Bootstrapping culture in government

Friday, June 23, 2017

by James McKinney RSS / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / James McKinneytwitter / James McKinney


When I started to work in government last year, I discovered that little was documented in a clear, accessible, or easy-to-discover way. This was especially common when it came to tasks that are done once (like getting a key card) or that have no business value (like accessing bike cages). The main way of sharing knowledge was word of mouth—or ‘lore’. Alternatively, instead of gaining knowledge to do something yourself, you asked others to do it for you (like asking the IT help desk). The government-wide onboarding information was about compliance (accessibility, safety, etc.), and the ministry-specific onboarding information was about roles and responsibilities. Nothing explained how to actually do anything.

So I started documenting everything.

Although everyone agrees that documentation is important, that belief—even strongly held—doesn’t translate into a culture of documentation. You need to be surrounded by a culture for its customs to become natural to you. My reason for documenting everything I encountered wasn’t a completionist obsession; it was a deliberate strategy to create that surround. For example: If you spend your first day at a new job working through a well-written onboarding guide, you come to expect that future tasks will be well documented. With that expectation, when you encounter a new task, your instinct will be to look for documentation, rather than find an expert to pass on the oral history of installing printers. If you see a large catalog of how-to guides on your team’s wiki, you intuit that the team has a practice of documentation. With that understanding, when you encounter a task that’s undocumented, you may consider documenting it yourself. In ways like this, members of a team can incorporate the value and custom of documentation.

People often quip that culture change in government is hard. Many efforts to change culture focus on policies and trainings and speeches and measures of performance. But those are the tools of maintaining and enforcing a culture. They are overt, hard, foreground gestures. To change beliefs, expectations, values, approaches, you need more covert, soft, broad interventions. You need to change the background to change the culture.

Changing the foreground (the policies and procedures) without changing the background (the beliefs and values) produces a culture where people know the words but not the music: a culture in which people self-censor and otherwise change their overt behaviour—in order to conform—without changing their beliefs or valuation of their work and colleagues. Silent, dutiful compliance is short of vocal, enthusiastic support.

The important opportunity here is that it doesn’t take everyone to change the background. You can bootstrap it. A small team, working full-time, can produce enough documentation to normalize it as a practice.

My earlier work on open data provides an example of bootstrapping a norm (of which cultures are made). In 2014, no municipality in Canada was publishing its elected officials’ contact information in a standardized machine-readable format. Over two years, I solicited 18 municipalities with open data initiatives to adopt a standard for this dataset, out of about 60 such municipalities. Today, municipalities starting open data initiatives adopt the standard independently. The standard has become part of the background. When a municipality looks at neighbours’ open data catalogs for inspiration, they see this dataset and the standard it uses. The question of whether to adopt is not even asked. In this case, it took one person’s work to establish one norm that is self-sustaining.

If you’re on a team that wants to change a culture in government, explore ways to make the practices and values that you want to instill across the the public service (like ‘putting users first’ if you work in digital) part of the background—the surround, the default, the assumption, the first example that comes to mind. Much of that relates to better documenting, communicating and supporting existing cases that exemplify those values. If you need to constantly win the same arguments until everyone who disagrees leaves or retires, you aren’t changing culture; you’re just outlasting.


The Innovation Discourse Disconnect

Friday, June 16, 2017

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of irony walking through the annual Innovation Fair a few weeks ago on the way to a kickoff meeting for a new initiative I'm working on.

I’ll spare you the detail but my observation is that there is a fundamental disconnect between the public face of public sector innovation -- which manifests in events such as the well-attended, high energy, social media friendly innovation fair – and the quiet and difficult backroom discussions about policies, exemptions, expected results, and (of course) accountability.

Now, the following comes with all the usual caveats. There’s a lot at play. No one has all the answers. I'm not naming names. And it's always easy to be an armchair innovator and call out the problems.

But all that aside, there are a number of things that seem self-evident and far too often I’ve seen our own Canadian politeness get in the way of calling a spade a spade and unlocking the value that can bring to the table. So let's be honest about a few things (excuse my stream of consciousness):

Policies exist for a reason – they set the frame and baseline.

There’s a whole accountability infrastructure in place to ensure those policies are followed.

This is a good thing, accountability is important. But so too are achieving outcomes in the public interest. There's an equation we've yet to define about complex relationship between accountability and outcomes that we've all got views on and they differ greatly. This is playing out all over our organizations at all times.

One can never mount an argument against accountability. Which is to say that no one is against accountability. One can however, be against risk -- the foil of accountability. Everyone is against risk.

This makes accountability culture the dominant in government, it sets normative behaviour and creates incentives.

Innovation by its very nature seems to fall outside of standard operating procedures. It provokes the accountability infrastructure and those whose job it is to enforce it.

