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MBR: Scheming Virtuously The Road to Collaborative Governance

Monday, April 30, 2012
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

Scheming Virtuously: the road to collaborative governance by Gilles Paquet


Why I bought it

Actually I didn't, Gilles sent me a copy years ago after having sat on a panel with him and subsequently accepting his invitation to virtuous scheming. Despite my enthusiasm for the book I only wound up reading about half of it at the time as life got in the way (as it tends to do); it's been sitting on my shelf waiting to be finished ever since.


How it connects to the Public Sector

The book argues for a new, more collaborative governance model and points at a number of things that we (public servants, civil society and public intellectuals) could change in order to achieve it. That said, the target audience seems varied and at times the text becomes incredibly complex and frequently invokes Latin and/or French to convey the underlying sentiment.

What I got out of reading it


The best chapters of the book were by far chapters 5 (Stewardship vs leadership) and 8 (An agenda for change in the federal public service), the latter of which tackles the issue of change head on:

"No change will occur if employees continue to perceive that rewards go mostly to those whose policy skills and political savvy are geared entirely to serving mindlessly the whims of their supervisors, irrespective of their capability for meaning-making, their capacity for community-building and their ability to inspire trust and confidence, and to deal with people at all levels." (p198)

The core message being, it isn't enough to simply follow orders blindly, one must speak truth to power at every opportunity.

Cheers

Ps - Sorry for the lack of post last week. It was an odd week and I took my wife to NYC for the weekend so I was naturally a little sidetracked.


Originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca
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MBR: The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking

Monday, April 23, 2012
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

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking

Why I bought it


I was hard pressed to find anything novel in the business section and I'd never read anything by Hawking so I figured why not.



How it connects to the Public Sector

Again, there was not explicit connection to the public sector. It is, after all, a physics book about the genesis of the universe and the laws of physics that govern it.


What I got out of reading it

This book was a difficult read despite being only 200 pages long. While written in a fairly straightforward manner, I definitely felt the fact that I had not dabbled in physics since high school.

Reading the book was also a humbling experience. Once you know a bit more about the science of the universe and the timescale upon which it has existed you can't help but feel at least somewhat (if not fully) inconsequential.
While there wasn't a whole lot of learning to be applied to the public sector (with the possible exception of its modeling techniques and measurements) what it did allow me to do was close a bit of the conversation gap between me and a friend of mine who is currently doing his PhD in bio-chemistry. The biggest lesson I pulled out of reading The Grand Design is perhaps that reading things that aren't normally in your wheelhouse may be difficult, but it may help you bridge the gap between your world and the worlds of those around you. This is most likely important in business, friendship, and of course, public service.


Originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca
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Peak Bureaucracy: Perhaps it's time we considered alternatives

Friday, April 20, 2012
The Atlantic published a great piece last week by Eric Garland entitled Peak Intel: How So-Called Strategic Intelligence Actually Makes Us Dumber, here's a particularly powerful excerpt:

"Hierarchical organizations have a very different logic than smaller firms. In less consolidated industries, success and failure are largely the result of the decisions you make, so intelligence about the reality of the marketplace is critical. Life is different in gigantic organizations, where success and failure are almost impossible to attribute to individual decisions. Though a given conglomerate might have hundreds or thousands of "executives," each is much more beholden to a complex culture of bosses. Even if people mean well, they're living and dying by a system where the incentives are to seek advancement by pushing responsibility downward and pulling credit upwards. In large, slow-moving bureaucracies, conventional thinking and risk avoidance become paramount, irrespective of how many times a day people at that organization use the word "strategy" or "innovation." It is far more preferable to fail conventionally than to make a daring but uncertain decision without the full backing of the entire organization. Because massive bureaucracies are so much more common than they were even a few years ago, decisions are simply not in vogue right now."

While Garland, a (private sector) strategic intelligence analyst, is speaking mainly about large privately held companies the same could easily be said about public sector bureaucracies. In fact, it is probably one of the reasons why federal public servants in Australia prefer working in micro-agencies over larger departments. According to the Canberra Times, the recent Public Service Commission (of Australia) Survey found:

"... significantly higher levels of employee engagement than in the rest of the federal bureaucracy, suggesting micro-agency staff feel more involved with their work, their colleagues, their supervisor and their workplace."

And that:

"Micro-agency employees also rated their leaders more highly on every measure tested, such as whether the agency was managed well, and whether senior executives engaged with staff and communicated effectively."

Size, it would seem, acts as a force multiplier. The larger the organization the greater distance the work needs to travel for feedback and approval, the more consensus building needs to take place, the less likely any single person or decision is to be linked to success or failure. Even my rudimentary analysis of the (Canadian) Public Service Employee Survey seems to support similar conclusions.


So what does it all mean?

Well it could mean that public sector organizations could be more effective if they were smaller; and to be clear, I don't mean that in the "cut jobs" sense but rather in the "perhaps departmental mandates are too wide" sense. Theoretically one could divvy up existing mandates into smaller more manageable chunks and split resources accordingly to deliver on those mandates while leveraging administrative support solutions on a model of shared services. In practical terms, I'm not sure how much of that could be accomplished given established legal and policy frameworks. Surely there is a robust set of rules and conditions that must be satisfied before one can start rearranging the entire apparatus. That said, if the real problem is a disconnect between individual decisions and outcomes than perhaps we can pursue measures that make upstream decision-making more frequent (Note: by "upstream" I mean further down the hierarchy).

