Friday, February 26, 2010

Column: Scheming Narrowly

I did a number of presentations last week and have another one this week. If you know me personally or have seen me deliver a presentation, you know that I tend to be lively.

That liveliness is often the subject of conversation after my presentations. I have had people come down on both sides of the fence. In preparation for one speaking engagement I was told by a conference organizer not to talk about myself too much because people had mentioned that apparently I tend to do that. Ironically, after delivering that presentation I had my friend Bob Chartier tell me that the presentation was great, the only thing missing were my personal stories. When I told him that I was advised not to tell them, he replied: "Watch me and learn grasshopper, all I do is tell personal stories"; and that is exactly what he did, and the audience loved him for it. I loved him for it.

In my Scheming Virtuously talk I share a very personal story of renewal, and follow up with tactical advice on how others can be change agents while managing their reputation and relationships. At one point in the presentation I show this picture:

Once the picture is up I explain that while my outspokenness has led to a tremendous amount of opportunity, it has not been without cost. I have been asked to leave an organization (in government), many people think I am a hot dog of little substance, many others dismiss me as a wiener.

Being aware of the context within one operates, especially as an outspoken change agent, is paramount. Rather than explain it in great detail, I would like to share a snippet from an email exchange I had with a fellow public servant who attended my Scheming Virtuously presentation. Please note that I am sharing this without attribution and with permission. It was sent to me under the rather clever title of "Scheming Narrowly".

Email from ...

... I heard your SV talk at YMAGIN last week. A colleague and I have a comment to share. Your approach to creating a place of one's own is certainly impassioned, but it seems a bit narrow, which is to be expected since you're only one person! Certainly, finding/creating a sense of belonging in one's place of work is crucial to success and satisfaction and the public service can absolutely make this task more challenging than necessary.

But at the same time, I believe such 'places' can be created in a myriad of ways, not all of them 'noisy,' 'opportunistic,' or 'heroic.' Alternatives that come to mind are 'gentle,' collaborative,' and 'cooperative.' These three approaches, for instance, have been infinitely useful to me in my everyday life and work...

My response ...

Indeed my story is narrow in so much as it is only my story. What I lived was neither something that lent itself to gentle, collaborative nor cooperative approaches. The experience I lived was ruthless and depressing. That doesn't necessarily mean that I don't see your alternatives as viable and, when appropriate, use them. I purposefully position myself as an extreme voice because it tends to inspire people.

It gives people a sense that they can do something, that they needn't sit back, and that others have similar experiences. It also provides them the other end of the spectrum (from public servant atrophy to my over the top engagement) and may motivate them to move to some middle ground that they might have previously thought to be further off the deep end than they do now. I am able to present this more extreme viewpoint because I am more than happy to own it and live with the consequences. I don't purport to speak for everyone, and as I mentioned during the talk there are many people who hate me, who think I'm a hot dog, and otherwise discount me. The trick is understanding that in the context of the public service, a context where people are not necessarily encouraged to have and to articulate opinions (especially when they are lower on the food chain of the organization).

The Moral of the Story is...

Stepping up and being noticed in the government is often met with mixed reactions, a critical part of stepping up is realizing that as long as the system (or the culture) is an obstacle to speaking out there will continue to be a stigma against it. If you can understand that, suddenly being a "radical" doesn't seem so radical at all.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Column: Stand Up and Be Found

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet with Bill Eggers, Global Director, Policy Sector Industry, Deloitte Research, and author of the recent Putting a Man on the Moon: Getting Big things done in Government. His schedule was packed. He presented at the Annual Government Performance Forum (which I attended), he met with Government of Canada Chief Information Officers (CIOs), and then with Deputy Ministers (DMs). What I found absolutely amazing was that Bill was also kind enough to carve out some time for me.

I just want to take the opportunity to share some of my reflections on Bill's presentation, his book and our conversation.

