Monday, May 28, 2012

MBR: Escape from Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur

I decided I was going to read a book a week for a year, here's a quick review of this week's book.  You can see the ongoing list here.

Basic Info

Escape From Cubicle Nation: From Corporate Prisoner to Thriving Entrepreneur by Pamela Slim

Why I read it

I've always been interested in the startup scene; and I've been contemplating a move, figured this book would be right in my wheelhouse. Besides, it probably has one of the best covers I've ever seen.

How it connects to the Public Sector

If you aren't happy at work, this is your step by step road map out.


What I got out of reading it

There is a lot of rock solid advice about business planning, how to shop for your own insurance plan, how to manage cash flow, and even how to talk to your spouse about your decision to start your own business.

In retrospect, I was pleasantly surprised that this wasn't another "you can do it if you believe in yourself" self help/business book (a la Seth Godin). It was more of a "starting your own business is a shit ton of work and if you are ready to make a go of it, here is what you should probably think about" type book.  It even included a whimsical quip about exploring a plan b when it comes to health care which I found rather funny (hint: it advocated applying for Canadian citizenry).

Again, given what is happening right now in terms of the cuts to the public sector, Escape From Cubicle Nation is a timely read for those who are affected employees or contemplating alternation but are unsure of what your next move should be.  This book will give you the direction you may feel you are lacking.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, May 25, 2012

Learning plans are a crutch and I'd rather learn without one

First let me start by saying that the line of reasoning I am about to present to you may go somewhat against the grain; feel free to take issue or prove me wrong, as you will see below, its been done before.

I am not a fan of learning plans

My main contention is that organizations that are serious about learning don't have learning plans they have learning cultures. They don't have forms that need to be filled out, justifications that need writing, and approvals that need approving. Rather they position learning a cultural cornerstone of everyday activity, encourage inquisitive minds and guard against permission based barriers.

my crutches by dimtri_66

Learning plans are inherently antagonistic

I also think that learning plans reinforce organizational power differentials by reducing employees to applicants and managers to approvers.  This leads to skirmishes over justifications and shrinking resource pools.

Learning plans are biased towards a particular model of learning

In general, organizational training authorizations forms (the one's I have seen) are biased towards classroom or conference (learning event) based training. Where, for example, is the box on the form that allows me to express my desire for a more nuanced approach to learning?

They are also biased towards the here and now, I was recently asked to complete a 3-year training plan. How can I honestly complete it when the things I want to learn - the prescient things in my field - haven't even been invented yet?

Let me tell you a little story about learning plans

A few years ago, my boss at the time informed me that I needed to fill out a learning plan. We had an excellent relationship and while we agreed that we didn't really need a learning plan that is was mandatory.

So, I decided to have a bit of fun.

I took out a stamp my wife got me when I was a teacher's assistant and stamped the learning plan with it; the stamp read "Complete and Utter Bullshit". Signed it, turned it in, cajoled the admin into giving it to my Director General (DG), knowing full well it would get a good laugh but wind up back on my desk.

We were a small team (about 7 in total) so it didn't take long (I literally split a single office with the admin and our DG sat in the office next to ours).  A few hours later the learning plan was on my desk with a little note asking me to redo it. This time I decided to write a single line on the training form:
"All I want is the flexibility to discuss reasonable learning opportunities as they arise."
Again, I signed it and sent it up the pipe. Again it came down with a redo post it affixed to it. Finally I acquiesced. I wrote down a conference that was a few weeks away knowing full well that it would be near impossible to get it through the approval chain given that it was in DC (technically an international conference and thus subject to greater approvals).

Long story short, I submitted the form trying to prove that learning plans don't actually work and my DG proved me wrong.

She approved my training plan, and personally shepherded the request through the system and wound up in DC attending an O'Reilly Media Government 2.0 conference.  That woman went to the wall to get me to that conference. But I doubt proving me wrong was her motivation, she just wanted to honour her commitment because that's the type of person she was (and probably still is - we no longer work together).

I suppose in retrospect that learning plan did teach me something: that a learning plan is less important than the relationship between the people negotiating it.

That the former is only as strong as the latter.

