Friday, September 30, 2011

On Trump Cards and Gatekeepers

Make no mistake our culture is one largely defined by trump cards and gatekeepers. You undoubtedly have run into one or the other, or perhaps more rightly, the latter deploying the former as some sort of delay tactic, tripping you up on whatever you are working on. For the uninitiated, the term trump card can refer to any sort of action, authority, or policy which automatically prevails over all others" (source: wikipedia) whereas a gatekeeper is someone who controls access to something (e.g. funding, approval, the next stage) (source: wikipedia).

Common trump cards

In the government’s technology space, common trump cards include (but aren't limited to) IT security, accessibility, official languages, privacy or access to information laws. I have run into countless gatekeepers during my travails through the public service; people who overemphasize their concerns, reference a policy in some abstract way, and suffocate your line of thinking in its infancy (not even a project, but a line of thinking!).

 At this point in the argument I should probably say that not everyone who occupies a position as a gatekeeper acts strictly as an organizational brakeman. There are good ones out there, ones who will cite concerns, relate them to a specific subsection of the relevant policy document, and either propose an alternative or develop a mitigation strategy (or perhaps even an amendment to the policy!). What follows isn't advice aimed at helping you deal with those types of people, because quite frankly (and you'd probably agree), they are approaching their work the right way. That being said, if you want to move beyond your organization’s brakemen (gatekeepers) you need to be able to push back on them, ask insightful questions, and ask them to cite with precision the points of contention between the legislation, regulation, or policy and the line of thinking you are proposing. 

The reason trump cards are so effective is that we understand them collectively to be a final answer. If you want to undermine their utility you simply have to stop accepting them as a the final resolution to a problem. This takes courage, and can make gatekeepers uneasy because they have grown accustomed to using trump cards as a conversation ender; my challenge to you is to use them as a conversation starter.

But this problem isn't unique to the technology space in government, its emblematic of the entire culture.

This is just a caveat to illustrate the pervasive nature of trump cards and gatekeeping. A few months ago I took a photograph in the lobby of a government building. I was outside the security checkpoint, I didn't photograph anyone, nor did I capture any security equipment. I was immediately approached by security who told me I wasn't allowed to photograph the lobby area, citing that it was against policy. He didn't tell me which one, nor did I ask, but as he approached me (presumably to ask me to erase the photograph) I informed him that I was an employee and showed him my ID badge. He glanced at it quickly, retracted his statement and proceeded back behind the security desk. I was (and still am) completely dumbfounded. What policy was he referring to? What were the specifics? How did it differ because I was an employee?

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Monday, September 26, 2011

Public service renewal: the weekly round-up

For the week of September 19 - 23, 2011

If you’re involved in public service renewal – or just a curious bystander – here's the run down of stuff you'll want to read and do this week.

To do:

Sign up (as soon as possible!) for an inexpensive (read: $5) opportunity to scheme virtuously and network at: Beyond the Kool-Aid: Open Government? Space is limited and conversation promises to be dynamic. Join experts from Google, other levels of government and Mediastyle to talk Government 2.0; while the ideas have been discussed over and over, for many it feels as if little progress is being made. Where do we go from here?

Join us: Now that school has started we’re gearing up for yet another #w2p mixer, this time with a different twist. Mark your calendars for September 28 where the #w2p community will be mixing it up with the Advanced Leadership Program.

To read:

The Future of the Federal Workforce: can we apply the cloud model to the PS workforce?

• On cuts: Federal unions launch petition drive to call on Clement to put critical services and the long-term social safety first.

Junk the jargon, cut the clichés and use plain English – a new tone of voice would help so many public organizations

• The U.S. is having a national dialogue on improving government web sites - and there are loads of fabulous ideas to be found on the site.

Have a great week!

This post has been a collaborative effort from Lee-Anne Peluk and Nicholas Charney.You can check out Lee-Anne's blog "In the Shuffle" at

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Friday, September 23, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Public Sector Youth Groups

I've spent a lot of time around departmental youth groups since joining the public service; I've launched them, provided informal advice to chairs, and spoken at national conferences. My general observation is that public sector youth groups are forged out of a deep sense of frustration that plagues many new public servants. It is a frustration born out of over-promising during intake, under-delivering after the hire is made, and otherwise muddling through the logistical details of the on-boarding process (e.g. office space, ID badge, computer login credentials that often aren't ready; managers with no time or materials to brief you with; and no clear articulation of duties in relation to mandate). Back in 2008, I interviewed a new hire who put it thusly:
"Despite coming in really pumped from the recruitment process, the first week on the job was very slow. My manager was away and the rest of the team generally kept to themselves. I spent the first week eating lunch alone."
To be fair, I doubt everyone's experience is terrible, however I would say that my own initial experience and many of the stories others have shared with me of theirs confirms the sentiment of the text cited above. In fact, one could argue that the trajectory of new public servants is not too dissimilar from the 5 stages of grief:

  1. Denial: This can't actually be this bad, people wouldn't just sit back and let themselves be treated like this. 
  2. Anger: This is bullshit; management needs to get their heads out of their arses and fix this. 
  3. Bargaining: Maybe if I give it a year it will get better. Everything moves slowly here, I'll just give it a year. 
  4. Depression: The organization is so broken. Change is hopeless. I'll just self-medicate with coffee and cigarettes.
  5. Acceptance: (a) Retire on the job or (b) Quit or (c) Fight the good fight.

