Unsolicited Thoughts on Destination 2020

Friday, May 16, 2014
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.