First, Bill's presentation - a live rendition of Man on the Moon - was compelling. Think TED meets public policy. When I read the book last month I was immediately drawn in by the success stories. Hearing him articulate them in person drove them home even harder. If you are interested in how to lead a project in government or looking for some inspiration to soldier on I would suggest you take the time to read the book. Below is a quick presentation I threw together using Prezi (a very cool presentation software). It is my own little mashup of the ideas in the book, and one of the reasons that Bill asked to meet with me while he was here in Ottawa.

The real kicker for me was that prior to even being introduced to him in person, Bill stopped his presentation mid-stride and asked if I was in the room. He went on to describe the presentation above as the best mashup he'd seen of his book and encouraged people to check out my blog, follow me on twitter or otherwise connect with me (awesome!). I was speechless. That was not something I at all expected, but something for which I am incredibly grateful.

The next day I had the privilege of sitting down with Bill for a one-on-one. While I won't get into the nitty-gritty of the conversation itself, I would like to share that Bill told me the message he delivered to our CIOs and DMs was incredibly simple: find and nurture the talent in your organization or risk losing them at a time when we are in desperate need of new ideas, new efficiencies, and a new narrative of public service culture.

My advice to you is equally simple: stand up and be found.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Column: Google: Friend or Foe of #Gov20?

[Warning, long post ahead ...]

Like any writer, I try to explain the general context around which I am writing and conclude with an argument based on that explanation. This article started getting away from me in terms of its length so I decided to flip the model on its head. In the interests of keeping your attention I am going to come out and state my argument at the beginning and then explain just how I got there.

Stating it bluntly ...

If Google were truly a friend of #gov20 it would be pursuing innovative ways to ensure that citizens can quickly access the most relevant government information when they search for it. Maybe they already are, but if they are, I don't see it.

I have sat through a couple of Google pitches in the last few months during which Google sales reps have tried to convince government agencies that purchasing Google Adwords is the best way to ensure that departments and agencies are found when people are making related search queries on Google.

My contention is that buying Google Adwords is neither innovative nor the right approach. Given that you can already segment Google search (by country, images, video, maps, news, books, blogs, etc.) how hard would it be to add an option for government services?

Google already tracks your IP address, there is no reason that it couldn't easily provide options based on your geographical location. In addition to all of the existing options for search segmentation, Google should provide me with the following ones:

  • Federal government services;
  • Provincial government services (or in my case Ontario Government Services);
  • Municipal government services (or in my case City of Ottawa Services); and
  • All government services.

Here is a quick mock up of what this could look like:

And if that is too much to ask, embed it in a sub menu system like the other segmentation options. When writing this, Mike, like any good editor, asked me a couple of tough questions. His underlying point: Google doesn’t have any obligation to provide this type of service. It is a private profit-making company. Findability of government services on the web should be primarily the responsibility of the government.

I don’t disagree. The question is how do you motivate a company like Google to do something like this? Simple, you show them the benefit. The more obvious one is that it keeps Google in front in terms of its search application. If you knew it could locate government services better than other search applications, where would you turn when you need that information? The less obvious one is that if Google adopted this model it could sell Google Adwords on the results pages of the government services search. This could create entirely new revenue streams because it would be the closest any corporation could get to physically advertising on government websites.

How I got there ...

Ok, now that you have the kernel of the argument I am making, I can provide some context. Over the past 6 months or so I have sat in on two meetings between public servants and Google representatives. Firstly, please don't take my commentary below to be an official position of a public servant working for a given department because it isn't. Truth be told, I wield neither the decision-making authority nor the budget required to engage or disengage in professional arrangements with Google. My position is strictly informed by my digital citizenry and what I know of the web and government services in a general sense.

Second, please don't take this column as Google hating. I don't hate Google; I just think they aren't living up to my expectations of what a good corporate citizen looks like in one very specific way. Perhaps my expectations have been ill-formed based on all the good things I've heard about the company, the good things I've written about the company, the books I've read about the company and how Google has completely penetrated my online experience.

