The Kafka Brigade and the "strangling and depersonalising effect of bureaucracy"

Franz Kafka wrote about the strangling and depersonalising effect of bureaucracy. The Kafka Brigade reminds us that people using services have a lot to say about improving them – if only we would listen.

Kafka Brigade is an independent, non-profit action research team, comprising a network of action researchers from Amsterdam and the Hague (NL), Boston (USA), Northern Ireland and Wales (UK). Their mission is to tackle the bureaucratic dysfunction which prevents people from accessing the services they need, and which constrains and frustrates public service staff.

Kafka projects often focus on the most vulnerable groups in society, for whom accessing public services is vitally important, and a matter of social justice: children at risk, victims of domestic violence, migrants, the chronically ill, former offenders.

Between 2005 and 2010, Kafka have led more than fifty projects for government agencies across the Netherlands and extending to the United Kingdom in 2008/09.

The Kafka approach was initially developed in the Netherlands as a practical approach to shift services to become more citizen centred. Initiatives started with action research, to learn about bureaucratic dysfunction in detail from the user perspective and to help tackle it at the same time.

In a fascinating paper by the Kafka Brigade project, Irwin Turbitt, Megan Mathias and Jorrit de Jong reflect on the experiences of the Kafka Brigade in tackling bureaucratic dysfunction through action research.

The paper cites  Moore (1995, Creating Public Value – strategic management in government, Cambridge) who presents a three-legged framework (“strategic triangle”) of public service ‘entrepreneurs’ to rethink what the work of public management is about.

The first leg is based on the idea that public service managers are just as entitled to create ‘public value propositions’ as their counterparts in the private sector are to create customer value propositions.

The second leg is the authorising environment through which the public manager gets and maintains ‘legitimacy and support’. The authorising environment consists of those people who can say yes or no to the ‘public value proposition’; in today’s networked public service organisations, such accountability quickly stretches beyond organisational boundaries to reach partner agencies, citizen forums, and the political level.

The third leg concerns the delivery public value, where the public manager ensures s/he has sufficient operating capacity to deliver the public value proposition that has been authorised. The relationship between the public value proposition and capacity is symbiotic: value will only be achieved if the outcome can be delivered.

The key principles of the Kafka Brigade approach are:

  1. Putting the citizen front and centre while involving all stakeholders.
  2. No action without reflection, no reflection without action.
  3. Rules are necessary, but may be implemented much better.
  4. Under the radar: the Kafka Brigade flies under the radar, avoiding public launches and media exposure so that project teams have the space to reflect honestly and constructively on current practices and behaviours, and to develop. solutions without being subjected to distorting media pressure, messages or timelines
  5. Creating a safe environment: because public servants are part of the solution, they need the space to be commended for their honesty and supported for their willingness to put forward new ideas and challenge each other’s assumptions.

There’s much more in the material provided by Kafka Brigade. Do check it out.