Friday 8 January 2021

Ethical Bureaucracies Enable Democracies!

 “Things will be very different when this is under control,” seems to be a stock phrase of late and it might be worth thinking about what might happen to make things work differently. Can we begin to describe a set of principles that might inform how and why we relate to each other across a range of political, economic and social contexts? What can we learn from existing ideas on how people operate, why change is necessary and the direction it should take?

We should consider the space occupied by bureaucracies in enabling the fair delivery of resources whilst supporting organisations. This is open to scrutiny driven by the necessity not to measure the efficiency of bureaucracies against a series of metrics but to consider their effectiveness in ensuring that the Ethical Purpose of the organisation is maintained and grown throughout a range of agreed contexts, values and behaviours

Context “I Wouldn’t Have Started From Here”

Given that “here” might be defined as being held in the teeth of a global pandemic that has placed huge and possibly devastating demands on economies, has re-awakened medieval uncertainties and has exposed the limitations of our collective capacity to respond to the challenges; it seems fair to ask “Who would?”

Significant social and economic shifts have led us from collectivism and co-operation towards isolation and individualism: yet it is at this very point that we are witnessing the architects of rapacious national and international individualism bereft of any answers that seem to make sense to those most afflicted by the pandemic. What we may be seeing is the emergence of a different kind of Leadership, one that places the relationship between Leadership and Service at the heart of it Values, Ethics and Behaviours: Servant Leadership.

Our starting point might well be the need to raise “questions of purpose,” in a manner that challenges the status quo, the design and purpose of organisations, outputs, and processes. In short, “If what we are doing fails to serve a greater good, one that is beyond bringing wealth to the share-holder, why are we doing it?” It is the failure to pose this question that results in our being spectators as bureaucracies are configured to bring disproportionate wealth and power to investors, rather than to ensure that services and outputs are delivered in a manner that is sustaining, encourages growth, cooperation and learning.

To Consider

Conversations about our current challenges have exposed the structural weaknesses that have unwittingly acted as an incubator for the pandemic. The weaknesses seem related to the unwillingness of power to recognise and listen to advice and suggestions that contradict its current narrative. There is a need for power to be redefined as a process that takes place within and between people. This requires a “Because I said so!” culture to begin a journey towards one where decisions are taken and enacted “Because we agree and I commit.”

If this were to happen, bureaucracies will be required to adjust so that their purpose shifts towards processes and behaviours aligned to the ethical purpose of the organisation and the relationships into which it enters. They will need to become more agile. To clarify, agility is not seen here as “speed”; it is instead viewed as “robust flexibility”-the capacity to accommodate by stretching boundaries and in doing so create new opportunities for learning, growth and discovering different types of ethical influence outside of the existing structures.


No one would have chosen to be where we now are.  The gaps in yesterday’s certainties and assumptions have been brutally exposed there will be changes and it may well be that the powerful groups whose behaviour has helped deliver us here will seek to tighten their grip on power in the post Covid world. There is however a sense that the structures that got us into this situation are, unless they change, unlikely to get us out of it. I state with a note of caution, that I cannot recount one example of powerful groups giving away their power because everyone thought it a good idea. It was taken from them.  I’m not for a second proposing a forceful overthrow: I am suggesting a build-up of ethical pressure on politicians, the financial sector and ultimately legislators to enable us to turn a corner and do things differently.

What Can Aid Our Thought to Action Journey?

 How well placed are we to listen to what is said and not said? 

I believe that we can find some guidance in helping us to formulate questions and challenges that serve the purpose of developing Servant Leadership and in so doing, consider the change journey required to develop Ethical Bureaucracies that give active support to development, engagement and delivery. Our questions:

  1. How do we acknowledge and demonstrate that we have listened and heard?
  2. How do we reach and communicate our decisions
  3. What do we enact or defer?
  4. How do we assume the good intentions of others and not reject them as people when at the same time rejecting their performance or behaviour?
  5. How do we communicate to others that our purpose is enabled by a search for ethical wholeness?
  6. How do we remain aware to the power of the possible?
  7. How do we use ethical persuasion rather than rules-based authority?
  8. How do all members of our organisations (formal and informal) contribute to “Dreaming Great Dreams”
  9. How do we do this and maintain our day to day focus on our present purpose?
  10. What lessons do we learn from the past?
  11. How do we assimilate and describe the current reality?
  12. What are the consequences of today’s decision for future generations?
  13. How do we evidence and learn from our commitment to the growth of people?
  14. To what degree do we accept that we are stewards of our organisation and that they have a purpose beyond the day to day?
  15. How do we ensure that our organisations, our ethics, values and behaviours contribute to the greater good of society?

John Dooner-Original April 2020
Recycled with minor edits January 2021

All Art work by Beth Dooner.