“How the f*ck do we change anything in this place?”

These were the words I inked into my notebook as I led on my hotel room bed in Kazakhstan. More specifically, I was in Ust-Kamenogorsk, which is the regional capital of East Kazakhstan – one of the 16 regions (or oblasts) that make up the country. This one region is the size of Germany.

From Ust-Kamenogorsk it is about 120km to the Russian border, 400km to China and 500km to Mongolia. To the 9th biggest country in the world, these distances are thought of as just a short drive away.

Yet all three borders are considerably closer than the 1100km to the capital city, Astana, the previous capital Almaty, or 3660km to the oil capital of Aktau on the Caspian Sea. This is roughly the same as traveling from Manchester to Athens. The shortest flight time from Ust-Kamenogorsk to Aktau is 9 hours 40 minutes with a stopover in Almaty. All this land for just shy of 18 million people.

My notes from Kazakhstan
“I feel like I need a consultant to tell me what to do!”

If I’m honest, this wasn’t the first time that I’d sat in Kazakhstan writing expletives into my notebook. Most trips elicit at least one moment where I reach for my Moleskin and relieve the exasperation, frustration and outright confusion of navigating – and attempting to influence – the giant machinery that is the government of Kazakhstan.

This was my sixth trip to Kazakhstan in 18 months, my second to this particularly city in 2015, but it wasn’t getting easier. I was there working with UNICEF Kazakhstan – part of my work with Youth Policy Labs – to deliver training on youth work. If you want to know in more detail what we’re up to in Kazakhstan, you can read this short overview.

In the UK, trainee youth workers would go to university for 3 years, work part-time in a youth centre, be validated by the National Youth Agency, have a union to join, and a wealth of theoretical and practical guidance and support to draw upon.

In Kazakhstan, they get me for 10 days.

In our training programme we tried to cover some big concepts: non-formal education; voluntary engagement; youth participation; equal opportunities and diversity. We wanted to cover so many aspects of what working with young people required, how to support them to grow and develop, to overcome their challenges and achieve their dreams.

But what did my participants find most interesting?

The energiser games.

You can take the boy out of drama school, but not the drama school of out the boy. During that training, we played a lot of games. From bunny, zip-zap-boing and chain tag, to wink murder, counting to 10 as a group, and catching a tennis ball.

Why? Good question. That’s what they asked too.

We played games because they had forgotten how to play. Forgotten how to interact with each other that didn’t involve sitting around a table, writing a report or sending an email. Forgotten that delivering a government service wasn’t going to change just because of a conference call. Forgotten that working with young people is about building a real, genuine, human relationship.

But – as my notebook can testify – playing some games doesn’t change the system. It doesn’t create a guiding coalition of supporters, doesn’t guarantee political vision, doesn’t provide financing, won’t create a strategic plan, and can’t monitor the progress.

“I know WHAT. But HOW?!”

However, after 18 months, I’m beginning to realise that my eloquent policy paper rarely does that either.

Recently I’ve taken comfort in the excellent book by Sir Michael Barber, How to Run A Government. The book is a bible for those of us working within a government system and attempting to deliver something – not just change something, but deliver something that actually benefits people. This isn’t just about good public sector management; it is about big data, less money, higher transparency, robust accountability, weak political leaders, higher consumer choice, greater expectations and lower tolerance for failure.

But with young staff members, on a 10-day training, in a hotel permanently decorated for weddings, where do you begin?

I began with getting them to stop thinking like aging bureaucrats.

To make choices.
To be accountable for their actions.
To be interact with others.

In short: to think like a human being.

And to do this? Amongst other things, we pretended to be rabbits.

Of course, we’re also doing a lot of other stuff too: international study tours to the UK, outcome-based frameworks, situational analysis, large online surveys, civil servant capacity building, winning over skeptical politicians and getting people to do stuff that they’ve committed to.

But man, trying to change things is really f*cking difficult. It is infuriating, mentally challenging and exhausting. But playing some games seems to have changed their perspective. It cut through the occasional bullshit of consultants, policy wonks, and change management experts. It connected, resonated, and is the thing that is most memorable.

I’ll continue to work my way through Sir Michael’s rules of government delivery, but I’ll also combine this with stopping the premature ageing of young civil servants by playing silly games. Maybe with both approaches we might just create something better after all.

51 thoughts on ““How the f*ck do we change anything in this place?”

  1. how the fuck do you change it? Naw… just let it happen. Change is happening and you can not effect it. You’re just part of it. Let go the control and just be you. It’s okay.


    1. You’re right: change is happening all the time. But I do think we can have an impact – positively and negatively – on how that process happens. Change will happen without us, but I think sometimes we can offer ways of speeding it up, making it more effective and overcoming some of the often-experiences problems and barriers. But letting go of some of the control is a useful thought.

      1. You’re right…we can impact. We do impact.

        But I think you being you and letting go of the “outcome”, will be what happens… and that it is okay “what happens” regardless. Yes, try for the “greater vision” (whatever that really is) and yes, “effect change” because you can… but you be you. It’s all good. No matter what. That’s what I mean. You can’t really fix the world’s “collective” problems. You know?

        Thanks for your reply and I hope I wasn’t too contrary or distracting from your mission.

  2. Ah, I could feel your frustration through your words. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be! Awesome job with the game, I bet it released a lot of negative energy too 🙂 Look forward to reading more of your blogs and good thoughts go out to all of you doing such wonderful work under tough bureaucratic conditions and more.

