Monday, April 29, 2013

Impossible Conversations: A Review of The Unfinished Canadian

by Tariq Piracha RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / tariqpiracha

Andrew Cohen's The Unfinished Canadian
The Unfinished Canadian published by Andrew Cohen in 2007. The book examines the many faces, or personalities of Canada, looking at our identity, citizenship, multiculturalism, and our anti-Americanism, to name a few. He dispels some myths, questions some "facts", and proposes some potential ways to evolve a Canadian narrative.  

Now arguably cliché, Canadians often define themselves by what they are not, instead of what they are. Despite our tendency to define ourselves "in the negative", Cohen has plenty of nothing-to-do-with-the-United_States adjectives to describe our many personalities: The Hybrid Canadian (also sometimes referred to as a hyphenated Canadian), The Unconscious Canadian (who has little awareness of the past), and The Casual Canadian are just some of the terms (also the names of his chapters) that he addresses. 

While most of Cohen’s content is a reflection upon these Canadian tendencies, some of his content is not just about civicness or collective identity  it is also about governance; it carries potential implications for public administration. Here are a few of our impressions that were captured from the conversation: 

The Tall Poppy Syndrome
The most telling touchstone from the book for me was Cohen’s treatment of the tall poppy syndrome; a syndrome that has successfully worked its way into many aspects of bureaucratic culture. For the uninitiated, the tall poppy syndrome is essentially the tendency to cut down anything that stands out above the rest. Organizationally,  the prevalence of a “tall poppy” culture proves challenging as it undermines any attempt at performance management.; but this tension between a culture that cuts you down and a management regime that stands you up seems utterly impossible to reconcile, especially when its not something we bureaucrats are supposed to talk about.
How’s that for an elephant in the room? Lead, but don’t stand out. Renew the public service, but don’t rock the boat. This is a particularly salient point as, despite the risk involved, we are seeing are more of these impossible conversations taking place more publicly. 

Canadian Citizenship - a global model or a cautionary tale?
Andrew Cohen warns, early on in this book, that it is very subjective. It's a reasonable caveat. I felt that it read more as a curious museum of Canadian anecdotes, and it is largely up to the reader to assess each anecdotes’ impact on an overarching narrative about "Canadianness." I actually enjoyed it, precisely as a curious museum, though I don't know if I was left with stronger feelings in any direction about any particular take on our national identity. The strongest chapter, in my view, was The Casual Canadian. Here, Cohen explored Canadian perceptions on citizenship, noting our relaxed standards for acceptance, which led me to wonder if Canada is a sign of the future, in which national identity loses importance in a global world.
Citizenship, and the chapter The Casual Canadian, took up a substantial amount of our discussion. There is a long history of political debate about what it means to be citizen, or for a nation to be sovereign. With the almost free-flowing movement of people, the nature of citizenship is undoubtedly being challenged. Where it goes from here, and how citizenship is managed, in whatever form it takes, will prove to be an interesting exercise and compelling model to examine.

Canada: A People’s (unknown) History
Cohen’s The Unfinished Canadian explores various aspects of the age-old question “who are we?”, using history, geography, politics, language, and culture as lenses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he comes up with few answers to that question. On education, he espouses that we don’t learn enough of our own history. On multiculturalism, he notes that it’s a recent phenomenon. On citizenship, he notes we confer it too freely and without attaching enough responsibility. All fair points, all well-argued. As a result of his book I’ll be re-watching Canada: A People’s History, because the book made me realize that in my entire life as a Canadian, I really haven’t learned that much about this country, and there is so much more to know.
Cohen ties history and our citizenship (or perhaps civicness?) together. He argues that Canadians have a duty to appreciate, at least, the major Canadian milestones. We may even find that new Canadians know more about this country than Canadian-born ones. It is a sentiment to which many (myself included) are sympathetic, but it raises some interesting questions about the composition of Canada, and the need or desire to focus on the future vs. the past. Does the Casual Canadian need to know our past in order to contribute to our future? 

