Is Innovation in Service Delivery a Blind Spot in Canada?

Friday, April 11, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I strongly recommend you read the transcript of Francis Maude's* Oakeshott Memorial Lecture on employee ownership and the future of public services. It was about as balanced a view one could take on civil service reform that I've come across in a long time and puts the public sector reform and innovation rhetoric here in Canada into perspective. Here are a few of my key takeaways:

It may be easy to look across the pond with envy but whenever I read anything out of the UK I am reminded of how everyone here in Canada is so deeply entrenched and wedded to rhetoric that principled discussions seem anathema (See: When did the Public Service Become an Ignoble Profession). If you would permit me my rose coloured glasses for another moment I'd like to take the opportunity to reiterate the 5 principles of UK public service reform (from Maude's speech):
  1. openness; 
  2. digital by default;
  3. a permissive public service culture;
  4. tight control from the centre over common activities; and
  5. loose control over operations at the periphery
Contrast those with the realities on the ground in this country and you'd likely only find one point where they intersect; I guess I misplaced my glasses.

More importantly, I am astonished that there has been a movement afoot in the UK that has steadily built momentum and has gone otherwise unnoticed in Canada: Public Sector Mutuals. I'll be honest in that Maude's speech is the first I've heard of them. I even asked around and have yet to find someone who is familiar with the model enough to speak to it.

At first brush the very notion of Public Sector Mutuals is fascinating. In essence mutuals seem to grant license to entrepreneurial civil servants to spin out of their current organizations if they think (and can demonstrate) that they can deliver a public service more effectively from outside the civil service than from within it. Mutuals can take a number of forms ranging from social enterprises to for-profit organizations. There is dedicated Mutuals Information Service in the Cabinet Office that provides tailored information suited to the needs of staff (who would want to spin out), commissioners (senior officers who would need to lead the spin out) and suppliers (who could support the spin out). There is also a myriad of decision trees, toolkits, and other supports (including a dedicated £10M development fund). In short not only are they providing the opportunity to spin out, they are providing all the requisite support to do so. It should be a surprise that the UK has seen the number of mutuals increase tenfold in the last 4 years. There are nearly 100 mutuals in the UK that employ over 35,000 people and deliver £1.5 billion in services all across Britain.

Not to mention, according to Maude, the results are spectacular:
Waste and costs down. Staff satisfaction up. Absenteeism - a key test or morale and productivity – is falling and falling sharply. Business growing.
Staff engagement surveys bear out the simple truth that service improves and productivity rises when the staff have a stake; when they feel they belong; and that their individual voice and actions count.
Our latest data shows that after an organisation spins out as a mutual absenteeism falls by 20%; staff turnover falls by 16%. Take City Healthcare Partnership based in Hull as an example. 91% of staff said they now feel trusted to do their jobs – and this level of empowerment has had a knock-on effect in the quality of care they give. Since they left the NHS in 2010, there has been a 14% increase in patients who’ve rated their care and support as excellent, and 92% say they would recommend the service to family and friends.
Maude goes on to hammer home the connection between autonomy, employee satisfaction and innovation:
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with better financial reward for public servants. But it’s not the biggest driver of better productivity. It’s the satisfaction people get from putting their ideas into action, and seeing swift results. It’s the sense of pride that it’s their organisation that is delivering the service. That they can make improvements quickly, taking responsibility for making things happen, without new ideas getting bogged down in bureaucratic treacle. Just looking at the Baxendale Awards for Employee Owned Businesses this year, you can see the spinouts dominating the innovation category. So in a mutual, public servants can give effect to their public service ethos with immediate and gratifying speed.
Whenever I visit a mutual – which I do a lot, it’s a drug, it’s addictive - I always ask the same question of staff: “Would you go back to work for the council/health authority/ministry?”
The answer is always “No”. “Why not?” “Because in a mutual we can do things”.
That’s the essence of it. People can see how things can be done better and do it. They can give effect and take responsibility and pride for making things happen. People typically say they are working harder than they were but they are enjoying it more, it’s more rewarding, more fulfilling. That’s why I think the public service mutual is the way of the future.
All of which raises the inevitable question: is innovation in service delivery a blind spot in Canada?