    1. I think they did! The games were really useful at creating a better team dynamic – particularly when we had groups from different regions (with a strong sense of competition and defensiveness) coming together for the training. I also used games to highlight problems with the groups and then use the games as an exploration for how they were working together. Thanks for reading and I’ll try to keep offering new insights! I’ll be back in Kazakhstan next week and so I’ll try and write something again after that.

  3. I loved seeing this pop up as freshly pressed in my Reader, because I have just moved to Kazakhstan, doing different but similar work. Good luck to us both- cause you’re right, changing things is really f*cking difficult.

    1. Thanks for reading and your comment! Where in Kazakhstan do you live and what is the work that you’re doing? Good luck to you too – we’re both going to need it 🙂

      1. I’m in Shymkent, in the South Kazakhstan region, working for a government school. The aim of the project is to help transform and modernize the education system, by bringing international best teaching practices to the school, teaching and modeling these in the classroom alongside local teachers and help with the professional development of the teachers. Thank you and I enjoyed reading other blog posts. on youth development- good work.

  4. The one who wants to change things has to be extremely patient and will go through a lot of shit in the short-term for the long-term betterment of society. Hang in there, We’re rooting for you!

  5. I watch ‘101 East’ on aljazeera. Once they had a story about Kazakhstan. It’s beautiful. Though, like many countries, it has its own failures, but the country has rich heritage.

    1. It really is a stunning place! The combination of the Soviet legacy, the Islamic influence and their Nomadic roots makes it a fascinating place to try and understand. I’ve not seen “101 East”, what is it?

  6. What a marvelous, thoughtful and ultimately hopeful post. Change is difficult, as most things would rather remain the same. It takes tremendous amounts of energy and goodness knows patience. I’m glad to see that you have both. I’m excited to know that you’re chipping away at it one chisel full at a time through by fighting against the 2 veils that always push against change: Cynicism and Apathy. And amazing that you found a way to engage–through play–where we first learn.

    Keep up the good fight. Don’t lose hope. Keep sharing with us.

    Rock on!

    1. Thanks for reading Anthony and for your comment. Cynicism and apathy are certainly both barriers to the change process here, but also that the government system feels so mammoth and inherently adverse to anything changing – just in case something happens that they can’t predict or weren’t prepared for. I’ve found ‘play’ to be a way into these conversations that helps them feel things – how they could work together, the atmosphere created, and the fun they have – and then link this to how the services they deliver should be. I won’t lose hope and I’ll keep sharing!

  7. Thank you for sharing. I’m always interested in learning more about this country as my husband and I were moments away from moving there for his job before the project got canned. I have to say that I’m not disappointed in missing out on the harsh winters in Astana, but I do wish I’d gotten to experience this place.

    1. It really is a fascinating country! The winters and the summers are both very extreme: -40 in the winter and +40 in the summer. I’m not quite sure I could move there just yet (!), but it already feels like a second home!

  8. Things are always changing, I agree with that statement. I don’t think it is ever possible for the change that you want to happen in your lifetime. I take comfort in knowing the change that I want to see will benefit my children. And theirs .

    1. I think you can make change that has a real impact in the short-term. I’m only 26 and so if I don’t see anything in the next 60 years, I think I’d be quite disappointed! Yes, you might not see the large systemic change, but in the short-term, in Kazakhstan, we can immediately lower the number of young people committing suicide, support more youth into housing, raise the quality of education, provide more leisure and play activities, create greater tolerance and acceptance and support young people to grow into the person they want to be. This we can do!

    1. I absolutely agree. I’ve been working in Kazakhstan for 18 months now and I have learnt so much about myself, about development, youth work and training. It has really stretched my abilities and because of it I have grown both personally and professionally. Thanks! 🙂

  9. Kazakhstan is beautiful, from what I’ve seen. How much does your work help locals to realize their own assets and skills to help with changing? I feel that would probably be the most effective way to effect change, since you can’t be there for long stretches of time, and also people are more likely to accept and work for change if they are part of the process. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir. I just want to encourage you in your work. Don’t get discouraged!

    1. Our style of training adopts a non-formal education approach which centres almost entirely on eliciting the skills and abilities that participants already have. Though we have some “input” aspects (such as youth work competencies, child protection, equality & diversity, etc), we focus more on utilising their existing knowledge and approach, rather than attempting to radically transform them after a 10 day training (something that is, of course, quite impossible!). With this in mind, and because we aren’t there for any long period of time, the play becomes quite important because they experience – viscerally and emotionally – how youth work can feel, rather than what youth work should be like according to a PPT or “best-practice model.” Thanks for your support! Don’t worry, I’m not discouraged, but just venting the frustrations. It has been great to unpick this further in the comments and responses too 🙂

      1. That sounds pretty cool. I’m sure you’re doing more good than you realize right now. Sometimes it takes a long time for an experience to be processed in the mind.

  10. Follow your Passion and you can’t go wrong. There is a reason you felt burden while you were there. My prayer is that it made you uncomfortable enough to continue to do something about it. Also, don’t forget to allow others to experience your journey as well! Go get em.

  11. As an American who butted into the same problem in E. Europe circa 1989, let me tell what I learned. Make a difference for one, then two, etc. thanks for the honesty; it is a 10 of 10 in frustration at times!

  12. Oh wow!!!! Hang in there. I am in awe of all you have garnered from this experience even do it seemed to have infuriated you at the same time. But I am positive you have changed more lives than you realize. Well done.

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