Friday, May 30, 2014

On the Trust Gap

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

There's been a lot of discussion as of late regarding the so-called "trust gap" between the non-partisan civil service and the duly elected government; here's my take.

It's easy to snipe from the sidelines

Amidst the talk, the focus seems to be on the senior ranks of the public service. It's a narrow slice of the civil service and while an argument could be made that it's the most important juncture in the system it's also the one that the least amount of civil servants have any direct experience with and there's the rub. There's a big difference between first hand experience and conjecture and I'll give the former the benefit of the doubt before the latter any day of the week.

The gap is not restricted to the federal family

I've spent a fair bit of time speaking to bureaucrats in other jurisdictions lately (especially those heading into elections) and the gap is a common theme. Politics aside, the truth of the matter is that the motivations, incentives and time horizons of professional non-partisan civil servants are different than those of elected officials. That's not a condemnation, just an observation.

Unsurprisingly I'm of the view that the gap is likely little more than a natural by-product of these different world views coming together. I admit that the arrangement is inherently antagonistic but I'd argue that its more a function of design (Westminster) than of aesthetics (the colour of the banner at the helm).

The gap isn't necessarily where you think it is

I've already mentioned the fact that the focus seems to be on the senior ranks, but what about the gap(s) between rank and file civil servants? Between you the person sitting next to you? You and the person who manages you? The person who manages you and the person who manages them?

I've written in the past about trust (See: Trust is the Only Thing That Scales, On Fearless Advice and Loyal Implementation, and On Risk, Fearless Advice, and Loyal Implementation) and it's a frequent topic of discussion whenever I get behind a microphone.

Frankly, when the rubber meets the road I don't think we trust each other, at least not on the scale that we should. We're more apt to avoid difficult conversations than we are to engage in them. We are more likely to hang a Dilbert comic on our cubicle in a passive aggressive show of resistance than we are to champion a mature conversation on its underlying, and often sad, truth. We opt for impersonal emails over phone calls, typefaces over people's faces.

But the higher order question, the question of trust — genuine trust — permeates every aspect of our work with each other and the public we (civil servants and elected officials) collectively serve. Governance is trust. So what happens when, as Kent points out in Risk, Failure and Honesty, trust in government declines?

Where's that discussion? 

Where's the discussion about whether or not we ought to be citizens before taxpayers?

Public servants before bureaucrats?

Leaders before politicians?

That's the discussion I'm interested in, and that's the discussion I think we ought to be having.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Risk, Failure, and Honesty

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

Last year Nick and I went down a long rabbit hole on the idea of the faceless bureaucrat (see: Embracing Authenticity Means Embracing Complexity). There's a maxim that bureaucrats are rightly anonymous, in that it facilitates professional, non-partisan advice, but I've been wondering if the foundations on which that maxim rests are shifting. We're in an era of hyper-connectivity, citizen engagement in governance, and an increasing recognition that end users' needs should be the starting point for policy and program design. In other words:
  • The public service (and the public, for that matter) is made up of people
  • People not in government can be trusted, invaluable partners in governance
  • The starting point for solutions should be a genuine understanding of the problem
All of which begets pretty fundamental questions about the relationship between government and citizens. One that Nick and I did not thoroughly cover is the approach government takes to honesty, problems, and failure.

Recently, David Emerson suggested that public service needed to adapt quickly to the state of the world, and the article was summed up with the headline that Public servants risk becoming policy dinosaurs. Is this a problem we have to face?

Well, the strongest language that we tend to admit to is that we face challenges and that there are risks. We don't have problems, we don't have failures. So it can't be a problem.

That said, over the last year, there has been talk about adopting Engineers Without Borders' Failure Report model, one Crown Corporation has admitted the need to reinvent its business model, and the idea of change labs has spread, a model dependent on a laser focus on problems, as well as experimentation and iteration based on past results, including failures.

It seems as though we recognize that honesty is needed about the problems that we're facing, so that we can bring to bear the appropriate resources to solve them. And yet, the language stays firmly fixated on opportunities and innovation, never on problems or failures. When multiple people approve documents, it becomes very likely that at least one of them will soften the language.