The Ignorance and the Apathy
Cohen quotes Thomas Homer-Dixon in his book and I feel it’s worth repeating here: “Our greatest failing is our unwillingness to face the reality of our second-rate performance in so many areas, and to do something about it.” This quote touches on two major themes that struck me about The Unfinished Canadian. First is our ignorance about our history, and second, our apathy. I find it interesting to note the mixing of the two: we have so few icons and symbols that inspire, commemorate and link us to our past. Yes, hockey is often touted as the essence of what it means to be Canadian, but are we to leave it at that? I am not arguing that hockey should not be a part of the Canadian identity, but I am also hopeful that we do not feel as though hockey is a sufficiently meaningful characteristic of what it means to be Canadian. But, as Cohen points out, what choice do we have when history is largely absent from the Canadian consciousness? History, Cohen argues, is too often written by experts for experts.

However, this isn’t just about what it means to be Canadian. In the context of these discussions, what does it mean to be a public servant? Can we be anything more than a second rate public service if we have little to no appreciation of the history of the people, regions and nation we serve?
There are significantly more topics covered in The Unfinished Canadian making this post an unfinished review at best. However, I can assure you that the conversation had much more depth, richness and clarity than can be demonstrated here. Thoughts? We invite you to share yours below.

Next month, we’ll be discussing Donald Savoie’s Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher? Interested in taking part?
Send us an email, leave a comment, send us a tweet. You know the drill.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Make no mistake these are impossible conversations

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

On the heels of a lengthy discussion about the nature of faceless bureaucrats (See: Can Bureaucrats be Interesting When the World Demands That They be Boring) and borrowing a page from the highly successful Toronto based Academy of the Impossible, the expanding team here at wants to host a series of impossible conversations.

Conversations that bureaucrats just aren’t supposed to have, conversations that cut to the core of what it means to be a public servant and what it could mean in the future.

While we are still mapping out the ideal program for the next few months, we can say for certain that one of the ongoing core elements of the impossible conversation series will be a monthly review of books that address issues in the field of public administration.

Real, live, and in person

Does a semi-facilitated difficult conversation  around books that are obviously of interest to public servants but obviously shouldn't be talked about them beyond a dull whisper interest you?

We thought so.

The first review will drop Monday, the book in question is Andrew Cohen’s The Unfinished Canadian; and while that conversation has already happened, we are in the midst of planning our next conversation around Donald Savoie's Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher.

If you would like to be a part of that conversation, please let us know.

I want to thank Jesse Hirsh of the Academy of the Impossible for inspiring the idea, and Tariq Piracha for humbly agreeing to help us with the impossible task of pulling together a synopsis of these conversations to share with you here at

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Collaboration: Overhyped and Underappreciated

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

I fought the temptation to dig into the topic of faceless bureaucrats (see: Can Bureaucrats Be Interesting When The World Demands That They Be Boring? and The Problem Of The Faceless Bureaucrat), but I don't think needs to head straight for the singularity quite yet. Instead, I tried to answer a question I've been asking myself lately: Why does the idea of collaboration hold so much sway for me?

Overhyped Old News

I look forward to the day when we once again use the word collaboration to simply mean that we're working with others on something. Stripped of baggage and connotations of tech trends, paradigm shifts, and buzzwordiness. Collaboration is overhyped, and nothing new. But don't get me wrong. It is also an increasingly crucial driver of value creation.

Overhyped is an oversimplification; more so, collaboration is asymmetrically hyped. By that, I mean that there are far too many instances of collaboration being hyped without commitment. Overappreciated, on the other hand? It is not. By a long shot. We can use more hype, but only when there's meaning waiting behind it.

And it is nothing new. I need not dwell on this, but collaboration has been an effective approach to problem-solving since before our ancestors were recognizably human. More recently (relatively speaking), the capture of ideas through language and art allowed intertemporal collaboration: the ability, essentially, to collaborate with brilliant ghosts and build on their work.

Some of the drivers of collaboration's current celebrity are opportunity and clarity on complexity. And government has quirks that make it even more important.