That I ought invest more time in building relationships than filling out forms.

That a learning plan is a kind of crutch, and I'd rather learn without one.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

MBR Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception

I decided I was going to read a book a week for a year, here's a quick review of this week's book.  You can see the ongoing list here.

Basic Info

Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception by Pamela Meyer

Why I read it

I watch a lot of TED videos, Pamela has one, it caught my eye.  It wasn't ground breaking by any means but it was interesting enough for me to plunk down twelve bucks on the eReader version (I borrowed my wife's Kobo Touch for the first time, which I thought I would hate but didn't). Here's the talk:

How it connects to the Public Sector

I'm not sure that there is a direct connection, unless you think you work in an office full of liars, at which point you probably need a little more help than just this book ;)

That said, the book did reinforce (heavily) the point that face to face communications are always preferable whenever there is any skin in the game because a face to face meeting gives you the opportunity to observe those with whom you are dealing, thus making you more likely to catch deception before it catches you.

What I got out of reading it

I actually found the book difficult to read at times.

Much of the book is dedicated to describing facial features, body language or mannerisms. I felt as though the content would have been better suited to a video (or series of videos) than a book. It was  rife with bullet point statistical filler and the chapter on deception audits was (in my opinion) incredibly far flung.

That said, it wasn't all bad. I will definitely be paying closer attention to people's physical comportment whenever I think the truth may be getting stretched or listen more carefully to my friends whimsical narratives of the long weekend to determine the degree to which they are embellishing their exploits.

And, if that's something you'd be interested in than Liespotting may be a good fit. If not you may want to steer clear... and that, my friends, is the god's the honest truth.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, May 18, 2012

Rethinking Government Grants and Contributions

I have spent the last 5 years working at the confluence of People, Technology and Public Policy. I've spent those years struggling to understand how these things inform one another both as a citizen and as a public servant; it is a complex and often confusing undertaking

As an early adopter of new technologies and proponent of a more collaborative and open approach to government feel as though we are quite literally staring into the chasm.

As a citizen, I am eager to find a way across it.

As a public servant I understand that the chasm can often be intimidating.

It is simultaneously full of the unknown and opportunity, of terror and excitement, and of risk and reward. I also realize that this dichotomy is giving rise to an interesting tension. Bureaucracies around the world continue to resist change while those working inside them are growing increasing frustrated by creed of business as usual.

This tension is boiling over all over the globe; so much has changed in past couple of years. We've seen revolutions, riots, and the occupation of our city streets.

We must ask ourselves how much longer can we simply stand at the edge of the chasm staring into the unknown.

We must be open to rethinking the role of government in an ever changing society.

It was Albert Einstein who said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them"; yet if there is one thing we as a society are guilty of is it is clinging to old mental models of what the public service ought to be, of what it ought to look like, of the types of solutions it ought to offer up.

I want to position an alternate vision for government grants and contributions, but before I do that, I want to take a minute to speak to grants and contributions more broadly.

On paper grants and contributions programs are quite simple, the transfer of government money to organizations, businesses, individuals, or other levels of government in order to achieve a specific outcome. In reality, they are an incredibly complex environment.

In Canada alone the federal government allocates approximately 27 billion dollars a year through grants and contributions programs; in the province of Ontario that number is roughly 85 billion. Federally these transfers are managed through over 800 different programs. Provincially, I couldn't even ascertain a number (feel free to update any of my numbers). The throughput of these transfers are usually reported at the departmental level, making cross-cutting or macro analysis difficult, if not impossible. But that is just one side of the equation.

Now, I've never applied for government monies myself, so went out and spent some of my personal time speaking to those who have. I sat down with a handful of small business owners, community associations, charities and researchers.

Their experience was varied, but a number of trends emerged. First, many had to hire consultants as intermediaries because they were unable to navigate the process themselves. The felt that the process was too complicated and that they required additional expertise to ensure they completed it properly. Second, many reported that the cost of securing the grant often outweighed the benefit of receiving it; some even saying that they had decided to abandon the process altogether. Third, the entire process is on lock down. Applicants are left in the dark as to the likelihood of their application being approved, how much competition they face, or when they will actually receive the funding. Fourth, everyone I spoke to identified the process as adversarial, that government officials are more likely to be gatekeepers looking to check boxes rather and hand out monies rather than be active stewards seeking the best possible return on government money. Fifth, the process is incredibly slow, and little consideration is given to the time sensitive nature of some requests, forcing many recipient organizations to live hand to mouth.

