Friday, April 29, 2011

For What It's Worth: On Impartiality During Elections

It is election time again in Canada. For public servants that means increased public scrutiny (real or perceived) and constant (very real) reminders about our obligations as professional, non-partisan public servants.

There is something happening here

My interests in civic life span far beyond the traditional left-right spectrum of partisan politics.

I think that healthy debate is important for democracy; I have a deep disdain for rhetoric (from anyone at anytime, not just politicians during election time) and am keenly interested in the space between elected officials, bureaucracy, technology and public policy.

All of which strikes to the very core of democracy, but is far more nebulous, nuanced and perhaps even contentious, than an oversimplified left-right spectrum of political convenience.

What it is ain't exactly clear

Make no mistake, the internet is changing the political landscape. You want a concrete example of how the ground is shifting? We needn't look any further than the Vote Internet Campaign being run by for evidence.

In my opinion it is an issue-based movement not a partisan one. Sure there is a scorecard that attempts to help voters choose how to vote by highlighting particular aspects of party platforms, but ultimately I believe it to be non-partisan because they made every attempt to include all the major parties.

So I suppose the question is: Can I get involved?

To what extent?

Could I erect the equivalent of a digital lawn sign on my blog?

I honestly don't know.

There's a man with a gun long tail over there

To vote is to distill a complex array of different, possibly conflicting considerations into one: the parties, the leaders, the local candidates, plus whatever issues are pertinent to you, and the parties’ positions on each. Which makes that perennial journalistic search for the “ballot-box question” such a preposterous enterprise. Every single voter will have his own ballot-box question, or questions. I cannot tell you what yours is, or should be. I can only tell you mine. - Andrew Coyne, A price must be paid - but by whom (Macleans)

I agree with Coyne, distilling the issues that are pertinent to me is difficult and yields no true answer (ballot box-question); and I have a feeling that others agree. I see no other way to explain the popularity of campaigns like StopTheMeter, a single issue online campaign that has more endorsements on Facebook than any of the federal political parties. Might this be construed as evidence that citizens may be more interested in specific public policy issues than they are in predetermined packages of public policy approaches arranged neatly on a left-right spectrum?

Is this the long tail of public life disrupting the status quo?

Telling me I got to beware be more aware

While writing this I had a thought: is voting for a party akin to buying Neapolitan ice cream when all someone wants is chocolate (specific interest). I wasn't sure how well the metaphor worked, so I tried it out on Twitter, which led to this exchange between myself and @Prugelmeister (whom I respect greatly):

The exchange doesn't have all the answers, but confirms my suspicions that perhaps we should stop and look what's going down.

originally published by Nick Charney at

Friday, April 22, 2011

How old government data could give rise to new service delivery models

I recently spent some time researching the proactive disclosure of federal grants and contributions in Canada; here are some of my key findings about how the data is presented:
  • Each department publishes their own G&C data (i.e. there is no single repository)
  • The actual path to the endpoint data varies considerably across the landscape
  • Despite it being varied, the path generally follows the form of: Proactive Disclosure Overview -} List of Quarters-} List of all G&Cs Issued -} Detailed G&C data
  • End point data is presented uniformly in an HTML table across the entire domain
  • Variables include: Recipient Name, Location (City, Province), Date (YYYY-MM-DD), Value ($123,456.78), Purpose (free text), and Comments (free text, often blank)
  • In addition to the data in the table, the quarter and issuing department can be collected from the webpage itself
  • All data exists in both official languages
  • All of the data is already in the public domain

From Data to a Dataset

While disclosure is clearly important, it may no longer be sufficient. There is a clear appetite within the zeitgeist for not only data points that can be observed, but data sets that can be worked with. What I think I've stumbled upon is a core challenge that those at the forefront of open data have no doubt already encountered, namely: how do we assemble public information that is already available into something that is more useful. In other words, how do we meet the demands of today's civil society?

To be honest I didn't have the answer (or the expertise), so I started to consult broadly with the developer community, looking for a technological solution. I showed them a map of the data and articulated the goal of a single unified dataset. What I found was that the geographic dispersion of the data coupled with its sheer volume makes unification a challenge. Furthermore, while they all agree that unification is possible, they all also agree that that there is a human intelligence component in the collection, that a good AI would reduce but not eliminate that component, and that even small changes to or inconsistencies across the landscape could mean hours of recalibrating the program that assembles the data.

After numerous conversations with experts in the field, I've come to the conclusion that it may in fact be far easier (and more cost effective) to amend the way the government publishes the data to the web than it would be to try to assemble it from how it currently publishes it to the web. What I am less certain of, is the best way for the organization to go about doing that. My gut reaction is that we could reduce the work burden significantly by moving away from publishing a separate webpage for every grant or contribution awarded (current model) and publish a single comma-separated value (CSV) file from which that information could not only be gleaned, but mashed up and republished. My assumption is that publishing a singular feed at the department level wouldn't entail too much additional work given that the data must be consolidated for quarterly publication. In other words, someone inside the organization already has all the data flow to or through them before it hits the web.

