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This letter is long. I apologise in advance for that. I hope you find it at least entertaining or enlightening enough to keep reading until the end. And to do something about it.
This letter is addressed to Spanish public administration, because it’s the one I have seen. I’m sure there are other countries that suffer from the same problems. If you feel the same pain, regardless of where you are, please share with a comment of your own experience. And please mention the country and/or offices involved. Ultimately, it’s our fault if we have a bad administration; it’s only bad because we tolerate it. Let’s start a movement to demand and design better processes.
Spanish public administration: we need to talk.
You are important. Great things come out of your institutions. Unemployment offices help people find jobs. Social security saves lives. And tax offices help us pay for all that.
But we need to talk. Somewhere along the way, you lost yourself. You stopped believing in your purpose. You started dragging yourself to work, taking more pride on pushing papers back than on doing your job. You stopped looking for the best way to do things. You settled for just living another day.
You might say that I’m too demanding. That I don’t understand how complex it is. But it’s not me. It’s you. I know you can do better. That’s why we need to talk.
I was part of the Spanish public administration myself; I taught at university for 10 years. As fortune and love had it, I quit that life to move to Helsinki, became an entrepreneur, joined another company, and helped big organizations build effective processes. Early this year I moved back to Spain to open an office of my company. I registered as resident and opened a new business. I got back in touch with Spanish bureaucracy. And wow did that hurt.
The process started well: a simple email to the embassy telling them I no longer live in Finland, and they take care of the rest. I also found out that I was entitled to some unemployment money that I could use to start the Spanish company. Yay!
It sounded too good to be true… and it was. It took me more than a month to go through that process, and I had to go physically 5 times to the unemployment office because they were missing information from other public administration offices.
After that I started the company. That took one more month of paperwork, in which I had to go a couple of times to a notary. For people living in less bureaucratic countries: it’s a person whose job is to check your papers and vouch that you’re physically there signing them. As a bonus, they read the papers out loud. To my fellow countrymen: yes, there are countries in which notaries are not a thing. I hear you say “How do they check the validity of documents?”. By actually checking with the source. In a world in which connecting with the tax office can take seconds, why would you need a low-tech middleman? I know that’s difficult to imagine in Spain, considering the aura of importance that notaries have. But if you think about the actual value they provide, it’s mostly obsolete by now.
In the paperwork process, a few things struck me:
- Why didn’t offices fetch information from other offices themselves? Offices often don’t talk to each other. In order to register for unemployment I needed a document from University saying they don’t have a job waiting for me. Such a position would be illegal (all positions require public concourse). I knew that, they told me that, and that made it easy to get a letter saying that, with the right signature. But I had to waste a day getting a paper.
- Why did most documents take a few days/weeks/months to be ready? Most processes are not really digital. We have websites where we type information for some humans to process behind the scenes. It’s like the Wizard of Oz, but without people singing. In one of the 3-4 places where I had to register the company (yes, another area in which they don’t talk to each other) they sent me a notice asking for some info. They didn’t care to describe very well, so we had to bounce notes through the digital system. Each with a few days response time. Because there was no way for me to ask that person what they meant. To this day I still don’t know. “Because the process is digital”, I was told. Except it’s not, otherwise this wouldn’t happen.
- Why did I have to go there physically? Paper is still king, and stamps and signatures are their knights. And even handwriting pops in to say hi every now and then. In 2019 my daughter’s birth certificate is neatly handwritten and sitting in a folder in Helsinki. Oh, and yes, I had to get my daughter’s birth certificate. Other documents (passports, IDs, doctors’ papers) weren’t enough evidence that I have a daughter. The registry literally told me “sir, it’s not our job to keep track of who is who’s child”. I wonder what is then. It’s not like I’m asking them to have a fancy blockchain to make their documentation transparent and available to all (which they could have, hint hint). But at the very least I was expecting a searchable database.
- Why did I have to go several times? I googled and called different offices before each trip, to make sure I had everything ready. Information was often contradictory, and I was misinformed in that process. “Well, the website must be wrong” and “they told you wrong on the phone” should not be acceptable answers. They are not from a private company (false advertising, anybody?), much less should they be from a public institution. Instead, I got a fair share of shoulder-shrugging.
At this point, you might think I’m bitter. I’m not, actually. I understand you, public administration. You mean no evil, you’re just stuck in a bad place. That’s why we’re talking. That’s why I want to help.
What I realized
This might surprise you, but I actually think the problem is not technological. It’s cultural. When you have the right mindset, technology follows. So I want to share some thoughts on cultural barriers that I have noticed in the Spanish public administration:
- Paper pride. The people I encountered throughout the process were mostly competent individuals, doing their job well. The problem is that the job is poorly designed: they are not expected to deliver value, but rather to follow a process. They even learn to optimize that process, and take pride in it. But this “paper pride” has a very dark side: it ends up creating an attitude of “just making sure the papers are ok”. The paper is more important than the person. Employees forget why their work matters, and optimize the small bits of paperwork that they can.
