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Adaptive bureaucracies? Enabling adaptation in public bureaucracies

Working paper

Written by Samuel Sharp

Hero image description: Small bureaucracy Image credit:Paulien Osse / Flickr

To effectively address the complex challenges they face, public bureaucracies often need to do more than implement pre-determined plans. They need to work adaptively: testing different policies to see what works well, less well and why, and to continually learn and iterate policies accordingly. Yet often these bureaucracies are too bureaucratic to work in these ways: their own processes, structures and incentives are major barriers to adaptation.

This paper explores public bureaucracies across a range of sectors that have attempted to work more adaptively. The examples analysed in this paper suggest that a combination of political and organisational factors is important in enabling adaptation. Leadership (bureaucratic or political) that is committed to working more adaptively – which may arise from political expediency or in response to crisis – is almost always necessary. But beyond leadership, certain organisational features appear to be more conducive to adaptation. This includes, most notably, a more decentralised organisational structure that allows greater autonomy for mid-level bureaucratic managers and frontline bureaucrats to exercise professional judgement in their day-to-day work.