Efficient vs Effective

Wednesday, October 1, 2014
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Government is constantly advised towards greater efficiency. I think we need to become far more conscious of the word "efficient."

Efficiency is the hallmark of the industrial era and modern capitalism. It is the great boon of the division and specialization of labour, of economies of scale, and its pursuit has done wonders for our standards of living. Efficiency is the only reasonable approach in a world of finite resources, and in the era of knowledge work, we must largely discard it to actually achieve it.

Largely. If we can spend a few extra minutes finding a better way to do something more efficiently, such that we save more in the long run than we invested in the improvement, we should. For example, making an extra phone call and finding a place that will print ads for 10 cents per page, rather than 12. Or taking time to learn a faster way of designing the ad layout. XKCD conveniently mapped that cost/benefit analysis for us:

However, it's impossible to run the entire ad campaign efficiently (regardless of research suggesting that the efficacy of online ad campaigns is still frequently a mystery). Because the entire campaign is driven by actions taken long before it starts, before we start poring over data from A/B testing. Can we run it effectively? Yes. But the knowledge of the people running it, the relationships between them, the mentor that encouraged the copywriter to stay in their job? We can't capture that complex system well enough to navigate it efficiently.

A colleague can efficiently, at 60 wpm, type us an email warning us of a major problem coming down the pike. But it might not be efficient in the context of their mandate, and we certainly didn't worry about efficiency building the relationship with that person. Coffee meetings aren't, at the individual level, very efficient.

But at the organizational level, coffee might be the killer app. Even 12-person lunch tables are more effective for software developers than 4-person ones, in that they lead to less compatibility issues in the code.

Even the potential of the digital era to feed us the information we're looking for algorithmically is increasingly driven by human relationships: what the people we interact with are reading, who are we following, and who can we trust to act as amplifiers and filters.

ConocoPhillips reports that they've saved $100 million by encouraging employees to help each other solve problems. At the macro level, it's clearly "efficient". At the individual level, hardly.

We can't take an efficient approach to knowledge work. It's too complex. Instead, we have to trust ourselves and rationally apply macro-level knowledge, such as that collaboration works for organizations. Even when it's hard to see how it serves the pressing needs of the individuals within the system.

The factory-driven logic of efficiency may still apply to tasks and processes, but even there the logic is messier than you'd think. What if a theoretically less efficient system gets more use because it better matches the culture of a community? Or because it has buy-in, having been developed locally?

Digital interactions with government are an easy efficiency win. Filling out health care paperwork online is a far cheaper, quicker transaction for both parties, but what if the visit to the office creates the opportunity to discuss an emerging health concern? Expensive in-person contact with health care professionals is often worth it, in keeping people from needing even more expensive hospital stays later. In a few years we may be working on how to strategically get people through government doors at key intervals to bolster a digital by default strategy.

Knowledge work is a relational game, and we need to tread the language of efficiency cautiously. When combined with inevitable oversimplification and incentives designed for parts, not wholes, efficiency just isn't effective.

On Politics and the Public Service

Friday, September 26, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

While talking politics in the public service is taboo, there is no denying that there is an inherent connection between the quality of political discourse in a country and the quality of its public service. I wanted to pause for a moment and share a great speech given by Jon Cruddas – an MP in the UK – at the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). It's thoughtful, not overly partisan, and demonstrative of what political discourse can be. It stands in stark contrast to politics in Canada and is definitely worth listening to.

Ps - The transcript is also available and I strongly recommend reading Aaron Wherry's Today in demonstrating contempt for Parliament for contrast.


The Value of People

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Editors have figured out that there's more going on in documents than people can adequately, reliably process all at once. The standard practice is to take multiple passes, each time looking through a different lens. I was taught to take three cracks at important documents:

  1. one for logic, coherence, and ideas
  2. one for conciseness and the removal of extra words that add no meaning
  3. one for spelling, grammar, and punctuation

The field of business administration teaches something similar, providing frameworks and guidance for how to think about problems: SWOT analyses, risk matrices, etc. My first manager looked at every new problem through the below framework, thinking about the needs and constraints from each lens:

The decision-making lens I tend to advocate for is the more humanistic one: starting from a position of trust, looking for positive-sum outcomes, and appreciating soft and long-term benefits from actions. But in actuality, there is a different lens I would make mandatory for every decision, ever. It would be taking a moment to go completely cold, rational, and economical, and to think of the people within organizations as dollar figures. Just for a moment.