Enter Public Sector Youth Groups

Public sector youth groups are likely to form when you have recruitment efforts that result in large numbers of new recruits entering the organization at the same time because they generally proceed through these stages together. When everything is unfamiliar to them, they tend to coalesce with other new employees because they share a common experience: their relative newness to the organization. My sense is that most youth groups are the formal end point of what starts out as an informal assembly of new friends and colleagues sharing shit stories over beers about how they perceive themselves to be (rightly or wrongly) under-appreciated, under-utilized and over-managed. Yet, if it is empirically true that youth groups form out of a common sense of dissatisfaction or unrest, then their very existence can be construed as evidence that there is something inherently wrong with the organization.

My observation is that as new recruits proceed through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, they build affinity for one another and the group increases in size. Upon reaching the 5th stage (acceptance) the group starts to move towards collective action (provided they decided to fight the good fight). These actions usually start around the periphery of the organization, and focus in on activities that senior managers wouldn't blink an eye at (social events, lunch and learns, charity events, etc). These activities do a couple of things for new hires: First it gets them out of their cubicles and allows them to meet other people all over the organization; and second, it provides them with unique opportunities to showcase their talents outside those cubicles. In short, participation in youth groups brings exposure, and exposure brings opportunities.

Moreover, many of the youth group coordinators I have spoken to over the years have expressed a deep disdain for doing the actual work within the youth group, but see that work as a means to an end. They see it as the stepping stone to get away from the work at the core of their desk, work they often have an even deeper disdain for. What happens next is what we usually call serendipity, but given the circumstances, is the logical climax of the story line: the on-display abilities of new recruits are noticed, and subsequently they move on to higher-profile jobs. This movement has two related impacts. The first is that these now not-so-new hires are less dissatisfied with the overall status quo because their own lot has ameliorated (i.e. they have been satiated for the time being). The second is that they now have additional responsibilities so they have less time to invest in the youth group and related activities. In short, their interest in and ability to participate are lessened. This is how most youth groups disband, the majority of the drivers move onto bigger and better things and the group loses its critical mass until the next batch of new recruits is hired and inevitably stumbles upon the novel idea of forming a youth group, allowing the cycle to simply repeat itself.

To be honest I don't have a lofty conclusion, I just thought this was an observation worth sharing.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Monday, September 19, 2011

Public service renewal: the weekly round-up

For the week of September 12 - 16, 2011.

G'morning --

Here they are, top 3 reads from last week on PS renewal.

  • The report from the Public Service Alliance of Canada on the Public Service Modernization Act five-year legislative review is out. Interestingly, a story on highlights that the new act allows for any person to accuse a public servant of "improper political activity," and gives the Public Service Commission (PSC) plenty of space to interpret which actions are acceptable. How far does ‘political activity’ extend? On Mirriam Webster it’s simple: something relating to government, or the conduct of government.

  • We’ve heard a lot about open data for governments, but what does open data actually look like? It’s all about how this info is organized for other people to use. Check out the beta site for the B.C. government to see open data in action.

  • It’s worth checking out the Delta Partners Blog on Strategic & Operational Reviews. This week’s part 3 has started a very interesting unpacking of tribalism and the public service.

Find these helpful? Want to see something different? Let me know.

This post has been a collaborative effort from Lee-Anne Peluk and Nicholas Charney.You can check out Lee-Anne's blog "In the Shuffle" at

Friday, September 16, 2011

On Seeing Risk Differently

Whenever anyone steps up and tells you that [social media] and the public service don't mix; when they tell you not to, and when they tell your that you are risking too much tell them that the real risk is failing to soldier on. Tell them that the truth of the matter is this: the real career limiting move is keeping your head down, never taking a risk, and fear-mongering when you realize that the calculated risk-taker beside you is likely to quickly surpass you on the career path. -- Nick Charney, The Truth About Career Limiting Moves

I admit (at least I've been told, and my experience seems to confirm) that I see risk differently than many people who share my line of work. When it comes to risk, my primary concern is the risk that arises from inaction or leaving assumptions unchallenged. It is a quality that Gilles Paquet impressed upon me very early in my career when I had the privilege to sit next to him on my very first panel, it’s what led me to write Scheming Virtuously, to start this blog, and to otherwise engage myself in the conversation around the public sector. Despite my efforts over the past four years, the dominant worldview is still one that argues that risks (and therefore consequences) arise primarily from taking action and questioning the status quo. I offer no direct evidence, but feel that few among you would argue the point.

