Monday, January 31, 2011

David Eaves at the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics

Hi All,

I circulated this on twitter earlier, but it merits a quick post. David Eaves spoke to the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics today about open data.

You can find the video here.

It's worth the watch.



Friday, January 28, 2011

From Briefing Notes to Govblogging

I've said before that:

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.

I’ve been going over this in my head for days, and I simply cannot reconcile why we are still so deeply embedded in the briefing note culture. I find the resilience of the briefing note in the face of more open alternatives – like blogging – disconcerting. Briefing notes are far too limited and linear. They are only seen by a select few on the way to their final destination. What I find confusing is that there is a significant amount of concern within the public service about losing our corporate memory as more and more public servants retire, yet those of us in knowledge management fail to come up with effective strategies for knowledge retention. I can’t help but feel that part of the problem is rooted in how we move information up the chain of command (briefing notes).

As a knowledge worker myself, I feel that my blog is one of my strongest assets: it helps me contextualize my thinking, forms a narrative, is searchable, can hyperlink to other sources, and allows for comments and debate. When was the last time a briefing note did all that?

The truth of the matter is that briefing notes are simply blog posts looking for a place to happen. Why we haven’t endeavoured to connect them more explicitly surprises me.

Maybe it’s time we all started Govblogging.

If she can get on the bus (the party bus) so can you.

Friday, January 21, 2011

How Public Sector Organizations Can Learn from Quora

There has been a lot of hype around the not-so-new social network called Quora in the past few weeks. Quora describes itself as:

A continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it.

Or as David Griner puts it:

It’s like the community side of LinkedIn, merged with the organic networking of Facebook, smashed up with the informative aspects of Wikipedia, topped with a dash of the “I just can’t see this catching on” from Plurk. With blog comments.

(note: I found that quotation in a piece written by David Armano called “Are Quora Votes A Viable Metric? Influence, Popularity, Expertise, Campaigns & Currency.”)

How can public sector organizations use Quora?

First, I think we need a similar ability to crowdsource questions (and answers) like the one in this Twitter thread somewhere within the government firewall (as opposed to externally):

Hypothetical: Can one deploy back into the core PS from a place like CFIA? Or are you considered "external" at that point? #gocless than a minute ago via TweetDeck

@otowncoho It's not as simple as a deployment, and not "external." It depends on org's status as a separate employer/particular agreements.less than a minute ago via TweetDeck

@canuckflack any idea where I'd be able to find more info? Or is it one of those "call the agency" type questions?less than a minute ago via TweetDeck

@otowncoho All your questions answered about deployments in the GoC PS than a minute ago via TweetDeck

This question has undoubtedly played out hundreds, if not thousands of times within different pockets of the bureaucracy. Each question answered on a case-by-case basis. Think about the time saved if we actually started to codify some of the questions and answers that makes them reusable, easy to update, and endorsed by the members across the organization (the “crowd”).

Quora combines the search and add question feature, meaning that as you add a question it automatically starts to search the database for similar questions, resulting in a reduction of duplicate questions, thereby increasing the exposure of existing questions and perhaps ultimately improving the quality of the answers given.

In it's simplest terms, an internal Quora would be akin to an ever-evolving crowdsourced FAQ asked and answered in plain language. If we compare Quora to GCPEDIA, Quora wins hands down:
  • greater sense of focus (without being too prescriptive)
  • better information management
  • better search
  • no need to learn how to code

I'm not saying that GCPEDIA isn't valuable (I still think it is) but only that it is being pulled by users in a number of different ways. In fact, I've heard it described as the “Wild West” by a handful of public servants; and I have come to agree. I think the natural consequence of the environment is an incredibly high potential for small innovative uses at the expense of mainstream and/or systematic adoption. To be clear, I think GCPEDIA definitely has it's place within the tool belt, but I also think we need more than one tool to get the job done. The old adage about having only a hammer and everything looking like a nail comes to mind.

One of the other things I find fascinating about Quora is that many people are asking questions related to culture. A quick Google search of the site reveals 23,000 results for the word culture; moreover that doesn't include any of the implicit references to culture. I find this fascinating because, done internally, it could start to expose the workplace culture in some interesting ways. Think about new employees entering the enterprise asking questions or challenging answers for questions already answered. The structure creates room for conversations that drive workplace culture, connects like-minded individuals and creates institutional memory.

