Friday, August 24, 2012

Open Government or Openness in Government?

I've recently recommitted to working on a couple of book ideas; what follows is the preamble to a book I am working on on Open Government.


Last year I was sitting in a small coffee shop off the beaten path with a couple of friends - fellow bureaucrats - when one of them, a particularly astute young lady, asked me if I was passionate about my work because I worked in the public sector or if I was just a passionate person. The question was particularly poignant given my profound respect for my colleague and the fact that I was in the middle complete career chaos at work. The powers that be had just torn a sizable strip (rightly or wrongly) off me and left me questioning whether or not a career in the public service was still the career I wanted.

You see, for the last five years I've walked the fine line between being professional and non-partisan civil servant working behind the scenes while writing openly about the public sector online. It’s been an odd journey to say the least. You might think me lucky to have married my passion and my work load, but the marriage is often tumultuous.

I've held several different positions during my time in the public service. I've seen both the best and the worst the institution has to offer. I've been its most disengaged employee and its most vocal advocate. I've spent time toiling away in the trenches as a relative unknown and time in close proximity to senior management providing coaching and focused advice. I may not have the whole picture yet, but I know my opportunities have been good ones and I certainly feel privileged for having seen and experienced everything I have thus far in my career.

I've managed to cross this great country a number of time, speaking to public servants from all walks of life, levels of government, and times in their career. I've accepted every invitation to sit and chat over coffee with our sector’s established leaders, its up-and-comers, and its down-and-outers. I've tried my best to be an ear that listens critically, an empathetic shoulder to lean on, and an outstretched hand offering support to those who need it.

When I started my blog five years ago, I never envisioned it would be a springboard to these types of opportunities. Truthfully it was never its intention. I'd love to say I had a plan and executed it, but I didn't. I had a feeling, I thought I perceived a need, and I started writing with the aim of filling it. Despite my efforts, and the efforts of others, I still feel as though thought leadership from future public sector leaders is an underserved market. I wasn’t the first, nor will I be the last. When I started I was inspired by what I saw others doing in the space. Over time I found my voice and awoke to the possibility that there is more to life in the public service than being tentative, deference to authority, and authorization forms.

Once you awake to something like that, it is impossible to turn back.

In addition to blogging I invested a significant amount of personal time writing a small whitepaper, Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants. It was inspired by the work of a number of friends, mentors and fellow public servants. Seemingly out of nowhere Scheming turned into an opportunity to get in front of a live audience and my career kind of snowballed from there.

What I’ve found since then is that people are willing to invest their time in things that they believe in. What I’ve come to believe in is that exploring the confluence of people, public policy and technology will lead to innovation, it will lead to improvements in how we deliver services to citizens and how we work with one another.

While I have done my utmost to keep the work on my desk and the work on my dining room table separate, they undoubtedly have had a profound influence on each other. I firmly believe that my blog makes me a better civil servant, and being a civil servant makes me a better blogger. It's a delicate balance to be sure, but one I have thus far been able to handle.

A lot has changed in the last five years, and although it may not feel like it at times, the bureaucracy has made remarkable improvements. We have better access to collaborative technologies than we had previously, there is a push to better manage our information resources, and a keen focus on improving how we deliver service; and while you may think my last statement is jargon, I think the fact that Open Government is even a topic of conversation in this country is evidence to the contrary. It certainly wasn't part of the discourse when I was signed my letter of offer five years ago.

That said, the conversation about Open Government in Canada is still, in my view, nascent. Yes, the discourse has gained some mainstream attention, but it still has a long way to go, especially inside public sector organizations.

Sure there are early adopters but for the most part the issue isn't really on the radar writ large. There are a number of reasons for this: exclusionary and technocratic language; entrenched bureaucracies; institutional momentum, and a gross underestimation of the depth and breadth of the coming change.

That notwithstanding, the issue may be simply one of perspective. My experience is that most public servants aren’t as interested in broad and sweeping societal movements or changes, as they are in having timely access to the information, people, and expertise they need to do their job effectively.

In other words, what bureaucrats are really after isn't Open Government per se but rather greater openness in government.


Originally published by Nick Charney at
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