Wednesday, September 18, 2013


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

The plan for this week was to continue on the theme of nudges as levers for action, but on Monday we're getting a gut-check on Blueprint 2020, and it was on my mind.

Ever made New Year's Resolutions? We start the year with lofty goals and a vision for how we’d ideally live our lives. By the end of January, many resolutions have petered out. There’s some disappointment, but we have a better sense of what is realistic, and crucially, what is actually important to us. Maybe the daily jog isn't worth the lost time with family.

And that's okay. In reality, it’s not about changing where you are, it’s about changing direction.

On the other hand, we have this:

"Cynics might ask if this is just another in a long line of public service renewal efforts, admirable in word but short on deeds."

That’s from a Canadian Government Executive article about Blueprint 2020, the ongoing vision-setting exercise for the Canadian public service. But it’s also basically a paraphrase of a conversation I’ve had with a number of people in the last few months. This is what they’re referring to: in the last decade and a half we've had would-be pivots for the public service, called PS 2000, La Rélève, and Public Service Renewal. And they didn't work.

Well, at least, that's the assumption. I haven't heard anyone ask the counterfactual: where would we be without those initiatives?

Define "Worked"

None of these renewal efforts lived up to their lofty ideals. Sure. Who actually thought they would? The important question is whether we changed direction for the better because of them.

And, crazy as it may seem, some resolutions may have stuck, and I think we discount those examples. We throw out out completed to-do lists, rather than frame them and hang them on our walls. Instead, we focus on the unchecked boxes.

Off the top of my head:

  • In the last few years, I’ve watched networks open massively. I personally have far more freedom in how I do my work than I did when I joined the public service
  • One of the Public Service Renewal pillars from a few years ago was a renewed workplace. Change to real estate takes a long time, but this is actually happening: the direction – agreed upon between the property, management, and IT forces that be - is that public servants will be able to work anywhere, anytime, with anyone
  • In two weeks the Policy on Acceptable Network and Device Use comes into effect, providing policy cover for public servants to (among other things, and I quote):
  • Participate in a video or audio conference with colleagues or clients from other organizations or jurisdictions through tools such as Skype or Google Hangouts
  • Develop and share code repositories in collaboration with departments, other jurisdictions and private sector organizations via code sharing tools such as GitHub
  • Collaborate on joint initiatives and projects, via open discussions or closed groups as appropriate, with other departments and levels of government through the use of wikis, professional networking applications, internal tools such as GCDocs or external cloud-based tools such as Google Docs

I think that's incredibly positive, and the subtext is not just tools, but trust. And no, we’re not where we could be. And never will be, because the world will keep changing underneath our feet. But we’re making progress, and who is to say that PS 2000, La Rélève, and Public Service Renewal contributed nothing?

Simply put, these things take time. Even in the age of the internet, ideas spread slowly when they're complicated or their benefits are indirect. The internet is still made of people. And cats. But mostly people. As are organizations.

Erring on Realistic isn't Pragmatic

Here's my personal worst case scenario for Blueprint 2020: Since June, I'm aware of, and inspired by, far more people who are passionate about positive progress in the public service because of the conversations we've been having. And I have a greatly expanded mental directory of people to whom I may want to reach out in the future, on many topics.

Best case scenario? We’re adjusting the sails, and we'll move towards where we should be in 2020.

I too wonder what will meaningfully happen because of Blueprint 2020. As Thom Kearney wrote, “healthy skepticism is, well, healthy”. And I've been vocal about my thoughts on the rate of change. But improving our direction is a very achievable goal.

To be honest, I'm not 100% sure that cynicism, here, is inaccurate. But nor can I think of any good use for it. One could argue that being honest about our prospects for change keeps everyone’s expectations reasonable, and thus avoids frustration and disillusionment. But really, the only conclusion I can come to is that the absolute best case scenario for cynicism about Blueprint 2020 is that it could get filed under “True, but useless.”

And I think the chance of it being false, combined with the damage it could do, is enough to embrace the alternatives. So instead, I think we should give credit where credit is due, and appreciate this foray into completely uncharted territory for the bureaucracy. 

Blueprint launched on June 7, and we're looking towards 2020. If I invoke the New Year's Resolution analogy? Today is roughly January 15.  We're talking about changing the course of a quarter million-person organization. These things don’t happen obviously, easily, or immediately.

I'm a public servant largely because I choose - weighed and measured - to be idealistic, and to look for the long shadow of the future. So I'm with Thom. Colour me naïve.

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