Friday, May 30, 2008

CPSRENEWAL.CA WEEKLY COLUMN: Getting Yourself Oriented to Public Service Values and Ethics

While I am no longer a new recruit, for reasons beyond my control I finally had the opportunity last week to attend the Canadian School of Public Service’s Orientation to the Public Service Over two days we discussed why the Public Service matters to Canadians, how Parliament works, how Government works, and values and ethics.

Values and ethics made up the lion’s share of the orientation session, accounting for two and a half hours of each day. What follows is a more verbose version of constructive feedback I have already left with the school regarding the session.

Now, I acknowledge up front that values and ethics are not the sexiest of topics to cover, but I also recognize their importance. A common code of conduct for public servants is necessary because it puts forth a normative framework which guides and supports public servants in all of their professional activities. It helps to maintain and enhance public confidence in the integrity of the Public Service and strengthens respect for the role played by the Public Service within Canadian democracy.

During an ethical dilemma role-playing exercise, our table was hard pressed to reach consensus, eventually settling on the fact that we could agree to disagree. When we presented our findings to the larger group they were also unable to reach consensus.

What our experience illustrated was the need for the orientation session to have a values and ethics subject matter expert to whom we could turn in order to clarify more precarious or ambiguous situations. I doubt we would have been advised to base decisions on the Globe and Mail test or to avoid befriending your subordinates because you may need to reprimand them.

[editorial note: for those of us unfamiliar with all of the government vernacular, the Globe and Mail test essentially dictates that one’s behaviour must be defensible to the Globe and Mail (and presumably its readership) should those actions come under public scrutiny. This sparked a fierce debate over the use of such a term and its implications for risk aversion and avoiding the wrath of the Globe and Mail demographic – but I digress.]

What was most disheartening about our values and ethics discussion was not the unqualified advice but the fact that the need for a subject matter expert was publicly identified on the first day, but no expert was available the second day. It may be stating the obvious, but some advice from the experts or a guide to interpreting the code would have come in handy.

There are two distinct lessons to be learned here in the context of renewal. The first is that the public service needs to realize that first impressions are the most important. The second is that the public service needs to be more responsive. This was a perfect opportunity to show new recruits how quickly government can work to correct itself – a missed opportunity.

The solution was simple – have a subject matter expert onsite the second day. This would have made a better impression on new recruits than unqualified advice (which should be withheld when it is unqualified) and it would have shown that a large organization like the federal government can adapt quickly to address concerns and make a difference to targeted groups (in this case its newest employees).

Friday, May 23, 2008

CPSRENEWAL.CA WEEKLY COLUMN: Public-Wiki-Service? How a Simple Wiki Could Change the Way We Work

When I started my career in public service, I was working in a highly specialized and recently expanded data development and research shop.

While we all were able to maintain our files and keep tabs on our research, it became apparent that we needed a more comprehensive approach to information management. What happened if a subject matter expert wasn’t available when an important action request came in? What happened if they left our group entirely?

I had pitched the idea of using / developing a wiki to my immediate supervisor in order for us to mitigate these exact circumstances. Unfortunately (and somewhat predictably) the idea was dismissed with the quickness that is usually more indicative of a lack of understanding than a lack of interest.

Wiki’s Can Work

Recently, I stumbled upon an e-copy of the book We Think: Why Mass Creativity is the Next Big Thing (pre-publication version) by Charles Leadbeater. The publication discusses open source online collaborative communities and how they can facilitate innovation. The second chapter of Leadbeater's book, entitled Pigs Can Fly explains, among other things, the genesis and success of Wikipedia.

He explains that Wikipedia is a perfect example of orderly activity that is so because no single person seeks to exercise control over the content. Each individual is called up to exercise their own sense of responsibility, adjusting to one another, sorting out disputes as they go -- the order comes from within the community, rather than being imposed in any way:

"Wikipedia resembles a bird's nest lovingly constructed from millions of little pieces of information, each laid delicately together to form a robust, safe structure, which is nevertheless comfortable for its inhabitants. Yet it is a bird's nest that assembles itself, as if the grass and twigs themselves knew exactly where they should go."

Leadbeater goes on to argue that this approach to information management creates a more voluntary distribution of work and allows people to find their own niches more easily. It mixes committed and occasional users effortlessly by providing them a common goal and allowing them to actively contribute or passively take away as much or as little as they see fit.

Innovation is often the result of collaborative efforts and a multiplicity of authors. The example of Wikipedia is interesting because it illustrates the success of a collaborative approach to innovation that is not necessarily motivated by profit. Not to mention that it does all of this at a comparatively low cost. The first four years of Wikipedia were bankrolled on approximately $300,000 – annually, less then the salary of single government executive.

"[Wikipedia] is a self-organizing community that works for non-commercial motives. It should not work, but it does, and because it does we have options for how we work together that we never had before."

Self organizing bird's nest? Non-commercial motives? New options for how we work together?

Web 2.0 presents both challenges and opportunities to government. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case, small discussions become grandiose discussions, and grandiose discussions get bogged down in hypotheticals (usually surrounding potential vulnerabilities or hurdles, a few of which I’ll address later) and everyone leaves frustrated by the infamously inert good idea.

At the Canada School of Public Service's most recent Manion Lecture, Dr. Geoff Mulgan spoke at length about the need for courageous leadership, making room for failure, and trying something small scale more quickly rather than over analyzing and delivering too broadly without knowing the implications.