This creates conflict. This conflict is about things that are open to a degree of interpretation (rules, norms, etc) but plays out inter-personally among people.

The balance of power in this equation is always tipped in the favour of those enforcing accountability by virtue of policy (and history) being on their side. This means they set the bar, and theirs is the language for negotiation. Even when we speak about taking 'smart risks' we do so in the language of accountability (otherwise we'd simply take action).

This means that the burden of proof always falls to those who propose something new. They have to martial evidence and present a compelling case and even then the result is typically time limited agreement (e.g. a ‘pilot’) on condition of additional oversight and compliance measures.

During these negotiations (which is often theatre), we spend a lot of time hypothesizing about what the 'powers that be' actually want or need to feel comfortable about with the 'inherent' 'risks' posed by a given 'innovation', but we rarely just pick up the phone and ask them for an early signal check. This often takes the form of invoking the name of the organization, a position of authority, or even an elected official when asking a question or demanding evidence. In other contexts some may even call it fear-mongering. Conjuring threats that haven't actually been substantiated and too few are willing to call someone's bluff.

In practice this means doing what we've always done is always easier than trying something new. This is likely where the idea that "innovation requires heroic effort" comes from and reinforces an 'us versus them mentality'.

This is why we end up with perpetual skunk works at the peripheries of our organizations rather than addressing systemic barriers. Innovative forces are finding individual paths of least resistance. These paths tend to be personality driven rather than organizationally decided. This is innovation in fits and starts, not innovation as transformation.

All of this is exacerbated by the fact that the pro-innovation discourse is often initiated by the same centers of power that have the ability to grant or withhold the authorities required to actually execute meaningfully against that discourse. Speaking to the importance of innovation -- sending the signal -- may be important but it pales in comparison to actually leaning into the hard work of systematically setting the stage for it.

Finally, (and in fairness) those who would give permission -- even the most permissive of permissions -- will always fall short of the expectations of those who would seek them because the givers bear the burden of having to consider the whole system at once while the seekers enjoy the luxury of entertaining only their own ideas and machinations.

Enjoy the Theatre

Friday, June 9, 2017

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Last week I sat down with a former Deputy Minister to get some advice. During our conversation I registered my disdain for having to sit through some of the more theatrical elements of public service when I'm fairly certain that decisions have already been taken. In short, I find things like invoking hierarchy, rules (written or otherwise), or processes, exploiting information or influence asymmetries, or just plain old small-p politic-ing, to be frustrating.

His advice was simple: enjoy the theatre. There's lots to be learned in how people posture, invoke their ministers or the machinery of government. If you are only ever frustrated by it then you are more likely to shut it out when what you need to do is let it in just enough to allow the lessons to register without getting caught up in the underlying behaviours.

So I guess its on with the show!

When fearless advice gives way to loyal implementation

Friday, May 26, 2017

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

A while back I was on a road trip with Todd Julie, we were in Guelph delivering a workshop to the city under the joint masthead of the Institute on Governance and the Govlab at NYU (Alan Kantrow was co-delivering with us).

Todd and I went out one evening and got to talking. We talked about a number of things - including why 1993 might be the best year ever for music, likely because of where we were as angry youth at the time. But one thing that Todd said stuck out above all else. It was a quote from the film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind:
When you are young, your potential is infinite. You might do anything, really. You might be Einstein. You might be DiMaggio. Then you get to an age where what you might be gives way to what you have been. You weren't Einstein. You weren't anything. That's a bad moment.
In the moment it was an incredibly potent and raw statement. We were talking about our lived experience and the way he related his to the quotation to made it immediately visceral. It's feeling I've carried with me ever since.

More recently, I was in a room with folks who spend more of their time at the coalface between fearless advice and loyal implementation and someone I trust and admire professionally said something very similar. She said:
There's two realities here. There's the best public policy advice and there's the political imperative, and right now the former is giving way to the latter.
She said it to a room full of people more senior than I but looked directly into my eyes without once breaking eye contact. The message was clear, the time for fearless advice has passed, we were now onto loyal implementation.

There's no grandiose lesson here, I was just struck by the parallel.

Project update: governance in the digital age

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

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

I've been slacking on posting here for a couple weeks - I've been writing long sections of a research project that I'll chunk up into smaller posts later (I usually work for the Government of Canada; I'm on interchange to Public Policy Forum for a year). Though my once weekly rhythm seems to be long gone regardless, perhaps for the better. With my apologies for the occasional mammothly long post.


I wrote a project update over on the Forum's Medium channel, if you're curious: Governance in the digital age. There's a lot left out that makes me think "How can I write about this and not mention [thing]?", but a lot had to hit the cutting room floor - my first draft was 11 pages and this is it whittled down to two.

Kent