Off the top of my head, Google is my default homepage on all six of my points of contact with the web (2 desktops, 2 laptops, 2 mobile devices), it’s the only search application I use, it’s my email client, my chat client, my calendar client and home to all 4 of my blogs (now defunct, current professional, current personal and a work in progress). I use Google alerts, Google Reader, Feedburner and Google Analytics (no I don't rock Chrome, I still use Firefox). If for some reason Google went the way of the dinosaur my online experience would fundamentally change. In short, I rely on Google. Furthermore, I think it is worth noting that I haven't paid a cent for any of the services Google has provided, and for that I am truly grateful. Consider this my official thanks to Google.

Given my reliance on Google – a reliance that is likely quite prevalent among my contemporaries – my position is a hard one to take. I want to like Google (and I do); look at all they have done for me and what they continue to do for others.

I recently read both "Trust Agents" and "What Would Google Do?". I actually read them right after one another, literally putting one down and picking up the other. The conclusion I came to was that Google is essentially what Brogan calls "Agent Zero". On the web, everything points back to Google in some way, shape or form. We may have six degrees of separation (or Kevin Bacon) but we have far fewer degrees of separation when it comes to Google. Truth be told it is Google's very mastery of the web that is exactly what has me worried.

Google has earned their place in our information society and I don't begrudge them for it. What I begrudge is being told by sales reps that in order to ensure that citizens can find information on government services they need to buy Google Adwords.

Now, I am sure this was never the explicit intention of the sales pitch, and I do understand that Google needs to make money (remember all the stuff they just give away). That's just how I read the situation. I'll explain the pitch in greater detail below and let you judge for yourself.

The Pitch ...

Unsurprisingly the Google reps opened with data. The data showed that:

  • Canadian citizens are digital citizens;
  • the majority of Canadians use search engines (like Google) to find information about government; and thus
  • findability on the web through search is paramount

On the face of it, I don't disagree, but because all of the data they use in their presentation is proprietary, I can't run the numbers myself. In my opinion, if Google wants the audience to make their case to their agency then they should hand us the data instead of just flashing it on a slide.

On the heels of the data comes the not-so-soft sell: examples of searches where one would expect to see government programs listed in the top 5 or 6 results but where no government information was found. There are however some interesting caveats worth noting.

The first is that they used screen captures as opposed to searching in real time. Obviously this means that they get to pick and choose which examples to show. Moreover, they weren't date- or time-stamped. In other words the slide content was stale. In my opinion a more effective way to deliver the message would be to ask someone in the audience what program they work for and run a live search about that particular program. I myself have done it many times, it’s a little trick I picked up from a consultant friend of mine.

The second is that they didn't actually click the "pages from Canada” option on the static examples that they presented. Which, to my mind, most Canadians seeking Canadian government services would click, I certainly do.

The third is that they discussed earlier in the day how rapidly mobile is growing in Canada but didn't address how paid listings interact with their mobile search. Search on their mobile site either doesn't list paid results or doesn't differentiate between paid results and non paid results, both of which are problematic albeit for different reasons (more on that some other time).

The fourth is the potential bidding war that could arise between departments who are working on a joint initiative. If two or more agencies partner on something and want to ensure that their site is found when people search for that something they could wind up driving up the price of the related Adwords to get the same information to the same people. While one would hope that the departments would work together and coordinate their efforts, the opposite is not unheard of. A possible result is that agencies expend greater resources to achieve the same result, while Google's profit margins increase.

Fact checking ...

Given the above, I had a bit of an issue accepting the facts as they were being presented and ended up pulling out my blackberry and searching the same terms on Google that the reps were presenting in their slides. What I found was that their examples were by and large incorrect. Again, I'm not trying to say that they were altered only that they were dated.

Led me to the question ...

All of this led me to the question of whether or not Google – in this particular instance – is a friend or foe of #gov20. I personally question a corporation who wants government to pay to ensure that citizens can find their services on the web. In my opinion a good corporate citizen in the digital era should be worrying about connecting citizens with timely and accurate information about government services when those services are being sought after, not when someone is searching for a term that may or may not be related to those services. The more responsible approach is the one I mocked up above.

