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Thursday, 27 October 2011

27. Social Bureaucracy

I've posted before about how social media practices and technologies might transform council decision making.  Here I want to apply the same thinking to the other side of what local government does - the administration of services.  Social media has changed many aspects of council business but these changes are in many ways on the periphery, the fundamental way that local authorities work is unaffected. The task of this post, therefore, is to attempt to imagine some principles on which a truly social administration might be based. 

Part of my reason for doing this is because I am helping to develop a social media framework for my own council and I'm wondering if  social media might require something different to the corporate strategy and policy approaches that have been used for other 'cross cutting' issues. 

Anyhow, to business.


Bureaucracy, as discussed famously by Max Weber, will be familiar concept familiar to most people who have done a management course.  Classically it means a rational system of administration associated with, amongst other things, a single hierarchy of supervision and command, compliance with a clear set of organisational rules, professional status, objectivity and a premium on experienced workers -bureaucrats. 

Of course this is an ideal type and in practice things don’t always work out this way.  Michael Lipsky’s famous study of street level bureaucrats, for example, highlighted the ways in which public servants on the front line devised coping strategies as a response to the impossible task of allocating limited resources in the face of seemingly limitless demand for public services.

More recently the old notion of bureaucracy has been challenged by a whole range of ideas associated with the private sector.  Both networks and markets have been suggested as organising principles that could replace traditional hierarchies.  Much of this has gone under the heading of the New Public Management although I’m not sure anyone really knows what that means.

Although the term comes with a lot of negative vibes these days, ultimately bureaucracy simply means organisation by bureau (department).  It has certainly been updated over the years and the idea here is that it can be updated again – and made social.

The Social Bureaucracy

Instead of the hierarchy, network or market, the fundamental organising principle for the social bureaucracy is the community.   This is the idea of community that is applied to online activity.  So, in the sense I mean it here, a community has the following features:
  • A clear purpose decided by the elected side of local government
  • A limited number of members as defined by the organisation
  • Named individuals performing essential community roles e.g. admin, facilitator etc
  • Defined responsibilities for members describing how they contribute to the purpose of the community
  • Assets such as shared knowledge, equipment or facilities
  • Mechanisms for active dialogue between members; online and off
Communities would replace departments, sections, teams and units.  Communities can easily overlap and individuals would have multiple memberships.  In fact job descriptions would in effect be a list of memberships.  The beauty of communities is that they are fluid and flexible.  They can be created and closed, increased and reduced according to what the organisation requires and can support.  Neither do they need to be contained within the organisation.  Communities can cross organisational and professional boundaries, they can include national and international contributors and crucially they can involve the public.  

Some communities, such as those providing social care or planning services, for example, would require some or all of their members to have professional qualifications but, underpinning this, would be a generic set of skills and competencies.  There would, of course, be communities for training and development to support this.


Rather than concepts of seniority and regimes of line management, in communities it is the application of permissions that mark out the different responsibilities of community members.  So, for example, the permission to speak on behalf of the community, to use particular resources and of course to add and remove community members would all be granted at an organisational level.  This might also have implications for what people get paid.  Perhaps pay would be linked to the communities a person belongs to, the permissions they have been granted or a combination of both.

Collective Responsibility

Instead of compliance with rules or performance management regimes, the social bureaucracy would be driven by collective responsibility.  In other words, at an organisational level, it is the success of communities that is judged.  For individuals the incentives to do well come from peer pressure, from the desire to be associated with successful communities and from the ethos that drove people to want to be part of any community in the first place.  One of the important aspects of a community is that it implies an emotional as well as a rational aspect – passion as well as professionalism.

Community Co-production

For the social bureaucracy the relationship with the public is a co-productive one.  I’ve posted before about a co-productive decision making process, here it is all about the partnership between public servants and the public to provide services (here is a lovely description of how this relationship can work by Simon Pickthall).  For the social bureaucracy the idea goes a stage further.  Rather than partnerships with individuals or groups the idea is to build communities to achieve specific outcomes that contain both professionals and the public.  In the social bureaucracy the public are understood not as clients or customers but as co-producers, as fellow community members.

What about Now?

Ok, so this is not something that is going to happen soon, if ever, but as an ideal I do think it points towards some of the ways social media use might be supported corporately right now:
  • Use the Language of Communities – Start talking about communities, not tools, as a way to get things done.  So, for example, it’s ‘a community working to improve support for foster carers has set up a facebook page’ rather than ‘a facebook page has been set up to help carers’.
  • Promote Your Communities – You already have some, work out who they are and tell people about them – show how a community can make a difference through real examples.
  • Corporately Support Communities – Create an environment where communities can flourish.  Make sure senior officers are leading by example, redesign the intranet to be your community hub, provide social media surgeries and drop-ins for interested staff etc etc 
  • Clearly Define Roles and Permissions – make sure everyone knows what they can and can’t do and why.
  • Build a Community of Community Builders – There are many people already make great use of social media whether supported or not – they need to be recognised and supported.

These are just some initial thoughts – I hope others will build on them.  I’ll finish with @danslee’s tweeted adage about supporting social media corporately which sums it all up rather well:

Best #localgov #socmed advice? Help open the doors for bright people.  That’s all.  

Update:  I have just come across this similar (but much more developed) idea of Communities of Practice from Etienne Wenger - it's from a management and learning perspective is more empirically and theoretically substantial. Check it out!


Anonymous said...

Hi Dave

I really like this as an approach to potentially making an organisational culture social. In some ways, though, it reminds me of matrix management - teams set up for a specific purpose or project but not necessarily containing line management control. Is that a fair comparison?


Dave Mckenna said...

This is an interesting question – one I hadn’t thought about before.

You are right – there are a lot of similarities but, as you hint, matrix management seems to still rely on a centrally controlled, hierarchical system with project managers accountable upwards within a clearly structured performance framework.

You could argue that it is a step towards social bureaucracy but I would suggest that teams are very different to communities – much more rational and planned.

On the other hand, you could also argue that, if you are not careful, communities will end up looking very much like teams.

Either way I bet there must be some very useful lessons from matrix management that would apply to this idea.

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