Friday, April 30, 2010

Column: What Drives You?

[Photo: my father Rick and my son Kohl, taken back in June 2008]

At the last #w2p mixer (an unofficial social event in Ottawa for Government of Canada Web 2.0 Practitioners) a colleague asked me "What drives you?".

I replied that I cared in the movement in a general sense; that I believe in a more open and transparent government; and that I think it will produce better outcomes for citizens.

I also told her something much more personal. I told her that I did it for my old man.

What follows is partially what I said, and partially what I would have said if I had more time to answer the question.

My father worked almost his entire career in the automotive industry here in Ottawa, and he did it in a time before there were safety standards. I remember being a child and being told to wait in the sales office until my father was done work. From the office I could see him walk into the spray booth to spray paint some part of a car, lit cigarette in his mouth, no mask, no ventilation. He worked hard, like his two brothers and his father. In fact, all the Charney men worked in the automotive industry.

Naturally I wanted to take up the family trade and started to work summers in a couple of the local dealerships, detailing cars and doing some prep work. Upon learning that exposure to industry chemicals had not only caused my grandfathers terminal cancer, but was the reason I would never have a sibling, I was forbidden from entering the family trade.

Years later, my father left the automotive industry and now works for an engineering firm as a health and safety coordinator. His job is to make sure that people work in a safe environment, something that he didn't have the benefit of when he was working. In short, he chose to work in a way that allows him to be difference maker. He constantly strives to improve working conditions and minimize needless exposure to harmful substances and dangerous situations.

I draw a tremendous amount of inspiration from that fact. In hindsight, it would seem that I did get into the family business after all: difference making.

I want to help build a public service that treats people better than I was treated when I first started.

What drives me? That's easy - my dad.

[Final note: my father lost his little brother last year to cancer related to his working conditions and he hasn't really been the same since, this column is for you dad.]

Friday, April 23, 2010

Column: The Truth About Career Limiting Moves

When I tell people I blog about the public service they usually tell me I'm crazy. When I tell them that I've been doing it for two years without major incident they are skeptical. My contemporaries are told to stop or to take “great care in what they write".

If you ever doubted the value of blogging - how it can positively impact a team, how it can promote learning, or how it can lead to organizational growth - I would urge you to read a series of posts from a team of public servants in British Columbia.

Nina Ilnyckyj started the conversation (oh and it is a conversation) with this post entitled "This week I was like a baby goat. Right. A kid." To quote Nina:

Juxtapositions are good for flash of insights. I realized that I’ve been as silly as a baby goat this week, and just as prone to butting heads. In other words, I was a bit juvenile in how I tried to incite change.

Nina's boss, Robin Farr, responded here with a post entitled "The old dog, the kid, and some new tricks":

We have a different perspective on a few things, so it could have been a tense conversation. I actually think it went quite well. But the point of this post isn't to highlight what Nina got out of it, but what I did.

Finally Robin's boss, Rueben (are you following? Hierarchical chain: Nina - Robin - Rueben) responded in a post entitled "Your friendly neighbourhood communications & engagement superheroes":

Because it is my good fortune to have a team that is so deeply passionate about their work that they actively seek out better ways to do our work on a daily basis. It seems most people spend their work days trying hard to care about what they do. The people I work with spend their days caring to try harder. And it's not like that makes their work easier. It's easier not to care. It's hard to care that much about our work because it tends to drive you to do more and to insist on doing it right. It tends to mean you are more emotionally invested in your work. And when you hit walls or can't deliver at the level you want, it tends to leave you battered and bruised and frustrated - until you pick yourself up and channel that into motivation to take on the next thing. And there's always a next thing. So I hope they all spend the weekend in their respective fortresses of solitude, resting their courage and passion in preparation for another week.

I think the chain speaks for itself. It speaks to the value proposition of social media in government. It speaks to the courage of the people involved, it speaks to how the web connects us, and teaches lessons from the lives of others.

