Friday, November 29, 2013

Nothing really, just a dip into my stream of conciousness

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

I've not really had the time to sit down and give thought to something worth sharing this week; like you I've been busy.

But I'm not here to complain or gloat about it, I just thought I'd share some of what I've been up to and the things I've been thinking about.

I drove up to Montreal last week with Kent for a discussion at the University de Québec à Montréal (sponsored by the Trudeau Foundation). We filled our night comparing field notes, chatting with interesting characters, and generally looking to the future. I'm thankful to have met Kent, to have earned his trust and friendship, and my confidence in him grows with every conversation.

I spent some time speaking with new youth group coordinators here in Ottawa, reflecting back on my own experience when I was new to the civil service and how my perspective has evolved over time; how I appreciate the nuance more. I'm trying to slow down more, enjoy life more, enjoy people more. Maybe I'm just getting older, mellowing out.

I went to Toronto to moderate a panel on Open Government for the Ontario Public's Service's Cabinet Office; I met some fascinating people on the way, and get the sense that my involvement with them is just ramping up. I took advantage of my time there to visit with a friend I hadn't seen in a while, another that I see often, and still another who, thanks to serendipity, just happened to be out at the same establishment I was at. There's a lot of change on the radar for Rick, its going to be an exciting year for him. I can't wait to work more with Jesse, he's like a house on fire. Thomas is a smart guy and we may have lost him at the federal level but the province scored big on that one, he's got huge potential, I wish him luck.

Next week I'm off to Whitehorse for a couple of days as a part of my official duties, I've never been there before and I rarely get the opportunity to do this sort of work. I'm filled with a nervous energy that can't possibly fail.

There's a lot of people I should reach out to right now, but I'm getting tired, and Kent just asked for some feedback on a bit he's writing.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Leaders Make it Easy to be Followed

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken
In September I wrote about nudges: ways to influence behaviour through setting defaults or designing interactions, without actually limiting people's choices (see: How Nudges Work for Government).

Nudges can be considered in contrast with other levers we have to influence action. For government, these could be rules, economic incentives, or information. However, it's also worth considering the role of nudges - interaction design - for ourselves as individuals. It's because we now create value through tribes.

“A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.” - Seth Godin
Godin's book Tribesmore frantically paced than Kerouac's On The Road, describes the rise and increasing power of such tribes. Even while working within a company, on a portfolio duly ascribed through the hierarchy, Godin had to exercise informal leadership and connect to people throughout the organization, just to get his job done. Specifically, he crafted and distributed a newsletter to draw colleagues' spare time and effort to his software development projects that desperately needed help.

I think this is increasingly the case for most knowledge workers. We rely on our friends and colleagues for help, advice, bouncing ideas around, and invaluable feedback on possible solutions. Whether we recognize it or not, we all sometimes take informal leadership roles. But unlike those in formal positions of power, rules and economic incentives are out - leaving us with information and, perhaps, nudges to get things done.

Information is obvious. We have to explain why people should take interest in our projects, and how they can contribute. But that leaves an interesting question about nudges, for leaders of tribes.

Nudging Contribution

Cass Sunstein, who popularized the term nudge, uses the example of mail-in rebates for purchases as a broken system. Such rebates are not completely easy, don't fit into consumers' day-to-day lives, and involve barriers. Even though all the information is available, people are nudged towards non-participation and so redemption rates are low.

Nudged towards non-participation. When seeking participation from our peers, it's easy to accidentally set that trap.

In Cultivating Communities of Practice, the authors related the story of a community manager realizing what lay behind success for his meetings. Regardless of emails asking for agenda items, consistent scheduling, and clear messaging, attendance was based on how much time he spent visiting people face-to-face outside of the meetings. It changed people's relationship with their community. People needed to be convinced of their role in the community's success, and to talk out the value of the meeting's agenda, to be inspired to contribute. Information wasn't enough.

I'm sure you can summon an example of asking for attendance or input and getting responses only from the usual suspects. (Who are quite likely the people you go for coffee or drinks with. It's trust: to respect their time, and to value their input.)

But often we need to throw our nets further. And unfortunately, in doing so it's very easy to communicate in next-to-useless ways. Consider this parody of what Nike's advertising would look like, if Nike communicated like government (according to Dave Meslin):

Shared by Michael Grigoriev.

The contrast is powerful: Nike's effective, visceral advertising, and this information-is-enough style. We all know the limits of emailed blocks of text for conveying a message, but use them anyway, which is only okay for people who already trust us not to waste their time. (And I unfortunately have to admit guilt here.) 

