Friday, January 27, 2012

That fundamental change we've been talking about

Visual notes taken by @Prugelmeister at #goc3
Wednesday I attended Collaborative Management Day.  The highlight of the day for me was watching the Clerk of the Privy Council listen intently and respond genuinely as a handful of public servants from across the country asked him questions, sought his support and even expressed their frustrations.

The man has a tough job, and carving out time is obviously difficult.  I think having the Clerk participate in a dynamic exchange rather than simply swooping in and delivering prepared remarks was a stoke of genius and speaks volumes to the man's integrity and openness.

The most important thing he said

Looking back, I think the single most important thing he said was (and I am paraphrasing a bit, see tweets below for alternative/complimentary interpretations) that while austerity and uncertainty can be paralysing we must recognize the opportunity to fundamentally rethink our business models.  The statement obviously resonated.

In a recent contribution to Metaviews I offered a similar argument, saying that:
We need to cut through the noise of ‘greater efficiency through greater collaboration’ and the rhetoric of ‘doing more with less’ and focus instead on doing things fundamentally differently. Given the profound impact of digital communication technologies on our society, I think that doing things differently starts with cultivating a better understanding of how digital is reshaping what citizens expect from their public institutions and how public institutions can best respond to those needs.
But understanding is one thing, and moving beyond the rhetoric requires more concrete action(s).  What kind of action?  Doing things fundamentally differently, at least in my view, requires disruptive innovation, innovation that breaks traditional trade-offs and establishes entirely new operational models.

But can disruptive innovation actually exist in the public sector?  While many public servants I speak with agree that fundamental change is required most of them look at innovation as process improvement and gaining efficiencies rather than at more disruptive approaches to innovation. In their view, and I tend to agree with them, there simply isn't much support for a more radical approach to innovation.

Disruptive innovation through market mechanisms?

Having just read Public Sector, Disrupted, I think I have a better understanding as to why there is so little support for more disruptive approaches to innovation.  The report hinges on the idea that:
Creating the conditions for disruption will first require policymakers to view government through a different lens. Instead of seeing only endless programs and bureaucracies, the myriad responsibilities and customers of government can be seen as a series of markets that can be shaped in ways to find and cultivate very different, less expensive-- and ultimately more effective — ways of supplying public services
The report goes on to describe that in many cases the (United States) government enjoys significant buying power; buying power that, if shifted could topple slow moving incumbents and favour innovative upstarts.  My reading of this, and feel free to jump in here, is that disruptive innovation within this context requires not only that policy-makers apply a market lens to their analysis but that they actually become far more active in those markets themselves.  In my view, this approach quickly enters the realm of partisan politics, a place where even the largest proponents of disruptive innovation dare not follow.

Furthermore, while this approach may work for large national governments like the US government, I seriously doubt it would work for smaller municipal governments like that of say the City of Ottawa.

Check out the report and circle back here with your comments; I'm particularly interested if we can unearth some more tangible (e.g. using policy / regulatory levers) ways to disrupt the public sector, and finally achieve that fundamental change we've been talking about.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, January 20, 2012

The public sector needs more levity

Gov + Memes =
Those considering joining this sector don't want to have to sacrifice who they are just so they can work here.

We need to bring back the jester.

We need more levity.

(apologies for the short post, its been a very busy week, click that last link, you will be happy you did)

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My Submission to the Open Government Consultation

As you probably know the Government of Canada's consultation on Open Government has now come to a close. I submitted the following on Sunday evening.


Re: Open Data and Proactive Disclosure of Grants and Contributions 

I have investigated how the Government of Canada currently discloses its Grants and Contributions (G&C) spending and I believe there is a significant opportunity to make this already publicly available data far more usable.