I should admit to not having worked directly in government grants or contributions programs and thus am unable to speak directly to the experience of those working on the inside. But let me be clear, I'm not trying to trying to be critical of those in that line of work nor the evolution of the system thus far. What I am trying to do is posit a more participatory and open model of grants and contributions (under the larger rubric of open government) that addresses the specific concerns raised by recipients during our conversations. Accordingly, I'd love to hear what you have to think about the alternative model I am about to present.

Characteristics of an alternative model

silueta by cardrea
For a new model to be truly transformative it must break the traditional trade-offs of the status quo. It must eliminate money contingent on things like hiring intermediaries, diverting labour away from core activities, being left out of the process, meeting minimum government set thresholds and moving slowly.

To my mind it starts by moving to a single window online; its client recipient focused not administration focused (which is to say it focuses on the user experience from the citizen perspective). Information should be easy to locate; and search should be central (like it is with the city of Calgary's web site).

It should make recommendations to citizens like Amazon does its customers; "People who applied this grant program also applied for these ones" or "People who spoke to this government official also spoke to this one".

Application criteria should be clearly articulated and as uniformly presented as possible across the spectrum of grant niches. There shouldn't be a different form for every program but a persistent set of reusable tombstone data that follows applicants and never needs to be re-entered into a form.

Applicants should be able to access examples of both successful and unsuccessful applications that citizens can see and learn from; they should see success, attrition, and failure rates on the grants they are applying for, and be able to instantly access online support. It could pair applicants up based on key markers like geography, program applied to, interest areas or desired outcomes. It could directly connect applicants who are competing for the same limited pool of grant money and provide them the information they need to decide whether or not to abandon their bid, team up with their competitor(s) or go head to head with them for the cash.

Imagine the efficiencies that could be gained by connecting like minded charitable organizations or art groups, or the innovation generated by connecting small business owners. Why not allow citizens to easily leverage their existing social networks in order to gain support, insights, or measure sentiment around their applications.

It could also build in persistent online profiles for public officials that indicate their expertise and make that expertise more universally accessible.

This vision of grants and contributions is one of government as convener. One where government officials could pull large applications out of the mix and put them up for larger public consultation should the application merit it. It could even target those consultations based on the geographical areas or interest communities that will be impacted by the grants.

This vision is one that ensures that public servants bring their expertise in public administration to bear, using more complete information to them to make more effective recommendations to elected officials, who are ultimately responsible for making the tough decisions.

After those decisions are made, public servants would work directly with recipients to ensure funds were transferred promptly, that they were allocated under the conditions of the grant and stay tuned in to the process, and finally evaluate the grant throughput and make those findings available within the window.

Governments could even go a step further and provide the tools to manipulate the data for further analysis or create a parallel incentive structure for entrepreneurs looking to build applications or data visualizations. Keeping the data accessible means that it can help inform anyone who chooses to look at it, be it other applicants, the media, public servants or elected officials.

The art of the possible

Often in government we think that there is little place for re-imagining things; we get so bogged down in day to day operations within the status quo that we forget that we aren't just responsible for delivering our mandates today, but also ensuring that they are delivered in a relevant manner tomorrow.  

This vision, I think, is one that could help governments do just that.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Monday, May 14, 2012

MBR: Policy Paradox by Deborah Stone Part 2

I decided I was going to read a book a week for a year, here's a quick review of this week's book.  You can see the ongoing list here.

Basic Info

Part 2 ...

This week took a bit longer to finish, here is the tail end of the review. I won't get too detailed but I thought I would share what is by far one of the most appropriate quotations from a the book I came across:
"Only two things limit the number of and kinds of alternatives considered: poverty of imagination and considerations of practicality. " (p. 245).
It is the quintessential challenge facing the public service, and applies to policy, management, and our daily work. I needn't remind you that I've always been a proponent of greater greater creativity in the public sector and moving away from the status quo.

