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Dead Zones of the Imagination

A reflection on the troubled relationship between bureaucracy and innovation

“The most profound legacy of the dominance of bureaucratic forms of organisation over the last two hundred years is that it has made the intuitive division between rational, technical means and the ultimately irrational ends to which they are put seem like common sense” — David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules

Filling in the forms and appropriately sign-posting the anticipated innovation and ‘deliverables’ of the R2J project has been no small task and consumed a lot of the person-hours we have been able to dedicate to the project in the its first three months.

Having completed the rigmarole and had our first quarter signed off by our monitoring officer, our claim for the first quarter of our project was rejected by the Innovate UK claims team because the Independent Accountants Report was submitted as a PDF that didn’t have our accountant’s logo on every page. A requirement that we didn’t know in advance. This now means that we have to deal with a £20,000+ shortfall in our cashflow this month. The resubmitted document was accepted 48 hours later but only after we asked the claims team to check their spam folder where our resubmitted document had been directed.

Civil Service bureaucracies, especially those charged with distributing public money, are easy targets for sarcasm and irritation. I’m pretty sure that if I had been sitting in that office those actions would have made sense — but only if I was acting without thinking “why?” and frasmed in terms of the organisations long-term goals.

I think this anecdote shows a complete lack of congruence with what Innovate UK says it is trying to do and a system that doesn’t prioritise achieving its goals over the success of the mechanisms it puts in place to regulate the process of acheiving them. Quite possibly because it can’t.

The Government are trying to create value by sponsoring and encouraging innovation and the people we are working with could have acted in line with that without jeopardising the Government’s money.

By choosing to sanction us in that way, with indifferent procedure, they themselves are not being innovative and nor are they being supportive, either at the personal or strategic level.

What makes it more frustrating is that what Innovate UK has given us is so good. The support from our monitoring officer has been invaluable, the fact that we have been given time and space to think about this problem set is wonderful.

But while Innovate has facilitated this and spoken to their desire to see us be successful, their actions suggest differently. Their set-up seems to be “Of course, we’ll support you, yes we’ll give the money, we clearly have shared values but also we’ll treat you like a criminal, just in case you are.”

Why can we not have the discretion to develop our project in line with our experiences, instead of in line with their form? Why can we not be allowed to learn — such that we make sure we submitted the correct claim in future having received guidance about what should be changed?

We believe we are learning, even from the work funded by this project, that if they (or anybody) were to align their administrative practices with the soft goals of their project they would be more successful.

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