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.
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.
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.