Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Towards a New Professionalism in Government

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

Last week I compared Sir Ken Robinson's views on the success of Finland's educational system to the way organizations are managed [see: Escaping Death Valley]. Success due, in part, to the attribution of a high degree of status to the teaching profession.

Status is an odd word, with less than ideal connotations. But public service carrying status is a necessary state for the sake of public trust, attracting talent, and – importantly - because status is a natural result of a challenging, high-performance workplace.

Regardless, I'm not going to call it status. I'll look instead at the road to a new professionalism in government, over a couple posts. And because everyone is so - rightly - jazzed up about it, I'll start with storytelling. The new professionalism is less formal. Messier at the edges.


For that virtuous cycle, above, we don't enter at one particular node. Organizations have to build the performance scaffolding to raise the talent attraction scaffolding, which then allows the performance scaffolding to go even higher.

There are several angles to why we need good storytelling in terms of performance and talent. We need it when pitching to decision makers, to convince them of the value of projects and programs. Our peers' storytelling provides inspiration and good ideas. And our public storytelling builds understanding and trust - vital both for relationships as we work for and with those we serve, and to convince talented Canadians to become public servants.

I've been very inspired by my colleagues who work on user-centred design in government*. I hit on this recently [see: What We Don't Know]: it doesn't matter how technically impressive a product is if people don't use it well. It doesn't even matter if they can, or can't. Just that they don't. But you can design for this, test assumptions and prototypes, and create useful products that people will use productively.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the U.S. exists largely to protect citizens from suffering because they don't understand the exceptionally hard-to-understand financial system. Doesn't matter if they can, or can't. In a spectacular move, they hired Audrey Chen away from Comedy Central to serve as their Creative Director (in government?!). Chen, who was nice enough to speak to us a while back, conducted usability testing on their websites, informational documents, and templates for, say, student loan forms. The goal was maximizing the likelihood of people understanding what they were getting themselves into, and minimizing the likelihood of personally and socially expensive financial issues down the road.

They're making sure things aren't just broken, as Seth Godin would put it.

Good storytelling is essentially akin to usability for ideas. It's the same principle. It doesn't matter how good our ideas are, if people - decision makers, citizens that influence outcomes, or peers whose support you need - don't understand them, they aren't useful, and we have failed in our duty as public servants. And we can work on this.

Nick pointed towards George's authentic storytelling in Canadian Government Executive magazine, and I'll echo his hat-tip (oh, it's vortex rings we're on now? Okay).

I also respect my friend Dave Fleming's approach on his blog, as he takes a role as Executive Director of Halifax's North End Business Association:

"I’m going to introduce myself with a list of 13 things about me – a little about my vision for our city, about my experience and business knowledge, and a few which are about the person. If you want an answer to something I haven’t covered, please get in touch."

It's a simple, authentic step, but necessary for working productively with those whom he serves.

When Nick posed a question about faceless bureaucrats [see: Can Bureaucrats be Interesting when the World Demands that They be Boring?], there was some disagreement about whether bureaucrats can be, or should be, faceless. But the reality right now is that we have scrutiny without visibility. And thus, without understanding. We have availability without transparency. I don't think it's enough to simply post PDFs of receipts online, dust off our hands and say job well done. Nor do I think it's a good idea for us. We could storytell what we're doing, what is meaningful, and communicate it in such a way that people have a reasonable chance of understanding it.

Hell, we can even be boring ourselves. But I doubt that our work, which materially affects Canadians, is. So I agree with George: it's time to tell our stories. And it might even get us here:

And talent, understanding, and impact might get us into the first virtuous cycle.

Professionalism isn't APA formatting. It's results. Jargon, opacity, and bullshit don't achieve them.

*As a side note, this is not a sentence lightly said. The UX experts in government, and their excellent story, actually blow my mind. Their dedication, capability, and professionalism inspire me to be a better public servant.

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