Week 74— Navigators of Bureaucracy Part 2

Scott McNaughton
7 min readAug 14, 2020


It’s hard to believe that it is already mid August. School starts in 3 weeks and in COVID times, going back to school is going to be a much different experience than in years past. While many parents need the respite, the current plans for going back to school leave a lot of room for improvement. It’s inevitable that there are outbreaks at schools and it remains to be seen what the reaction from parents, education workers and politicians will be when that happens.

In last week’s post, I introduced the idea of a bureaucracy navigator and why I felt it was so important as an enabler of government innovation. This week I’m continuing the theme of navigating the bureaucracy with Sarah Chan who has co-written this post with me.

Our initial meandering conversation last week on this topic led us to want to continue to explore this theme together. In particular, we wanted to use this post to further develop two thoughts: (1) how you might formally build this role into the way your team works (such as through a specific role or tasking in your agile scrum process), and (2) how we might build the capacity for this important role more broadly across the public service.

Inserting a “Bureaucratic Navigator” Role or Task into your Scrum Process

In this first part we consider how you might build this function into how your team works. Given that we both have past and ongoing experience with being part of teams that use hybrid or modified versions of scrum, we wanted to explore how this role might fit in with that process.

< A quick plug and primer for this way of working: Scrum and agile project/product management practices (read an overview for beginners here) can be powerful accelerators for increased cohesion, collaboration and productivity within and amongst teams. This is particularly true and relevant in the tech development space, but is also spreading to contexts broader than this original application (for example, over a dozen municipal teams ranging from parks to transportation planning are using Scrum in San Jose). The reasons for this are captured well in the links shared above (as well as thousands of online resources on the topic) but include aspects such as:

  • working in the open through physical or virtual kanban boards (which means “visual signal” in Japanese),
  • specific practices aka ceremonies (e.g. sprint planning, mid-sprint review, sprint retrospective) that co-determine what will be built in a specific amount of time and allow for built-in reflection and continuous improvement, and
  • specific roles (i.e. product owner, scrum master, development team) that are designed to allow this system to run like a well-oiled machine. >

It is in this context that we are interested in how a team might formalize the role of “Bureaucratic Navigator”.

The first option that comes to mind is that the team could build in the “Bureaucratic Navigator” function (i.e. addressing various bureaucratic hurdles that are preventing the team’s work from advancing) into your dedicated Scrum Master role. Indeed, this is arguably part of the responsibilities of this essential “servant leader” role in Scrum (in part by protecting the team’s ability to do good work). One challenge, however, is that not all teams in government that are starting to work in this way can justify the resources to have entire individuals dedicated to this role.

A second option is one used by Sarah and her experimentation team at TBS. This team uses a standing Sprint card called “feeding the beast” which identifies who will shield the rest of the team from (most of) the bureaucratic deliverables that might otherwise have spread across our whole (“development”) team. This card is often left empty, waiting to be filled and if we are scoping our sprint properly we will endeavour to leave space in our sprint planning for the time that that card will consume.

Lastly, a third option is to formalize the process of navigating common bureaucratic hurdles across all relevant files and deliverables for your team. For example, you could proactively develop a guide or checklist of common processes (procurement, HR, finance) so you understand when they are triggered and how to interact with the bureaucracy that is responsible.This is a best practice regardless of whether or not you are practicing agile/scrum. Bringing awareness to the entire team about the interconnectedness of the bureaucratic system is a great way for team members to understand and appreciate the constraints they face in being successful. These checklists can be refined in the future as you uncover new insights and learn new information about successful approaches. While not as effective as a dedicated person to be the bureaucratic navigator, this is a good way to develop team members and empower team members to own their project and its outcome.

Navigation As An Essential Skill for Government Innovation

In the last section, we explained how the role of the bureaucratic navigator fits into an agile team and the value it can bring to your work. Arguably, the role of a bureaucratic navigator is an important one for government innovation. The ability to understand how to navigate existing bureaucratic systems in pursuit of changing the system is not a skill you will be taught in school or through a training program. So it begs the question: is this skill truly valued and important? How do we build up capacity across the system so this role can meet the challenge?

To answer the first question, it is important to recognize that this skill is only important if there is real desire within the system to see innovation take root and deliver. If we are doing innovation theatre or if we are not serious about innovation, then there is no point in having bureaucratic navigators in the system. Assuming that we are serious about innovation, then we move to the question of how to build up capacity across the system.

First, we have to recognize that the modern public servant looks very different from the public servant of the past. Hard skills (e.g. policy writing, coding, project management etc.) are still important and relevant. However, hard skills are not enough to sustain an organization which is trying to be innovative. The clash between legacy processes, policies and systems and innovative thinking create a unique tension that can derail anything other than the status quo. Organizations who want to be innovative need to recognize the importance of bridging both of these worlds together. The bureaucratic navigator fills that role.

So how do we create the depth of bureaucratic navigators to meet the ambitions of innovators across government? The nature of a bureaucratic navigator’s work makes it hard to pin down and hard to define in terms of how to incorporate it into any formal education or training course. Rather, we need to re-think the typical career path we offer to someone who isn’t trying to specialize in a hard skill or a particular program/policy area. We should be deliberate in offering more horizontal mobility and freedom to those who want to try different files and different jobs. This won’t appeal to every public servant but for those we want to train into bureaucratic navigators, the depth and breadth of experience they receive as they interact with various parts of the public service on a wide variety of files provides the experience they need to start understanding how the system works and what it will take to move the system in the direction you want it to go.

At the same time, we need to be less shy talking about politics and incentives. Any group of human beings (including the public service) is subject to politics. The bureaucratic navigator sees the world in a different lens than other public servants. They practice empathy and are politically savvy enough to understand that things get done within a system when you understand why things work the way that they do and you find a way to get the job done that is different from the status quo but not isolating or annoying.

This is not a skill we can “formally” teach. Rather, we need to create opportunities through easier mobility and movement within the public service so those who are interested in becoming bureaucratic navigators have the opportunity to get the experience across government that they need to assume this role.

An Accelerating Need for Improve How We Work

In conclusion, successfully navigating the bureaucracy has always been an important but poorly defined skill in government. Recognizing it as a type of work all of its own and identifying clear leads for it (while protecting the time and energy of those who need to develop the new models and products) will be increasingly required as we accelerate our transition from old ways of working to future models of work. Recognizing that the skill is important and adds value especially for innovation, we must be deliberate in creating opportunities for public servants to get the experience they need to become proficient. Mobility and exposure become critical as we recognize that the bureaucratic navigator skill doesn’t fit into our traditional learning models and instead is an “experiential” learning experience.

On behalf of Sarah and myself, we hope you enjoyed our joint post exploring further the concept of a bureaucratic navigator. We hope everyone has a good week. If you enjoyed this post, leave a comment or reach out. Maybe this can become a regular thing!

Sarah and Scott



Scott McNaughton

Working on public sector innovation one problem at a time. Found biking and hiking on weekends. Father of young baby… what is sleep?