Friday, November 12, 2010

Open Gov West Recap: Change, Connect, Contribute

This week I took some time off and headed out to Victoria British Columbia so I could be a part of Open Gov West BC.

It was an absolutely amazing experience

I had the privilege of sharing the opening keynote with friend Walter Schwabe. Walter and I have an excellent rapport and wanted to shake things up a little bit, we wanted to try something different, we wanted to inspire immediate action. We didn't just sit at the front of the room and talk down to audience from the riser. We walked among the crowd, armed with microphones, iPads, and a surprise.

Under the cover of darkness a few nights before the conference we created a group blog and invited everyone in the room, and those watching remotely to engage right now by changing, connecting, and contributing. We drove the theme home by telling everyone why we thought these things we so incredibly important.


When I first joined the public service I was struck by how closed it was, the system has a hard time surfacing talent and ideas. Moreover, it is being constantly reinforced by a culture of playing your cards really close to your chest. After a year circling the drain in a closed system I decided to approach things from an ethos of open. But it wasn't a fluke, I recall a conversation with a senior manager:

"Just because that's how everyone else acts, doesn't mean you have to do it too."

It was such a simple statement, but made at an opportune time. It completely changed my perspective. Since then I've come to better understand some of the challenges facing the public sector: impending retirements, out migration of knowledge and expertise, budgetary constraints, and the lack of sustainable engagement. Through hard fought experience I've come to the realization that openness isn't a panacea, but it is without question part of the answer. Often people just need to be told that change is in fact possible, I certainly did.


With this in mind, the single most important thing that people can start doing is narrating their work. So much of what we do as public servants gets locked away on proprietary drives, closed records and document management systems, or email. We need to start readily sharing not only the information we currently have on lockdown but also how we are making sense of that information, and how we are contextualizing it within our work.

Never before has technology allowed us to paint such a clear picture of what is informing decision-making, policy, and program delivery. Embracing a more open ethos and grabbing hold of enabling technology will do more for our public services than we could possibly imagine. It starts with a simple switch: connecting what we used to write in the margins of our paper based notebooks on the web.


This was the thinking behind the communal blog. We wanted to not only drive the message home but make participation as easy as possible. In addition to unleashing the blog, Walter purposefully walked participants through other low risk ways to be a part of the online conversation. We wanted to show them the path, and make it as easy as possible to walk down.

In the end, all we asked of participants was 100 words.

What we got was so much more

By about noon the traffic to the blog actually crashed the site. Participants weren't scribbling way in their individual notebooks, they were creating one communal one online and in real time. Participants had taken the message to heart, they changed, connected and contributed both in the room and online, which tells me that the event was an incredible success.

Kudos to everyone who participated.

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