We have far more avenues, platforms, and options for collaboration now, and the reach is literally beyond world-wide. In principle, this is also old news. The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, was partially crowdsourced by mail in the mid-1800s. In practice, however, the opportunities for collaboration represent a radical change. I think the most amazing thing about effective collaborative platforms is often not the mechanism for collaboration, but rather the mechanism for finding others who are interested in the same thing. It's easier to get past our natural incredulity: “I can't imagine how I can contribute to X,” or, “I can't imagine who'd be interested in Y.”

Without search, it would take forever for someone to find enough other Ottawa fountain pen enthusiasts* to develop a society.


We're faced with increasing complexity, and increasing clarity on the complexity that has always existed. I'm bothering to muddy this point by adding clarity because I think it is important.  It's comparable to the history of astronomy – the night sky changed little, but our advancing telescope technology continuously revealed greater and greater mysteries. I wonder what we'll think of our current lens on the complexity of the world when we look back in a few decades.

But it's not just that our focus has sharpened. I think the statement "the world is getting more complex" passes muster as well.

Many wicked problems we face are unsolvable by individuals. Gerry McGovern's take is that “the more complex the world becomes the less we can depend on individual experts”, citing how recent economic events blindsided economists and other spectators. It's not because two heads are better than one, but because two very different heads are much better than one. Business writers and leaders are looking at diversity as a competitive advantage, and this idea clicks with some really interesting research on creativity that suggests that teams that are a mix of new and familiar faces develop more creative output. Or, consider that companies whose Board of Directors includes women outperform those that do not. By 26 percent over six years. Lastly, consider Philip Tetlock's groundbreaking research on expert predictions:
“Classifying thinking styles using Isaiah Berlin's prototypes of the fox and the hedgehog, Tetlock contends that the fox--the thinker who knows many little things, draws from an eclectic array of traditions, and is better able to improvise in response to changing events--is more successful in predicting the future than the hedgehog, who knows one big thing, toils devotedly within one tradition, and imposes formulaic solutions on ill-defined problems.”
A fox could be a fox because they, themselves, are a jack-of-all-trades. Or, they could arrive at their conclusions through collaboration.

And, Just To Twist The Knife

Amidst the above transitions, we've opted to make it even harder on ourselves, as government officials are moving from being service providers to relationship managers. In policy, we're increasingly engaging stakeholders, industry, and think tanks. For operations, we're turning to the private sector wherever possible. More and more, we'll be relying on collaborating with non-governmental actors, and on our governmental colleagues to help us do it**.

So back to the premise I left hanging: Collaboration is, and always has been, a crucial driver of value creation. But the current attention is not collaboration's fifteen minutes of fame. It's a big deal - for good reason - and getting bigger.

* I like fountain pens, but I just don't want to ever be referred to as a "fountain pen enthusiast." I hope they call me "a guy who likes fountain pens." And everyone should. They're easier on the hand, better for writing,  create less waste, and are likely cheaper in the long run***.
** I'm glossing over this point. If you read my old blog, you know that I do this. I'm sorry, but this post is getting long, but it means that I'll likely return to this idea later.
*** The Ottawa Fountain Pen Society website is an excellent resource on where to buy fountain pens in Ottawa.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Can bureaucrats be interesting when the world demands that they be boring?

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

In a previous blog on his former site (See: The World Needs Us to Stop Being Boring), newly minted co-author Kent Aitken, expressed his lament at the fact that the public service is rich with unrealized creativity, extolling that the world needs us (public servants) to stop being boring.

While I whole heartily agree with Kent's plea, I do with the following caveat (which I left verbatim as a comment to the original post):
What the world needs and what the world wants are two different things. In the arena of public perception bureaucrats always lose, stereotypes prevail and reputations are generally sullied until proven otherwise. 
Intellectually, I get it. The accumulated history of bureaucracy writ large is rife with boondoggles and bafflegab.
Experientially, I’ve seen – and, as one could imagine, have been on the receiving end – of some pretty ridiculous things. Professionally though, its often hard to stay passionate about a vocation that is consistently dragged through the mud.

I suppose what I am saying is that the world may need us not to be boring but it certainly doesn’t want us to be interesting.