Innovation requires taking chances, and chances can lead to failures. Any system that involves humans, no matter how reliable, will generate mistakes as a matter of statistical inevitability. It's okay. And small failures, if done well, will contribute to consistent successes. And until a would-be innovator can as easily summon anecdotes of failures being accepted as being maligned, we're stuck with the safe road or, at least, pretending to others that we're on it. Either of which is exceedingly hard to learn from.

I think part of it is the Shopping for Votes approach: defenders of soundbite-based communication argue that average Canadians don't have time for complexity, and won't appreciate the nuances of real, gritty problems. To boot, every piece of even internal communication can suddenly become external through Access to Information. However,there is evidence that experts that own up to their shortcomings, or demonstrate a degree of fallibility, can be seen as more credible and reliable (and certainly more likable) than those who maintain an strictly stoic veneer. Nick once suggested that a culture of acceptable failure could be a competitive advantage.

And the decline in trust in government would suggest that in general, the problem-free communication approach isn't working ideally. It may be worth considering the possibility that we systematically overestimate the risk of admitting to problems and failures, and underestimate the longer-term risks of losing trust and credibility - and the risks of inappropriately intervening on ill-defined problems.

It could be a tragedy of the commons effect, in that individual actors know that long-term stewardship requires a certain approach but are incentivized to take a different one. In that view, it's not so much a question of whether we should embrace an honest focus on problems, or that our communications model needs to evolve, but a question of how we normalize those admissions of humility and humanity.

When everyone around you is touting success, who goes first on failure?

If it is a tragedy of the commons, the answer is less in the culture change and more in altering how the market works.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Impossible Conversations: Shopping for Votes

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

Susan Delacourt's Shopping for Votes led, hands-down, to the most spirited discussion we've had. I called a time-out at two and a half hours in, and while a few people had to attend to other concerns, a solid handful of us talked about this book and the political ecosystem it describes for almost four hours. Lighter on reviews than usual, though:

Delacourt’s thesis is that consumerist marketing techniques have pervaded modern politics. She highlights how Canada’s political parties have devolved from ‘big tent’ politics toward micro-targeting. All parties spend significant funds in their marketing efforts, including data-gathering of the electorate - supporters and opposers alike. The party with the best data and marketing machine wins. Unlike the populism of years past, the modern-day effective political party gets its votes by salesmanship rather than statesmanship. The result, unfortunately, is that politics are reduced to the least-common denominator - a high-stakes popularity contest with the nation’s future at stake. 

Whether or not you agree with the underlying narrative about consumerism overtaking civics (e.g. citizens becoming taxpayers) in the political realm, Delacourt’s treatment of recent electoral history is reason enough to pick up the book. It sheds considerable light on the evolution of data driven politics that dovetails with the rise of New Public Management (NPM) making it the perfect – yet unintentional – companion piece to Savoie’s What Ever Happened to the Music Teacher?  Shopping is a must read. 

I read this book then immediately dug into our next, The Tragedy in the Commons by Alison Loat and Michael McMillan, a one-two punch that is, frankly, a bit of a downer. Neither contain foreign ideas, but the methodical exploration is worthwhile. In Shopping for Votes, the crucial idea for me was the shift from political advertising - highlighting the virtues of what’s on offer - to marketing - arranging your product around the willingness of possible buyers. It’s particularly concerning depending on whether those marketers consider the market to mean voters, or the sub-population of voters that has the greatest influence on a given election. My one complaint is that I found myself wishing that Delacourt wandered into the surrounding political ecosystem, but the book stays laser focused on the increasing use of consumer advertising techniques including, as Nick wrote, the use of data in politics.

Regardless, I absolutely recommend reading Delacourt’s work.

