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Column: Bureaucracy, the Slow Moving Train

Friday, January 29, 2010
Bureaucratic culture is akin to a slow-moving train.

There are those who have forged ahead and laid track to the destination. They have scouted, planned the route, carved through forests and cut through mountains. Their work is often hard, thankless, sometimes dangerous, and quickly forgotten or taken for granted because by the time others actually use the track, the layers have moved on.

There are those who are charged with the overall management of the train, its freight, passengers, and crew. These conductors have little control over where the train is going only on how it is run, how the ride is experienced, and the timely arrival to a predetermined destination.

There are those who shovel the coal. Their work is tireless, their job is to keep the train moving, they have to shovel harder in order to start the train moving but once they have momentum it is easiest for them to try to steady the pace. But they are always at the mercy of the brakemen.

In fact they likely begrudge each other because their respective roles seem to be in conflict. After all, brakemen are responsible for pulling the brake, ensuring that the train doesn't take a turn too quickly and preventing a catastrophic derailment. Despite often frustrating the coal shovellers, brakemen provide an invaluable service.

We often focus our attention too narrowly, and in so doing we lose sight of the true nature of our business. We should remember that we are an enterprise, and as an enterprise we are not in the business of laying track, conducting, shoveling coal, or slamming on brakes. We are in the business of serving people. We are in the business of moving them from one location to another at their request; and we can't do that without track layers, conductors, coal shovellers and brakemen.

The tricky part for any organization is getting that mix right.

(Image credit: arnet)

Column: When Social Location Sharing Meets Government Services

Friday, January 22, 2010
I had the opportunity to do some thinking about the future of social media and government a month ago in Vancouver with some very smart people. One of the things that came up (mostly due to our geeky familiarity with the social space were some "you just had to be there tweets" and a communal check-in on Foursquare.

For those of you unfamiliar with Foursquare, it is a social location-sharing service that allows you to check-in to a venue, leave tips for other patrons and unlock badges for your achievements. If you are interested in learning a little more about it, Mashable published a decent piece entitled, 5 Ways Foursquare is Changing the World. I started experimenting with Foursquare mostly because I wanted to see what was happening in the space and to try to understand some of the implications for government as this takes hold as one of the most popular social services on the web.

Where location sharing services like Foursquare and governments collide will most likely be in the area of service delivery. More specifically, Foursquare (or whatever location sharing service rivals it) will be a key social space for any government agency that delivers service via a service center. Some of the more obvious examples that come to mind are Service Canada (federal), the Ministry of Transportation (provincial), or City Hall (Municipal). More specifically, I think that government agencies can effectively use crowd-sourcing to improve their service delivery, and they can do it at little to no cost. In fact, as Eaves rightly pointed out, local governments are already doing this with their emergency response services (911).

Finding Government Services

Right now the search function for Foursquare isn't that great, but as they inevitably look to Google (or perhaps Microsoft) to improve their search function, Foursquare users will start to use it as a means to locate services relative to their location as determined by their mobile device's GPS system. Why would anyone search for an agency on the open web if all they wanted was information on the location of the service centre? Searching the open web means that people are likely to end up on the landing page of the agency, be forced to navigate the clutter of the site, and perhaps even run another text-based search. The benefit of searching within the location-sharing social service is that it separates out all of that extra data when all I want to know is the location of the service centre. Thus I think it will be is already important for agencies with service centres to populate location-sharing platforms with the correct location, hours of operation, URLs, and phone numbers. The last thing governments want or need is to confuse people about their locations, hours of operation or URLs. The way I see it is this as an opportunity to help people find government services.

Crowd-sourcing Crowd Control

One of the interesting things about Foursquare is that it allows you to leave a “tip” for a venue. A tip is essentially a small piece of advice that you can leave for other patrons. Clients can leave tips for other clients that could help with the flow of work within the centre, perhaps even ease wait times. Much like the Ottawa Public Health did with its twitter updates on the availability of location based H1N1 vaccinations, venue tips can let people know what kind of wait time they can expect as a service centre depending on when they are going to be there. I myself recently left a similar tip for the local transit office after being frustrated by a long line one day and not waiting at all the next. If that kind of information was made available, I would be more likely to plan my day around the shortest anticipated wait time at the service center.