- Tolerance to inefficiency. The most common response I got when complaining about absurd processes was empathy. Many even shared their own frustration with me. I was dealing with good people. And yet, one of the most common answers was “that’s just how it is”, and “we’re public, we are forced to have lots of paperwork in case of an audit”. That’s a fair observation, but a terrible reasoning. It’s a form of conformity. People have not been empowered to improve the processes they operate, and are instead forced into acceptance. Conformity should be unacceptable: if something is bad, it’s bad, and we should change it. Innovation only happens if we can challenge things, otherwise we don’t have innovators or entrepreneurs.
- Disrespect for time. I often heard the phrase “you just have to come back tomorrow”. I know they mean well, but I consider this attitude insulting. Time matters. Be it for work or pleasure, stealing time from somebody else is one of the worst things you can do to them. You’re stealing it from their passion, from their families, from their fitness, from their personal efficiency. And in the case of the public administration, it means that you’re stealing from all citizens. A badly designed process can add up to years and years of wasted time. And that time that could be used to make the world better, but it’s wasted instead pushing papers.
- It works well enough. Processes are always designed with assumptions in mind, and then reworked until they fit most of the cases. But the processes that I encountered looked like nobody had taken too much care to rework them. They looked like they were patched up on a rushed meeting on Friday evening, never to be looked at again. Which is probably true, since I’ve noticed that it’s common in Spain to work like busy bees, rushing through tasks (and then having to re-do some or many) and pulling long hours with even longer to-do lists. I remember that as well from my time working in Spain. In the case of designing processes (or most other knowledge tasks), this means that contradictions and exceptions are common. When exceptions make a big percentage of the cases, you can no longer call them exceptions.
- Blame game. It seems to be a popular sport among employees of the public administration to criticize other offices, or blaming them for the delays. “Oh, they got it wrong”. As if that solves anything. If a website or somebody on the phone gives false information, the whole organization is swindling. If a paper is delayed, every office involved is delayed. I don’t really care whether the person in front of me did things correctly, I’m not judging them as an individual. I’m trying to get something done. If somebody screwed up, everybody screwed up. And everybody is wasting time and money, until we solve things.
- Fear of automation. I’ve brought up to several individuals the benefits of automation for public administration tasks. And I’m not (only) talking about fancy AI things: there’s a lot of paperwork that can be automated using very simple tools (although again, hint hint). But people tend to bounce back again and again to lists of documents, tick-boxes and committees. It sometimes feels like there’s fear of automation. Or lack of understanding. Or fear of becoming irrelevant. I think the public administration needs to embrace automation, and have people focus on using their brains more so that they use their hands less.
The combination of all these (and particularly the last) might sound scary to many. Robots will transform all our jobs (including mine). But I actually think there’s a need for the people we have. They just have to do things completely different to what they’re doing. They need to focus on delivering a service to citizens. Nowadays we have to learn how everything works instead, and “hack” the system.
I prefer to imagine a different world
I prefer to imagine a world in which I go online and click “I want to start a company”. And when something doesn’t work perfectly (it often doesn’t) I can call up a public officer, and that person actually takes care of things for me. And doesn’t drop the case until I actually have a company running. Until society has gotten its value. And if something doesn’t work immediately, they fix it. Or they simplify it.
I prefer to imagine a world in which I can chat online with somebody from the tax authority about the best way to do my taxes, or about what incentives are available for me. Or to get career coaching to find my first job, or reorient my career (not my case, just in case you’re wondering, but it’s still part of the world I want to live in). I want to imagine a world in which I don’t have to learn how everything works, but where I get good advice from people who do.
I believe that we need to do something.
That’s why I’ve written this open letter. I’m addressing it to the institutions, to all the individuals involved. The public officers, the heads of offices, the politicians and the people designing these processes. We need to start thinking more about our citizens.
I believe the government needs to have continuous improvement processes that allow employees to improve their work. And for us citizens to improve those processes as well. It needs to find the best technology in the world to solve those problems. In many cases, it will need to work with startups and other innovative companies. And it has to use this collaboration as part of its cultural transformation process. And it needs to grant citizens access to their own information. And it needs to do legal design of many of its processes.
I’d be very happy to help. I’ve spent the last years helping big institutions – more forward-thinking than agile – go through a cultural transformation by doing business with startups. I would love to combine that expertise with my deep hatred for time-wasting bureaucracy, to help craft solutions for this. With technology and with cultural transformation combined.
But we’re all on a mission here.
Those of you working in the public administration, I know you are trapped in a big machine. And that it seems very difficult to change. But you can be an ambassador for this change. Don’t give up, every voice counts! Let’s imagine that ideal public administration together. And then let’s make it a reality. Let’s be that change together.
And for all of you who are, like me, in the suffering end, we also have a role to play. We need to be demanding. We need to share our stories, not for the rant, but for the learning experience. We need to share the problems that we see, and the solutions that we imagine.
So if you have stories to tell, please share this post with some words of your experience.
Or if your country is an example of good public administration, please share for the rest of us to learn.
Or if you just want this change in your country (whichever that country is), please share. And let’s see how far we get.
Maybe, just maybe, in a few years we look back and we see that we made a difference together.