If You Like It Then You Shoulda Put a Value On It

Statscan put yearly salaries for professional/knowledge worker jobs around $62,000 in 2014. Between benefits and pensions I think I can conservatively put the total compensation cost at $80,000 as a working estimate*. 

Some examples in which this lens may be enlightening:

  • Consider a productivity-enhancing piece of technology with a price tag of $400. If you get a 0.5% productivity increase, it pays for itself in a year. If it lasts for a few years, you can get away with a 0.16% productivity boost, or, a few minutes per week. To say nothing of the fact that an open mind towards such investments may keep employees around longer, when losing such an employee costs $16,000 in lost productivity (which is the lowest figure I've encountered for turnover costs).

  • If you're responsible for convening a working team or meeting, try occasionally working out the labour hours involved. Ten people for two hours is half a week's work: at $80,000/year, about $750. This isn't to say you shouldn't do it; rather, that you should consider what level of planning and communication on your part respects that investment.

  • I've used this example before, but the IRS provoked a scandal for $50M in conference spending between 2010 and 2012. But divided over the three years and approximately 100,000 staff, it's $166/employee. The real question is how much their employees are worth, and whether that spending made them at least a half a percent or so more effective. Triangulating a few different sources (average HR costs for companies relative to budget**, my compensation cost estimate), the low end of the range is likely ~$4,000,000,000 worth of annual investment in people. The IRS has a ~$11,800,000,000 budget, and $50M is a pittance of their people cost.

  • Lastly, consider a manager with half a dozen staff. We rarely consider the idea that they're responsible for almost half a million dollars in annual investment. And that $500,000 machine's performance can easily vary by ~20%, depending on how it is managed.

One Lens

It is easy to view human resources as sunk costs: past expenditures that should have no bearing on present decision making. It is not so. We should be building decision frameworks that encourage us to consider our stewardship role for the people behind organizations - at least for a moment, as one lens of several. Then taking other passes over problems, with other lenses. Editors give documents this level of respect.

TL;DR: discussions about people and spending need denominators.

*This assumes that the average employee creates at least their compensation cost in value to the organization. In actuality, in any sustainably profitable business the average value created must be greater than their compensation cost, and so these examples would be shorting employee value.
**For the Canadian public service, it's 38.1%.

Government From the Outside-In

Friday, September 19, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

As is typical this time of year you can find me making contributions to the GTEC blog. As such, below you will find an interview that George Wenzel and I did with Kent that explores this year's conference theme: Government From the Outside-In.

The interview it positioned to the backdrop of us having both just left the public service (myself on interchange, George on a leave without pay) to explore other developmental opportunities. I asked GTEC (via Kent) if we could republish the content here because I think it's warranted. It related directly to my recent observations about interchange (See: Are Public Servants Interchangeable?) and, more importantly, is in many ways complimentary to an article that was published in the 2014 Fall edition of Public Sector Digest entitled "Lessons from Cross-Sector Experiences" (login required, bootleg available here) by my friend Ailish Campbell.

In short, where George and I wax about the technology, Ailish deals more directly with the issues of talent, training and transfers. I'd encourage you to read it, leave me a comment here with your thoughts, or contact Ailish directly with your feedback.

But first, here's the interview from GTEC blog:


The theme for GTEC this year is Government From the Outside-In, exploring the observer, citizen, and business view – in short, the Canadians’ view – of government technology. However, many outside perspectives can miss elements of the complex history and context that influences how the public service operates.

To delve into this theme with an eye to discerning between the legitimate opportunities for progress and the legitimate considerations facing the public sector, we reached out to Nick Charney and George Wenzel. Nick and George are both public servants, but are currently on interchange and leave, respectively. They’ve both been strident followers and commenters on the government technology space, and I thank them both for their time.