But, how we present information is just one nudge, one part of the interaction design, for informal leadership. It could also be what kind of input we request, the platforms we use, and even how we schedule meetings. So there are questions we should ask ourselves:
  • Do I make it easy for people to know about my project in the first place?
  • Do I give people meaningful choices for different ways to contribute, based on the different levels of time, understanding, and comfort they might have?
  • Am I considerate of the different ways people need to be engaged?
In short:
  • Do I make it easy for people to help me?
But remember. Technically easy does not mean intellectually easy, or interpersonally easy, or culturally easy. It's a hard road to easy leadership.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Embrace GCPEDIA as a technological David

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

Last week I applied the lens put forward in Gladwell's latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, to the GCPEDIA project and in so doing suggested that GCPEDIA's success to date is the result of it being a David among Goliaths (See: GCPEDIA: A David Among Goliaths). After publishing the piece I had a number of people reach out to me and suggest that I should take the narrative a little further.

The Real Value of GCPEDIA is as light layer

I used to be of the one-wiki to rule them all mindset; and while I have great disdain for the duplication of technological solutions to collaboration they are sadly inevitable, at least in the short term. Technological consolidation is always possible, but it seems to me that it's a long and convoluted road over which few can successfully travel at any given time.

Since then I've come to realize that GCPEDIA's true value is its fluidity and the fact that it is a light layer that can not only co-exist with departmental systems but can fill the gaps in them; offering safe spaces to learn about collaboration and otherwise disintermediate all of the restrictive structures in place inside, among, and between our organizations.

If we accept the idea of GCPEDIA as a light layer then the question of how to scale starts to look very different; it leads to an important question, a question I stopped just short of asking last week.

Should we focus on turning technological Davids into Goliaths?

Last week I wrote:
"The project's success to date is due in no small part to the fact that it (and its administrators, stewards and advocates) have chosen to pursue paths that the Goliath mindset would otherwise have ignored: it's open source, offers users no ability to lock out others from their content, is housed in a department that technically doesn't have the mandate to house it, is supported by a small and highly dedicated (mission driven) team, and remains the only universally accessible zero barrier to entry collaboration solution within the Government of Canada."
If the above is true, then moving GCPEDIA in the opposite direction by either deploying a proprietary alternative, paying licensing fees, allowing users to restrict access to content or throwing large administrative resources will ultimately undermine and/or jeopardize its continued success. In other words, the approach isn't how do we turn this David into a Goliath? But rather, how do we make this David the best possible David it can be?

How do we embrace GCPEDIA as a technological David?

When framed as such, the answer seems fairly obvious. Stay the course, and embrace GCPEDIA and the things that have made GCPEDIA successful. GCPEDIA has been many things to many people but to me it has always been a beacon of hope that government can in fact be agile, can embrace a more open ethos, and can meet its demands for collaboration at an incredibly low cost when it chooses to do so.

And I for one, sure hope it stays that way.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Four Level Model of Engagement

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

Monday night Nick and I were at a social media workshop at the Université du Québec à Montréal, sitting at the digital governance table. We got into a really animated discussion about citizen engagement: why and how it should be done, and to what extent engagement should be enabled. Should a governing body put greater stock in the input from citizens who put in effort to have their voices heard? Or it is the responsibility or in the best interests of that body to make it easy for as many people as possible to participate in the engagement process? (The downside discussed being slacktivism or clicktivism.)

I started trying to conceptualize a model of engagement, which I think generally applies to everything from citizen-government interaction and project consultations to manager-employee discussions.

Four Level Model of Engagement

The model contains four levels of engagement: Satiation, Edification, Engagement, and Education, and their level of impact (on the project or process at hand, which I'll just call an initiative from now on) and engagement (the real or perceived meaningfulness for consulted participants).

  1. Satiation. This is check-box consultation; asking for feedback because it is required. This is sharing a initiative late in the process, 95-99% complete, and asking for input. There's no specific request or focus area, no obvious place for participants to start, and little time. Accordingly, there's little impact, for either sponsors or participants.
  2. Edification. This is soliciting input to inform a initiative, the best example being a suggestion box. It's one-way, and usually generalized - that is, not tailored to any subsets of the community of participants, and their interests or strengths. The limitation is that it lacks immediate feedback to participants, so it may be hard to participants to see the meaningfulness of their effort. The key difference from Satiation is that, at this level, the initiative should adapt due to the feedback.
  3. Engagement. At this level, participants are providing meaningful input on an initiative and there's a degree of two-way dialogue. This level adds a short-term feedback loop - generally discussion and exploration of ideas with the initiative sponsors - such that even if participants don't see their input in the final product, they know that their input was received and understood. The benefit to engagement at this level is as much long-term as initiative-specific: knowing that their input was valued, participants are far more likely to become part of the community and continue to participate in future initiatives.
  4. Education. This is the gold standard of engagement. It is also based on the feedback loops and two-way dialogue from the third level, but the key difference is that the education aspect of the engagement process is two-way as well. At the third level, the initiative changes because of the input - the sponsors become educated - and the participants leave feeling that they've had impact. At the fourth level, the participants leave the process with education as well, better understanding the operating environment and being better equipped to participate in the future. This is fostered by a high commitment to two-way dialogue and/or by developing a community that actually will correct its own misconceptions through discussion. One of the best examples of this level is participatory budgeting: municipalities engaging citizens in their planning cycles, but with a level of transparency and interactivity that demonstrates to citizens the impact of budgetary decisions on other city programs or tax levels.

