Friday, February 28, 2014

I'm looking for entrepreneurs in Civic Engagement

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

I was recently asked to help raise awareness of the 2014 Young Entrepreneur Award by the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC). While I don't typically run sponsored posts I decided to green light this one; and, in the spirit of full disclosure, I thought it would be appropriate to share why:
  • I am currently on interchange.
  • It was made by an arms length public sector organization whose mission  I generally support. 
  • BDC is venturing into new territory, levering online "influencers" (their term, not mine) to generate interest; these activities make sense and ought be supported.
  • I spoke at length with the person running the campaign and got a great vibe.
  • The requirements aren't overly prescriptive, you'll notice BDC logo at the bottom of this post and a referring URL, but all of the contents of the post are distinctively my own and not vetted by any one.
  • The compensation is a very modest honorarium and I have decided to flow it to an organization whose mission is to support entrepreneurship, which to me seems like a win-win and keeps with the spirit of campaign.
So yes, this is a sponsored post, but that doesn't make it any less relevant, or any less me. Now, on with the show ...

I'm looking for entrepreneurs, but not just any entrepreneurs
While the award money ($100k) could obviously help secure the future of another up and coming boutique design firm or online service delivery company, it could also do something a little more profound. The way I see it the prize money could just as easily be used to help civic innovators gain ground on their private sector counterparts, it could be used to scale small civic engagement firms or budding data analytics companies. Both are incredibly important to the future of public policy in Canada (See: Towards Copernicus) and ripe for investment.

That is, if those entrepreneurs exist
I've spent time speaking with young tech entrepreneurs, trying to encourage them to move into these spaces (See: Equip Leaders to Lead), but to be honest, my own personal forays to bring these worlds together haven't proven all that successful (See: This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things in Government). 

My sincere hope is that the ecosystem has evolved since then
If you or someone you know is working in this space, reach out. I'm interested in what you are doing, what you've learned and what you've got planned for the future. Furthermore, if you think you've got a shot at the grant money and can use it to help build a better civic engagement or big data analytics mousetrap, then apply. I don't have the inside track, nor can I exert influence on the process, but I'm happy to lend you my experience to help you figure out the best way to do it. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

You Can't Play Ping Pong By Yourself

by Ashleigh Weeden RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Ashleigh Weedentwitter / ashleighweeden

Ashleigh is a mischief-maker, bridge-builder, barrier-smasher, and dot-connecter. She blogs Kent and I have been asking her to post here for some time now, she finally took us up on the offer.

In start-up circles, culture and unique work environments are used as celebratory beacons for what are meant to be progressive, interesting companies. Employers with these cultural signifiers of awesomeness are usually defined in contrast to the perceived rigidity and restrictive nature of organizational behemoths like large corporations and government institutions. What these companies seem to be saying is that they think the work they do is different, that their people can and will influence big changes and that they purposely use specific work environments to support differentness, creativity, collaboration and other qualities promised by the shift toward profit-for-social-good model of doing work.

But someone has to build that environment. It doesn’t just pop into existence. People do that.

Reading Nick's reflections on leaving the Public Service for a different kind of public service at the Institute on Governance (See: Thoughts from the Other Side of Interchange), and noticing the discussions and patterns that seem to be surfacing amongst some of the public servants I admire most, I've been thinking about how much of an impact good people have on an organization and how a critical mass of good people is what creates or changes an organization's culture. This is not a chicken-and-egg scenario to me - you can't have the culture without the people. Public sector renewal, then, seems to hinge on exceptional human resource management.

First, I hate the term "human resources" - it makes my skin crawl. It makes me imagine bad coffee and worse ties and the feeling of being called into the Principal's office. We have got to come up with a better term for individuals whose core function is finding the people that will build the kind of public service we say we want. I'm not sure what that term should be, but it needs to recognize a modern approach to people-first team building. Because that's what an exceptional recruiter and staff developer does - they build teams and build organizations, block by block, by finding and placing the kind of person that will help steer a team, a department, and an organization in the direction it wants to go... Or, at least, that's what they should be doing.

It strikes me that we need a fundamental shift in our recruitment and retention philosophy. I read Karolina Szcur's piece about "Where to Work" (inspired by Paul Jarvis' excellent "You are not a corporation") and, while the entire piece reads as a pretty solid basic course in "great work environments 101" and makes up what I think should be the basic job description of every people-manager in the world, the quote she pulled from a Basecamp job posting hit me like lightning:

"We are not looking for someone who’s already expert in everything they do. We’re looking for someone great who demonstrates the interest, drive, and desire to keep learning new things and continually get better." (from here)

When Basecamp includes this statement in their recruitment ads, what they're saying is that they are an organization that hires character and curiosity, not just credentials. It doesn't fit neatly in arbitration-ready evaluation grids and pokes holes in our flawed meritocracies - but it's the spark that says "Let's build this together."