This tension, between what the public 'likely needs' and what it 'demonstrably wants' is, in my view, akin to the similar tension I see playing out between the time honored archetype of the 'faceless bureaucrat' and renewed calls to celebrate the public service. While I am reserving further comment on this issue for now, I whole heartily encourage you to read both of the articles linked to in the paragraph above.

Both are written by former Clerks of the Privy Council (Mel Cappe and Alex Himelfarb respectively) and come on the heels of a recent Public Policy Forum testimonial dinner. You may also wish to read  this Toronto Star Editorial which makes a case for protecting the public service.

Below you will find some questions I'd like to discuss as well as excerpts from both articles to wet your appetite; if you have any thoughts, I'd encourage you to share them in the comments below.

Questions I'm pondering
  • Can bureaucrats be interesting when the world demands that they be boring? 
  • Can they remain faceless while being celebrated? 

Excerpts from Cappe's 'faceless bureaucrats'

"We take for granted that each day, because of the work of dedicated and committed Public Servants: Thousands of planes take off and land safely; hundreds of thousands of people come through the border securely; thousands of prisoners stay incarcerated and in remediation; our food is assured safe; thousands of communities are well policed; OAS, EI and CPP cheques are delivered to the right people at the right time in the millions; path-breaking research is undertaken in government laboratories; and nobody notices."
"We need ministers to be the demanders of good analysis and evidence in the policy process. If ministers don’t ask, then public servants will get out of the habit of serving the public interest. I fear that we, they and the public are taking for granted the public service and analysis and evidence that should inform the policy process."

Excerpts from Himelfarb's Celebrating the public service

"Such celebrations [the Public Policy Forum Dinner] are pretty rare these days though the public service is an institution that deserves celebrating, and may need it now more than ever.
My hunch is that I can speak for all the former clerks here this evening that for us public service was deeply satisfying, a privilege, a source of pride, an opportunity to make a difference. Public service was more often than not fulfilling, and, believe it or not, even fun.
I wonder what proportion of public servants would say this today. Things were much easier for us. Public service was more valued. Public servants were treated with respect. Politicians sometimes got angry at our advice but they kept asking. The media often ignored us – we liked that – but they sometimes reminded Canadians that we existed and that we mattered. When I left academics to join the federal public service, I didn’t have to explain my decision. My friends and colleagues didn’t think it was strange. They thought joining the public service was worthy, maybe important, at the very least, respectable. 
Things do seem different today. The public service is no less important but it sure seems more than ever under attack and from every side. Less valued. Less trusted. More under the gun. It must be less fun."

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Rearranging the Briefing Room Chairs on the Bonaventure

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Yesterday, my colleague joked on Twitter that his son had agreed to make the family lunches as part of his allowance, but the bread, mustard, and cheese sandwich from day one wasn't exactly up to snuff. I joked back that he should institute a sandwich accountability framework and make a portion of his son's allowance at-risk, contingent upon results.

Er, it's just something bureaucrats do.


And Speaking of Segues

My colleague responded – as any normal person should – that in fact, he was just going to teach his son how to be a better sandwich maker. And then simply let said sandwich maker, well, make sandwiches.

My colleague is accidentally following the advice from the 1962/1963 Glassco Report. This report, formally the Royal Commission on Government Organization, published recommendations for the management of the public service of Canada. The most memorable of which was this lasting soundbite: “Let the manager manage.”

How'd that work out?

Shortly thereafter, the Canadian House of Commons spent a considerable amount of time debating the minutia of contracts for the retrofitting of the aircraft carrier Bonaventure. As Donald Savoie explains in Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher:
“During the debate, opposition members from all parties hurled accusations at the government and concluded with pleas to introduce 'administrative integrity.' Specific details were brought up, including the awarding of two separate contracts – for different amounts – to remove fifty-two chairs from the Bonaventure's briefing room.”

That was 1970. Despite it being less than a decade after the Glassco Report, the resounding call was for increased oversight, rather then letting managers figure out the underlying issues and manage on. Increased oversight may protect the public purse in the short term, but it may also lead to important questions going unanswered, or worse, unasked.

Did decision-makers have the information they needed to make solid decisions?

Were they generally well-equipped to do their jobs?

