Monday, February 27, 2012

Monday Book Review: Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde

Basic Info

Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde

Why I bought it
"from the ink of the text ... " by ๓ậтëø 

After watching Emily Levine's TED talk I knew I had to read this book; my only regret is having waited so long to actually do so.

How it connects to the public sector

While the book itself is technically an exercise in comparative anthropology, Hyde's ability to explain the disruptive side of the human imagination in great detail makes the book incredibly relevant for anyone looking to re-imagine the status quo.

After having read Trickster, I wrote a pair of posts that explicitly connected disruptive innovation with Hyde's anthropological arguments; in fact, Innovation is tricky, literally ... and Finding Innovation are two of my most heavily trafficked posts from last year (despite a noticeable lack of comments).

What you will get out of reading it

I honestly can't explain just how important this book has been to me personally and professionally. I read it at a time when I was in a bit of trouble at work (long story) and being able to contextualize my experience within the narrative of the book gave me some much needed perspective.

If you are interested disruptive innovation, this book will not only shape your understanding of the discipline, but will also outline what you can expect if you are successful, and just as importantly, what you can expect if you aren't.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, February 24, 2012

Think, write, repeat

While you may be able to download an application that turns even your crappy cell phone pics into something hipsters will rave about on Facebook, or transform your worst karaoke showing into a pop song that would make Bieber proud, there isn't an app on earth that can make you a better critical thinker, or compensate for deficient writing skills.  In a world where (almost) everyone is a publisher, good writing skills and the ability to think critically are likely key differentiators.  

They are also mutually reinforcing

The more you think critically the better you are at expressing those thoughts in writing, the more you express those thoughts in writing, the deeper you can push your understanding.  

The thoughts I share here are ones I bat around in my head for weeks at a time.  What goes live on Friday mornings is always something that has been written, rewritten, completely torn apart, and slowly pieced back together.  I understand that the process, while often brutal and stressful, ultimately leads to a depth of understanding that I couldn't achieve if I simply shot from the hip and riffed on a particular subject.  In fact, over the years, I have collected a number of unfinished blog posts (over a hundred in fact) that I simply haven't been able to frame properly yet.

But this blog is not just a training ground for my skills, it is a living and growing portfolio that demonstrates those skills in action, and as such it's become far more valuable than my (traditional) resume alone (more on this below). 

It's a knowledge economy, stupid

The problem with a conventional resume is that it actually doesn't demonstrate any of the abilities listed on it (with the possible exception of effective communication). This week I came across a post called "Github is my resume" (via Ycombinator).  In it, a Python coder (named pyDanny), argues that, while traditional resumes are a passive inventory of tasks and responsibilities (and thus ripe for embellishment), an online repository of your work (in his case Github) is an active demonstration of those abilities. The comments on the article brought some nuance to the discussion, which eventually settled on the idea that a static resume is still a valuable tool, but what programmers really need (and what a service like Github can be) is a portfolio.

Given, I'm not a coder (you might not be one either) but the logic is the same (paraphrasing pyDanny): 

If you write every day or every week, over time your writing will get better; you'll also be able to demonstrate a consistent body of work, and your passion will be obvious. 

Where's your passion?

Where is your living portfolio? 

Isn't it time you started thinking, writing and repeating?

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Monday, February 20, 2012

Monday Book Review: Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff

Basic Info 

Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age by Douglas Rushkoff

Why I bought it

I read an article Rushkoff published (on CNN) entitled Are Jobs Obsolete and immediately thought anyone who is willing to ask a question that challenges the very assumptions underlying our problems is worth investigating. Here the excerpt that got my attention:
I am afraid to even ask this, but since when is unemployment really a problem? I understand we all want paychecks -- or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?

How it connects to the public sector

A number of Rushkoff's arguments resonate with my experience in the public sector; and while I won't get into each one, Rushkoff's second chapter hit particularly close to home. In Live in Person, he argues that:
Digital networks are decentralized technologies. They work from far away, exchanging intimacy for distance. This makes them terrifically suitable for long-distance communication and activities, but rather awful for engaging with what - or who - is right in front of us. By using dislocating technology for local connection, we lose our sense of place, as well as our home field advantage.
I can't even count how many times have I've been sitting in "important" meetings only to find my colleagues praying to their blackberry and otherwise ignoring what is directly in front of them: me, others, the issue at hand, and even the solution to the day's problem.

