Reconsidering Analog Solutions in the Digital Era

Friday, April 21, 2017

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

Earlier this week Kent wrote a piece entitled Deep Dives, or Long Drags in which (to summarize) he posited that while we've all agreed that the world is more complex, we've done little in terms of redesigning our institutions to deal with that complexity.

It's a conversation he and I (and others) have had repeatedly and I often boil it down to "If we were looking to solve problem x and we weren't bound by our current institutional array where would we start?"; essentially advancing a clean slate approach to thinking through the problematic. Now perhaps that's an unreasonable starting place given we can't simply start from the ground up, a more realistic starting point is likely the Tamarack deep dive that Kent references:
"There were no panels, no real keynote speakers, and no “big names” as hooks. Most of the conference programming was led and delivered by three experts from Tamarack. It was more like a curriculum than a conference; they clearly spent a lot of time deciding on what participants needed to learn and preparing sessions to get it across. It came with a textbook-length package of tools and further reading."
At which point Kent pivots into the practical operations of an organization that tends to prioritize short term tactics over long term strategies.

Herein lies part of the problem

The professional non-partisan civil service is -- we are told -- supposed to take a long view, play the long game, have a long shadow of the future. However digital technologies that are designed to make things as easy, intuitive, and expedient as possible are conspiring against those who would play the long game (See: 5 Things About Online Public Engagement).

It not a stretch to say that the same technologies that allow us to gather more information, to be better informed, and to make more evidence based and/or stakeholder informed decisions are also the technologies that create paralysis by analysis, jam our communications channels, and inflate the perception of risks associated with any course of action (presumably because we can better foresee the consequences).

Herein lies a possible solution

The Tamarack example is an interesting one to me because its analog, not digital. Its about putting the right people in the room and working them through a process within an appropriate amount of time and with the appropriate (and detailed!) supports. Its not too far off from the school of thought that argues we ought to be spending 95% of our time defining the problem and 5% solving it.

We often jump to digital as a driver of or potential solution to our most pressing problems, maybe we ought to pause more often before we do. Perhaps we ought to reconsider the merits of analog (slow!) solutions in the digital era.

Deep dives, or long drags

Tuesday, April 18, 2017
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

The idea that problems are increasingly complex is incredibly common. It's taken as a truism. If that's the case, why haven’t we reorganized our institutions to deal with it?


A quick story. In March I was at a Tamarack conference on community engagement, and I was struck by the design details of the event.

There were no panels, no real keynote speakers, and no “big names” as hooks. Most of the conference programming was led and delivered by three experts from Tamarack. It was more like a curriculum than a conference; they clearly spent a lot of time deciding on what participants needed to learn and preparing sessions to get it across. It came with a textbook-length package of tools and further reading. To some extent this is a luxury of small events, but I’ve seen it done well with 300 people, too.

This is what we’d expect of that organization; Tamarack's business is designing and facilitating collective learning and decision-making processes. Their President, Paul Born, used an example about being approached to facilitate the development of a homelessness reduction strategy in one community. The process he designed was a 2.5 day session with the key actors in the ecosystem, including senior leaders from government, NGOs, and business. He considered it the minimum amount of time required to work through the issue, have participants meaningfully reflect, and to build commitment to action.

At this point I’d like to contrast this with what I’d consider the standard approaches. Conference panels that work more like back-to-back short presentations, often without trained moderators, that barely scratch the surface of an issue. A universal meeting format of presenting an issue followed by discussion and decision, 20 minutes tops. A premium on brevity and simplicity in written materials.

Our group knowledge transfer and decision-making systems are, unequivocally, not designed for complexity.

I suspect that the common reaction to the idea of getting the 100 most influential people in a system to work through an issue for 2.5 days would be that it’d be impossible. That’s way too much time. Which is exactly what facilitators, designers, and consultants hear. “Can you help us do this?” “Yes, and it’ll take X amount of time.” “That’s too much, it has to be a half day max.”

We give lip service to the idea of complexity, but we certainly don’t behave like we appreciate it. If a given issue is complex, then it requires a deep dive and sustained attention. But if every issue brief is two pages, it’s hard to tell the difference between those that should be two pages and those that should be a book.

At which point I’m sure someone will tell me to be practical. Executives don’t have time to explore issues for 2.5 days or read long briefings. And of course I agree, but it’s exactly the problem*.

And here’s the result: instead of deep dives, we do long drags. It’s when you find a four-month project creeping into 18-month territory, and one more month doesn’t seem like much of a big deal. It’s when you realize that you have to scramble to bring stakeholders to the table that you hadn’t originally identified. It’s when you’re sending just one more briefing up, or having just one more meeting, to work out an issue with a proposal. It’s why everyone is comfortable with the oxymoronic word “reconfirm.”

