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Column: Risky Business: Deputy Minister or Bust

Friday, January 15, 2010


I cannot even recall the number of times I have been told that what I am doing on this blog, via twitter and other social media is incredibly "risky". I get the impression that many people assume that my risk tolerance is higher than the average public servant, and perhaps they are right. However if I am indeed more tolerant of risk, I would argue that it is because the way in which I frame risk is markedly different than how it is typically framed in the bureaucracy.

In the interview I linked to last week, the Clerk of the Privy Council, Wayne Wouters, expressed his concerns about risk aversion:

The concern I have is that we’ve become risk averse. One root cause has been some high profile management failures, including the so-called HRDC “billion dollar boondoggle” and the Sponsorship Scandal. Many think we overshot the mark with the multiple rules and processes that we put in place in response to these events, and that these have led to risk aversion and people not wanting to make a mistake. The result has been a step back from principles-based management to rules-based management.


As the Clerk explains, the concept of “risk” has become deeply connected with the concept of “action” and the “fear of making a mistake” has hamstrung our efforts at innovation. Furthermore, I think his points about principles-based management make good sense. We need to better frame our understanding of risk based on the circumstances within which we find ourselves. If we did so, we may find that inaction can actually be the highest-risk option and that mistakes are often made by those who do nothing when facing a tough decision.

To be honest I don't really understand the normative correlation between action and risk in the public service, it doesn't auger well with me. I'm sure it has something to do with hyper-connectivity, instant communication, unforgiving digitization and our learned fear of dissection at the hands of the media (the famed Globe and Mail test).

To that end, I think we have created a cultural safe haven for poor decision-making at all levels. A metaphorical space where public servants of every type can throw up their hands in resignation, claiming they didn't do it, like children standing over a broken cookie jar in the kitchen attempting to absolve themselves of their responsibilities. After all they didn't act, they didn't try to catch the jar as it fell to the ground, so how can they be responsible? In a very real sense, I consider this blog as one of many efforts to battle willful inaction, and perhaps that is why I view the risk associated with it in a very different way.

When it comes to my online activities – including this blog – the biggest risk I see is failing to soldier on. This blog keeps me engaged, provides me with an opportunity to think creatively, and serves as a searchable information repository (for more on the benefits of blogging, please read this excellent post). The fact that it is public means that, through a combination of serendipity and the web, others who share my interests can benefit from it in similar ways. Thus I think that its value proposition is high and outweighs any associated risks involved with the initiative. I consider my approach a deliberate move away from risk aversion and towards risk awareness, something that the Clerk also touched on in the aforementioned interview:

To counter the risk aversion that has taken root in some ways, we need to discuss how to reinvigorate the public service work environment and build trust. This by extension will lead to a public service that is risk aware but not risk adverse. Our objective is not to get rid of all the rules, but to build good risk management practices, where you can allow people more flexibility. We want to develop good practices in risk taking and innovation, and see progress.


Being risk aware also means that I see and understand the risks associated with my online activities in a more traditional sense. With some exceptions, those who have openly blogged about the need for change have done so at a price. Doug's blog is now defunct, Etienne hadn't posted anything in months and his most recent entry seems, at least to me, to signal his retreat from the larger fray. Both of these public servants are highly intelligent and have undoubtedly acted in what they believe to be the best interests of the Crown and Canadians. Yet make no mistakes, both are casualties of an environment that tends to eat its innovators while they are young when it should be trusting them.

According to the Clerk:

Trust is a critical value. Trust in her staff is what allowed Deputy Minister Cassie Doyle at Natural Resources Canada to create one of the first wikis in government and to maximize the use of web 2.0 tools. Trust is the antidote to risk aversion and fear of mistakes. And clearly, trust needs to be there in the relationship between Ministers and their Departments. Public servants need to trust that they can speak truth to power.


I have always been a proponent of trust, and I am quick to trust others. Many people have pointed to this as one of my biggest weaknesses. But I truly believe in the public service as a gift economy. It is the reason I trust others and agree to help them. That, in turn, is the reason they trust and help me. This approach undoubtedly exposes me to risk at the hands of those who would take advantage, but I understand and am willing to bear that risk. Such is the burden of someone who wants to help build trust across the larger community.

In my experience, the first to move are always the most vulnerable, but those who make it through are also those who are looked to for leadership once on the other side because they have shown that they can be proactive where others have shown that they are reactive. I cannot say for certain what will happen or how I will fare in my endeavours, but while in Vancouver I asked my friend David Eaves for his thoughts on what I was doing and how it all would end, to which he simply replied: “Deputy Minister or bust”.