If Garland is right (and I think he is), this should free up decision-makers to make decisions in a more timely manner and generally cut the distance between those in the trenches and those directing the troops; and if the survey results are to be believed, then faster decisions and closer proximity should generally lead to better employee engagement and performance. Sadly, my sense is that pushing decision-making upstream would be incredibly hard to accomplish given the tendency for even the most straightforward request to get caught up in the hierarchy.

That said, many bureaucratic bottlenecks arise from the system itself, not the people within them. You could call it a design flaw of command hierarchy, scalability at the cost of efficiency (at least with respect to complex and interdisciplinary knowledge work). If you need proof, I suggest you speak with any of the system's Directors General who have more staff than a first year psychology class at a major Canadian university. You will quickly realize the predicament that they find themselves in. It's not that they don't appreciate your effort or want to get you comments on your work, its that she simply doesn't have the time to get her hands dirty with everything her employees generate. Add to that her fiduciary responsibilities, human resource issues, management meetings, interdepartmental meetings, and the list goes on. As Garland said, even the most well intentioned and hard working individuals (of which I know many) are to a degree stuck in the system.

As we continue to move forward within the confines of austerity there clearly remains an opportunity to design a better system. Perhaps we have not only reached the period of peak intelligence as Garland argues but also the point of peak bureaucracy.  The point where governments couldn't possibly become any more bureaucratic, the point where bureaucracy (the slow process, not necessarily the number of people) starts to decline in absolute terms.

The point where we have to start seriously considering the alternatives.




Originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca
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Internet + Custom Suits + Ottawa = A Good Time

Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Hi Everyone,

I just wanted to take a minute to put an upcoming event in Ottawa on your radar. 

Indochino, a (Canadian!) custom menswear company is coming to Ottawa next week as part of its Travelling Tailor promotion and from what I've heard from friends in Vancouver and Calgary this is like the Apple Store of menswear.

Now if you don't think style is all that important in the public service, I'd encourage you to check out this piece I wrote on the confluence of style and the public service for Apartment613. It was crafted after a conversation with Ottawa based fashionista (and public servant) Jes Lacasse.  Ironically one of the things that didn't make the final cut of my article on Apt613 was my lamentation about the lack of quality men's clothing in Ottawa; the nice thing about Indochino is that once you are measured up and in their system you can simply order custom suits/shirts as needed without having to go into a store front.

Below is a video outlining a bit more about the company/process for those who are interested. I should probably also mention that if you RSVP your custom fitting in advance you get a free custom dress shirt with every suit purchase you purchase (not a bad deal if you are in the market for a new look). 

The event runs in Ottawa from April 24th to April 28th.

See you there.









Originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca
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MBR: Steal Like an Artist

Monday, April 16, 2012
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 bought it


I was getting tired of reading business books and wanted to try something a little different; besides the public sector is probably due for a healthy dose of creativity.


How it connects to the Public Sector

No particular connection to the larger public service discourse to be honest (but I didn't expect much of one when I picked it up).


What I got out of reading it

I have mixed feelings about this book. I really appreciated the aesthetic and the simplicity of the book compared to some of the tomes I've been reading lately, but I'm not sure I walked away with a whole lot of new tangibles.

The most valuable part of the book for me was chapter 4: Use Your Hands. I've been thinking a lot lately about the need to step away from the screen more often (which is one of the reasons I'm trying to read more books) and Kleon drives the point home fairly well. The trick, Kleon says, is to divide your workflow into analogue and digital halves and proceed only to the digital side when the creative process is completed. I already move off the screen to do creative work (via my whiteboard), but I think I'm going to make the divide more explicit. I'm also planning on picking up a nice Moleskine notebook so I can move slightly away from my reliance on digital notes and use my hands more often.

In sum, Steal Like an Artist was the easy read I was looking for given the week I was having.


Originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca
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Information Follows the Hierarchy

Friday, April 13, 2012
Information wants to be free may be a slogan that is en vogue with technology activists but it is also a slogan that diametrically opposed to how bureaucracy actually works.

Le triangle des bermudes
On the Internet information is omnidirectional; it is easy to find, verify and re-purpose. Whereas in the bureaucracy, information is at best bidirectional (much of it is actually unidirectional); it is difficult to locate, verify and re-purpose.

In short, inside the bureaucracy information follows the hierarchy, which in turn creates a need-to-know culture, a culture where information is parceled out slowly if at all.

This, in my humble opinion, will be the core challenge that needs to be addressed in back offices of any bureaucracy looking to deliver on Open Government for its citizenry.




Originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca
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I need a (small) favour

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Hi Everyone,

I have a small favour to ask you.  

I've started to work informally with a small Startup based in Waterloo.  We are developing a product that helps people turn their digital social media footprint into a weekly mail out to family, friends, and/or stakeholders. 
We've reached the point where we need some beta testers.  There will be absolutely no cost to you to demo the product, we just want your honest feedback.  If you are interested in helping us by testing out the service please let me know.  

We'd really appreciate it.

Cheers

Nick

Originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca
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