As a starting point, as employees, how have you found the experience differs between public sector and private sector, in terms of technology?

N: The transition out to the not-for-profit sector was probably the smoothest job transition I’ve had in my career. I showed up on my first day to a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) environment, complete with open wifi, unfettered access to the internet and a Mac on every desk. Gone were the days of Novell Groupwise and Records and Document Management Systems. We use a slew of cloud based apps and I can get to my information seamlessly from anywhere. One of my biggest concerns is what happens at the end of my interchange. What kind of environment am I going to step into? Should I expect to step into an office environment of the past, present or (hopefully) future?

G: My transition was similarly seamless – I moved to a not-for-profit with a centralized system of virtualized desktops connected via thin clients with dual monitors. Every employee could ‘hot-desk’ at any computer and phone in the organization and immediately have access to a common set of tools. BYOD was not actively encouraged or supported, but I was still able to use my personal Google Calendar and keep it synced to my work calendar in Outlook. As a not-for-profit with a number of very small (under 3-person) offices across the country, our IT support was amazing. Especially since the entire IT department was two guys in Vancouver. Like Nick, when I return to the public service I’m expecting a shock — returning to a restrictive corporate network where information security and records management trumps effectiveness and efficiency.

Why do you think causes the divide?

G: I can’t speak for all employers outside of the public service, but for the not-for-profit where I worked the seamlessness mostly came about because of a forward-thinking IT manager who, out of necessity, needed to set up a virtualized system that could be administered remotely. He had full authority to set things up in a way that made sense. The entire organization had less than 100 employees, so I’m not sure this kind of flexibility could scale.

N: The scale issue that George raised is huge (pun intended). To be honest, I’m not sure my experience can be replicated in a government setting without ignoring the rules, breaking the rules, or changing the rules; and I doubt there is much appetite for that. If there are any IT visionaries out there, I’d invite them to prove me wrong.

Why do you think it matters, from the internal perspective?

G: I think the public service is facing similar challenges to large private organizations – trying to implement effective IT infrastructure while at the same time meeting the demands of a workforce that has expectations borne of the consumer technology space.

N: We are our own worst enemy in the technology space, the only thing holding us back is ourselves. We all know we are losing ground here, there are a lot of options that could help us close the gap but they require some heavy lifting at the top and some serious risk (real or perceived) management.

As noted, you’ve both been part of the ongoing online dialog – social media, blogs, etc. – about the public service, how it operates, and how it uses technology. Do you find a different perspective from where you work now? Either for yourselves, or from your colleagues and networks?

N: I’ve got three related but unsequential thoughts. First, bureaucrats still think the world is small, they are too easily lost in the minutia of their respective areas of influence and responsibility. What I’ve learned is that those with a particular influence inside the system often have it under the narrowest of circumstances; it’s something you are blind to when you are stuck in it but hyper aware to it when all of a sudden the protocol of following the hierarchy no longer applies. I’ve managed to meet and work with people outside the civil service that I likely would have never gotten to work with if I was still inside it. Second, I’ve noticed that people outside the civil service are far more willing to discuss the importance of the political ongoings of the day and the influence of those ongoings on the bureaucracy. Generally, my experience has been that public servants expend a lot of energy refusing to comment on politics for fear of it being misconstrued as partisan and thus suspect; but the truth of the matter is that what happens in the political realm is relevant and ought to be more openly discussed because it impacts the work of the civil service. A professional public service is one that can be political without being partisan. Third, there’s way too many processes, gatekeepers, and bureaucracy between civil servants and the technology they need to be effective.

G: Within the public service, there was a constant dialogue about the role of the bureaucracy and that of politicians, fear of having a mistake show up in the media, and a level of introspection that simply didn’t exist in the nonprofit world. Outside the public service, there’s more emphasis on simply getting work done and achieving the organization’s mission, by whatever means reasonably possible. Attempts at different processes or technologies, even if later considered failures, were actively encouraged as part of organizational learning.

