Friday, May 27, 2011

The Education System and the Culture of Entitlement

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: our career expectations are totally messed up.

You know what else I think?

The school system, a system that we spend the better part of our lives in, is a key contributor.

In school the curriculum is linear and clearly defined; teachers check homework daily; and students advance en masse (yearly) often irrespective of their relative abilities.

But can we really blame new recruits for failing to understand the complex work environment, for wanting constant feedback or expecting yearly promotions without the slightest bit of introspection vis-a-vis their actual performance?

Personally, I find it hard to hold it against them, or us for that matter; we’ve all become acclimatized to a system that makes little to no effort to mirror the real world.

Maybe it’s time to rethink the education system

Maybe it is time to teach students that work isn't going to be so clear cut, that management won't always have time to give instant feedback (if at all), and that if they want to advance, they will have to earn it by demonstrating enduring value, not simply their longevity.

If I can’t convince you, maybe Sir Ken Robinson can:

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, May 20, 2011

Like Monetizing the Margins: On Creating Public Value around the Public Service

Last week I sat down with Alex, an Epidemiologist (and fellow public servant), and we worked through a redesign of the information systems he and his team use to track infectious diseases that may be threatening Canada. Although to be honest, that was never the intention. We originally met to discuss how (if) tablet computers could help field researchers gather data more efficiently. To get a sense of what Alex is working on, here is youtube video he sent me:

The road we traveled down may have started there, but it quickly got a whole lot bigger. I wanted to, with Alex's permission, share some of the key insights from our discussion.

[Note: after publishing, Alex sent me a note indicating that the work shown in that video was done by Dr. Kamran Khan via the Bio.Diaspora project.]

Can tablets help gather data in the field?

The short and obvious answer is yes; the long and complicated answer is that any mobile device can, but in order to for that to be useful, the rest of the chain needs to support the input from the device. In order to understand what we were talking about I started sketching on my iPad as we spoke. In the end the sketch became incredibly complex so I cleaned them up and broke them out into two sketches (click to enlarge):

After determining whether or not it was viable, our conversation shifted toward more traditionally bureaucratic concerns, namely cost.

How much would this thing cost the government?

We agreed that given the current climate public servants would be put under incredible pressure to be better managers of scarce resources, but we also both agreed that this was not a negative force but rather a force that creates an environment incredibly conducive to creativity and innovation if you know how to create a compelling narrative (read: articulate an argument, back it up with the facts, infuse it with passion, and deliver it with non-partisan conviction).

Where we run into difficulty is when we start to formulate that narrative strictly around cost savings. If there is one thing that I've learned from watching the Open Yale Courses on Game Theory it is that thinking strategically means doing a lot more than a simple uni-stage cost-benefit analysis. Here's a clip from lecture #19 (Subgame perfect equilibrium: matchmaking and strategic investments):

My key takeaway: being more strategic means looking more closely at how behaviour changes.

So how is behaviour changing?

I want to pull in what I've observed from the evolution of successful companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook. More specifically, I want to look at how they generate revenue. For example, Twitter has promoted tweets, Google has ads next to search, and Facebook leverages a users personal data to target advertising with ridiculous precision. These companies have embraced an ethos of delivering strong core services while generating revenue around the periphery; in essence they've monetized the margins.

So what does this have to do with public service?

While bureaucracies may not be revenue-generating in the strictest sense, we do generate public value. It stands to reason that we could adopt a similar approach to value-generation as successful businesses are currently using to approach revenue generation. For government, and here is the crux of my argument, we need to look at the margins of our core public services and find new and creative ways to create public value. To an extent, some of us may already do this but I have a feeling it isn't part of how we generally understand or approach public service.

So what does it look like?

In the models shown above, I'm tempted to say that we could create significant public value by simply opening the data set to the public. But realistically, the lack of public engagement to date around open data generally leads me to believe that publishing data without support activities around it is insufficient.

