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A Culture of Bureaucracy
A Culture of Bureaucracy
One definition of bureaucracy from Merriam-Webster that conjures a common perception of government, is that it is “a system of administration marked by lack of flexibility and initiative combined with excessive adherence to regulations in the behavior of usually government officials, red tape, and proliferation”. This is a spot-on description of my initial impression and early experience as a Government CIO, coming from the private sector. While I understand the need for bureaucracy in government to combat corruption, ensure transparency, checks and balances, and accountability to the citizenry, I have often felt like the bureaucracy I encountered was overly burdensome, unwieldy, and unproductive.
Coupling burdensome bureaucracy with antiquated ways of working and uninformed approaches to process, makes for a potent mix of ineffectiveness and inefficiency. Despite its well-known disadvantages, the most common approach to delivering IT projects in the state and local government sector remains the traditional waterfall project management methodology. It assumes complete knowledge before a project even begins. It assumes three fixed and interdependent constraints that can almost never be kept static—scope, timeline, and budget. According to Standish Group CHAOS Report (2020) Beyond Infinity, 83.9 percent of IT projects fail or are challenged. Whereas Agile projects are three times more likely to have success.
At a recent exclusive gathering of city and county CIOs, I heard a litany of stories about failed waterfall projects. The stories included missed go-live dates, scope misses, budget overruns, and in one case, a completely scrapped project.
Along with these dismal project statistics and failed project stories, exists an overabundance of inefficient processes, burdened by onerous bureaucracy and disregard for process waste. My own struggle with personnel recruitments and lengthy contract execution life cycleswhich lasted up to 6-months in duration, plus a poor perception of my department’s ability to deliver projects and drive innovation for our city, have led me to the conclusion that state and local governments need both Lean and Agile Methodologies.
Lean principles and Agile methodologies have an indelible connection. Lean, Six Sigma, and Kaizen principles have histories that trace back to the 1850’s. They were born from a need to eliminate waste in manufacturing processes and have steadily evolved through examples like the Ford Assembly Line, and the Toyota Production System, to today’s implementations in many other industries. Agile was born from a need to improve software development and borrowed from principles developed from Lean and Kaizen methods. Agile methodologies have also steadily evolved and grown into other disciplines like strategic planning, and into other industries like construction through the Lean Construction Institute. Together, Lean and Agile form a potent body of knowledge in efficiency and effectiveness that is sorely needed in state and local government. Yet, Lean and Agile Principles have not been widely adopted in these sectors. I can offer three significant reasons why:
1• Lean and Agile Principles are antithetical to bureaucracy. The principles are difficult to fathom within a culture of bureaucracy.
2• There is unfamiliarity with the principles and unawareness of their power and benefits.
3• There is an engrained comfort within government agencies for the ways they have operated for many years.
In my first two years as a government CIO, if I had a dollar for every time someone told me, “This is the way we’ve always done it”, I could have retired before year three. Nevertheless, I argue that necessary bureaucracy need not breed a culture of bureaucracy.
“Together, Lean and Agile form a potent body of knowledge in efficiency and effectiveness that is sorely needed in state and local government.”
If government agencies launch programs to learn, apply, and build acumen in Lean and Agile Principles, they will erode whatever culture of bureaucracy exists. If they find success in their application of the principles, staff will begin to question their adherence to and acceptance of how things have always been done. If they create centers of excellence in Lean and Agile that extend to all areas of operation, they will discover great benefits and begin to transform from bastions of bureaucracy to more efficient and effective organizations that better serve their residents and businesses.
I’ll close with two of our own examples. First, our Human Resources staff once exclaimed during an executive policy meeting that they were struggling to keep up with our volume of recruitments, and they had done all they could to improve the processes. Although this was their sentiment, they decided to work with IT to execute a Kaizen Event on the processes.
Together, we took a fresh bottoms-up look with a keen focus on Lean’s 8-types of waste, commonly identified by the mnemonic, TIMWOODS. We completed a value stream analysis of the processes from submission of a recruiting requisition, to the first day of work for a new employee. We scrutinized the value stream as a team, focusing on key pain points and key objectives. In the end, we identified a laundry list of new ideas to improve our recruiting processes by up to 50 percent. We achieved this after the team had already believed they had done all that they could to improve.
Second, we are now in our third program increment (PI) of our Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) adoption that was launched in April of 2022. Our adoption of SAFe has proven to be a tremendous success in just two program increments, even before it hasfully settled into the culture of the city. Key stakeholder satisfaction in IT’s ability to deliver projects for the city, as measured by successive Info-Tech CIO Vision Diagnostics, grew from 76 percent to 80 percent. We’ve achieved a 70 percent decrease in the time it takes to deliver new technology initiatives and a 400 percent increase in IT engagement with our other departments.
In conclusion, I recommend state and local government agencies take the steps to integrate Lean and Agile Principles into their necessary bureaucracy to evolve into more efficient and effective organizations who better serve their residents and businesses.
~Kevin Gray is the CIO for the City of Burbank and is a graduate of Cal State University Long Beach. He is a certified Lean Six Sigma Green Belt, SAFe Program Consultant, and SAFe Government Agilist. Prior to working in the public sector, he worked in the entertainment industry (DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures, Viacom) as an IT Executive.