It's something that I think Tariq touched on when he wrote about letting ideas shine without a prescriptive formula for diversity (See: Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out - Planning and Idea Generation in Government). Kent also hinted at it with his GOC 3.0 takeway. And it's something that I see in the virtual community of practice of public servants in the social media sphere. These are folks with that essential nugget of the virtuous schemer, who are challenging, appreciating and nourishing each other as whole persons, not just cogs in the production process. Remember all my talk about whole-hearted public service? We can't get there if the official channels that manage the employment relationship refuse to acknowledge the important part that our human subjectivity plays in creating our professional realities.

Talent management is tantamount to a very long game of chess with a generous dash of fortune telling and an element of The Labyrinth thrown in for good measure because the chess pieces have minds of their own and are likely to move about the board whenever they want. Overly prescriptive and technical hiring processes may seem like equalizers, but they take humanity out of the picture. The assumption is that everyone with a certain list of qualifications is an interchangeable, blank-chess-piece-widget instead of a highly changeable weirdo (which we all are, really. “Weirdo” is a compliment, I promise). So we’re left without the practical magic needed to create and sustain the kind of professional culture we crave.

Large organizations could learn a lot from ongoing exit interviews of all staff - not just executives, and not just when someone leaves permanently. Think of the gold mine that culture-builders could access from asking George or Nick for their honest reflections - and expand that out to asking similar questions of those who move teams or departments, whether on secondment or for a promotion or for a lateral change of scenery. Extrapolate that outwards to interviewing people moving between levels of government or between sectors. Imagine if everyone completed a “first impressions” review after a month in their new positions, and again six months in, and after the first year and so on. Imagine if your performance appraisal included a culture appraisal that actually contributed to a regular readjustment of the corporate sails. We’d become constructively introspective. My nerdy little social-scientist’s heart beats wildly at the thought of all that deep data collection. We’d have the start of a pretty radical public service ethnography.

Cool culture is not about a ping-pong table in the office, endless coffee or even a keg in the fridge - it's a function of the work you get to do and the people you get to work alongside. Spend too long working amongst too many people who just don't "get" you on some fundamental level, and you're bound to burn out and seek shelter elsewhere. But find yourself on a team of wildly productive sparkplugs who see the same sparkle in the world and in each other that you do? Magic. Because you can’t play ping-pong by yourself.

Friday, February 21, 2014

When did the public service become an ignoble profession?

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

I first met Bob Chartier a few years ago in Calgary. We shared a stage at an event put on by the National Managers Community at the Fairmont hotel. I was the opening act, there to speak about how technology was changing government. He was the main attraction, there to speak about the important stuff: retaining our humanity, purposeful storytelling and the mental models that define us, yet we take for granted.

Bob walked the crowd through an exercise to illustrate how easily we become locked into particular mental models and how those models can be powerful forces that shape our world. He told a story about how when most people are asked to draw a skating rink, they draw the quintessential hockey rink.

Our mental models of skating are closely tied with the sport of hockey, he said. But when he asked the same question to a child, someone who had yet to internalize the predominant mental model of skating as a hockey rink, their answer was completely different. The rink was more like a park. Sure, there was space for hockey, but it was a part of a larger whole that included a number other elements like hills, trees, structures for play and long curvy trails between round frozen ponds. The differences were astounding.

Bob went on to speak about people's mental models of public servants: city workers leaning on their shovels, teachers on strike, and Ottawa fat cats entitled to their entitlements. The problem, Bob said, is akin to the problem of skating as hockey. Sure, that can stuff can happen, but it doesn't always happen. It's not an absolute truth so much as stereotype. And it is a dangerous one that has permeated public discourse; and in my view it's a mental model of the public service that does a disservice to public servants and the publics they serve.

When did the public service become an ignoble profession?

Feel free to levy all the standard criticisms, I'm used to them by now. I know it's cliché for a public servant to sit here and defend the public service to the publics they serve. Those who have tried tend to invoke an argument that public servants are a rich tapestry of teachers, nurses, emergency responders, planners, safety inspectors, and scientists and cannot be boiled down to the stereotypical paper pushing bureaucrat.

However, as compelling as that argument may (or may not) be, I think it misses the larger point. Namely, isn't it sad that defending the civil service to the citizenry that they serve has become cliché in the first place? That dragging civil servants through the mud (and the comment sections) has become commonplace?

What does it say about the future of the public service that this mental model has come to dominate public discourse about the civil service? Of the Canada it serves? When, why and how has it become acceptable?

Isn't that the question we ought to be exploring?

I certainly think so.