A more conducive approach to creating public value around core public services is to look at the specific niche opportunities for value-creation. In this case, what assets does the service make use of, who would be interested in those assets, and how do we partner with them in order to maximize the co-creation of public value. In other words, how do we do more with less (an undoubtedly popular adage for our times)?

So what are the assets in Alex's area of expertise? Well data is clearly one asset, but there is also the breadth of expertise along the supply chain of the institution’s work.

Who would be most interested in those assets? Academic institutions with a strong focus on public health are an obvious one, but so are public administration and management programs.

How do we partner with them in order to maximize the co-creation of public value? Offer a series of three pre-packaged partnership agreements (so as to avoid one-off negotiations) similar to online services (e.g. tiered systems of "free", "premium" and "pro"). Here is quick back-of-the-napkin example of the type of thinking I'm talking about:

  • 5 internships in data analysis (y hours)

Premium (contribution of x dollars)
  • 5 internships in data analysis (2y hours)
  • 5 in public administration/policy (2y hours)
  • Access to public health data for given number of students/classes

Pro (contribution of 2x dollars)
  • 5 internships in data analysis (3y hours)
  • 5 in public administration/policy (3y hours)
  • Full access to public health data for academic institution
  • Guided tour of facilities / ride-alongs with field researchers
  • Guest lectures by field experts/researchers
  • Exclusive partnership with local health authorities to study any government action in real time

Everything listed above, regardless of tier, creates some sort of public value while decreasing the overall cost of providing the core service (through either financial or in kind contributions). It is by no means exhaustive; if anything it is but a small tip of the iceberg. From where I sit, emerging public sector leaders facing demographic challenges and budgetary constraints are going to need to get more creative, and to my mind, there is no better way to do that than to look at opportunities to create public value at the margins of our work and seize them.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Mixed Bag

Hey Everyone -

Here is a mixed bag of things in my brain right now ...

Food for thought ...

Here is a quick list of articles that I've read recently that I found interesting:

Also the University of Yale has an entire years worth of lectures on Game Theory available online for free. If you are interested in thinking more strategically I highly recommend you check them out (or even add them into your learning plan).

Finally, I just finished reading Re-Work; and I must say that I recommend reading it only if you need a motivational kick the arse. If you are already motivated, you won't walk away with much. On the other hand, I started reading the Master Switch by Tim Wu and would recommend picking up a copy if you are interested in the historical evolution of communications industry.

Places to be ...

1. MARCOM, June 1/2 (Ottawa, Ontario)

I'll be presenting at MARCOM again this year. My session title is "Disrupting the Culture: How Social Media can be used to embrace organizational change, drive engagement and foster innovation". MARCOM is a lot of fun for me because I get to meet a boat load of communications professionals from both the public and not-for-profit sectors. In preparation for the conference I sat down with Bernard Gauthier, CEO of Delta Media and Graham Machacek from IABC Ottawa to talk about converging media, part 1 of the podcast is available here.

2. Govcamp, June 8 (Toronto, Ontario)

I'm really looking forward to participating in Govcamp in Toronto. I'll be working the event as a facilitator, but if everything works out I may also have something cool to demo (or at least share a sneak peak). If you are in the area check it out, its totally free.

3. Financial Management Institute's Public Sector Management Workshop, June 12-14 (Edmonton, Alberta)

To be honest, I don't know much about FMI, but I'm looking forward to meeting new people in Edmonton, and being there when it isn't -40 out!

4. Social Capital Conference, July 23 (Ottawa, Ontario)

It's not official yet but I have it on good authority that I will be tagging in with Joe Boughner to discuss internal collaboration, the benefits, risks and strategies for enterprise adoption.

5. Next Generation of Government Summit, July 28-29 (Washington, DC)

This conference is by far the most energetic conference for public servants I have ever been to. Last year Steve Ressler from Govloop gave me a huge opportunity to help open the conference, to date it is one of the highlights of my career. When Steve asked me to come back this year I couldn't say no. The challenge: motivate a couple hundred public servants in 15 minutes or less without using any material I used last year.

Challenge accepted.

Final note(s) ...