  • Each department publishes their own G&C data (i.e. there is no single repository)
  • Each data point is presented uniformly in an HTML table
  • Each data point has 6 variables: (1) Recipient Name; (2) Location (City, Province); (3) Date (YYYY-MM-DD); (4) Value ($123,456.78); (5) Purpose (free text), and (6) Comments (free text, often blank)
  • Each data point is buried in a subset of html pages and is difficult to find; in fact many of my searches using the native web page search failed to return any results from the G&C pages
I have worked with a handful of other public servants to test whether or not the data could be crawled and assembled into a single data set, and it can. We have already compiled a complete data set for all of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) G&C spending. This data set includes every Grant and Contribution disclosed by AANDC since proactive disclosure measures came into effect in 2005. We subsequently verified the data set and cross referenced it with Google Maps to derive longitude and latitude. You can find the data set, additional information, and preliminary visualizations here: 

Uniting currently fragmented data offering should be a key component of the Open Government Action Plan, as such I suggest that the Government of Canada assemble a team to undertake similar work across the entire domain. This is a low hanging yet incredibly important fruit that is well within our grasp. Given that I, and a handful of other public servants, have already initiated some of this work, we would be happy to share any resources we used (including code), provide advice, or help as needed.

I am looking forward to hearing back from you


Nicholas Charney

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Used to be a public servant, took an arrow to the knee

Don't worry if you don't immediately recognize the verbiage, "taking an arrow to the knee" is an internet meme popularized by the action/role-playing video game Skyrim. In Skyrim ...
... the town guard non-player characters (NPCs) have several stock lines they repeat when the player walks near them, including a bewildered statement about "curved swords", a patronizing statement about “sweetroll” theft, and the melancholy confession “I used to be an adventurer like you, then I took an arrow in the knee.” The restating of such a specific story over and over again by so many different guards caused it to be noticed by players, who then proceeded to post about it in gaming forums and image boards. -- Know Your Meme (emphasis mine)
So what does a common regret, uttered by otherwise unmemorable would-be adventurers, popularized by the Internet meme machine possibly have to do with the public service?

In a word: everything.

The Skyrim experience and emerging professional narrative

Skyrim relies on a non-linear model of gameplay, meaning that the game doesn't follow a strict path but rather leaves players to explore, discover, and interact with the world on their own terms. In practice this means that Skyrim is less of a game and more of an experience, it also means that the player can exert a significant amount of control over that experience. Players shape the game as much as the game shapes the player, or more rightly their playing style; and while every game of Skyrim starts the same way, players soon realize just how expansive the universe is, and just how many paths are available to them. As someone who has played a significant amount of Skyrim over the holiday season, I can attest to the fact that the game's natural ability to conform to my playing style, interests and goals (even as they change) has undoubtedly contributed to its wild success.

In short, I think that Skyrim delivers an experience on a gaming console that many people are seeking in their careers, namely a completely customizable experience that evolves as they evolve; that perpetually follows their interests; that keeps them challenged/engaged; and that allows them to prioritize their actions and execution (deliverables) in the way they see fit.

As such, I also think it's a perfect proxy for the Internet age's preferred narrative of life as a young professional: self-centric, entrepreneurial and adventurous. But Skyrim also:

  • is replete with divergent and convergent story lines (but players are free to pick which to pursue and which to ignore);
  • is geographically vast (but players can travel slowly or at breakneck speed); 
  • is deeply detailed (but players determine how much attention to pay to them); 
  • offers opportunities for specialization or generalist play (but without boxing players in or forcing them to forgo other opportunities); and 
  • allows players to switch focus on the fly (but allows them to leverage past experiences without penalty). 

Guards, arrows, adventurers and the public service

If Skyrim is in fact a good proxy for the Internet age's preferred narrative, then examining the difference between the roles of adventurer (the player in Skyrim) and the city guard (the non-playable character who takes the arrow to the knee) is worthwhile.

The adventurer is free to roam, explore, and develop their skill set. They travel the land, find new challenges and have a considerable impact on the world. In fact, when the adventurer enters a city, they often overhear the guards talking about recent events, events that always revolve around the actions of the adventurer themselves. On the other hand, guards are confined to the city, they meander about its walls, and lament lack of excitement in their work. If only they hadn't taken an arrow to the knee! Instead, they suffered an injury that forces them to do something they would otherwise not do: accept a position on the periphery and settle for talking about the events around them rather than actively shaping them. My observation is that risk-averse organizations are similarly polarized, which is to say (and thereby continue the metaphor) they are made up of adventurers and guards; those who define themselves and those defined by the system around them.