One  Size Never Fits

The fourth level, Education, is the gold standard. But it's not always appropriate. It's lengthy, expensive, and complicated, and an initiative may be such that a suggestion box is all that is needed. Or, a community built through engagement at levels three and four may welcome such a light-touch method for a specific request.

In Montreal we discussed why governing bodies might want to engage deeply, and why they might want to develop a strategy to increasingly encourage people to participate at such levels. The key themes were legitimacy for decisions and unveiling complexity and use cases. But especially for the argument for governing bodies taking responsibility for enabling participants, the core of it is gaining meaningful data on which to base decisions, for results.

Friday, November 15, 2013

GCPEDIA: A David Among Goliaths

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

Last week I picked up Malcom Gladwell's latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, and crushed it over the course of a couple of days*. The book explores the power asymmetries between incumbents and upstarts and how successful upstarts exploit those asymmetries by engaging in unconventional tactics. The book takes its title from the biblical story of David and Goliath and is a deeper look at a phenomenon he wrote about for the New Yorker in 2009 about an otherwise untalented basketball team that started to dominate when the coach decided to employ a full court press.

If I had to boil down the essence of the book it would be this: David (the underdog) loses when he battles Goliath (the incumbent) according to Goliath's rules; however if/when David refuses to play by Goliath's rules, he greatly increases his chances of success.

The argument is compelling and seems to makes sense intuitively (and perhaps in my case experientially) but is it a lens that can be applied to the organizational context, and if so what examples could be used to illustrate the case?

GCPEDIA: A David among Goliaths

The project's success to date is due in no small part to the fact that it (and its administrators, stewards and advocates) have chosen to pursue paths that the Goliath mindset would otherwise have ignored: it's open source, offers users no ability to lock out others from their content, is housed in a department that technically doesn't have the mandate to house it, is supported by a small and highly dedicated (mission driven) team, and remains the only universally accessible zero barrier to entry collaboration solution within the Government of Canada. It sits in stark contrast to departmental solutions to collaboration, many of which are costly, license heavy software(s) that offer users the ability to restrict access to their content and tend to be administered by large administrative bodies who are seized with administering the administrivia of the administration (if you get my meaning).

Having been close to the project during its early years, keeping an eye on it, and knowing a number of people close to the project today, I can say with some degree of certainty - and without compromising anyone's confidence - that the project's core challenge is and always has been seen as how do we, borrowing Gladwell's language, transform this David into a Goliath. How do we take this thing that has been successful not because of the rules but in spite of them, into something more stable? How do we take GCPEDIA from an upstart to an incumbent?

What I find absolutely fascinating is the related fact that GCPEDIA disintermediates so many of our traditional power structures - hierarchy, geography, group and level, ministry, etc - that it is not only a David among Goliaths but rather that it enables Davids to rise up among the Goliaths. It provides an alternative path to non-traditional sources of power, influence and opportunity by allowing peoples' work to break out of its normal constraints and be easily shared with the organization writ large and be put to use by any one of the 250,000+ individuals working across the enterprise.

This is precisely one of the points that Nicco Mele argues in his book (similarly titled) The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath (which, incidentally, we reviewed here), that many of the technologies being built today have an inherently anti-institutional ethos built right into them and thus reinforces that type of culture - a culture of upstarts that is fundamentally at odds with the traditional cultures of hierarchy.

After thinking it through, I can't help but see some sort of connection between the fact that while GCPEDIA may be a David among Goliaths, its under-tapped potential is to enable Davids among Goliaths, and that ultimately even if it is successful, our cultural upstarts will ultimately face the same challenge as our technological ones: how to scale.