Bob Chartier is a public servant, an inspiration and a friend; he announced his retirement a few months ago, I wish him luck and I highly recommend reading his book, Letters to a Young Public Servant.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

When Parameters Are The Problem

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

My post from last week was hurried and unfinished - there are caveats and implications left hanging. I'll get back to it next week (see: Millenials, Lego, and the Perimeter of Ignorance).

I recently ran across a business article about aligning your strategy with your environment. The hook was a cartoon of a man yelling "Why won't this gigantic square peg fit in this round hole?!" 

Standare fare, age-old advice.

Of course we should make sure that our strategies make sense in the context of our organizations' priorities, processes, and environment. Of course.

But maybe? Sometimes the square peg is what's actually needed, and it's really the round hole that needs a change. And altering the peg to fit the nonsensical hole perpetuates and legitimizes a poor system and leaves people in the dark about the fact that they need to rethink things.

The Creative Yes

There's a risk to pitching square pegs. The idea could get shut down completely.

The hybrid position might be highlighting the system's shortcomings through the proposal or business case. Typically, two to three options are on offer. Perhaps the new practice should be providing both round peg options that fit current parameters, and square ones that require changing parameters and redefining - more accurately - the problem.

And slowly, the parameters might change.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Thoughts from the other side of Interchange

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

A lot of people have been asking me about my new job (See: Today is My Last Day in the Public Service) so I figured I'd share some of my initial observations about working on the other side of the wall.

Change is refreshing

Admittedly I'm still technically in the honeymoon stage having only joined the IOG a month ago. That said I can say with a fair degree of certainty that I was definitely due for a change of scenery. I won't bother you with all the details but suffice it to say that the sight lines between my work and what I deem important were blurred. I still believe wholeheartedly in public service but felt like my work was too heavily weighted towards the transactional when my interests, skills and drive is biased towards the transformational. In short, I was looking for a better personal fit, and from I can tell thus far, I have found it.

Technology can be easy

Integrating into the IT infrastructure at work was seamless. I walked in, was handed log in credentials and sat down at my iMac (yeah that's right), hooked up my iPhone to the wifi and connected my office calendar and email with my other Google accounts.

Every organization has its own language

We often get so wrapped up in the nomenclature of the business we fail to understand that sometimes it can hinder rather than help; and the same can be said of organizational structures. This is playing out right now within our institutions of government, between them and whenever they interface with the publics they serve. It's creating real barriers to engagement across the board, causing people to dig in their heels with partisan rhetoric and otherwise eroding the middle ground of compromise that I've always thought was the inherently Canadian way forward.

A lot of people are looking for greener pastures

I'm not sure if it's where I am relative to my career trajectory cohort or symptomatic of some larger issues out there in the ecosystem (e.g. the one I pointed out above) but a lot of talented people I know either have or are now broadening their horizons and looking beyond the walls of the public sector organizations they currently work for.

You are always more valuable to an organization after you leave it

Whether it's Murphy's law or the fact that its human nature to take things for granted, your worth to an organization is never truly understood until you're no longer there when they need you.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Millenials, Lego, and the Perimeter of Ignorance

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

Every time I read an article about Gen Y or Millenials I run it through this litmus test: throughout the text, can you replace "Millenial" with "employee" with no loss of meaning?
 “[Employees] want meaningful work, they want to do things that are making an impact and if they’re not in a good environment where they can do that, they’re always going to be looking for something else"
From this piece, which was - sadly - actually about Millenials.

Of course, there are legitimate and meaningful trends and changes occurring, even about Millenials (I'd give more credence to this idea about changing prioritization between work and family life). But it's worth it to be skeptical, to put ideas in broader context, and to look for what's truly meaningful.

Baby boomers are retiring, or about to. Deloitte has suggested that this wave of retirements has been delayed slightly - by "better than expected health" and "worse than expected wealth" for would-be retirees - but here's the demographic profile of the public service up to 2012, Boomers identified by forward slashes:

Figure 7

Over the next decade, we're going to see a demographic shift in key positions throughout the public service. But the question is: does that matter?

And why?

The Perimeter of Ignorance

Here's my frontrunner idea for why it might. I don't think living in the age of information leads directly to collaboration as a first-order condition. Instead, I see collaboration as a second-order condition of a more fundamental result: being constantly reminded of one's ignorance. Collaboration is a symptom, in this view.

Admittedly, this isn't really new. It's not like there was a period of human history in which our knowledge was static. The idea of heliocentrism, for example, would have been world-shattering, dramatically changing the parameters within which people constructed their beliefs. But it seems as though people throughout much of history always considered that the universe ended where their knowledge did, simply expanding the universe slightly when their knowledge grew.

"It's Like Lego."