Surely, this dichotomy is a false one. But I'd rather talk about its cruel irony than argue over semantics. Perceiving risk in either of the ways I've articulated above makes you blind to the other side of the equation. In taking a side we fail to see the absolute potential for risk (and thus consequences) before us. Instead we base our decisions (or more likely our nascent gut reactions) on only one half of the equation. Yet if the idea that consequences more readily follow action than inaction is empirically true, than the equation isn't a balanced one at all but rather a question that is skewed in favour of status quo thinking. The exact degree to which it is skewed may be directly related to (if not at least correlated with) the distribution of the people across the dichotomy. I can't help but wonder if this is what people are trying to communicate when they tell me I am a risk-taker (a label that I have never really identified with); that my actions are more likely to be met with negative consequences than others.

When facing consequences, my hope is that, regardless of what side of the divide you sit on, you are willing to take them on the chin.

I certainly am.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, September 9, 2011

We don't trust each other

I just wanted to share some thoughts about trust in the public sector and rather than wax poetic I figured I'd just share this excerpt from the Scheming Virtuously presentation I delivered at the Next Generation of Government Summit in Washington DC (I've also transcribed the excerpt below)

"You don't have physical control over the structures within which you work, but you do have control over how you operate within those structures. Don't let the physical nature of a very square environment box you into very square thinking or very square approach to relationships.

We need to build trust with other people. Trust is like the secret sauce and it is what is lacking in our organizations like nothing else. No one trusts anyone. Its the CYA email, the cover your ass email. Where we have a conversation, you agree to do something, and as soon as we leave I go back to my desk and send you an email that says what you've agreed to do and I cc our bosses on it. So, just so, because, you know, the implication is you aren't going to do it. So I want to be able to hold you to that.

That's not trust, that's a slap in the face. We might as well have a meeting and I could just walk up and slap you in the face [laughter] and be done with it. That's... That's .. We laugh because we know its true. We don't actually change the culture we put up Dilbert comics in our cubicles."

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, September 2, 2011

Reflections on my career at the age of 30

Today is my 30th birthday.

Since everyone says it’s an important milestone I figured it would be appropriate to sit back and reflect on my career so far.

On Appreciation

I am grateful for many things at this point in my career but most of all I am grateful for having the opportunity to have met many of you in person. To forge long lasting relationships with friends in places like Victoria, Vancouver, Kamloops, Edmonton, Toronto, Halifax and Washington DC. I've shared a beer (or two) with many of you, some of you have even opened your homes to me when I needed a place to stay. I appreciate your friendship, your hospitality, and your ongoing support, but most importantly your deep commitment to public service.

I probably don't say this enough, but thank you.

On Finding the Time

People always ask me how I find the time to be consistently engaging on multiple fronts, managing my workload, taking care of family, churning out content online, staying active, traveling and taking on speaking engagements, and I think I always disappoint people with the answer. I truly believe that you find time for the things you love, and those are the things I love. I live my life like I walk down the street, head up and on a swivel, at a decent pace, and ready to swing an elbow if and when it’s necessary.

On Opportunity

I have had a tremendous amount of opportunity so far. I've been invited in to do consultation with government agencies at the federal, provincial and municipal levels all across the country and in so doing have seen more of Canada than I ever thought possible.

The scope of the work I have been able to undertake has been vast and varied and has led me to a number of opportunities that I hadn't anticipated. One thing I've learned is that is is always more important to focus on the opportunity in front of you than it is to focus on creating the next opportunity. The former, if done well, will earn you the latter.

I think Alex Himelfarb (former Clerk of the Privy) said it best when he told me that:

"A career isn't something you plan in advance but rather something you look back at in retrospect,"

I thought that was an incredibly important piece on insight from a man who served as Clerk to three consecutive Prime Ministers.

On the Future

I'm really excited about some of the things I've got cooking for the future. First and foremost is my first novel. Writing a novel is something that I've always wanted to do and I've been slowly honing my writing skills over the last few years and think I'm ready to take a crack at it. Bureaucratica is:

Bureaucratica is the working title of what will hopefully become my first novel. The basic premise of the book is a fifty-something-year-old bureaucrat named John Andrews who is looking back and narrating his career post facto. I want to try to use the story line to poke the sleeping bear of bureaucratic culture. I want to question some of the most primary bureaucratic tendencies and strip away some of the bullshit that we all have become so accustomed to.

It’s an interesting blend of fact and fiction and incredibly fun to write. I'm blogging it openly as the story unfolds and hope to be done by my 31st birthday, at which point I will investigate publishing it independently or otherwise. I'm also inviting feedback during the process, and am completely open to character and story arc suggestions. Ideally I'd love to make this as open and participatory as possible.

I'm also working on my TEDxOttawa talk in which I will make a case for reforming how governments approach grants and contributions programs, ending with one possible vision of what that might actually look like.

I'm also expanding the places I will be writing. I've published a piece on Metaviews entitled Single Click Government and am planning a follow up article in the near future. I'm also working on a series of articles that may wind up on Apt613 that explores the notion that Ottawa is just another sleepy government town. Finally, I plan on standing up a site to blog with my father during the month of Movember about our family's experience with prostate cancer.

With that I want to leave you with a little Tom Petty for your Friday morning. Keep running down your dreams, because there is something good waiting down that road.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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