About Author

Jorrit de Jong is Lecturer in Public Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). His research and teaching focus on the challenges of making the public sector more effective, efficient, equitable and responsive to social needs. Jorrit is the Faculty Director of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a joint program of Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, funded by and executed in collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies. It is the world’s most comprehensive effort to advance effective problem-solving and innovation through executive education, research, curriculum development and field work. Dr. De Jong is also Academic Director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. A specialist in experiential learning, Jorrit has taught strategic management and public problem solving in degree and executive education programs at HKS and around the world.

Before coming to Harvard, Jorrit co-founded the Kafka Brigade, a social enterprise in Europe that helps governments diagnose and remedy bureaucratic dysfunction. Before that he was director of the Center for Government Studies at Leiden University and founding co-director of a consulting firm for the public sector in Amsterdam.

Jorrit holds a PhD in Public Policy and Management (VU Amsterdam), a Master in Philosophy (Leiden) and a Master in Public Administration (Leiden). He has written extensively, including the books The State of Access: Success and Failure of Democracies to Create Equal Opportunities (Brookings 2008, co-edited); Agents of Change: Strategy and Tactics for Social Innovation (Brookings 2012, co-authored); and Dealing with Dysfunction: Innovative Problem Solving in the Public Sector (Brookings, 2016). Jorrit wrote over 25 teaching cases and designed numerous simulation exercises on collaborative governance, organizational behavior and innovation.

In 2014, Jorrit launched the Innovation Field Lab, an experiential learning and outreach project sponsored by the Ash Center that connects HKS students with five cities in Massachusetts through real problem solving efforts. In addition to co-chairing executive programs for U.S. Mayors, international Mayors and their senior aides as part of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, Jorrit is the faculty co-chair of two open enrollment programs: Creating Collaborative Solutions and Innovations in Governance.

Book Description

How can we intervene in the systemic bureaucratic dysfunction that beleaguers the public sector? De Jong examines the roots of this dysfunction and presents a novel approach to solving it.

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. The author also asserts that the worst dysfunction occurs when multiple organizations share responsibility for a problem, but no single organization is primarily responsible for solving it. This points to a need for creating and reinforcing distributed problem-solving capacity focused on deep (cross-) organizational learning and revised accountability structures. Our best approach to dealing with dysfunction may therefore not be top-down regulatory reform, but rather relentless bottom-up and cross-boundary leadership and innovation. Using fourteen clinical cases of bureaucratic dysfunction investigated by the Kafka Brigade, the author demonstrates how a proper process for identifying, defining, diagnosing, and remedying the problem can produce better outcomes.


"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, Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

"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

"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

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Jorrit de Jong:

What prompted me to write the book is the fact that we have put a man on the moon, but we haven't been able to solve red tape. And that tells me that there's something very complicated about cutting red tape. Many people, citizen, entrepreneurs, get very frustrated by dealing with bureaucratic government encounters. And at the same time, government tries very hard to reduce red tape and make administrative procedures more simple and less inefficient. And so because it's so difficult to do that, that begs the question, okay, so how come it's so difficult and what can we do to better address the problem?

Some people actually say that bureaucracy is synonymous with dysfunction and there is no good bureaucracy. I disagree. I think bureaucracy is, as [inaudible 00:01:17] put it about a 100 years ago, a system of values, not a system of rules, and the values of bureaucracy are that we conduct the government business in a way that's accountable, that's standardized, that's fair, that doesn't look at who you are, but at what you deserve, what your rights are. And that's actually more efficient than other forms of organization.

How come bureaucracy turns into its own worst enemy? That was the big question that I asked, and so very often, people forget what the rules were for. People focus on the procedure rather than the goal that you want to accomplish. And so when we want to address bureaucratic dysfunction, we're really looking to improve the system as it is and to make sure that those procedures and those rules that we have are actually producing the value that we want to get out of bureaucracy.

In many cases, and this is what the book explores, it's not so much the rules per se that cause bureaucratic dysfunction. It's the way they are implemented or executed. And what I do in the book is I basically analyze examples of bureaucratic dysfunction at multiple levels of analysis. I look at the regulatory frameworks and the rule density, the rule effectiveness, but I also look at the culture of organizations that execute those rules. How do professionals at the frontline interpret the rules? How do they interpret their own discretionary authority in a way to find custom solutions within the regulatory framework to accommodate exceptions or exceptional situations?

Absolutely. One example in the book is an immigrant entrepreneur who wanted to start a sandwich shop, and he also really wanted to comply with all the rules and immediately found out that he would have to deal with about 15 agencies, varying from food safety inspections to fire safety inspections, tax authority, but also zoning boards and so forth. And many of these agencies did not realize what all the other agencies were doing and he had to provide his information 15 times in 15 different ways. There was a problem with the sequence of the licensing process. For example, he needed to produce a lease, a signed lease in order to apply for permits, but then he needed to get a bank guarantee in order to get the lease, then he needed to get the permits to get the bank guarantee.

So he ended up in this catch 22 situation. But because the different organizations did not know what the others were asking, nobody felt responsible or even aware of the problem of this entrepreneur, and this entrepreneur personally lost a lot of time and money because he couldn't get his licensing done. And so what was required in that particular situation is that the city manager brought together all those different organizations and had them look at the case and then think about what could we collectively do differently so that we avoid this undesirable situation.

What is very important for any mayor who wants to address bureaucratic dysfunction or wants to improve the quality and efficiency, customer friendliness of services, is to realize that many services that people are entitled to and receive are being coproduced by multiple departments. So for example, if you are a mayor that wants to improve the services to [inaudible 00:05:54] rural families in your community, you probably need to work with the education department, with the social services department. You'd probably need to work with your economic development department.

And so many of the most significant issues in cities require the involvement of multiple silos in an organization. And therefore, it requires the convening authority of the mayor to have those different departments who all look at the problem from a different perspective to come together. And so each department operates typically within their own partial perspective on the problem and in compliance with their own rules and business processes. But if you want to take a more holistic approach to take on a problem, somebody needs to authorize all those silos to kind of take a step back and look at the bigger picture and then come together and see how they can collectively redesign the system. That requires leadership. So very often, bureaucratic dysfunction is not the result of individuals or organizations doing something wrong, but it's simply because each individual silo is focused on their part of the problem, and the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. And it requires re-imagining the value proposition to actually get to a better place.