  1. I rejigged the graphics on the page (including the header), feedback always appreciated.
  2. I'm still blogging daily at cpsr365
  3. I'm trying to bring an enterprise tablet application to market, I've stood up another site, and am tweeting and blogging about the experience.
  4. Keep an eye on the newly minted Gov2 TV
  5. I'm interested in starting up a series of "Wonkcasts" (podcasts for policy wonks) if you are interested in collaborating with me on this project please let me know.

Thanks for taking the time, take care.

Originally published by Nick Charney at


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Friday, May 13, 2011

It's Puzzling, Isn't It?

An organization is a social arrangement to distribute tasks for a collective goal. The word itself is derived from the Greek word organon, itself derived from the better-known word ergon - as we know `organ` - and it means ‘a compartment for a particular job’. - Wikipedia

We often think that the components of an organization fit together like a puzzle.  Each piece consisting of clearly defined work, interconnected seamlessly to the others around them, forming a coherent whole and framed with rigid and linear boundaries.

But nothing could be farther than the truth

Work is no longer easily compartmentalized; this isn’t an assembly line.  The mental model comes out of an industrial economy and I question its relevance in a knowledge based one.   I would argue that we don’t have soft edges at all, but rather that ...

We are all a little rough around the edges

An increasingly diverse workforce coupled with an increasingly diverse scope of work means our organizational models have to contend with increasingly jagged edges, wider gaps and unforeseen overlaps.  Upon closer reflection, my gut tells me that if we took the time to examine our organizational structures more closely we would find conflict at the jagged edges, delays at the gaps, and duplication at the overlaps.  

We might also find that organizations interested in improving their productivity shouldn't focus narrowly on improving the efficiency of the individuals within the organization, but rather on smoothing the harsh edges between them.  In my mind, that means improving communication between actors (e.g. individuals, organizations, levels of government).  This line of reasoning is based on the argument that productivity gains don't materialize when individuals work harder, but rather when they work better together.  

Clear communication is the key to greater efficiency, and while the diffusion of enabling technologies may help, ultimately it is a culture of communication that will deliver organizations significant improvements to productivity because even the highest performer is undermined by friction at the margins of their work.  

This was originally published by Nick Charney on, feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn or add his blog to your Facebook.

Friday, May 6, 2011

On Minorities, Majorities and Years of Experience

I attended the President's Breakfast for the Public Service yesterday (a fund raising event for the Ottawa Hospital), the Clerk gave the opening remarks. After the event I happened to run into him on the escalator. I had literally 240 seconds alone to speak with him. I asked him what he thought a majority parliament meant for the public service, his response was decidedly straightforward.

"It is going to be different"

The Clerk wasn't making a values statement, but a factual one, and you know what, he's right: it is going to be different.

A (Non-Partisan) Personal History Lesson

I joined the public service back in 2007. Since then my work has been concentrated in the field of public policy and over time has become specialized at the intersection of people, public policy and technology.

During that time - and here is where I combine politics and public service - I have only ever worked under a minority government; and I'm not alone. Any public servant hired after the 2004 election has the same shared experience. Take the Clerk of the Privy Council for example, despite the depth of his experience, he has yet to serve as Clerk under a majority government.

I can't help but wonder how widespread this phenomenon is

I put together the following timeline to try to help shed some light on the situation. I gathered historical election data from Wikipedia and mashed it up with the projected number of years of experience of public servants as published by Treasury Board in the 2010 Demographic Snapshot of the Public Service. Here is what I found (hint: click to enlarge):

We often don't talk about how our political system impacts our bureaucracies. When we do, we invoke the urban legend of an accidental remark, judged as partisan, met with strict punishment. It is a story that perpetuates itself through the generations like the one of the boy who cried wolf.

But at what cost?

Is it possible that we have done our democracy a disservice by purposely ignoring the impact of the political system on our public service. Surely the nature of the relationship between the two is an important subject for study given the magnitude of some of the public policy challenges we face as a nation?

Maybe it is time we start telling a different story?

Am I wrong?

originally published by Nick Charney at