The Creative Bureaucracy Festival models a new path for public administration

By Yogesh Hirdaramani

A creative bureaucracy might seem like an oxymoron, but the Creative Bureaucracy Festival aims to challenge old stereotypes of what public administration can look like, from empowering civil servants to co-developing innovative solutions with communities.

At the Creative Bureaucracy Festival, participants discussed how to drive innovation within public administration. Image: Creative Bureaucracy Festival

The Creative Bureaucracy Festival began with a panel discussion of public sector experts discussing what it means to build a bureaucracy of today – and ended with a motley crew of dancing fruits singing about the joys of public sector work. These singing fruits emerged from a project run by the Chilean Agency for Food Safety and Quality, which aims to combat childhood obesity through music.


Outside the main stage, public sector attendees networked with each other over ice cream and Berlin currywursts in a green yard as mellow music played. Like past iterations, this year’s Creative Bureaucracy Festival eschewed the formality traditionally associated with government events for a festive atmosphere in an effort to foster connections between public sector changemakers.


Held on June 15 2023 in Berlin, Germany, the festival saw over 1000 public sector innovators and allies from around the world gather to discuss topics such as building collective action, government digitalisation, and the role of the arts in shaping tomorrow’s bureaucracy. 


Building a community of creative bureaucrats

At the Creative Bureaucracy Festival, participants discussed key challenges for public administrators to tackle. Image: Creative Bureaucracy Festival

The creative bureaucracy is a community, it’s a movement in the making,” said Charles Landry, co-founder of the Creative Bureaucracy Festival, at the festival’s opening ceremony. 


Landry first developed this concept in 2017 with the publication of The Creative Bureaucracy and its Radical Common Sense. The book – or manifesto – called for bureaucracies to move from a culture of “no, because” to “yes, if” and to create structures that would allow bureaucrats to unleash their full creative potential.


“Rather than saying it's up to the public sector to reform and understand the digital possibilities out there, it felt better to send a message out that actually, bureaucracies have a lot to offer,” says Landry, in an interview with GovInsider. 


Landry rose to prominence for his work on revitalising cities to become cultural and entrepreneurial powerhouses during the 80s. Through his work, he came to develop the view that creativity can be found across every strata of society. Within public administration, creative bureaucrats are essential to breaking the rigidities of bureaucracies and opening them up to fresh perspectives.


Together with Sebastian Turner, German media entrepreneur, Landry has run the Creative Bureaucracy Festival since 2017 to connect creative bureaucrats with likeminded peers across the public and private sectors. 


This year’s festival saw a range of sessions designed to foster interaction between participants, including:

  • a first-ever Global Government Innovators Forum, an unconference session that brought together 60 handpicked public sector leaders to discuss challenges of their choosing
  • small group workshops held on a cruise for randomly selected participants who won golden tickets
  • fishbowl sessions, which allowed participants to move freely in and out of conversation with a group of panellists

Beyond the participatory sessions aimed at fostering connections and tackling challenges collaboratively, speakers on the mainstage shared success stories of public sector innovation and how agencies have worked to creatively solve problems. 


Unlocking creativity within the public sector

Los Frutantes, an initiative introduced by the Chilean Agency for Food Safety and Quality, performed at the Creative Bureaucracy Festival's finale. Image: Creative Bureaucracy Festival

On the mainstage and beyond, speakers shared on the ways in which their organisations have sought to cultivate creativity and innovation within the public sector in order to confront the challenges of the day.


First, it is critical to open doors and provide opportunities for public servants. Luana Faria, Head of an innovation lab within the Brazilian government, LA-BORA! Gov, shared how the lab developed a program in which public servants can participate in a public service project in accordance with their skills and interests. 


This project enabled more than 500 public servants from over 230 public agencies across the government to work together on common challenges, by providing them autonomy, flexibility and trust, she explained. 


Meanwhile, in over 120 cities across Latin America and Africa, a training programme brings together local government leaders with social entrepreneurs and citizens, and supports them in designing strategies to tackle challenges. 


In this way, they are building change networks across cities to develop innovative solutions and empower the social innovators of developing countries, said Candelaria Yanzi and Linda Peia of Ayni - Global Community of Local Innovators.


But beyond empowering public servants to embrace out of the box solutions, it is also important to attract creative talent who may not consider the public sector. 


Speakers from Create Lithuania shared how the programme aims to attract diverse Lithuanian talent working abroad to spend a year working on public challenges. After ten years, over 40 per cent of the programme’s alumni continue to work in the public sector, and the initiative has led to offshoots such as Lithuania’s GovTech Lab.


Closely collaborating with the public


Poverty-stricken areas in Peru had a problem: a lack of municipal services to manage the 600 metric tonnes of waste generated daily. Over two decades, social entrepreneur Albina Ruiz turned this situation around by working with local waste pickers to develop a community-managed system of waste collection. 


Eventually, Ruiz successfully worked with government leaders in Peru to pass the world’s first national employment law protecting recyclers. Last year, she was appointed Peru’s Minister of Environment and continues to champion the cause of building circular economies, shared Sascha Haselmayer, Partner at Ashoka Deutschland and author of new book, The Slow Lane, which explores how community building can lead to lasting change.


More recently, a locally-led climate adaptation project working with over 1,200 community growers in Freetown, Sierra Leone, is on track to achieving a goal of planting 1 million trees within the year. A combination of community efforts, geotagging, and carbon trading methods have helped to restore the city’s vegetation cover by 50 per cent – seven years ahead of schedule.


Now, the city has set a new goal to hit 5 million trees by 2030 – and 20 million by 2050. At the festival, Eric Hubbard, Senior Advisor to the Mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone, was awarded the Innovator of the Year award for this project. 


Other award winners this year include the City of Bogotá, represented by Angela Reyes, which won the award for Large Scale Impact for its project on recognising and reducing unpaid care work, and Kristina Lunz, Germany’s Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, who won the Power Shifter Award.


What’s next for the Festival? According to Landry, the programme has plans to continue nurturing an atmosphere of festivity and to attract an ever more international and diverse audience when the festival returns next June.