How to tackle bureaucratic dysfunction: a conversation with Arjan Widlak, director of the Kafkabrigade Netherlands

Kafka Brigade Logo figure holding a big pile of files

The Kafkabrigade is a Dutch network of researchers whose mission it is to „tackle bureaucratic dysfunction and red tape“. We are very pleased to recount our discussion with its director, Arjan Widlak.

Arjan, what exactly is the Kafkabrigade?

The Kafkabrigade in the Netherlands is both a network of researchers and an action research team tackling bureaucracy for its clients, mostly in the public sector. So we both do independent research and work for public managers who aim to innovate by solving real problems for people - here and now. The formal organization was founded only in 2010. Before that, people in three organizations working together developed the ideas : one of them was my organization, United Knowledge. I'm currently the director of the Kafkabrigade in the Netherlands. A former colleague started a Kafkabrigade in Mexico with a few partners, there is a Kafkabrigade in Great Britain, and there are also several independent researchers associated with the Kafkabrigade. 

What is the goal of the Kafkabrigade?

The purpose of the Kafkabrigade is to create the conditions to address dysfunctions of bureaucracy. We believe that bureaucracy is a system of rules aiming not only to enhance rational organization, but also to secure fundamental values that are important to each of us, for example integrity, justice and equality. However, quite often bureaucracy does not create the public value intended. We all sometimes encounter demands that are imposed upon us but serve no purpose for the public at large. And there is a loss of freedom, when rules and procedures become incomprehensible or time-consuming beyond reason. We call this bureaucratic dysfunction. And we aim to create the conditions to address these dysfunctions and to create a public who demands this. 

How do you usually proceed? Do you have a standard method?

Yes, we have a few methods for different kinds of problems. But they all have some principles in common. The most important one is putting the citizen's perspective in the center. The end-user has a unique perspective. All the services and obligations of all these separate organizations come together only at the citizen's level. And from this perspective you see the unexpected consequences, the catch-22's or the vast amount of administrative burdens a citizen is confronted with. This is important, especially with the transformation of government caused by digitization. The civil servant is replaced more and more often by automated decisions. Because of this, organizations become blind, in the absence of natural feedback. 

The best known method we developed and use is the Kafka Method. The focal point of this method is to go from understanding to commitment. Interviews like this one and adressing the public can make people aware of the dysfunctions of bureaucracy. Teaching can help make people who are aware understand. The Kafka Method is about going from understanding the problem to the commitment to solve it. It's about introducing new standards and defining what each party should do to attain them . 

Which were your role models in setting up the Kafkabrigade?

All the ideas came from three sources: the people involved with the Kafkabrigade over the years, experiences and books. Important people were my former colleague at United Knowledge, Jorrit de Jong, who later did his PhD on the work of the Kafkabrigade. And so was Arre Zuurmond, who turned the idea and label of Kafkabrigade we used when working together into an independent organization and who was its director before me. But like all good ideas, the Kafkabrigade has many « mothers and fathers ». Several experiences were important, because they taught us what works. 

One of the first was how we made a publication with a title perhaps best translated as "A matter of effectuation". It was based on a series of reports on ICT and government by state research commissions. We believed these to be important, but they were largely ignored. We rewrote them into a new publication, with the former chairmen of those commissions as authors. Financially a disaster for United Knowledge, it was very influential and more or less became instant government policy. We learned an important lesson there: move away from talk about ideological disagreement, focus on what everybody sees as a problem and start working from there. That makes a discussion on what people do not agree on easier later on. And meanwhile work that matters is being accomplished. 

And books of course. “Leadership on the Line”, for example, by Ronald A. Heifetz was an inspiration for all of us. Read it. The way we perform what we call a "Collective Performance Review", a session with all the organizations involved in a case of dysfunctional bureaucracy, was certainly influenced by this book. Perhaps the bottom line is: don't forget to learn yourself. Our methods are built on the principles we found in reflections on what worked and what did not. 

Do you use technology and data yourself in your work?

We've always used data in the traditional sense: start with what you know. And of course going out in the real world, mapping the experiences of citizens and involving them has always been part of what we do. But for the last few years we've been more keen on opportunities to find data that - just like citizens' experiences - can help bridge ideological differences or differences in interests. A recent project on Health Care is a nice example. There are nurses who register who is discharged from hospital and when they actually leave. We asked them to keep track of the reasons why for a few months : is it because you don't work on the week-end? because family members asked? because you have to wait for the care organization? This helped defuse the distrust of the data available earlier. All earlier data came from a single source: the hospital's management information system. It was interpreted as: we - the hospital - always have to wait for the care organization. The new data showed: all organizations have work to do.

There are many opportunities to use available technology for visualization of data as well as involving citizens to build data sets. I have a lot of ideas here. But in reality we used to make much more use of technology in the old days, than we do now. Today, the use of technology and the way it transforms government is an important part of our action research. A new book I wrote with Rik Peeters, the director of the Kafkabrigade in Mexico (Brigada Kafka), is about digitization as a source of bureaucratic dysfunction and administrative exclusion of citizens from government services. 

Where would you like to further develop the Kafkabrigade?

Right now most of the work we do is financed by government organizations who hire us to get to a shared idea of what the core of the problem is and to kick-start an innovation process from there. I do not want to lose the active part of what we do. But I do think that we learn more than what we can use right now. In our projects we collect a lot of usable knowledge that is under-utilized. So I'm trying to find funding from other sources to disseminate more of what we learn. This year we've written three scientific articles (in English) and a book (in Dutch). And more initiatives are in the making in order to spread the word in an accessible way. We’ll also become a foundation, which makes it easier to get donations, sponsors and subsidies. There is still a lot to be done to make this work, but we're on our way. 

I'm happy that there is a Kafkabrigade in Mexico now. And earlier on, people picked up the idea in the UK and Canada for example. It would be great if more and more people would join this network. There's also work to be done here. We need to spread the word. I hope we inspire people to create the conditions to address bureaucratic dysfunctions, bring the public in a position to demand this and to create the conditions for change. 

Thank you, Arjan, for giving us an insight on the Kafkabrigade!

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to spread the idea here.


Arjan Widlak is the director of the Kafkabrigade, a research and intervention team that works with public organizations to bring the experience of the workspace and the decision making power of management together. Aside from Kafkabrigade, he develops serious games on complex decision making processes and teaches in various masterclasses. Previously, he was the director for 15 years of United Knowledge, a full service internet software company.