Whenever anyone steps up and tells you that blogging and the public service doesn't mix; when they tell you not to; and when they tell your that you are risking too much tell them that the real risk is failing to soldier on. Tell them that the truth of the matter is this: the real career limiting move is keeping your head down, never taking a risk, and fear-mongering when you realize that the calculated risk-taker beside you is likely to quickly surpass you on the career path.

Tell them, and if they need further convincing, send them the link to this post so that they can read first hand why public servants should blog, how those blogs have value, and how those people pushing for change out there in the open - people like Nina, Robin and Rueben - are courageous, far more courageous than any coward who tells someone else not to have an opinion, let alone voice one.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Column: The Age Old Question

Last week was a busy one for the Clerk of the Privy Council, Wayne Wouters. In addition to his regular duties he announced a new website, found his way on to twitter, and published the 17th Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada. I want to share 3 neat visualizations (h/t to @Jesgood) but don’t want to go into the nitty gritty of the report:

  1. Word Net
  2. Word Tree
  3. Word Cloud

Instead I want to focus on something that came out as part of the report, something I tossed out there on twitter, and that spurred a number of in-person conversations with some of my colleagues. According to the report there is not a single executive in the Federal Public Service under the age of 30.

Before proceeding, I just want to say that in over two years of writing I have purposely steered clear of any discussion of age; that I don't necessarily agree with those who advance arguments rooted in generational differences; and that I expect this column to be contentious (despite my best efforts for balance). The reason I have stayed away from the issue is that it is generally divisive, polarizes people based on their age and tends to invoke a more guttural (rather than intellectual) response.

Start with the Data

I took the liberty of mashing up the data from the report to include both the entire public service and the executive cadre on a single chart. Here is the graph:

Ending With Questions

We discuss the need for new and innovative ideas so often in the public sector yet within the hierarchical structures, an organizations' ability to act on those ideas is firmly entrenched in the executive cadre.

Put another way, the public servants under thirty are in positions where the best they can do is advise up; and if advising up is considered as "going against the grain" it becomes a very difficult conversation for new public servants (or am I underestimating the degree to which advice = influence?).

For the record, I don't believe for a second that innovation only happens in the under-30 age bracket. Similarly, I don't believe for a second that the skill set for public sector executive leadership is as firmly concentrated in the 45-59 age band as the data shows (or am I underestimating the years it takes to move up the ranks?).

Also, if you have any comparable data (executives by age band) in other jurisdictions or private sector companies, I would love to see it and do a side-by-side comparison. I think having comparable data would help guide the discussion.

My question is this: is there a tension between the constant push for new and innovative ideas and lack of young executives in the public sector? Consider the can of worms opened ... please, I am very interested in all of your thoughts on the matter. Please share them via comments.

I'll start - I feel as though there is in fact a juxtaposition here, although articulating it in a way that doesn't alienate people is incredibly difficult.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Column: Public Sector Wikis and How to Use Them

I'll be honest. I'm frustrated.

I'm frustrated that people still question the value of an enterprise-wide wiki like GCPEDIA. after all no one seems to question the value of Intellipedia.

Before I continue, I want to be clear: I'm not frustrated at those asking the question, but with those who are supposed to be providing the answers, myself included.

By now we should have been able to explain the value of GCPEDIA with such clarity as to render any question at this point moot.

The reason we haven't been able to deliver that explanation thus far?

No clear business objective.

Sure there are pockets of collaboration, collective authorship, small victories, piecemeal information sharing and crowd-sourcing, but all without an overall purpose baked in. The result of which has been a value proposition based on serendipitous discovery of others or information and reliance on organic growth.

But therein lies the problem - serendipity is deeply connected to the size of the community and the amount of information they collectively contribute; and organic growth has a low ceiling in hierarchical super structures.