Of course, I'm not speaking in absolutes, but rather trying to tease out an important point of comparison. My travels across Canada and the United States have afforded me the rare opportunity to speak with public servants from different levels of government, geographical areas, and functions. Overwhelmingly they all share a single concern: the loss of their adventuring spirit. Interestingly, when I pressed these would-be adventurers, many revealed that they never actually suffered an arrow to the knee themselves, but rather feel (or have been outright told) that they will undoubtedly suffer one should they become more adventurous.

I wonder how many public servants have actually suffered an injury so severe as to limit their ability to be bold, or to seek novel solutions to complex problems? I get a sense that there is a fundamental disconnect between the stories we hear (and sadly perpetuate) and the reality of those on the edges of our organization. Culture is after all built on stories, and if we only ever tell the ones about risk and negative consequences then those two things will ultimately define our culture. Is it any wonder that rather than being encouraged to be bold and adventurous, many of us are, like the city guard, left to meander about our cubicles or blend into the machinery.

Again, I'm not trying to be insulting, this is simply a metaphorical articulation of what a risk-averse culture could (and often does) look like; and while it is clear to me that the culture may inhibit those inside the organization, it must also be said that it inhibits those looking to join it. The people that buy Skyrim, don't buy it to play as the city guard, they buy it to play as its central character. Similarly, public servants shouldn't settle for playing roles on the periphery of their organizations. Instead they should be actively building careers as central characters, pushing other protagonists to elevate their game while simultaneously sharing and collaborating with them.  Because I for one am tired of hearing about a culture defined by "arrows to knees".

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Few Upcoming Opportunities

Hi All -

Hope you had a safe and happy new year, I did, despite accidentally (read: foolishly) putting my car into a snow bank on New Year's Eve, but that is a story for another time.  I figured I should take the time to share a couple of upcoming events (listed by date) that may be of interest:

Open Government Consultation (ends January 16th)

If you didn't know the Government of Canada is currently conducting a public consultation on the issue of open government, the consultation ends January 16th.  If you have something to say, here is your chance.

Details can be found here.

(Disclosure: I have not yet provided input into the consultation, but hope to write an open letter that I will cc my blog on).

Collaborative Management Day (January 25th)

The next instalment of the Collaborative Culture Camp series, a series designed to build capacity for working together openly and embracing a culture of collaboration.  This is a free learning series wholly organized by public servants for public servants and should prove to be worth your time.  

Details can be found here; the program even boasts regional participation for those of you outside the National Capital Region.

(Disclosure: I had a hand in organizing the first camp of the series, and have since signed up to be a volunteer if needed).

Career Bootcamp 2012 (January 27th)

An annual event organization by various federal government young professional networks in partnership with the National Capital Region Young Professionals Network (NCRYPN).  The event is a blend of workshops, professional development, hand-on learning, and networking geared towards new public servants.

Details can be found here; this year the conference is on pace for 300 attendees and seems like a great opportunity to meet your colleagues.

(Disclosure: I am sitting on a panel with Simona Ioffee and Blaise Hebert to discuss Virtual Engagement to Enhance Job Performance).

Crises in Canadian Government: Enable the emerging workforce! (February 9th)

A peer-to-peer roundtable conversation to discuss how the government can enable the emerging workforce and what technologies, policies and ways of thinking/operating could make a difference.  This event is connected to the One Million Acts of Innovation campaign and is free to attend.

Details can be found here; I've spoken with the organizers and the discussion should prove interesting should it bridge the gap between those who would be entering the public service and those who are ready to retire from their careers in it.  

(Disclosure: I've been invited to attend the event and help animate the discussion, but won't be doing any formal presentation).

Unconfirmed Travel Rumours

You might be able to find me in Toronto, Winnipeg and Regina in the next two months, but nothing has been nailed down just yet.  I'll provide more intel when I get it, in the interim if you are in those areas and want to connect, let me know.


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