I should mention however that one thing Quora does (that most online services do really) is leverage your existing social networks in order to connect you to relevant users and questions. Any organization looking to bring Quora-like functionality behind the firewall would have to reconcile this in some way.

Is there also a place for external stakeholder engagement on Quora?

In a word: Yes.

There will undoubtedly be communications and marketing opportunities for government agencies on Quora. Think about people asking questions about service provision, grants and contributions, tourism, immigration, regulations around foreign investment, taxation schemes, etc. To be honest, I just haven't had the time to think them all through.

What about you? Have you checked out Quora yet? I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Friday, January 14, 2011


I've decided to start a 365 project chronicling small observations and insights that I have in my day to day. It won't replace my weekly writing (with the exception of today) nor will I be flooding this site (or its feed) with the contents of the 365.

I'll be hosting it on Tumblr:

I hope to see you at the other site on Monday, first photo/essay goes up at 10am.

Thanks for taking the time.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Collaborator’s Dilemma

I've been thinking a lot lately about collaboration and Game Theory. More specifically I've been examining and re-examining the Prisoner’s Dilemma in hopes of learning more about how transparency affects collaboration, and I think I may be on to something.


Game theory attempts to mathematically capture behaviour in strategic situations (games). The prisoner's dilemma is a fundamental problem in game theory and demonstrates why two people might not cooperate even if it is in their best interest to do so.

From Wikipedia:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

... In this game, as in most game theory, the only concern of each individual player (prisoner) is maximizing his or her own payoff, without any concern for the other player's payoff. The unique equilibrium for this game is a Pareto-suboptimal solution, that is, rational choice leads the two players to both play defect, even though each player's individual reward would be greater if they both played cooperatively.

In the classic form of this game, cooperating is strictly dominated by defecting, so that the only possible equilibrium for the game is for all players to defect. No matter what the other player does, one player will always gain a greater payoff by playing defect. Since in any situation playing defect is more beneficial than cooperating, all rational players will play defect, all things being equal...

The classical prisoner's dilemma can be summarized thus (click to enlarge):

The Collaboration Payoff Matrix

If we mash up the payoff matrix above to focus on collaboration between two parties (as opposed to prisoners) and apply it to time spent working on a project (as opposed to jail time) it would look something like this (click to enlarge):

The New Dilemma

At the heart of the prisoner's dilemma is the inability of the prisoners to communicate with one another. It makes information sharing difficult and verification impossible. The uncertainty creates tension which in turn creates incentives for defection. If the two parties could simply bridge the physical distance between them, they could communicate, share information, be assured that the other party is keeping their word and collectively achieve the optimum outcome (no jail time).

Similarly, at the heart of the collaborator's dilemma is an inability to communicate with one another. However, would-be collaborators aren't dealing with physical distance imposed on them by police interrogators but rather geographical distance, language barriers, organizational boundaries, information asymmetry and an opacity that generally defines the culture of bureaucracy. The result is often the same, opacity-creating tension, in turn creating incentives for free-loading (defection) as neither side can verify the actions of or the information put forward by the other. If bureaucrats can bridge the information divide between them they could have more confidence in the system as a whole and would be more likely to collectively achieve the optimum outcome (faster production) and perhaps start to more effectively undermine the longstanding culture of knowledge as power.

Defection or in this case, free-loading, becomes next to impossible in a system where people can't hide in the shadows, where information can't be hived off for personal gain, or where strategic relationships can't be easily exploited. Transparency just may be the answer to many of our organization's problems; it may also create new ones. But all in all, what I find fascinating is that as our public institutions open up, the systematic pressure towards sub-optimal outcomes (defection) seemingly decreases. This creates room for new incentives to start to take root, and I think we are all in agreement that we could use some new incentives.

Still Work to Do

The trouble is that we aren't there yet, we are still a system in transition, which means that would-be collaborators can be easily taken advantage of by old school bureaucrats. The environment we find ourselves in is one where collaboration, especially in the face of traditional defectors, requires great courage. It requires even greater courage when those traditional defectors occupy higher positions than the would be collaborators within the hierarchy.

Do you have the courage it takes to collaborate or are you just another prisoner?

[Image credit: pasukaru76]