After data consolidation at the departmental level, departments could simply syndicate their data set to the newly minted data portal where they could be assembled into a single government-wide data set, which, in my opinion, is where things get much more interesting.

Is opening the data sufficient?

When governments provide data to citizens, does it also have a responsibility to ensure data literacy and provide tools through which shared data can be used by the citizenry? I've spoken to people on both sides of the fence and the question is not easily answered. Naysayers are quick to cite the costs of providing tools and managing ongoing support as justification of their position. Whereas proponents are quick to steer the conversation to vulnerable stakeholder populations whom aren't likely to have the expertise required to do anything with the data provided.

In its most basic form, government agencies have long relied on private business (e.g. search engines like Google) to ensure that people can find their data. However in a world where government data is not just read, but mashed up, analyzed and republished, search could be seen as falling short. More broadly we find that departments like Statistics Canada have long offered data online manipulation via their CANSIM tables, which allow interested parties to create a modicum of specificity from large datasets at a cost. (Conversely? Similarly?) Other departments, such as Human Resources and Skills Development Canada offers free data-centric services like the Working in Canada Tool.

Two very different mandates, approaches and uses of public data; yet both are reliant on the ever-expanding space between government data and citizens.

My position (in case you are wondering) is to completely bypass the two arguments above by highlighting the importance of understanding how government data is being used. Simply publishing raw data in a CSV file and making it available for download off a departmental website means that there is absolutely no sure way to tell how it was used, modified or redistributed; there is also no way to ensure that any applications built on the data are using the most recent versions of that data. This makes engagement around the data difficult, hinders the government’s ability to improve future data offerings, and could lead to unintentional public misinformation via third party developers. If government agencies want to engage citizenry around data offerings, and mitigate misinformation risks they need to make it easy to link, embed, email, share and socialize their data into devices, machines, programs and websites because this is where the truly transformational opportunities will be.

Case in point, a new model for Grants and Contributions

I want to walk you through a hypothetical, albeit entirely possible, alternative service delivery model using the Grants and Contributions example.

Imagine for a minute that I am (as a private citizen) interested in community development in a northern community and am seeking government assistance. I hop on the department's website, dive into their G&C data offering and start to poke around. Imagine that the interface allows me to plug in some demographic details about the community within which I live as well as to input some details about the project I want to undertake (e.g. community infrastructure). Now imagine that the system returns all of the community infrastructure grants awarded by the government to communities that share similar demography to that of my own community. That data set is suddenly incredibly useful. It provides me with the names of applicants, their geographical locations, and project overviews. Armed with this information I could reach out to them, learn from them, and build a better application.

Now, imagine that I am the public servant on the receiving end of that application. I'm more likely to be reviewing an application that has some rigour behind it. Furthermore if it includes evidence garnered from the data set, I can easily verify the validity of the supporting documentation by diving into the dataset myself or using it to locate the richer case files that are produced internally through the process.

In the end this could save citizens time and money, it would bolster evidence-based decision making by the government agency, and could form deeper connections between grant recipients by making it easier for them to connect to one another to share information about the process.

Why this is so important

To date the open data landscape has been largely defined by app competitions and hackathons, and while these things are good for the ecosystem, they can't sustain it alone. This is precisely why I think we need to start thinking more aggressively about how old government data could give rise to new service delivery models.

Originally published by Nick Charney at

Friday, April 15, 2011

How you could change your office culture in one day, and why you will never do it

Do you want to know how you can change your office culture in a single day?

Blow it up

That's right, blow it up. Have everyone come in jeans and t-shirts and break out the power tools and tear the walls down.

Why you never would

Your gut reaction tells you that you can't. You think things like "but there are rules" or "you can't just do that" but the fact of the matter is, that is your problem.

If you are serious about changing the culture of your workplace, if you are serious about accelerating the pace of change, you don't fear this exercise, you see its enormous potential.

If you are serious you don't see an empty space that flattens the room and exposes your weaknesses (nose picker!); you see a blank slate, an empty canvass, an opportunity to reframe the physical space you work in into something that supports the culture you long for.

Build it together

Can you imagine the impact on the work culture if you rebuilt the space together? Have you ever taken part in a team building exercise that was as dramatic, as important, or as humanizing?

The Hold Outs

There will always be people who want bigger walls, thicker doors, and better black out shades, but they will become increasingly irrelevant as the artificial gap between the supply and demand of information and services closes within your organization.

I'm not saying that we won't need spaces for private meetings or undisruptive phone calls, closed spaces will always be needed. Closed people on the other hand, are a different matter altogether.

Need a more modest place to start?

Distribute a blank template of the floor plan to your team and ask them to reorganize the office how they want to see it. Encourage them to be creative and whacky, but also functional and thoughtful. Then organize a luncheon and have everyone pitch their ideas pecha kucha style over lunch and see if you can pull together a blueprint that people can agree on and roll from there.

this was originally published by Nick Charney at

Friday, April 8, 2011

On Fearless Advice and Loyal Implementation

I traveled across British Columbia last month, visiting a series of three Employment Insurance (EI) processing plants, to deliver talks about engagement and career development. I met a lot of dedicated public servants, made new friends, and learned more about front-line service delivery than many Ottawa-based policy wonks do this early in their career.