Other related thoughts

While the statement above is my formal conclusion, I have a number of unfinished thoughts on this that merit inclusion:

  • Sure, we've turned our attention to policy innovation but if you think about it critically you realize that we've done so to the back drop of losing the monopoly on providing that advice. That makes me skeptical of both our motivation and resolve. Are we interested in innovation or self-preservation? Have we adopted the behaviours or just the nomenclature?
  • What do we mean by policy? Do we mean big 'P' Policy in the nation-building and/or public governance sense? Do we mean little 'p' policy in the tweaking the status quo sense? Or do we take policy to simply be a proxy for influence?
  • It is commonly known that policy positions in government are regarded as the natural feeder groups for the executive ranks. What effect is this having on everything I've outlined above? Is it a contributing factor? If so, how can it be mitigated?
  • I'm sure there are examples of innovation in service delivery in Canada  I recall reading numerous case studies about how Service Canada was well ahead of the curve when it was created, and it has been widely replicated since. I am sure there are others.
  • Mutuals jive really well with the ideas of autonomy, mastery and purpose put forward by Dan Pink and also likely relate to the series of posts on faceless bureaucrats.

*If you aren't familiar with Maude, he is the UK Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General and is generally the Minister in charge of all things civil service for the UK government. We don't have a strict equivalent in Canada choosing instead to divide up similar responsibilities (e.g. public sector reform, industrial relations strategy in the public sector, government transparency, civil service issues, etc) between the the Clerk of the Privy Council (unelected) and the President of the Treasury Board (elected).

A Firsthand Lesson in Participation

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

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

The public service has recently been experimenting with many exercises intended to engage employees and stakeholders, which have led to many questions and discussions about what drives people to participation.

I recently wrote on our internal platform, GCconnex, that the absence of technical barriers isn't sufficient - there may still be significant informational, social, and cultural barriers. That is, even if people can theoretically find and contribute to an exercise, doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily know about it, believe that it’s intended for them, or see their role in it.

Lessons in Participation

There’s an amazing body of knowledge on why people participate*, and I won’t scratch the surface today. But I’d like to share a lesson I experienced firsthand.

I run a summer side project called Musical Underground Ottawa, setting up in public spaces around the city with a guitar and inviting people to play a song. We capture the results, and anyone that plays is entered in a raffle for said guitar.

Here’s what I thought would matter: I figured that the free guitar would give people either incentive or social justification to play. Something along the lines of “I don’t know if I should be on Youtube, but whatever, free guitar.”

Here’s what actually mattered: Looking people in the eyes and asking them. We had a 5” by 4” sign that read “Free Guitar in Exchange for Songs”. All the information was there, but very few people volunteered. We learned on day one that we had to ask passers-by if they played guitar, and if they’d be willing to play a song for us. It was actually amazing how much that changed the dynamic.

It says to people that their contribution is valued, without them having to decide that for themselves and impose their decision on others.

The Principle Stands

In retrospect, what we learned for Musical Underground Ottawa starts to sound similar to behavioural economics (see: How Nudges Work for Government), and Cass Sunstein's work on setting defaults and making the desired choice the easy one for people to make.

If you want engagement, consider how to absolve people of the duty to singlehandedly determine that they have a contribution to make, and impose that decision on others. Instead, make it your responsibility to demonstrate that their contribution is valuable.


Impossible Conversations: Review of Mark Blyth's Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea

Monday, April 7, 2014

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

John Kenney wrote to me this morning, having read these reviews, saying that in retrospect it seems strange that our discussion barely lead back to our day-to-day reality in public service. In retrospect, I agree. It seems that there would have been a really interesting discussion about the role of institutions in massive policy debates like this, but Blyth kept it high-level, and so did we. The question John and I hit on that may be ripe for future exploration, though, is the impact of austerity on public administration. And it's a question that came up during another book club as well: is it pressure or slack that enables innovation? At the austerity scale of policy, it may be that budget pressures ensure effective controls on spending, which may work well for a largely transactional government. But if the move to a relational state and cross-sectoral collaboration is the future, that lever could have the opposite effect. But that's a question for a future book club - perhaps for when we read The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths.

When we first sat down to discuss the book I admitted I hated it. By the end of our discussion I gave it a 7 out of 10 stars. The sheer act of discussing the book stirred a couple of lessons from its dog eared pages that I had forgotten. The most important of which was never give up your printing press, the upside of fiscal unions will never outweigh the flexibility of being in control of your own currency. If you are interested in the nuts and bolts of the idea and application of austerity this book is a tough slog, but ultimately worth the read.