Undoubtedly an argument can be made that organizations are already looking at service times and trying to address them. They could however do a better job at proactively communicating those wait times out to users. Communicating wait times at service centres in an official capacity takes resources, having users do it for you does not. Overall, crowd sourcing some of the crowd control could reduce wait times, reduce the stress on staff, and increase client satisfaction due to friendlier and timelier service.

Crowd sourcing Employee Performance

Again relying on the tip feature, people could provide meaningful feedback about the public servants who helped (or didn't help) them while in the service centre. This is where most people cringe, expecting to be hammered over the head with negative comments about the service they received. Negative comments should be expected and when appropriate should be considered as action items. If one of the people working in the centre receives complaints daily about their performance, than perhaps their performance should be dealt with, that is nothing new. What is new is that the barrier to providing that feedback may be decreasing. For example, leaving a tip on Foursquare is a lot easier than asking to speak with the manager. Again, receiving feedback is nothing new but in low-barrier systems, feedback becomes abundant and if we are paying attention to the long tail than we have far more to gain from this interaction than to fear from it. I am far more fearful of decreased relevancy due to lack of feedback than I am of the volume of feedback itself.

With respect to positive feedback, tips that applaud service are invaluable to managers. It motivates staff, and can breed healthy competition among employees. In a previous life I worked in service-based environments (hotels and an NHL hockey franchise) where we competed ferociously to see who would get the most positive feedback via our customer comment system while our clients benefited from our hyper-attentive service. I think this model could work much the same way within government agencies. It provides a nice carrot for performance where there are little external or systematic incentives for high-quality client service.

Furthermore meaningful feedback is more than just the complaints and/or praise directed at service providers. Opening up this channel for location specific feedback could mean a whole set of interesting recommendations about actual observable and measurable variables. Initiatives like My Starbucks Idea come to mind. What if an expert in interior design comes through and, given their background, realizes that a simple tweak to the seating arrangement could mean increased capacity or better traffic flow through the centre. Their expertise would cost nothing and could be easily captured if the expert was so inclined to share it.

Rewarding Citizen Engagement

One of the challenges I see is encouraging people to check-in to government service centers (no one wants to be the "Mayor" of the Employment Insurance Office) and soliciting meaningful feedback on an ongoing basis. I think this is where one of the other core components of Foursquare comes in - badges. Users earn badges based on their check-ins. These range from things like "I'm on a Boat" (for checking into a venue tagged Boat) to "Gym Rat" (for 10 check-ins over a 30-day period in venues tagged "gym"). I think that agencies could partner with Foursquare to create badges for those people who have checked-in to their service centers. This requires some creativity but I can see badges like, "Served" with a federal/provincial/municipal logo on it, and the subtitle "You were proudly served by X agency" being at least somewhat popular. And as Foursquare expands its service offering I think it will move into a space where it also provides badges for people leaving tips. I think that this will happen as people realize that the real social value of the platform is not just letting people know where they are but what they think about where they are.

In this type of environment, government agencies could work together and reward users with incremental badges based on the amount of tips left for government service centres. These "Digitally Engaged Citizen" badges would serve as a badge of honor to those who are attempting to help government deliver its services better and is very much in alignment with the whole government 2.0 movement.

The Tip of the Iceberg

I consider hypothesizing about things that may be coming down the pipe is incredibly interesting. I also think it is the first step in starting to achieve these things in a real sense. If you know of any government service delivery centres that are thinking about these types of initiatives please let me know. I would love to follow up with them.




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”.

Column: Trust From Above

Friday, January 8, 2010
The Clerk of the Privy Council Wayne Wouters did an interview with Canadian Government Executive Magazine. In it he articulates the need for trust and the value of web 2.0 technologies in the renewing workplace.

I would suggest you read it.

Cheers.