What do you think causes that frame within the public service?

N: For me it comes down to culture and leadership. I’m in a small organization run by a former Deputy Minister who is both thoughtful and vocal and encourages other people in the organization to be the same. We are a flat organization so leadership permeates quickly and easily.

G: Nick is bang-on. If there isn’t leadership from the top and a supportive culture, stagnation will be the norm.

There seems to be a link back to the “employee experience” question from earlier.

G: Technology is just one element of workplace culture, but it’s indicative of the differences between the public service and the rest of the working world. When I joined the government in 2001 I recall being impressed by the technology that was available on my desktop. New public servants in more recent years haven’t had the same positive impression. I’m not sure that the public service considers itself a ‘model employer’ any longer.

The idea that the public service has lost its monopoly on policy advice is a common theme these days. CBC’s technology commentator Jesse Hirsch talks about a shift in the nature of authority – from institutional in nature to cognitive – driven by technology and the internet. Is Hirsch’s assessment correct, and does it apply to government policy advice?

N: The authority model is definitely in flux. The web lowers transactions costs, eliminates communication barriers and creates opportunities to influence. The very fact that you are engaging in this discussion with George and I is evidence of this, our blog is evidence of this, every opportunity you and I have had as a result of publishing our thoughts online is evidence of this. What does this mean for policy advice? Everyone seems to think that it ought to improve the quality of advice because expertise can be readily located, tapped into and brought to bear. That said all of these flattening tools could also be used to further insulate the policy process from dissenting views and engage in decision-based evidence making. At the end of the day, to govern is ultimately to choose, advice doesn’t have to be taken, and in some cases can’t even be.

What do you think should be at the top of federal, provincial, and municipal CIOs’ agendas going into the GTEC this year?

G: I think the big question is whether it’s possible to find an alignment between scalable cloud technologies and security. There’s a cultural fear of cloud-based systems and recent news stories about data loss have only heightened that fear. Large organizations like the University of Alberta have migrated to cloud-based systems and open networks. Municipalities like the City of Edmonton have done the same. Clearly there are some examples that could be followed and lessons learned.

N: Of course CIOs need to be concerned with security, privacy, and information management. Of course! But maybe, maybe they ought to focus on how to remove barriers between employees and enabling technologies that are already widely available on the Internet and less on how to deploy last year’s technology behind the firewall.

Change and Inertia

Wednesday, September 17, 2014
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

One quick note: last night was the final event of Richard Pietro's Open Government Tour. Richard is a citizen who has been riding his motorcycle across Canada since July 2, speaking about Open Government, purely because he believes in it.

The motorcycle does indeed have "Open Data" and "Open Gov" decals. Richard was holding the camera for this one.

I just want to say congratulations to Richard and encourage you to check out that link - it's an inspiring display of creativity, drive (to the point of virtuous audacity), and civic engagement.

"Change is the new normal," I heard recently. True. But it's also the old normal. It's just what happens.

At this point in the post you can choose your own adventure: enjoy six minutes with Toronto CIO Rob Meikle on change and our attitudes towards it, or skip to the next paragraph.

The fascinating flipside to constant change is when we want to change, or when we're told to change, or when we're informed of change and... nothing really happens.

This could be personal habits, organizational pivots, or attempts to influence a community. It comes with some form of the message "This is what's going to happen, and this is what is needed from you."

But we get that message dozens of times a day. And without reinforcement, it sounds like noise. What's missing is the sustained commitment, the signalling that sets apart this particular change, and our day-to-day experience feeling different after that decision point. 

The world around us is changing, one shock after another. New technologies, new demands from citizens, new crises in governance, or in that which is governed. New demands on ourselves to constantly learn and adapt. Yet, in many ways things stay rock steady. The conversations have changed staggeringly in the last half decade, but the day-to-day experience is sometimes exactly the same.

We have to recognize that organizations and people have tremendous inertia, which is a reasonable approach to staying sane and filtering false signals about change. But when we really need to change, we need to stop approaching it like this:

A sudden effort, at one moment in time. No one can feel it.