That said, I have to admit that I've been both a perpetrator and victim, I've both ignored and been ignored.  It's become a part of the culture, but according to Rushkoff, it doesn't have to be.

What you will get out of reading it 

At its core the book is about the need to think critically about what is happening around you and making willful choices about the roles we all play; and while the book uses the specific example of programming, the same philosophy (as I have written previously) applies to the public sector.

 If you are looking for a wake up call in the digital era, this may be it.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, February 17, 2012

Finding a path to sustainability

Cutting public sector jobs may decrease overall expenditures, but it doesn't amount to the fundamental change we've been talking about, nor does it put us on a path to sustainability. At least that is what the recently released Drummond Report argues:
If civil servants and public sector workers want pay raises, they should find the money through cheaper ways to do their own jobs.
That’s what Don Drummond recommends in his new report, which takes a wide-ranging look at streamlining a vast bureaucracy that eats half the money Ontario’s cash-strapped government spends on programs.
“This government should provide a zero budget increase for wage costs,” the report said.
“Ministries and agencies will then have to drive out inefficiencies to absorb any wage increase.” Drummond rejected wage freezes — as proposed by Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and as mandated by the Liberal government for its non-union workers — arguing they only result in “catch-up” costs later. 
And he saw no point in setting limits on the number of civil servants, instead pushing for a hard look at programs the government offers — and eliminating unnecessary and ineffective ones — as the best way to shrink the public payroll. 
“There should be . . . only a consideration of practical logic — what produces the best result for the people of Ontario at an affordable cost?” - Rob Ferguson, Drummond Report: Ministries, agencies urged to ‘drive out inefficiencies’, the Toronto Star.

Looking beyond job cuts

Looking beyond the next round of cuts can obviously be difficult, and while those decisions are obviously made well beyond my pay grade, I can't help but try to offer some advice to those who have the responsibility to do so.

Consider the whole value chain

Often we frame things in a single lens. Cutting costs almost always means losing jobs, but as Drummond points out, it doesn't have to. It can also mean (pardon the jargon) finding efficiencies. For the uninitiated, "finding efficiencies" is govspeak for either improving the outcome of a particular policy, program or service at current costs; or reducing the costs thereof without harming current outcomes.

Herein lies the core challenge for public servants: In order to find efficiencies, organizations need to be better at systems thinking. They need to step back and see all the moving parts, evaluate them, posit improvements, test them, and implement them where appropriate. This is an incredibly complex task and many public servants are simply not in a position to undertake it. This is not due to some sort of lack of intelligence on the part of public servants but rather the lack of information. This is the natural consequence of a long history of large organizations, hierarchical systems and information silos. Simply put, no one can put the puzzle together if no one has access to all the pieces.

An lesson from the private sector 

By now we are all familiar with the historic decline of the record industry; an industry that had suffered from such myopia that it maintained its preoccupation with physical record sales even as traditional revenue streams dried up and new (long tail) markets emerged. What many in the industry failed to do was look at how the entire value chain was changing:
[E]very "free" video by an amateur requires that amateur to buy a camera, a video-capable laptop, editing software, and a broadband connection through which to upload the completed piece onto a conglomerate-owned video server, along with most its rights. Value is still being extracted from the work - it's just being taken from a different place in the production cycle, and not passed down to the creators themselves. - Douglas Rushkoff, Program or Be Programmed, p.121
Entrepreneurs like Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, were successful because he looked at the entire system, recognized the shift towards greater and greater self-production, saw the gap left by the major players, and stepped in to fill it (creating a tremendous amount of wealth in the process). Had the big record labels paid closer attention to the ground shifting beneath their feet they could have easily stood up a service like CD Baby themselves. But hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

An example from the public sector
"Health care is at once the biggest item in the Ontario government’s budget, the issue of most concern to Ontarians, the source of the most intense and emotional public policy debate, and the centre of the most complex delivery system of any set of programs financed by the provincial government." - p.143 Public Services for Ontarians: A Path to Sustainability and Excellence (aka the Drummond Report)
While the quotation above outlines the Ontario experience, some of the most basic challenges of the health care system apply across the country. That is why I am really excited about the recent launch of the BC Health Service Locator App. The app, for reasons I will outline below, is exactly a step in the Drummondian direction.

