Why I'm a Renewal Wonk

Tuesday, January 7, 2014
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Recently I was looking back at my last couple years of posts. I started asking why I was writing what I was writing - some posts are about making sense of long-term trends, others are Lifehacker-like ways to think about working in government, others are responding to ongoing discourse (Blueprint 2020, nudges in government). And I started asking why I was writing on a blog called Canadian Public Service Renewal in the first place, so I thought I'd start the year with my answer.

To start, my definition. There is a hypothetically ideal public service, and there will always be a gap between that and where we are. Public service renewal isn't a project; rather, a process that started when the public service did, with the goal of continuously striving to do as much as possible for Canada by minimizing that gap. 

Public Service Renewal

Joining the public service was foreshadowed years before it happened, and I recently retraced my steps, re-reading my 2005 blog. I had been debating the pros and cons of cubicle life and a move to Ottawa (I'm from PEI). But the idea I had back then, which precipitated the move, stands: the public service is incredibly important, and needs to be excellent* (if you want to go all the way back, public service was my frontrunner in grade 10 or 11). I thought it would do the country a disservice if all the passionate people eschew core public service for politics and NGOs, a position many of my equally idealistic friends advocated.

"The public service needs to be excellent" idea , while unshocking, underpins the last few years of posts. And it was made very real for me when I joined the public service, a learning curve that led to one of the other common themes - engagement.

Looking back through more recent posts, I noted that where once I'd have written about engagement as employee engagement, I've gone through stretches of talking about community engagement and citizen engagement. It's partially a function of the jobs I've had (though I had written about those topics before working in those spaces). But it's also simply incredibly important for me, and it's where my interest in public service renewal really began (as laid out by Nick (Scheming Virtuously) and Etienne Laliberté (An Inconvenient Renewal) (both links must-read, if you've never)).


I started work in the public service in an organization that happened to be tumultuous at the time. Which meant two things.

One, I had a lot of different managers in a short period of time, and depending on the manager and the files I was working on, the fluctuations in my level of engagement put roller coasters to shame. There were stretches where I swung for the fences, and days where I questioned my life choices at their most fundamental levels. I was painfully aware of the incredible difference between feeling engaged and feeling unengaged. Throughout, essentially, the same job. And it wasn't anything huge; instead, an ecosystem of small day-to-day interactions that were influencing my relationship with my job and organization. Having it explained how my work fit in the bigger picture, getting feedback on my contributions, and having my manager show interest in my development. Or not.

Two, I occasionally had extra time. My compromise to myself was to read about public administration, business administration, and the machinery of government. I ran across studies such as CEB's work on engagement (full report is subscription-only, sorry) and Gallup's meta-analysis on the topic. CEB found that highly engaged employees perform 20% better than low-engagement colleagues, and Gallup confirmed that this actually translates into increased profit (pegged at 21%). This clicked with everything I had felt, and provided the evidence (also backs up Dan Pink's Drive (along with Deci's Self-Determination research) and Teresa Amabile's The Progress Principle).

Actually, I'm just going to provide a long quote from Gallup, because it's so striking:
"Those at the 99th percentile [for employee engagement] have four times the success rate as those at the first percentile. Median differences between top-quartile and bottom-quartile units were 10% in customer ratings, 22% in profitability, 21% in productivity, 25% in turnover (high-turnover organizations), 65% in turnover (low-turnover organizations), 48% in safety incidents, 28% in shrinkage, 37% in absenteeism, 41% in patient safety incidents, and 41% in quality (defects)."
(I think that's astonishing.)

I started looking for ways to start having these discussions with people in the organization, including joining an ADM-led committee tasked with making the organization a better place to work, and our youth network. But engagement is only part of an excellent public service (albeit, in my mind, a key idea), and depends on many other variables. To boot, I've always tried to understand and dissect systems, and I became increasingly concerned about the status quo: both to avoid a dangerous tipping point, and to govern a world continuously reinventing itself. So eventually these explorations became To The Dogs Or Whoever and later, my involvement in CPSRenewal.ca.

Good Ideas and Opportunity Cost

To close a loop: employee engagement is built on the same principles as community engagement, citizen engagement, and even interpersonal conversations. It's ensuring a meaningful connection between actions and outcomes, and proving it.

In conversations we do this by adding prompts to dialogue ("Uh huh", "Really", "Go on") to demonstrate to others that we're listening and understanding. Managers can do this by connecting employees' work to the greater mission, and providing feedback on work and its' impact (CEB puts "connection to organizational mission" and "regular feedback" as their top engagement drivers). And governments will need to find ways to do this effectively when involving citizens in governance, a learning curve that has seen some stumbles to date.

As an aside, Gallup covered the why for employee engagement, but it's the same for stakeholder/citizen engagement. That is, it works. Participation rates increase, important information surfaces, communities get strengthened, people vote, and decision makers build trust and legitimacy (as it turns out, transparency's relationship with trust is actually rather shaky. Engagement's relationship with trust is strong). And it works both ways: giving citizens opportunities to engage with governance will give meaning to public servants' work, too (long story short: begets a virtuous cycle of trust, talent, and performance). Truly understanding engagement has a lot of potential for government, democracy, and public service.

Public Service Renewal

That's the gist of why I'm interested in public service renewal. And employee, community, and citizen engagement as keystone elements of that renewal. I think dialogue on the topic is important, partially because it can influence direction, but also so that ideas are shared, sussed out, and improved for when they do.

As noted, though, these ideas are just parts of a complex system. So we'll see where 2014 takes things. Regardless, thank you for reading and the many wonderful discussions it has led to, and I look forward to many more.