This is very different from, say, agile software development. In that case, the complexity and constant iteration is scoped, planned, and designed for. But for these long drags you underestimate the amount of time and effort required, and uncover and resolve issues as much by accident as by system.

Complexity is a defining feature of the digital era, and we are not adjusting our governance structures to manage it. Just the opposite, in some ways: as authority and information became distributed and hyperconnected, the pressure towards centralized decision-making and message control became stronger. Governments have grown by orders of magnitude since we developed our conceptions of accountability, and we’ve increasingly realized that the sharp lines between issue areas are more porous than we once thought, making them effectively much broader. If your portfolio is health, it’s also education, social security, and the economy.
What hasn’t grown is the time, tools, or resources to deal with boundaryless problems with many stakeholders: everything from the most intractable policy problems to building user-centred digital services. You need deep dives, the time to do things right, and people empowered to test ideas and work across organizational lines.
To do it, governments will need to either free up senior leadership from day-to-day issues, or push authority further down the chain**. If they aren’t willing to - which is, admittedly, a reasonable position - then the appropriate conclusion is to revise expectations downwards: for the ability to solve wicked problems, collaborate between jurisdictions, or rework internal systems to create more coherent public-facing services.
I may be naive for thinking that this system can be changed, but we’re all naive if we think we can get better at dealing with complex problems if it stays the same.

*Every project lists senior executive commitment as a success factor, which is a resource that doesn't scale up with complexity. At which point it's worth noting that executives tend to overestimate the success of corporate initiatives, and underestimate the scope of organizational problems; executives are already spread more thinly than they think.
**I'd consider the Codefest events that brought internal and external communities together to develop the Web Experience Toolkit to be a shining example of both designing an event to make progress on complex work and of working-level employees having the authority to lead it.

Policy Shapers vs Policy Makers

Friday, April 7, 2017

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

The Clerk of the Privy Council spoke at the Policy Community Conference a couple of weeks ago. He made an interesting distinction between policy makers and policy shapers that I thought bore repeating.

Public servants aren't policy makers, they are policy shapers. If you want the privilege of choosing than run for office or work politically. In short, to govern is to choose.

If you want to shape, advise, influence, and steward, then the public service is the place for you.

This was particularly poignant given I've spent the last few months advancing a program proposal that -- while evidence-based and viable -- was ultimately not chosen by the elected government.

Digital Governance Theatre

Friday, March 31, 2017

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

A couple of weeks ago an old friend and colleague Richard Smith (Simon Fraser University) reached out and shared an email newsletter written by Venkatesh Rao (@vgr on Twitter) entitled "Software Adoption is Bullshit". The article -- which is chunked out into numbered tweetable tweets and well worth reading -- argues that we are living in an era of digital governance theatre rather than transformation. Here's the relevant snippets:

I have spent a good deal of time in the last decade involved one way or another in enterprise software: helping to build it, helping to sell it, helping to buy it, writing about it, reading about it. The world of enterprise software runs on the doctrinal antithesis to the idea that software is eating the world: the world is adopting software. Specifically through existing organizations adopting it via a controlled, deliberate, strategic process. There is an entire cottage industry -- and I have participated in it more than I like to admit -- devoted to "strategic" thinking about how to "adopt" software and turn it into "competitive advantage" and "digitally transform" the business model. And loudly celebrating supposed "success stories."

This entire cottage industry, I concluded a few years ago, is unadulterated bullshit.

There are only three ways for an organization to relate to software: you're buying it like you buy potatoes, a pure commodity, while being loudly theatrical about it, or you're getting eaten by it, or you've made the only meaningful strategic decision: to jump to the disruptive "eating" side on a particular contest...

29/ ... we've seen 20 years of bullshit "adoption theater" talk on "e-governance" that was really "digital governance potatoes."

30/ Though some of the sustaining innovations on the e-governance S-curve have been massive and huge (NSA surveillance,, things like India's Aadhar card), they have still been potatoes.

31/ In other words, they are not about strategy or about "digital transformation." They are about doing the same old governance things, the same ways, except with "paperware" in software form.

32/ There have been the same sorts of poster-child "e-governance" stories: wiki constitution efforts in Iceland, e-citizenship in Estonia. Interesting and worth learning from, but fundamentally, theater.

33/ Those are cases of governance adopting potato software rather than software eating governance. We are only just beginning to see what the latter might end up looking like.

34/ So what lessons can you draw from this story? They matter whether or not you're involved in enterprise software. The big lesson is this: don't mistake buying potatoes for software eating you or you doing the eating.

35/ When software eats something, what comes out the other end is deeply, fundamentally transformed...

51/ So why do people indulge in the theater instead of doing the real thing? It's a classic disruption reason: the incumbents don't have any reason to take risks while they have their core markets locked up.

