New Ash Center Book Untangles Bureaucratic Dysfunction

April 25, 2017
Jorrit de Jong
Jorrit de Jong, lecturer in public policy and management and academic director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Ash Center at HKS, published his latest book on dealing with government dysfunction.

Cambridge, Mass. – The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and Brookings Institution Press celebrated the newest publication from Jorrit de Jong, Lecturer in Public Policy and Management and Faculty Director of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School, with a recent book talk at the Ash Center.

Dealing with Dysfunction: Innovative Problem Solving in the Public Sector asks how the systemic bureaucratic dysfunction that beleaguers the public sector can be remedied. De Jong examines the roots of this dysfunction and presents a novel approach to solving it.

Drawing from academic literature on bureaucracy and problem solving in the public sector, and the clinical work of the Kafka Brigade — a social enterprise based in the Netherlands dedicated to diagnosing and remedying bureaucratic dysfunction in practice, this study reveals the shortcomings of conventional approaches to bureaucratic reform. “Bureaucracy was created to uphold certain values that are inherently tied to the function of democratic governance,” said de Jong. “In its ideal form, bureaucracy is therefore not a system of rules, but a system of values.”

De Jong examines how the usual methods have failed to diagnose problems, distinguish symptoms, or identify root causes in a comprehensive or satisfactory way, and offers conceptual frameworks, theoretical insights, and practical lessons for dealing with the problem. He goes on to set a course for rigorous public problem solving to create governments that can be more effective, efficient, equitable, and responsive to social concerns.

De Jong argues that successfully remedying bureaucratic dysfunction depends on employing diagnostics capable of distinguishing and dissecting various kinds of dysfunction. The “Anna Karenina principle” applies here: all well-functioning bureaucracies are alike; every dysfunctional bureaucracy is dysfunctional in its own way.

Using fourteen clinical cases of bureaucratic dysfunction investigated by the Kafka Brigade, de Jong demonstrates how a proper process for identifying, defining, diagnosing, and remedying the problem can produce better outcomes.

“Bureaucracy, as a form of organization, is one of the most significant innovations in democratic governance in the past 250 years,” de Jong commented. “It was supposed to make government more efficient, fair and accountable. But it has often turned into its own worst enemy. Let’s not throw away the baby with the bathwater and improve it by engaging in innovative problem-solving. That’s what this book is about!”

Jorrit de Jong is lecturer at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he is Academic Director of the Innovations in Government program and Faculty Director of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative; he is also cofounder of the Kafka Brigade, an action research organization investigating excessive bureaucracy.

Praise for Dealing with Dysfunction:

“De Jong, whose original perspectives on the public sector have already attracted wide attention, has written a thoughtful and highly readable book that should be required reading for officials at all levels who want to tackle their own situations of bureaucratic dysfunction, but don’t know quite where to start.”

—John Alford, Professor of Public Sector Management, Australia and New Zealand School of Government

“Drawing on all-too-recognizable examples of how citizens experience official dysfunction, this book provides a wonderfully engaging overview of theories of bureaucracy, along with accounts of how bureaucratic failures can be remedied.”

— Geoff Mulgan, CEO, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), United Kingdom

“De Jong has successfully taken on a conceptually knotty and practically important problem: in the bureaucratic tangles that seem so absurd from one perspective lie the unresolved conflicts of important public values which we citizens would like to see realized in government operations. Because different public agents defend specific dimensions of public value, the solution, he finds, lies not in some general, sweeping reform, but in the close examination of specific instances of bureaucratic dysfunction resolved through collaborative design efforts.”

—Mark Moore, Hauser Professor of Nonprofit Organizations, Harvard Kennedy School

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory: as Ombudsman, I deal with complaints about government. De Jong’s ideas and analytic tools serve as a compass for diagnosing the root causes as well as a road map for continuous improvement. An invaluable contribution!”

—Arre Zuurmond, Ombudsman, Greater Amsterdam Area, The Netherlands

“Real world complexities can twist attempts at reform into adverse or even perverse outcomes. Professor de Jong identifies this “bureaucratic dysfunction” and explores a unique synthesis of theory, research, and practice to offer a systematic guide for diagnosis and correction. Policy professionals will find this both fascinating and useful.”

—Peter Wallace, City Manager, City of Toronto, Canada

For more information, contact:

Daniel Harsha
Associate Director for Communications and Government Relations
Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation
Harvard Kennedy School