished that sentence prematurely. You can’t “win in bureaucratic games unless you understand what is motivating the behaviour of the bureaucrats (aka “civil servants”) who are busy trying to ram through all sorts of stupid, albeit dressed up as “green” or “sustainable” – or whatever other meaningless drivel is being pushed at the moment through the ‘democratic’ processes of your city/state. And unless you understand the tactics, and devise, share, refine countermeasures. If you don’t do this, you’re wasting everyone’s time.

Level descriptors

NovicePractitionerExpertNinja
You have – and can communicate – a basic understanding of how hierarchical organisations constrain behaviour and reward conformity/obedience/secrecy. You understand and can explain using local examples, the Peter Principle and Pournelle’s LawYou have a more detailed and local understanding of the history of the local organisation you are dealing with – the past and present big fish, where they came from, and what has happened to unlucky/dissident bureaucrats in the past.  You can explain ‘evaporative cooling’ and you can explain the different techniques bureaucrats use to gild the turd, and hide from scrutinyYou know the ins and outs of the various departments in the local government bureaucracy, how they fight like cats in a sack, who plays dirty, who leaks what to who and when, which politicians are under the thumb, which ones are on the outer. You know who the likely next bosses and their foibles.Meanwhile, you can confidently and accurately predict the kinds of spin specific Sir Humphreys will use to blameshift in any given scandal.You can compare and contrast the bureaucratic cultures within your local authority with those of neighbouring/comparable authorities, and trace the lineages/tensions with national cultures.  You have written extensively on the reality-distortion fields of bureaucracies in general, and the consequences for effective climate policy (hint, no such thing exists).

Element Overview Essay

This is a draft. If something doesn’t make sense, or you see typos, or if you have further ideas, please email us on contact@activecitizenshiptoolkit.net

Understanding how bureaucrats slow things down

The causes of people not understanding how bureaucrats work. Either people are either bureaucrats who don’t want to admit to themselves what they’re doing. Or they’ve never encountered bureaucrats. Well, they have and they’ve blamed, “the bureaucracy” in general, or individual bureaucrats who they don’t like.

But you have to step back. not totally, but a bit and see this from a sociological and political point of view, so that you’re no longer just blaming the “entire system, man” or an individual.

The consequences of you not doing this are pretty straightforward. You will be confused, bemused,  demoralised, you will burn out. And what pressure that you did bring to bear on a bureaucracy to behave itself will decrease. And the bureaucrats and the politicians, if there are politicians involved, will see their opportunity to return to a more pleasing status quo. And we saw this happen in Manchester around the production of quarterly carbon reports for the council. We as campaigners, forced them to concede this point. And as soon as we stopped pressuring them, they abolished them. They’ve now had to reintroduce them, of course. But that’s how the game is played.

The solutions are to compare notes about what bureaucrats are doing to start naming the tactics, giving them vivid names, to start mocking the tactics and to signal not only that you are aware of them, but that you are going to take effective countermeasures so that the cost of the tactic being deployed becomes prohibitively high for the bureaucrats and the politicians.

Now that’s great in theory, but they develop thicker skins and become more and more shameless. So I’m afraid in order to defeat a system, such as a bureaucracy, you’re going to need to movement-build and to mobilise an alternative, more legitimate system called civil society.

In the meantime, of course, you can be refining your skills around specific questions, freedom of Information, Act requests, intervening in meetings, to which you have been invited or maybe not invited. With very, very specific requests that leave your opponents with no feasible wiggle room. 

Good luck

The “why” is pretty straightforward. bureaucracy is about the maintenance of power and decision making through the control of information and access to it, the control of who is within the decision making space or venue, what information they have, and reminding them of the consequences of making a decision that doesn’t fit with the settled opinion of the bureaucracy. “That’s a courageous decision. Minister.” This is about maintaining control or at least the illusion of control. This can also be about not embarrassing those higher up the food chain than yourself either elected or more commonly unelected, by exposing the gap between what was confidently asserted would happen or would be done and what actually did happen. “Mistakes were made, but not by us.”

So, the How is about refusing to give out information unless forced to and then giving out partial information so partial and incomplete that it is misleading, refusing access to decision making processes (and finding some malleable token folks to be part of the appearance of consultation).

And when forced to engage with the great unwashed, the number one rule is slow things down, slow things down, slow things down. Because this will, over time, demoralise many of the people wishing to be engaged. And then when you’ve got it down to just a few, you can say “Well, then they’re malcontents, and they’re not representative of all the other people.”

It has just occurred to me that this is a similar tactic to how the Trots come to dominate umbrella groups. Hold meeting after meeting each one more futile and circular than the last until you’re left with a small number, who can be rounded up and contained.

The consequences of not understanding all this dramatic. Social movements butt up against bureaucratic systems and they often lose or win a victory that is smaller than it could have been. And one that is vulnerable to being kicked “into the committees and left to die by the wayside.”

What is to be done? Don’t let them do it!  Name the tactics that they use to slow things down. 

It doesn’t take six weeks to write terms of reference of a group because you can simply cut and paste an existing group’s terms of reference terms and references and substitute in the names and the issues.

It doesn’t take six weeks to organise 12 people to have a meeting. We now have doodle polls.

It doesn’t take three months to release information. If you don’t release it to us now, we’ll use the Freedom of Information Act, and it will take 20 days.

Those are the sticks.

The carrots could be to publicly praise, bureaucrats and elected politicians when they do things right. Though, of course, the problem with praise sandwiches is that people take the praise and might end up quoting it six months later when everything’s gone to shit.

So that is some of the ways that you deal with bureaucrats, slowing things down. You also have to present a united front. You have to make sure that the other people on the advisory panel will only to support you or at least keep quiet.

 If they go native because they think this will curry favour and that they will get to be in the next advisory panel that is set up after this one is inevitably abolished, and that this somehow means that they’re having access and influence, you need to educate them and you need to explain to them that – metaphorically – what’s the phrase – ”narcs get marks” “snitches get stitches” and “scabs get stabs”.

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