Given everything I outlined above, what's your take? How can Google best position itself as a friend of Government 2.0? Should it even bother trying? Is it already trying?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Upcoming Talks in February

Just thought I'd give you a quick update on what I'm up to in February. I have provided descriptions and links to conference agendas. Feel free to ping me w/an email/comment/tweet if you want to know more.

1. Getting Your Organization Ready for Social Media
February 16-17, Ottawa
Social Media in Government, Federated Press

Social media is one of the latest trends in communications inside
government, but getting into the game before knowing the rules can be
costly, or even embarrassing. This session will help you understand the
importance of learning how to run behind the firewall, before walking
outside it.

In this session, you will learn:
  • Why traditional hierarchies are obstacles to engagement and innovation
  • How these new communication tools aretearing down silos faster then ever
  • How to engage yourself, your employees and your colleagues and create an environment conducive to user-driven innovation, increased productivity and better retention

2. Schemed Virtuously
February 17-18, Ottawa
Youth Mandate for Greater Involvment (YMAGIN) National Conference (internal link)

Starting a career in the public service is often a difficult transition. There are many rules and cultural norms that at first glance don't seem to make sense or inhibit innovation. The confusion that some new public servants feel can be overwhelming, the messages they receive contradictory. Success or failure in the public service is often left to a mystical combination people, organizational architecture, routines and culture. Sometimes that combination works out on its own, sometimes you have to make it work. In Nicholas' case, he had to make it work. In his two part presentation Nicholas will tell his personal story of public service renewal and then share some of the tactics he learned along the way.
YMAGIN is Human Resources and Skills Development Canada's (HRSDC) young professionals network. This talk will be a bit of a homecoming for me as I got my start in HRSDC and with YMAGIN.

3. Effective Uses of Social Media for HR
February 22-23, Ottawa
Public Sector Human Resources 2010: Building Capability for Future Challenges, Conference Board of Canada

Collaboration is a core element of any successful organization, and many public service HR managers are exploring the collaborative benefits of social media tools. As with any new technology, however, this early adopter enthusiasm can rapidly turn into disillusion as anticipated results fail to materialize.

Nicholas Charney will discuss how these technologies are transforming workplaces, how to manage this transformation, and why managing it will lead to greater innovation, increased productivity and better retention. Gain a new appreciation for the possibilities as you learn practical strategies for realizing the full benefits of Web 2.0 tools in your organization.

Social Mixer

Also you if your active online and a public servant, you may want to attend the next W2P mixer. It should be great, we will have some of our friends from Edmonton who happen to be in town.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Column: With a Little Help From My Friends

Last week, the Web 2.0 Practitioner's (W2P) Community (of which I am a part) held its informal mixer as it does every 3 weeks. I happened to be on point for organizing the event this time, although truth be told I couldn't have done it without a little help from my friends.

Lend Me Your Ears and I'll Sing You a Song

Looking back I think the event was a huge success. There were approximately fifty people in attendance, a book exchange and the Clerk of the Privy Council, Wayne Wouters, came by, donned a nametag and introduced himself around. For those of you who don't know, the Clerk of the Privy Council is the most senior non-political official in the Government of Canada.

While I only managed to speak to him for a few minutes, it was a rewarding experience and firmed up what I had been hearing around town - that he has a keen interest in the confluence of the web and the public service. His interest, signaled by his attendance, is something we can all look to for encouragement and is coincidentally the reason I smiled the whole way home that night. Given what I have written previously about the risks of public servants innovating in the absence of leadership, the support of the most senior public servant moving forward is paramount. The Clerk's presence, coupled with some other moving and shaking that I have been privy to, make me feel as though we are turning an important corner.

Moving forward, I think one of the biggest wins out of the Clerk's appearance is leverage. If the Clerk can find time in his busy schedule to stop by and check in with the W2P community after hours, then surely other senior leaders can find time to discuss the use of Web 2.0 technologies during work hours, and when the time comes, make sure to try not to sing out of key.