The Kafka Brigade – getting insight into bureaucratic dysfunction

[Originally published on Australian Government DesignGov under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

On Thursday 10 October, DesignGov hosted a cross-agency breakfast meeting of public servants to hear from Megan Mathias, Director of Kafka Brigade UK, about co-designing for impact and dealing with ‘bureaucratic dysfunction’.

DesignGov has partnered with the Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) and the South Australian Department of Manufacturing, Innovation, Trade, Resources and Energy as part of our project on business and government interactions. The project is applying the Kafka Brigade’s approach and, from DesignGov’s perspective, testing an alternative approach to understanding and improving a complex problem.

You can access a copy of Megan’s presentation [PDF]1 and some of the key points from the discussion are summarised in the following sections.

What is the Kafka Brigade?

The Kafka Brigade was founded in 2005 and has undertaken over 60 projects (some examples of their projects can be found on their website). The Kafka Brigade approach picks up on the author Franz Kafka’s notion of situations where people are trapped within a broader system without clear or obvious ways of getting ‘unstuck’. Unlike Kafka himself, the Kafka Brigade is more optimistic about the ability of people who operate within the system (public servants and others) to change the nature of the bureaucracy they operate within and their ability to increase the value provided.

What is meant by bureaucratic dysfunction?

The Brigade has a working definition of “A mismatch between people’s capacity to benefit from services or comply with rules, and the institutional capacity to deliver services and enforce regulation”.

Megan noted that the more specific you are about the particular dysfunction, the more you risk ignoring the fact that you don’t really know what is going on (e.g. the problem is bigger than a narrow set of terms of reference). However, she also noted that the more generic you are about the dysfunction, the less helpful it is going to be in generating insights that lead to a course of action.

Characteristics of bureaucratic dysfunctions are like those of a ‘wicked problem’ – the problem is concrete and significant to those experiencing it; there is uncertainty and opaqueness about how to understand and grapple with it; there are many organisations and many types of organisations involved; and it is intractable, where a plateau in performance has been reached and has not been exceeded for quite some time.

Megan illustrated this with reference to John Godfrey Saxe’s poem about the blind men each describing a different part of an elephant – each player sees their part of the problem but not the whole.

What does the Kafka Brigade do?

Megan outlined the steps of Kafka Brigade’s Field Lab Method, noting that while it has a number of steps, it is relatively short and highly iterative.

A depiction of the Kafka Field Lab 'method', invovling 6 steps. The first is labelled 'Explorative research and case selection', the second 'case research and preliminary reports', the third 'expert (counter-factual) critique', fourth 'collective performance review', fifth 'action planning (deliver), and the sixth 'checkpoint meetings and reflection'. The sixth step has an arrow pointing from it back to the first step and is labelled 'cycle is repeated'.


  1. Exploratory research – this combines not only getting the stories of the people involved in the system but also taking advantage of the reams of data that typically exist within the public sector. This helps reassure that that the issue being looked at is sufficiently significant to be worth investing in
  2. Case research – this picks cases that are emblematic of the problem, rather than representative. Sometimes the most relevant cases will not the most typical
  3. Expert critique – this involves testing and enriching the analysis and can involve interviewing 10-25 units of organisations involved in the problem area. It is about understanding the drivers in, and the dynamics of, the system. From this you can generate working hypotheses and start building up a coalition of willing partners
  4. Collective performance review – this involves getting everyone who may be part of delivering the solution in the same room. It includes the citizen, policy makers, managers, front-line staff and sponsors. The first part of the review involves active listening by the sponsors and managers of what the other participants have to say about the problem, its causes and what is preventing them tackling the problem. The second part of the review looks at what can each player do to help, and what might they need in order to do that.

These steps are followed by an action plan and follow-up. The action plan identifies commitments at the case-level, the category level and the capacity level, and also what might be done at the ‘statecraft’ level

Megan noted that it is relatively short diagnosis process that contributes to getting the players in the system into an iterative pattern of improvements. It can be done in as little as two months, though usually it takes longer to get the various players involved and participating.

Megan also outlined another intervention approach – the Kafka Button. This provides a button to front-line staff to use when they have identified a part of the broader operating/delivery system that they work in is not working. It is supported by others who then diagnose the underlying causes, engage in creative problem-solving and generate actions. Megan noted that the Belgian Government undertook a public call for such issues.

Megan described the emerging proposition of the Kafka Brigade as “to tackle bureaucratic dysfunction effectively we must:

  • Detect mismatches between institutional capacity to deliver or enforce & people’s capacity to benefit or comply
  • Facilitate the nomination of threats & opportunities to the creation of public value by citizens, front line staff, managers & policy makers
  • Help distinguish tame, political, technical & adaptive parts of the problem & help initiate the appropriate responses
  • Mobilize the knowledge, skills, energy & commitment of people from top to bottom, from left to right
  • Be sensitive to the particulars of a case, while aiming for more general applicability.”

Megan noted that usually a lot of what is already being done or achieved by a particular public sector system is working – what the Kafka Brigade is doing is helping people get more out of the system.

It was a very interesting presentation, and there was a lot of resonance for us at DesignGov.

We will share further information about the Kafka Brigade project in South Australia later in the year.

  1. This presentation has not been shared under the Creative Commons licence