The question from this book that I think will hang for a while, including throughout our next book, is the relationship between Canadians and their governance: Delacourt paints it as a trend from citizen to consumer or taxpayer - and whether that is indeed accurate, or still the trajectory, has significant implications for how we approach systems like the one described in Shopping.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Unsolicited Thoughts on Destination 2020

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

On Monday, the Clerk of the Privy Council Wayne Wouters released Destination 2020, the response to the government-wide Blueprint 2020 engagement process. The report comes on the heels of both the 8th Report from the Advisory Panel on the Public Service and the 21st Annual Report to the Prime Minister (See: Thoughts on the 8th Report from the Advisory Panel on the Public Service). While I could just cut to the chase and offer my take, there's actually a lot at stake here so I have to tread lightly.

A couple of high level thoughts

First, the report wasn't written with guys like me in mind. Clerk's reports generally speak to the early and late majority, not the innovators or the early adopters. If you are on the left side of the adoption curve like me, you likely thought the report fell short; and while perhaps that is true for you, you (we) need to remember that it's pretty progressive for those on the right of the chasm.

Second, if the report rattles the cages of the status quo and rallies the troops around change, then it's something that we all need to get behind. We need all the momentum we can get and holier than thou attitudes from guys like me aren't productive. We can disagree on execution but let's at least agree that we have consensus on the vision. Can we do better? Of course, we always can. But let's not allow perfection to be an enemy of the good. That tendency is old-school bureaucracy, and if we fall victim to it now, we'll become everything we profess to hate.

What I thought was most interesting

The recognition that the public service brand (as a profession) was in need of a major overhaul. While it was clearly an overarching theme of many of the conversations I took part in when I was on the inside, I was surprised that it made it's way into the final report. It's obviously a theme we've explored at length here (See: When did the Public Service become an ignoble profession?) but it's also one with no clear-cut solution. Engaging civil servants in profiling their work online will do little to stem the tide of sniping ministers, rhetoric filled unions, prosecutorial journalists, self-censoring bureaucrats or apathetic citizens. In short, while the problem here is well-defined, I have trouble reconciling the depth of that problem with the response. 

What I thought was cause for concern

A common thread through the entire report was connecting senior managers more directly with the rank and file employees. Many of the actions the report proposes would do just this (tiger teams, innovation labs, dragons dens, etc); and while creating new feedback loops is important, so is unclogging the existing ones. It's a point I've raised before and won't belabour further (See: On Dragon's Dens, Hackathons, and Innovation Labs). That said, while dens, 'thons, and innovation labs may work for some people, they definitely won't work for everybody. By their very definition they are exclusive and exclusionary, they benefit only those who have access and how one gains access is still not well defined. In my estimation, access is likely to be left to middle managers and early career executives to operationalize. They are the permission seekers, the vetters, the filters. How will selection for these new endeavours be any different than the selection of who gets what training opportunities, what briefing notes make it to the deputy, etc? Isn't the filter issue the thing we are trying to address here? Would we be exploring these novel approaches if more information managed to permeate the clay layer? What's the old adage about letting the inmates run the insane asylum?

Ironically (or perhaps more rightly, sadly), the Association of Professional Executives (APEX) recently urged the government to take more action on mental health because it's most recent study found that the organizational commitment of executives was on the decline (from 64 per cent to 52 percent) and that about 32 per cent of them are disengaged, disconnected from their work and unable to deal with the demands of their job. I'm not being glib, mental health in the workplace is an important issue that ought to be addressed. I'm not trying to liken middle managers to inmates or the public service to an insane asylum, but sometimes you just need to use a metaphor to drive home the point. Truthfully, I have plenty of sympathy for the challenges facing middle managers. It's something we have written about in the past (See: The Plight of the Clay Layer and Where Good Ideas Go To Die) and something I speak to frequently during presentations. I won't belabour the point but there is still something here that just doesn't sit well with me. It strikes me as avant-garde but guarded by the old guard.

What I thought the report did well

Give people hope. While I wasn't in the room (I'm an outsider now remember  arguably I've never been an insider, but that's another discussion altogether) I was told that the energy in the room was palpable. The twitter stream exploded with a cacophony of support from across the country with only a few (quickly buried) objections (why we are so desperate for hope is another conversation for another time).