Unrelated, I really liked the chapter on rules (and how to make them in a policy environment). In particular I thought the book's treatment of the primary tension in rule-making (the balance between precision and flexibility) to be well articulated and a solid reminder of what policy makers should be consider and strive for whenever crafting policy.


Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Friday, May 11, 2012

Like it or not, this is the workplace culture your organization is competing with

I came across this gem via Peter Stoyko's blog; it's the Valve employee handbook. Before I share my thoughts, here is what Peter had this to say about it:
Behold: the employee-orientation manual of the future; except, I hasten to add, this manual is for an extremely successful company from the here and now, the video-game maker Valve. Take particular notice of the forthright language … the lack of finger-wagging “thou shalts” … and the networked, fluid, collaborative model of organisation, including the emphasis on mobile workspaces (a subject I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last few years).

My own hypothesis is (and feel free to disagree) that in a hyper connected world where the expectations of entrants to the labour market are set by market makers (like Valve) your work culture will be the single most important determining factor when considering how to attract top talent. I fully acknowledge that salaries and benefits are important but my experience is that most people I know (at least those who are even marginally entrepreneurial) will gladly trade some of their fixed benefits for more engaging work and all the intangibles that come with it.

If you haven't bothered to read the handbook (you should btw, it will open your eyes to say the least), here is a choice quotation about how the company approaches the issue of hierarchy:
Valve is not averse to all organizational structure — it crops up in many forms all the time, temporarily. But problems show up when hierarchy or codified divisions of labor either haven’t been created by the group’s members or when those structures persist for long periods of time. We believe those structures inevitably begin to serve their own needs rather than those of Valve’s customers. The hierarchy will begin to reinforce its own structure by hiring people who fit its shape, adding people to fill subordinate support roles. Its members are also incented to engage in rent-seeking behaviors that take advantage of the power structure rather than focusing on simply delivering value to customers. (p16)

It's too late for guys (and girls) like me

The worst part of this isn't that I'm working in an alien culture but rather just how further removed from the norm it will be for the next generation should it continue down the twisted path of hierarchy first, everything else second.

At some point, the results we aim to achieve must matter more than the myriad of forms, templates, and platitudes we used to get there.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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Monday, May 7, 2012

MBR: Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making

I decided I was going to read a book a week for a year, here's a quick review of this week's book.  You can see the ongoing list here.

Basic Info

Why I read it

It was recommended to me as essential reading by a friend of mine; hell, he even lent it to me!

How it connects to the Public Sector

The book is straight out of a university course on public administration; it deals with everything from multiple understandings of equity to the purposeful use symbols and numbers to define a given issue.

What I got out of reading it

The real mark of this book is its ability to expand your breadth in a structured way without sounding as though it is prescribing policy solutions on either side of the typical left/right spectrum; after all its not often you can pick up a policy book that isn't prescriptive.

Here are a couple of choice quotations, first from the chapter on Efficiency:
"Efficiency is always a contestable concept. Everyone supports the general idea of getting the most out of something, but to go beyond the vague slogans and apply the concept to a concrete policy choice requires making assumptions about who and what counts as important. There are no correct answers to these questions to be found outside the political process. The answers built into supposedly technical analyses of efficiency are nothing more than political claims." (p65, Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making by Deborah Stone)
And now from the chapter on Symbols:
The strategy of focusing on a part of the problem, particularly one that can dramatized as a horror story, thus is likely to lead to skewed policy. Yet is is often a politically useful strategy. It is a good organizing tool, because it can make a problem concrete, allow people to identify with someone else, and mobilize anger. It also reduces the scope of the problem and makes it more manageable. (p147-148, Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making by Deborah Stone).
Now, I'd be lying if I said I was done this book yet. As it stands I am only about half way through, but in my defence its a bit thick and there is a lot of meat on the bone. I'll finish it up this week and review the second half next week, but so far I think that Policy Paradox is good reading for anyone interested in public policy (though if you already have a political science degree as I do, some of it may be review).

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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