I've been thinking a lot about the sessions and the conversations that emerged at the three different sites and here is where my mind has settled ...

Regardless of what you were hired to do - be it providing traditional policy advice in the National Capital Region, or "crushing" EI claims for Canadians in a processing plant in Kamloops - your role as a public servant is to deliver "fearless advice and loyal implementation". What I've found is that there is a divide, real or imagined, between those of us in Ottawa who were hired to deliver "fearless advice" and those of us in the regions who are expected to "loyally implement". This isn't ubiquitous, but was my general impression. It is an impression that was hammered home when someone asked me why Ottawa couldn't just fix the culture in the regional office, as if some sort of Deputy decree could change their specific working conditions. What struck me most about the comment wasn't the idea that culture could somehow be made by decree, but rather the underlying sense of helplessness, as if culture couldn't be affected by those who are actually mired in it.

I think the problem is that we have collectively misinterpreted the significance and underestimated the opportunities we have to effect our work culture and sub-cultures, regardless of where we work or what we work on. We mistakenly think of fearless advice as something that only the people at the very top of the organization do; something that is reserved for private meetings between Deputies and their Ministers. In fact, I think that speaking truth to power (fearless advice and loyal implementation) more often means pushing against the small "p" office politics and the small "c" culture of the bureaucracy. In other words, fearless advice isn't reserved for ministerial briefings, but rather happens in the hallways, over cubicle walls, and in the lunch rooms among peers.

Think of it in terms of the long tail:

Let me end by saying this: regardless of where you work, or what your role is, your responsibility is to articulate an argument, back it up with the facts, infuse it with passion, and deliver it with non-partisan conviction, wherever you see the opportunity to do so.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Learning to Love Email

I've beaten wikis to death in this space. I've presented arguments about how we can use them more effectively, why we need to shift how our organizations look at them, and even tried to explain how enterprise wikis change the traditional relationship between accountability and responsibility. In so doing, I think I may have overlooked a key factor:


That's right, email.

Now before you accuse me blasphemy, hear me out. I agree that many of us are literally swimming in email on a daily basis. If we weren't, there would be far less demand inside the organization for email-enabled smartphones, for placing hard caps on employees email storage capacities, or for the need to deploy email management techniques like Inbox Zero (which I admit I am currently using). Email is the one tool that has completely penetrated our workflows, and while on the whole I still think that using email to coordinate work is often inefficient, it has ultimately become the de facto modus operandi for most organizations.

Whether we like it or not, email is where the majority of us conduct our day to day operations, it's where our business happens, and it is where our decisions are made; and this, this simple fact, is why I think email is (might be?) the key to unlocking the true collaborative potential of our organizations. In short, email is where the people already are. We may have wasted some of our previous efforts trying to dislodge email's stranglehold on our workplace culture rather than strategically positioning other complementary tools around it.

Think about popular social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, or Govloop.

They all have both internal email systems and also send an email to your external email address whenever you are touched within the system. This is their way of bringing you back into the platform itself. Now existing government wide systems like GCPEDIA, GCConnex and GCForums already ping us with emails but lack the user base to make using an internalized email system worthwhile. Compare this to the behemoth that is Facebook: someone may never even need to leave the walled garden if everyone they email is inside the garden with them. Think of it this way: there are currently 500 million active users on Facebook.

I'm not certain, but I think that in addition to being an enormous social network, Facebook is also the single largest global email directory on the planet. Where else can you find contact information quickly for 500 million people? Moreover, Facebook contextualizes your search by prioritizing your current friends, people who are in your "Kevin Bacon" network, your geographic network etc. Not to mention that you don't have to be connected to someone in order to send them a message. I don't think it is a stretch to posit that for some, Facebook has become (or is on their way to becoming) their primary email system.

The lesson from Facebook is clear

Tie your service in with people's existing email systems but also provide an internal alternative whose value scales with the number of people using the network and you may just erode the usefulness of existing email systems. I think the key piece of insight here is understanding that the majority of work occurs in your organization's email system, so if your approach to enterprise collaboration doesn't seamlessly integrate with (or completely replace) your enterprise's email client, your deployment will ultimately fail. Organizations need to build around email if they want it to cede its territory to alternate forms of communication. More specifically, they need to build around email and calendaring (which are usually part and parcel of the same system, this is why I expect Facebook to move towards more robust calendaring in the future).

To my mind, building enterprise collaboration around email (rather than in spite of it) is exactly why Google's Apps for Government is so popular in the United States and why many Microsoft shops are adopting SharePoint. Moreover, when systems built around current email-based workflows are properly supported with single sign-on and a federated search adoption undoubtedly becomes much easier. Ironically, this may also be the core challenge in the coming years of any multi-jurisdictional or Government of Canada-wide collaborative platforms.

Maybe its time we forget trying to supplant the email culture, embrace it, and move it forward. Let's learn to love email again.

[image credit: Tim Morgan]

This was originally published by Nick Charney at