There are hundreds of briefing notes and decks being written across the public service as your read this that are using the Clerk's report as leverage. A quotation from the report on the front page, a photo of the Clerk and another quotation on the back. If an initiative can be tied to any of the report's pillars, it will be.

This is to be expected. After all a Clerk's report is never about the actual report  it's about what we all do with it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Loyalling Implementing the Idea of Fearless Advice

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

Here's my entire hand for this post, laid on the table: the idea of Fearless Advice, Loyal Implementation makes me deeply uncomfortable.

The idea is that public servants provide advice, elected officials make a decision, and public servants then implement that decision, regardless of whether or not they agree (Nick has written in the past that the principle "isn't reserved for ministerial briefings" and applies throughout the public sector). It stems from this section of the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector:
1.2 Loyally carrying out the lawful decisions of their leaders and supporting ministers in their accountability to Parliament and Canadians.
1.3 Providing decision makers with all the information, analysis and advice they need, always striving to be open, candid and impartial.
However, the pithier version is well-entrenched in the minds of public servants. The phrase comes up everywhere, from office hallways to speeches from the Clerk of the Privy Council. However, compared to the source material, we've changed the order. But the real problem is that we think there is an order in the first place.

Theory and Practice

To be clear, I have zero issue with either of those two provisions. In fact, without them, the whole thing falls apart. Legitimately elected representatives make decisions based on the democratic logic that our system provides adequate information flows, contains sufficient checks and balances, and affords the opportunity to balance short- and long-term needs, regional and demographic demands, and public sentiment with substantive evidence.

However, the idea that fearless advice stops when loyal implementation starts is dangerous, and seems all too common ("they're sequential", I heard recently). We revisit the foundations for every policy and program eventually; when does a decision "end"? If new information comes available that impacts future actions, the past decision is a sunk cost, to be disregarded in weighing current options.

Fearless Advice and the Management Zeitgeist

The language that fills discussions about the future of the public service is of agility, continuous learning, and innovation - continuously exploring the adjacent possible of the new scenarios we enter (see: Where Good Ideas Go To Live And/Or Die):
Recent decisions are not exempt from lessons learned, iteration, and improvement, and as such should not be exempt from fearless advice. It's in the implementation that we learn many of the truths about a decision's impact.

Misplaced Confidence

The other issue with the sequential approach for advice and implementation is the degree of confidence that it places in our ability to communicate and decide.

We can write advice amazingly precisely and thoughtfully, but unlike a conversation cannot correct misconceptions when we see them in others' facial expressions and body language, which we all do daily. Anyone that has ever re-drafted their own writing knows it never gets to perfect.
And if we are delivering advice in person? In practice, all conversations are first drafts.

Or, one could point to the evidence that willpower is a depletable resource. Or that hearing about large sums of money affects our judgement about money. Or that people are still biased towards certain names. Or that being reminded of negative stereotypes hurts people's test performance. Or that being tired impairs our judgement as much as alcohol. Regardless, we have quirks. We can reasonably rely on people to be effective decision-makers. But we can't rely on them to be effective decision-makers at every moment, and as such shouldn't shut the door on fearless advice once given.

The Rudder Straight

This is all perfectly consistent with the Values and Ethics Code, adhering to both provisions. It's urging a course change, while dutifully keeping the rudder straight. It's when we stop urging that the system falls apart.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Ask Higher Order Questions

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

Bloom's Taxonomy
If there is one thing I have learned thus far on my interchange it is this: ask higher order questions.

No matter the situation: ask higher order questions.

No matter the people you are speaking with: ask higher order questions.

Sometimes it will make people uncomfortable but it will always pay dividends. Elevating the conversation and helping people see the forest for the trees is – in my opinion – a key leadership competency; it's right up there with knowing when to burn your ships (See: The Fine Art of Burning Your Ships).

What is higher order thinking?