I simply think that the recognition - deep-seated, not just logically, on principle - that we don't know everything has taken hold, and reached much further into the bulk of populations. The plural of anecdote is not evidence, but this has been on my mind lately:
  • In the last few weeks I've met two people whose lives' work was connecting people, based on the idea that all the building blocks for building a better society are already there, the question is simply one of assembly. "It's like lego."
  • Lately I've had the opportunity to help colleagues with marketing campaigns, internal strategies, and policy presentations, somewhat awed by the idea that I had something to contribute to any of these.
  • Last week Tariq posted about Planning and Idea Generation in Government, in response to Chelsea's point that even deciding that something is a good idea is a muddy and difficult process.
  • Which led to a conversation about decision-making models. Some very (very) smart people were debating their merits. One view would be that they're a useful heuristic, and I'd add that their existence and popularity is based on a recognition that we'll muck things up simply by throwing neurons at problems. But at the same time they have limits, and over-reliance can lead to sub-optimal results.
Or, this, from Joeri van den Steenhoven from the MaRS Solutions Lab:
"We never have all the knowledge in place. So we have to learn... Mostly, it's about organizing a learning process for the stakeholders and users involved, and trying to find out together how we can bring about successful change."

Strategy in a Gigantic Universe

I didn't intend this when I started writing, but this gets back to the last few weeks of posts: Nick on Blending Public Sentiment, Data Analytics, Design Thinking, and Behavioural Economics, or me on Building Distributed Capacity. These posts could be read as buzzword-heavy, or as reasonable management strategies in a world where solutions are elusive, subjective, and fleeting. As ways to, as Josh McManus suggests:

What do you think? Is increased recognition of our limits a genuine shift? Or am I unfairly assigning importance, or missing longer-term context? Is a more collaborative, tentative approach to solution-generation actually a characteristic of those people who'll be replacing retiring Boomers?

And what would that mean for the public service?

I think it's important to look at possibilities and plausibilities for the public service in the long term. To be perfectly honest, my interest in determining whether or not this idea means anything is partially driven by the conversations that came out of George's leave and Nick's interchange from the public service. It seems staying or exploring opportunities elsewhere is on many people's minds.

That's quite alright. We can go "from Public Service to public service," as George put it. But I'm interested in at least complicating these decisions by pointing to opportunities for positive change in the public service. It seems to be the problem I've fallen in love with.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Tune in, Turn on, Drop out - Planning and Idea Generation in Government

by Tariq Piracha RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / tariqpiracha

In response to my last post, a friend commented about the risk involved in trying to generate the best merit-based ideas: “best ideas according to whom and why? What is best?”

Clear and measurable objectives are crucial to success when tasked with idea generation in government. I think her question is well worth consideration. But if we’re looking for an objective or static measurement for what constitutes the “best idea”, I think we’ll be disappointed with the results.

It is the essential nature of democracy: the ideas that are generated, tweaked and implemented are a matter of choice. We look at the data, the issues, the context, and we make the best recommendations we can. It may not be the most effective or efficient course of action, but once we incorporate the multitude of interests, risks, and limitations, someone must ultimately make an informed choice.

That said, the best choice, that is made within a particular context at a particular point in time, may no longer be the best choice as the environment changes. The question that interests me is not so much “what is best”, or even “what are we going to choose”, but instead “how are we going to adapt?”

To do that, I think we need to address at least three elements: With a nod to our 60’s counterculture, I’d suggest it’s important to know how to tune in, turn on, and drop out.

Tune in: We need to pay close attention to our environment. If our environment is changing, we should know about it now; not in a year when it is time to wrap up a project and evaluate performance.

Turn on: We need to know how to turn on a dime. If we’ve got our finger on the pulse, we are better positioned to pivot and adjust course if necessary.

Drop out: Sometimes, well, we just may need to abandon an approach and start from scratch, or move on.

If we have established clear, measurable goals, and we are evaluating our progress every step along the way (and not just at milestones), we may discover that our ideas need to change. The environment, the data, may show us that it needs to.

I've written in past about the need for agile government and the dangers of focusing on projects instead of iterative process. It’s that iterative approach that can help us be more agile.

Cass Sunstein in Simpler talks about the need to assess and adjust policy after it has been implemented. We can no longer afford to “set it and forget it” when it comes to policy and law as no policy or law will be perfect out of the gate.

This position was also recently expressed by Dana O’Donovan and Noah Rimland Flower from the Monitor Institute with regards to how we assess and implement strategic plans.

The 5-year plan, or even annual strategic plans, are no longer providing the flexibility and effectiveness in a world that is changing so rapidly, where citizens are needing responsive and responsible government support.

“Best” may be a misleading word - it is certainly not some objective measurement when it comes to how the government works. It is contextual relative to the various pressures that any developing policy may face.

However, if we can set clear, measurable objectives, scan the environment frequently, measure our progress early and often, and adjust appropriately to changes in the environment, then I think we'll be well on our way to seeing useful progress. And useful ideas.