Asking Tough Questions

I suspect Glassco would prefer the story of Tom Watson Jr., former CEO of IBM. As legend would have it, a young executive once walked into Watson's office after making a decision that cost the company millions, expecting to be fired. Watson's response was that firing was out of the question because, as he put it, he had “just spent a couple of million dollars educating” the executive.

No kneejerk reaction, no changes to accountability regimes. Watson recognized the difference between structural deficiencies and management issues. In that case, the issue was an ill-prepared executive. In my colleague's, it was an inexperienced sandwich maker.

Asking tough questions about the why behind events is the sustainable approach. And it leads to good results. For sandwiches and management.

Friday, April 12, 2013

What You're Giving Now? You Can Never Give Less

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

I love writing. 

These days, it tends to be about public administration, Canadian government, and democracy. It’s just what’s on my mind - I spend about half my waking hours thinking about strategic planning, program management, and governance as a by times engaged, by times unengaged public servant. And I've realized that I'm actually very passionate about public service and democracy in Canada.

Nick had kind, perhaps overly generous, words about my critical approach to things in his introductory post (see: Pivots, Badges, A New Contributor, and Bureaucratic Ipsum); and anyone who read my old blog knows that I like dissecting concepts. But after considering at length what the subject of my first post here would be, I opted for something more general that has been on my mind lately.

What You're Giving Now? You Can Never Give Less

A while back, a colleague was on a young managers panel at a conference. She was asked, in the Q&A, what one message she would impart to future managers: The response, in a split second, was “What you're giving now? You can never give less.”

She was right.

Your days spent treading water now are your baseline for the rest of your career. A few years from now, when you’re managing the demands of a portfolio on top of the complex personal dynamics of a team? That’s the easiest it’ll be from that point on. Such is the tragedy for those who are good at things; they keep being asked to do them.

Your workload may fluctuate, but the trendline over a 35 (ish) year career is going to be pretty definitive:

You can never give less.

One can interpret this as a cautionary tale; a warning about going too far, too fast. Or you can view it as a challenge, and lean into it. (See: Lean Into It)

If the prospect sounds daunting, consider this. People are great at setting goals and making lists, but it means we're always looking at the loose ends in our lives. It makes us feel like we’re running to stand still, so try looking back occasionally. Make a list of everything that you understand, or know how to do, that you did not three years ago.

You may be surprised, and you may find yourself with greater confidence about what you’ll be capable of three years from now - when you set the bar a little higher for the Nth time, knowing full well that it’s never coming down an inch.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Pivots, badges, a new contributor, and bureaucratic ipsum

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Hi All -

You may have noticed things changing around the blog recently - new logos, new pages, the bio of a new contributor - in short, I'm widening the tent, bringing people in, and trying to branch out into a couple of different things.

First, last week's post (See: Big Data, Social Media, and the Long Tail of Public Policy) is a bit of a pivot in focus, expect me to spend more time writing about what public sector organizations can do with data in the near future.

Second, I've devised a badge that now adorns the site and much of my social media presence; it signals to others that you take your responsibilities as a professional and non-partisan public servant seriously online. Over the next few weeks I will create a widget and a crowd source a corresponding set of principles for those wishing to use the emblem on their own sites/social media outposts. In short, think of it as a practical, principles based, opt-in badge for those among us who want to engage online while ensuring we do so in a manner that preserves our professional integrity.

Third, I've invited Kent Aitken to join the blog as a full time contributor. I'd give you a long back story but quite frankly the reason I invited Kent to contribute is simple: he impresses me. I like the fact that he approaches things with a critical eye, that he is committed to thoughtful and respectful discourse, and quite frankly, that he gives off a really solid vibe. Kent's first post drops this Friday in lieu of mine as I will be spending Friday recovering from day surgery (nothing serious, just some minor foot repairs). Kent and I still have to discuss a number of things, but suffice it to say we will be working towards an editorial calendar that likely has some empty spaces for those interested in contributing.

Well that's it for me for now, look for Kent's inaugural post on Friday. See you next week.

Oh, and I almost forgot, I threw together a bureaucratic ipsum generator with the help of a friend, enjoy.

-- Nick