Like many others, I found this book a tough go - it accomplishes what it sets out to do and provides a wide-ranging history of austerity measures across the globe, showing how the idea is politically motivated but not economically viable. Unfortunately, the book doesn't delve into Canada as an example in any way - I expected to see some discussion of Paul Martin and the 1990s cuts to appear, but they did not. Also challenging was the lack of a suggested alternative. The book made clear that austerity measures don’t work to build up an economy, particularly if multiple countries are pursuing the same strategy at the same time. It did not make any compelling arguments for an alternative economic strategy.

Austerity wasn’t what I was expecting, but as an Economics student it was a useful walk back through the history of economic schools of thought, and provided more level-headed insight than any short-form article could. From a public administration perspective, it illuminated the difficulty in regulating and governing incredibly complex systems. And the exploration of how ill-suited risk models are to rare/high-impact events was fascinating to me - I actually thought this book contained the best explanation of the Black Swan idea I’ve read.

From a book club perspective? Probably the least animated discussion we've had, as it was much harder to connect to our day-to-day experiences. I’m looking forward to another Ethics of Dissent raucous debate.

What I liked about the book:

  • Exactly what the title and tagline suggest: a history review of recent economic theory and application.
  • The author looked for an easier way to communicate some fundamentally complex economic theories, and stayed away from the use of jargon.
  • There were several moments of wit and humour that lightened the read for me.
  • The author didn't shy away from dispelling some of the widely-held notions about the originality or importance of some earlier economic theories (Smith and Schumpeter in particular).
  • I really liked the easy breakdown of the collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008. I think that chapter could be extremely easy to read and understand by anyone without an economics background to answer the “why” of the recent financial problems that took place specifically in the U.S. and some parts of Europe.
  • I enjoy the personal tone and anecdotes the author shared in the book. It made the read a lot more interesting given the dry subject matter.

What I disliked about the book:

  • It heightened the promise of some vast explanation of what we could do that would replace the practice of defaulting to austerity when budgets are in deficit. The book provided one line, in the last two pages, about the proposed way to deal with deficits. The way the book was written made me think there was going to be a counter-theory or at least practical next steps. Even though it did deliver on the “history” part, I still think the author had more to say but refrained from doing so.
  • The book didn't take into account more examples of different economic structures (China, Latin America, Former Soviet Union), which could’ve been interesting as a comparison against the Western method of dealing with deficits.

Overall, I found the book rather easy to read, especially the parts with historic references and arguments about the validity of theories. I did give the book a 6/10, mainly because I felt like the author could have really gone one extra chapter and provided current workable ideas on how to deal with the deficit. I’m not asking for solutions, but I wanted to see easy counter-arguments to austerity that could be tested or at least discussed. 

Disclaimer: I have a small background in economics, and this book was by far one of the easiest reads on the topic I've come across. 


The book will be more useful to some readers than others. Those who have little or no economics background will find the content easy to follow and informative; those who took econ in university may not find much new material. There is some content that should be on the ‘must know’ list of public servants who work in policy (note: I say ‘must know’ and not ‘must enjoy reading’) - namely the earlier chapters explaining what exactly happened leading up to and during the financial crisis and how the US and the EU differed. 

Overall, though, I enjoyed the book but found it unbalanced. Most of the content was devoted to explaining the pitfalls of austerity, and almost no time was given to presenting a workable alternative. Until the author presents (in depth) a policy alternative proven to work better, he will fail to convince policymakers not to go the austerity route.

Blyth dives deep into the economic and political origins of austerity as an idea, explores a number of economic booms and busts over time, and resurfaces with a cogent case of a policy often executed based on philosophical leanings and selective readings rather than its actual effectiveness to stimulate economic growth.
Like George, I was left wondering how Blyth would view the Canadian case in the 1990s. Was it an example of prudent restraint in the name of sound fiscal management or dangerous austerity of dubious effect? 

Economic liberalism’s age-old preoccupation with what Blyth refers to as the “can’t live with it, can’t live without it, don’t want to pay for it” problem of the state persists. Where we land in that debate will very likely shape our outlook on open government and the entrepreneurial state.

Impatience is a Virtue

Wednesday, April 2, 2014
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Last July Nick and I spoke at Next Gen Gov about storytelling for professional impact. One of the examples we pointed to was Jon Stegnar’s glove shrine, as told in Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch.

Here’s the long story short: Stegnar worked for a large manufacturer, and noticed an opportunity for huge savings by overhauling their purchasing process. To convince his executives of the need, Stegnar sought out a tangible example, emblematic of the wider process, in how they bought gloves for workers. Different factories were paying different prices for the same thing, in one case buying $5 gloves for $17. So he piled all of the 424 different pairs of gloves the manufacturer was buying on a boardroom table, price tags attached, and invited his executives to visit. Eyes opened, and he was given a mandate for change.