I'm not advocating that we eliminate or somehow reel in the often messy and under-the-radar collaboration that GCPEDIA allows, but rather supplement it with a set of pages that delivers some real business value to the traditional hierarchy.

Easier said than done?

For anyone looking to use a wiki in the public sector I offer you two concrete business uses that, in tandem are sure to fundamentally change the nature of how your organization does business:
  1. organizational briefing "books"
  2. real time dashboards

Briefing Books

Every department/agency produces massive tomes known as briefing books. Briefing books are usually coordinated and produced in a senior office, one level below the top rung. These books include information on everything the department/agency does: history, mandate, relevant legislation, hot issues, internal corporate services, budget, etc. They are used to brief new department heads and new Ministers when they arrive. As someone who has coordinated them (by email and/or diskette based on security level!) I know first hand how much of a logistical headache they can be. People frequently fail to use the appropriate template; have trouble with version control; and need to make small adjustments based on the feedback of senior management.

Moreover, I know how valuable of a set of documents they are NOT to be shared openly throughout the organization. Generally speaking briefing books are costly to produce in both time and materials; are only distributed to Directors General and above; and are rarely shared with working-level staff.

It is no surprise that my opinion is that briefing books are a perfect fit for a wiki. Instead of trying to coordinate input via email when a cabinet shuffle is rumoured (been there, done that) we could simply assign pages to the responsible areas and have them update pages as new information becomes available. At its core this is the difference between proactive and reactive organizations.

Would you be surprised if I told you I tried to advance this proposition over two years ago? I was told it couldn't be done because "briefing books are secret". After some digging I learned that everything in briefing books is information that is widely available except for the policy advice to Ministers. In my experience the policy advice contained in briefing books is usually no more than 2-3 lines per hot issue. This translates into roughly 1-2 printed pages and less than 1% of the total material in the book.


Wiki based dashboards are an incredibly powerful tool built on a relatively simple concept: present very high level information about what people are working on from across the department in a single place that allows you to better coordinate your department/agency's efforts. I first came across wiki dashboards when looking into the work done in Natural Resources Canada over a year ago. Since then I have developed a policy dashboard for my department (internal link) and have created a template (internal link) that allows others to create their own dashboards with very little trouble.

Dashboards provide what the Government of Canada Employees Directory (GEDS) lacks: a window into what people are currently working on. The dashboard is a space where you can see an entire directorate list of all of the projects currently in progress under their purview, along with live links to contact people who are working on them via email.

Proactive disclosure of information via the dashboard ensures that people know what others are working on. One of the biggest problems in the public sector is a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities, the coordination problems it entails and the drain on productivity it creates. Dashboards mitigate these problems extremely well by sharing valuable information in a concise manner. Moreover once dashboards are in place, users can create a live hyperlink in the dashboard to the actual work they are doing, thus providing a deeper level of detail into their work than the dashboard itself can offer.

Other benefits I didn't even mention ...

  • Search-ability
  • Cross linking between related pages/dashboards
  • Portability (briefing books can be over 200 pages and GEDS doesn't say what people work on)
  • Notification of updates to pages via email

Squandering Success

Think about how powerful a tool a simple wiki could be if we linked a department's briefing book (factual information) with dashboards (coordination).

Now think about how powerful GCPEDIA could be if we linked all of the data at the departmental level across departments and agencies.

Now understand that reliance on organic growth and faith in serendipity will likely never deliver this type of concrete business value to GCPEDIA. The directive needs to come from somewhere on high. My first inclination are the central agencies - after all Privy Council Office, Treasury Board Secretariat and Finance would have a great deal to gain in terms of administering and coordinating things like the Management Accountability Framework (MAF); Program Activity Architecture (PAA); supplementary estimates; and Memorandums' to Cabinet.

I have no doubt in my mind that GCPEDIA could be put to better work than it is now. Furthermore, if we used GCPEDIA in this highly targeted manner we would not only silence all the critics but also deliver the single largest public sector success story of our time.