Why is it a move in the right direction? 

First, it was cheap. It was developed entirely in-house and on volunteered time. A couple of public servants saw an opportunity, learned how to code, did a proof of concept, and the rest is available for download on iTunes. Moreover, the additional work required to bring this application to market is reusable. The process included bringing the data into line with the DataBC standard, meaning that it is now also available for use via BC's open data catalogue. Also, all of the legal costs associated with evaluating the terms of use with companies like Google or Apple can be re-used for future application development across the BC government.

Second, it took a bunch of data and made it relevant for citizens. Creating a dynamic list of health care options that literally builds itself around the geographic location of the citizen means more informed decision-making; and while I cannot say for certain that this will lead to hard cost-savings, it is my experience that more informed decisions are usually less costly ones.

Let's push it further

This app is just the beginning of what the future of mobile health services could look like.

What if the BC app took it a step further and combined location-based health services with real time emergency room wait times? Imagine you need to head to the emergency room, you pull up the app to find its location and right next to it is the estimated wait time. What if the app can automatically calculate the fact that you would most likely be admitted to an emergency room a little further away because it has a lower wait time? The app could simply use your GPS, Google maps, and the hospital wait time to calculate your most expedient option.

How about if you could complete the initial triage paperwork while en route to the emergency room via your smart phone? By the time you arrive the hospital already has your info ready to go, but it doesn't physically check you into the queue until you present yourself at the desk (or are automatically confirmed to be at the hospital via your phone's GPS).

Would you travel a little further or provide preliminary details via your mobile if it meant shaving two hours off your wait time?

Would lower wait times have spillover effects into issues like overtime pay, stress leave and quality of care?


A final thought

If you haven't seen Bill Ford's TED Talk on "A future beyond traffic gridlock" you should watch it, because what I am hinting at is essentially the exact same thing: smarter data driven health care services that circumvent the coming gridlock, the exact same kind of services that I think Drummond is arguing for when he says:
This context lifts the task ahead well beyond that of merely cutting or restraining costs. We must be students of history and history shows that simple cost-cutting by governments too often generates fiscal improvements that peter out after a few years as pressures build. In the end, spending surges again and the result is more of the same, but at a higher cost.
The only way to get out of deficits and stay out, in a period of limited economic growth, is to reform government programs and the manner in which they are delivered.
This should be viewed as an opportunity, not a problem. Ontario can and should have the best public services in the world; this is an opportunity to reach for that goal. To get there, we should study promising practices around the world by others who have faced similar issues.

Note: the TED Talk starts out a little like a Ford commercial, but if you can tolerate it, there is a lot of really cool ideas in it.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, February 10, 2012

Thoughts About and Analysis of the 2011 Public Service Employee Survey

Last week the Treasury Board Secretariat released the results of the 2011 Public Service Employee Survey (PSES). According to the Treasury Board Secretariat website:

The Public Service Employee Survey (PSES) has been conducted every three years since 1999. It provides employees the opportunity to anonymously voice their opinions on their leadership, workforce and work environment. It is conducted by Statistics Canada on behalf of the Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer. The survey results enable managers and employees to discuss the strengths and areas for improvement in people management at all levels of their organization. The results also feed into deputy heads’ performance assessments.

High level observations (directly from the data)

I took a few minutes to read through the results for the Public Service as a whole, here are some things that caught my eye coupled with some of my own thoughts (broken down by subsections, with references to question numbers):

My job world
  • A minority of public servants (14%) are dissatisfied with their (technological) toolset in the workplace (Q1) 
  • Roughly 1/5 of people's interests are not aligned with their jobs; improving this alignment could result in increased productivity and retention (and thereby lower operating costs) (Q4) 
  • Only 3% of civil servants hate their job strongly disagree with the statement, "Overall, I like my job". I find this encouraging; I would have assumed it was much higher (Q7) 
  • Only 58% of public servants feel as though they are receiving meaningful recognition for work well done (Q9) 
  • Only 61% feel as though they have opportunities to implement new ideas on how to improve their work (Q12) 
  • Many public servants feel as though changing priorities and the lack of stability is negatively impacting their work. I doubt this sector will rediscover the stability of yesteryear any time soon, as such I think this a strong indication that we need to onboard more people who are comfortable with uncertainty (Q18a/b)