*Despite being familiar with Gladwell's work and the theses of his books (which have penetrated the mainstream due in part to his popular narrative style), I never actually took the time to read any of his books. After reading David and Goliath, I have since read both Outliers and Blink and am in the middle of Tipping Point.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Makers and Hackers

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

In my last post, I presented a round-up of some thought-provoking pieces on from various technology writers and professionals (see: as a Case Study for the Digital Analog Divide). It had struck me that such a highly politicized government misstep would be subject to a lot of interesting diagnosis and misdiagnosis. I've been particularly interested in whether the result is a side effect of government's internal capacity. And if so, whether it's a result of reaching the limits of outsourcing, or if outsourcing for IM/IT is just fundamentally different.

How Big Should Government Be?

Clearly, the role for government is not everything, and not nothing. Somewhere in between there's a useful upper and lower boundary.

One of the themes from the 2012 conference of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) was the changing nature of policy analysts’ roles. Several observers suggested an evolution from a “subject matter expert” role to a “relationship manager” role, as the public service could increasingly rely on external parties for research and policy advice. It that the right path? And does it work for IM/IT?

I think there are two major concerns here. Not failings, just concerns. The first is if part of Mark Headd's analysis of government procurement is accurate: that government already needs “more makers and hackers.” One can imagine a hypothetical and absurd extreme, where government has lost the expertise to even manage and challenge third party organizations providing contracted services. I think there's a plausible risk on the spectrum towards that extreme for IM/IT, but that’s the “is IM/IT fundamentally different?” question for later. Is it a risk for policy work as well? 

The second is about pragmatism. The question is, is relationship management a role that will attract and retain the appropriate level of talent? Or will bright public servants exit the ecosystem if they cannot actually make? The talent may exist outside government, but the result will hinge on the system's capacity to make productive use of it. So the decision rubric isn't “Can this be handled outside of government?”, it's “What balance of in-government and out-of-government capacity makes for the most effective system?”


In addition, government has an alternative to outsourcing that did not previously exist. For a large project like, a contract is essentially the only way to go, and the decision points revolve around managing that contract through its lifecycle and through its operating environment. However, for many projects, governments have an unprecedented capacity to throttle their own capacity through horizontal collaboration and networks. This is sounding like it would deprive the private sector of government contracts, but ultimately the goal is providing sustainable value for taxpayer money.

The option is hybrid or formal Govcloud models, that mean that we can manage workloads in aggregate, not on an individual or team basis.

Last year I wrote about spans of control, noting that small teams (characteristic of most of the teams I've worked on) have limited options for capacity control (see: Spans of Control). Say a manager has two employees. Under traditional staffing mechanisms, the smallest increment that they can increase or decrease capacity is huge: either going from three staff (manager plus two employees) to four (33% increase), or three to two (50% decrease). Managers with ten employees can, in contrast, adjust by 10%. Regardless, in both cases the magnitude of change (and their relative permanence) is inflexible.

But increasingly, we can supplement or subvert that system and make our feasible talent pool - our effective "team" size - much larger as we make the public service community "smaller" through networks and communities, partially digitally-enabled.

This is important because there's no organization in the world that accurately quarries work into perfect 40-hour blocks every week. Imagine a set of hypothetical employees, whose workloads cluster around an average work week:

While organizations make use of the productive variance above the standard, they lose the inevitable variance below it. But, we can push many of those low data points closer and closer to the trendline through collaboration. And the bigger the talent “cloud,” the better we can align people with the work they do best, not just fill their time.

Here There Be Monsters

Returning to an earlier question, it is also possible that IM/IT just represents the uncharted territory, off the map. A quick straw man as an example:

Even if you've never built a shed, if you hired someone to build a shed you can understand, intuitively, a rough order of magnitude for the level of work involved. Maybe even a rough appreciation for the value of the materials used. For software, however, it's harder to tell if a contractor actually laboured over it, or if they copied and pasted a software shed they built for someone else before, and added paint. Many of the people ultimately managing these contracts either learned how to program a long time ago, or not at all. Combine that with a procurement model that is largely immune to reference checks and the length of technology lifecycles, and it's easy to imagine the predicament government is in, managing such projects.

Regardless, the conclusions from concerns like these are not straightforward. It seems hardly constructive to simply suggest that governments wholesale examine their assumptions about the way they've adjusted to the digital, knowledge work world. (Though I think that they should.)

That said, maximizing individuals managers’ capacity to leverage the internal talent pool - which would require a combination of platform and governance - seems like a win-win approach. And it may alleviate some of the pressures on managing complex projects, by making it easier to get the right experts involved early in the process, even for quick-hit guidance.

What should be done about the state of that overall talent pool in the first place? A much trickier question.