52/ During this period, technology has no strategic value. At best it has marketing value with customers and morale-building value with employees. Neither is strategic or decisive.

53/ You can show-off "innovation" poster children to customers (campaign donors in this case study). "Look at all our cool analytics charts and social media engagement metrics."

54/ For employees (campaign staff), there is an opportunity for live-action roleplaying (LARPing) disruption instead of actually taking the existential risks of disrupting. LARPing disruption is fun.

55/ Don't get me wrong: lots of money can get spent (of dubious value, hence the sub-cottage industry of bullshit "ROI" estimates) and engineers can work hard on hard technology problems.

56/ But without the element of ideological risk -- dropping certain sacred values, adopting previously profane values -- and risking existing value for uncertain lower returns, you're just pretending.

Is he right?

How many of us have spent time building up the importance of digital, helping sell it, helping to implement it, writing about it, reading about it. How many of us are among the cottage industry devoted to 'strategic thinking' about how to 'adopt' digital technology and 'digitally transform' government's business model? How many of us loudly celebrate supposed 'success stories'?

And yet how much of what we have been able to collectively accomplish goes beyond the potato buying paradigm articulated above, how much of it is just LARPing?

The future of citizen engagement is vinyl

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

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

For the last little while I've been expressing wariness about online citizen engagement, and I'd like to explain that.

Of course a lot of citizen engagement will be online. And it can be incredibly effective. The distinction between online and offline is culturally and practically fading. I've defended the idea that online platforms are no worse than in-person ones; just different, suited for different interactions. The term "online" may have a cultural shelf life itself.

So why am I wary?

Let's shift gears a little and talk about digital audio. When CDs came out, they completely sidelined vinyls and cassettes in a decade. Vinyl basically ceased to exist. Yet today we've seen seven years of double-digit growth in vinyl sales and they're now a $1B market, representing 15-18% of physical music revenues.

It's because we over-adjusted to the digital audio option. It was seen as the future, and we wanted to future-proof our collections. We wanted to virtue signal the idea that we were modern and technologically savvy. But over time, those psychological bonuses to the economic decision of audio formats subsided, and we returned to a level playing field between vinyl and digital. We could decide in a less biased way between the two options. At which point we rediscovered the virtues of vinyl - the quality, the packaging, the art, the ritual - for some situations.

Which doesn't change that digital audio is the absolute standard, and for good reason.

Back to online citizen engagement. It's seen as nearly free. It's seen as easy. But most of all it's seen as inclusive. That is, because engagement is online it's seen as fair. It's seen as plausibly reaching the entire intended audience.

More simply: online engagement gets used as a get-out-of-jail-free card for thinking through your goals, engagement design, and audience. It's seen as the future, ergo it's good.

It is sometimes. It it not always.

There are many reasons, but let's look at three:

Digital tends to be shallow. As Robin Gregory put it:
"When hundreds or thousands of stakeholders are asked to (a) speak before a panel for ten to fifteen minutes, (b) submit short written statements to a government body, or (c) participate as representatives of identified interests, then the invitation contains an implicit request to be either superficial or one-dimensional."
This effect is exacerbated by our current culture towards online engagement. The idea that public policy issues are complex is repeated daily, but we ask people for bullet points. Yet! It's possible to do small, deliberative working groups that get into the complexities and nuances of an issue. They may report analyses or pros and cons to a larger interested audience, who may vote or be surveyed in a lightweight way. This can all be done online. But people to tend to assume online always means open, public, easy, and everyone.

Digital lets us think we can skip design and facilitation. When you're doing in-person engagement, the level of design is incredibly involved. Session designers or participant experience designers (that's a thing - do you have one for your online engagement?) think through to the individual personalities in the room. They adjust the timing of parts down to 5-minute increments. They pull from a library of techniques for group discussion. And they actively facilitate. We're only flirting with that level of sophistication online; this is where low-fidelity MP3s started getting replaced by high quality-digital audio but we're not quite there yet. It's a little bit about the technology, but far more about how we use it.

The digital divide is real. Canada's well-connected to the internet, but if you look at the top quartile for age, or the bottom quartile for income, those reassuring 90%+ numbers drop to more like 60%. Many people have to choose between home broadband and mobile and opt for the flexibility of mobile, but there are three activities with massive transaction completion drop-off rates on mobile: banking, looking for jobs, and interacting with government. To say nothing of skills, attitudes, and cultures.

All that to say: digital citizen engagement is going to be amazing for public policy-making and for the relationship between citizens and their governments. I really believe that. And digital will be the standard. But it'll only get amazing when we learn to love the record scratch of in-person engagement, realize the shortcomings of online and therefore get better at it, and choose deliberately between the right options for the right situations.