Taking that into consideration, why not start as small as a single directorate -- call it Directorate Alpha -- within Department X? So let us imagine that Directorate Alpha had decided to experiment in innovation by implementing the workplace wiki, what could it look like?

Its main page would most likely contain a description of the work it performs, a list of its units, an explanation of how each unit fits into the organization, a list of each units team members, past projects, and a list of current projects. Current project pages might include links to background research, a propos discussions between public servants, minutes from relevant meetings, latest versions of policy documents, judicial decisions, upcoming learning events, and anything else that is relevant to the project.

Truth be told we already have a host of formal and informal systems that combine to deliver the same end result – coffee breaks, e-document management databases, email, shared drives, intranet sites, internet sites, networks, etc. Why not provide the space and tools to Directorate Alpha to create a single space for all of this information and see what happens? Public servants should be actively cultivating space, inputting their ideas and linking to their resources, collectively and collaboratively shaping the ‘bird's nest’.

Accurately describing the substantive look and feel of this bird’s nest is a physical impossibility, however, the beneficial effects of going through the process are easily forecasted. Creating the substantive pages of the wiki will do more to build corporate memory, and give employees a sense of what they do and how they fit into the big picture than any dry and quickly-forgotten orientation session ever could. Participation is the lifeblood of any good organization.

Creating and maintaining Directorate Alpha's Wiki will also give the Alphas a means through which they can provide information to other units within their directorate about their activities and how those activities support the broader picture. It could motivate other units to get into the Wiki game. It could breed a positive competition for accuracy of information and level of detail. A wiki could render the euphemism of silos obsolete.

If the Alpha Wiki is successful why not expand the project? Include Directorates Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon? Eventually the entire department is operating on the wiki premise. Start the wiki project in Directorates in other departments. Build momentum slowly. Then start to link these smaller wikis together into a single Wiki for Public Service. The end result would certainly be something more useful then GEDS.

How would this change the way departments interact? What would happen to travel budgets? What would happen to cross cutting files or joint legislation? How many old redundancies would be avoided? How many new efficiencies realized?

Something as simple and low cost as a wiki has the potential to break down traditional workplace barriers to information sharing by placing it all at ones finger tips, not to mention what remote access to the workplace wiki could do for work-life balance (an important emotional driver of employment choice).

The implications of the possible end product are incredible, and it could all start (or fail to start) from a single low cost experiment within a single directorate, within a single department.

Are we foolish not to try?

But What About the Vulnerabilities?

As I alluded to earlier, no discussion on innovation is ever complete without the nay saying and the inevitable frustration of good ideas at the hands of the luddites and the defenders of the status quo. I am sure you have heard their questions (a misnomer really) before.

What about the fact that people might misuse the system? Don't worry it will ultimately sort itself out, not to mention we can track whom is making what entries, this is work you know.

What about document security? We already have e-copies of everything else, why would this be any less secure? We can easily apply security policies in line with our own security clearances, it should only be accessible to public servants via secure connections. Sensitive documents can be password protected, and access to amend certain wiki pages limited to those currently working in that group.

What's wrong with the way we do things now? Maybe nothing, more likely many small but cumulative things. Consider this an opportunity to be innovative and an exercise in preventative maintenance.

However, in all honesty, all of these ‘hurdles’ are well beside the point -- the single largest vulnerability to the idea of the workplace wiki is the fact that it often becomes yet another good but inert idea, another missed opportunity for innovation.

Friday, May 16, 2008


As you may know, aside from the explanative note in the sidebar and the rare editorial comment from ncharney, you have yet to see any exclusive content from the overseers of what we can only describe as the project.

What we had originally intended, and indeed would prefer to do, is fill these pages with op-ed style commentary on all of the stories we are providing rather than simply providing the stories themselves. That being said, given the experience of others, we have been trying to avoid any conflict of interest or values and ethics complaints that could arise from simply wanting to have a frank discussion about Public Service Renewal.

Part of our original intent was to move our conversations from the hallways into the online community. We struggled with format, we originally wanted to use a wiki, but opted for a blog for simplicity and content management, while still allowing for user comments. We discussed the need for including a more formal forum but we have neither the time nor the resources to administer it. We do after all, run this site in our (sparse) free time.

We settled on the following purpose: build a collaborative online community where Public Servants can get information and contribute to discussions on Public Service Renewal, network with other Public Servants interested in Renewal, and find out about upcoming networking and professional development opportunities.

So how are we doing?

We have had moderate success in creating a single gateway which has delivered over 3 months worth of information spread over approximately 130 posts, all relevant in some way to the broader picture of Public Service Renewal: news articles, collaborative and learning events, research studies, remarks by the Clerk of the Privy Council, etc.

Looking Ahead

Sadly, aside from providing information, which we think that we do a pretty good job at, we are not living up to our own expectations. In a sense we broke the golden rule – we dreamed big and delivered small. We think it is about time we committed to generating our own unique content, so starting next week, look for our weekly columns every Friday.

Given that this is supposed to be a place for collaboration and innovation, if you’d like to suggest a subject for our weekly columns or to contribute your own content (submissions may be edited for clarity or conciseness) please feel free to contact us by sending ncharney or mmangulabnan an email.

Next Week's Column: Public-Wiki-Service? How a Simple Wiki Could Change the Way We Work