My organization

  • 1/5 of public servants (strongly or somewhat) disagree with the statement: "Senior managers in my organization lead by example in ethical behaviour" (Q42) 
  • 1/2 of public servants (strongly or somewhat) agree with the statement: "I have confidence in the senior management of my department or agency" (Q44)
  • Only 46% of public servants (strongly or somewhat) agree with the statement: "Essential information flows effectively from senior management to staff". What interests me most about this question is that its inverse is not asked on the survey, by this I mean: "Essential information flows effectively from staff to senior management" (Q47) 
  • Only 63% of public servants would recommend their department as a place to work (Q51)


  • While 48% of public servants are actively looking for another position (Q56) only 8% of them intending to leave their current position in the next two years are looking at opportunities outside the public service (Q55). This seems to suggest that churn, not turnover, is the key retention issue. 
  • Question 58, "In my work unit, there are effective mechanisms in place to deal with poor performers" caught my attention for two reasons. The first is because the question is restricted to Managers only; surely employees have something to say about the issue? Second was because there was apparently insufficient data to report back on. To my knowledge, this is the only place that reported as such.

General Information 

  • Teleworking and job sharing seem to be incredibly underutilized given their popularity (and effectiveness) in the private sector. (Q75c/d)

A quick comparison of selected results

I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the data in greater detail, so I pieced together the following chart:

(click image to enlarge)

The chart shows a sample of the results of 10 departments/agencies for survey question number 51 (Q51). I didn't want to be accused of playing favourites (I originally compared departments/agencies I have worked for) so I selected the first 9 results alphabetically and used the overall results of the Public Service as a baseline. As you can see the chart is a little messy but there are clearly a number of departments or agencies that follow the trend line while others are clearly outliers. In the chart below, I have isolated the outliers and the baseline in order to make the distinctions more clear.

(click image to enlarge)

As you can see, public servants working at the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) are more likely to recommend their agency as a place to work whereas the Canada School of Public Service is less likely (than the Public Service as a whole). Again, I'm not trying to play favourites or point fingers, but I did want to use an example to help illustrate my underlying argument, namely that there are things to learn from comparative analysis. While departmental results are displayed next to the baseline Public Service data (in HTML tables) there is no single downloadable data set with which to work. If this information was released on, comparative analysis would be much easier.

Why comparative analysis is important

Obviously the data is intended to give credit where credit is do as well as turn up the heat on organizations underperforming against the average. However, I am far less interested in back patting, and naming and shaming than I am in allowing public servants to measure different agencies against criteria that may be important to them. If for example the rate at which people are promoted (Q78) is more important than meaningful feedback on work well done (Q9) then use the data from the dataset to determine which agencies they'd rather work for. Or say compare the policy sector of one department to its communications department, or the communication departments of three different agencies.  I suppose that at its core, I'm simply talking about providing public servants with a greater capacity for data-driven and career-focused decision-making.

Furthemore if we allow people to use the data to test hypotheses about organization design against factors like the size of agency, region of operation, or line of work (e.g. regulatory/enforcement) we may find that certain organizational structures or practices work better than others.

So why not release the data in a single unified data set?

It’s worth noting that the analysis is only possible because the government discloses the data publicly; and while I'm not averse to showing the results in HTML tables, I don't see a compelling reason why the data could not have been released as a complete dataset as a part of We already have the data, we have already disclosed the data, re-releasing it as part of the data catalogue would make any future analysis much easier.

I suppose that is precisely why I requested the data be released on via their contact form.

If you have an interest in the data, like I do, I suggest you do the same.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, February 3, 2012

For those who think they lack the courage

If someone walked up to you and punched you in the stomach, you'd probably react.

You'd lash out; you'd walk away; you'd defend yourself.

Yet, everyday you come into work, sit down at your desk, power up your pc and get willingly get sucker punched by culture around you.

The blow steals your breath, you start to doubt yourself, and eventually you just surrender.

It's easy to fall into the trap of being the victim, of raising your hand to complain, while refusing to get off your ass to do anything about it.

I won't lie to you, it takes courage to step up and shape the world around you.

You may think you don't have it in you.

You are wrong.

You just need to get mad.

Who knows, you might just start a movement.


Originally published by Nick Charney at
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