We told the story as an example of the importance of storytelling: knowing your audience and what matters to them, and provoking a memorable reaction - we contrasted the approach to our standard fare of spreadsheets and briefing notes. But I always felt that Stegnar’s glove shrine story was bigger than a lesson in persuasion.

The Bigger Picture

To me, it’s a story about caring deeply about results, and being willing to stick your neck out to see things done right. Stegnar could have written a briefing note, attached a spreadsheet, and sent it on its way. Dusted off his hands and thought, “I did my job.” He didn’t.

Some open data advocates, supported by Code for America, collaborated on a book called Beyond Transparency (Hard copy, or free (and editable) Github version). It’s a collection of reflections, case studies, and future directions for open data and civic innovation. But reading the case studies, the common thread has been that the people driving open data projects were very, very serious about achieving meaningful results in an area new to many people, and they were willing to break parameters to do it (see: When Parameters are the Problem).

One of the contributors, Mark Headd, wrote a blog post about his time as Philadelphia's Chief Data Officer, in hopes that his lessons learned would be “of value to anyone interested in starting an open data program.”

You should read it. In my view, it’s actually a blog post about public service and dedication to results.

The Public Service Paradox

I use my favourites in Twitter as a temporary bookmark system, to shunt links to my evenings to read. But there are a scant handful that I refuse to get rid of:

This is our paradox as public servants: we have to be, simultaneously, incredibly impatient and patient about making progress. And at the same time, we have to look at the many, many people working towards making Canada a better country - trusting colleagues, stakeholders, and citizens to succeed - and still think, “This place needs me to go big.”

The question Blueprint 2020 should have asked but didn't

Friday, March 28, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

On Wednesday Kent put forward the notion that the perceived lull in Blueprint 2020 might be hitting the trough of disillusionment (See: Blueprint 2020, Renewal, and the Trough of Disillusionment) and while I hope he's right and that there is a slope of enlightenment around the corner, I'm not so sure. I was in the same place as Kent on Friday, but a part of a very different conversation.

The issue with Blueprint is that put forward a pre-conceived vision and invited people to comment. In so doing it actually built on the assumptions of the day rather than challenge the validity of those assumptions now and in the future.

A perfect example of this was when someone from the Canada School of Public Service (CSPS) asked something like (and I'm paraphrasing) "How can the school best serve the needs of the Government of Canada in 2020" to which I replied (again paraphrasing) "Does the CSPS even need to exist in 2020?".

I'm not trying to throw the school under the bus here. There are at least two sides to the argument and it merits full discussion — that's not the point. The point is we need to get meta, not perfunctory. We can't carry flawed assumptions forward, no one builds on quicksand.

The most common criticism I have heard to date of Blueprint – from civil servants from all levels mind you – is that it is a process more concerned with getting us to where we should have already been by now rather than where we ought to be in 2020.  If the criticism is merited (and I think it is) it leads us to question why we would expect anyone to put forward anything more courageous than that which is already common sense (and commonplace) in other organizations. Flexible work arrangements, workplace WiFi, better bandwidth and open access to the Internet are yesterday's concerns not tomorrow's innovations. Who is doing the hard work of trying to figure out what actually happens when Westminster meets digital? Do we need to change the machinery? Do we need new policy levers? Should we be more aggressively pursuing alternate service delivery models (e.g. social impact bonds)?

It's precisely the same problem I put forward in On Dragon's Dens, Hackathons and Innovation Labs. To be clear, I'm not arguing that these things can't be valuable but rather that they risk doing more harm than good if there isn't a clear way to turn their outputs into throughputs.

In fairness, I'm not on the inside right now. I'm disconnected, and as a result I have no idea what, if anything, is currently happening with Blueprint. I'm working from what I've seen prior to leaving, and what I've heard since. Blueprint is obviously something I'm still thinking a lot about, when I read the Open public service in a global marketplace report earlier this week something clicked. I want to share something that Damien Venkatasamy said in the report because I think it's precisely the question Blueprint should have asked but didn't:
“... something does have to change in terms of the way that public services are delivered in the future, and I guess there is no one answer to that, and it depends on what the function is. But I think there is a very difficult question that every government department, every government agency and every local authority probably needs to ask which is: ‘what is our core function?’ By that I mean what are the functions that only we, the Civil Service, can fulfil, either because of a legal requirement or because, frankly, there is so much knowledge embedded in that function that it would be ludicrous for anyone else to even attempt to do it.”