Higher order thinking is a concept from the field of education reform based on learning taxonomies. The concept centres around the idea that certain types of learning require more cognitive processing power than others but that this type of learning also has greater benefits. In Bloom's taxonomy for example, skills involving analysis, evaluation and synthesis (i.e. the creation of new knowledge, innovation) are thought to be higher order. A key defining element of higher order thinking is that the lessons learned in higher order thinking can be deployed in novel ways in different situations. In other words, it expands your tool set and helps you avoid the problem of only having a hammer and everything looking like a nail (a core challenge for many public servants).

What are higher order questions?

Higher order questions force people to do more than recall facts, terms and concepts. They require people to identify motives and causes, make inferences and find evidence to support their generalizations.

They push people to defend their opinions by turning their attention to the quality and validity of available information; and help people compile information together in a different way by encouraging them to combine elements in a novel way and propose alternatives (See: Innovation is Tricky, Literally). In the simplest of terms, higher order questions lead us to better analysis, more honest evaluation and the creation of new knowledge (innovation).

Who's asking higher order questions?

Lots of people.

I asked a higher order question when I wrote The Question that BluePrint2020 Should Have Asked but Didn't.

Susan Delacourt is asking higher order questions in her book Shopping for Votes (review forthcoming).

Former Clerk of the Privy Council Alex Himelfarb, it's asking higher order questions about the nature of taxation and it's role in society.

At the Institute on Governance (where I am currently on interchange) we ask higher order question(s) about who has power, who makes decisions, how other players make their voice heard and how account is rendered (because that's what governance is).

Higher order questions are everywhere.

Let's practice asking higher order questions together

But not today. Enjoy the weekend, and save those higher order questions for Monday.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Keeping Yourself Honest Redux

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

Last week, Nick wrote about how presenting the Scheming Virtuously playbook keeps him honest (see: Keeping Yourself Honest). I read that line and immediately thought back to a conversation I had last year in which someone on the periphery of government asked me why I was a public servant.

I started on the answer a few months ago (see: Why I'm a Renewal Wonk), saying that the Public Service has to be good. Regardless of the long-term future - various people have predicted a smaller bureaucracy, increasingly outsourced policy advice, or increased societal capacity for problem-solving - the Public Service is, and will be for the foreseeable future, an incredibly important institution. And the better that institution is, the better life is for Canadians and stakeholders (for what I consider the starkest example of this, see Moving Public Service Mountains, Part II).

Monday was my five year anniversary in the Public Service. It's reasonably likely that the next five years of my career will have a greater impact than my first five, purely out of the learning curve and the increased responsibility that comes with experience. And it's reasonably likely that the last five years of my career, many years from now, will have more impact still. The challenge, as I said in the aforementioned conversation, is to keep yourself honest all the way throughout.

Over the course of our lives there will be positions we should abandon when faced with new evidence. I certainly wouldn't keep myself honest to some the ideals of twenty-year old Kent. This is a deeply personal debate we'll all have, over and over, with ourselves.

Writer Jon Lovett beautifully captured the tension between good ideas and the wisdom of experience in a Pitzer College commencement speech that Nick once posted:

"...There is a lot that you don't know that you don't know... There are moments when you'll have a different point of view because you're a fresh set of eyes, because you don't care how it's been done before, because you're sharp and creative, because there is another way, a better way. But there will also be moments when you have a different point of view because you're wrong... 
..[And] sometimes you're going to be inexperienced, naïve, untested and totally right."

But that divide is also going to happen internally, within each of us.

I agree with Nick; the paper trail of ideas and positions does indeed keep me honest (in particular, the tension between designing ideas for my environment and designing ideas for what my environment should be seems to show up daily (see: When Parameters are the Problem)). When asked, however, the answer I pointed to was the people I surround myself with. The humblingly* dedicated colleagues, the people who go to great lengths to demonstrate that they care about their government, and the people I get to share ideas with.

Which is, really, the same answer as Nick, I think. The key is whom we "share ideas with", and who shares ideas with us

*I know, Tariq, it's not a word.