Friday, June 27, 2014

The Public Service as Ideology

by Tariq Piracha RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / tariqpiracha

Having conversations over the past couple of months with other public servants, it struck me that I don’t think that I’ve ever sat back and thought about the public service as an ideology. But the more conversations I have about Blueprint 2020 or any past public service renewal initiative, the more I’m starting to believe that this is the case.

We tend to think about ideology as large ideas like democracy, communism, socialism, capitalism, religion. Any ideology, whatever it is, guides any population that identifies with it on how to act and how to make decisions. In some cases it will be large and mostly academic like the ideologies listed above. In other cases, it may be much more personal or agenda-driven. Their scope may also be somewhere in between.

I’m seeing hints of ideology in the conversations around the public service, both academic and at the operational level: Who public servants ought to be; what public servants ought to be doing; the direction in which the public service should be going. The most recent and trending examples would be open government, open data and digital engagement — these are all marinating in a particular ideology that guides not only the direction that the public service ought to go, but also conditions the way in which we conduct our business.

I'm not attributing any positive or negative values to open government, or any ideology for that matter. My point is this: the public service has an ideology.

There’s a grey area that exists between the public service and government. The public service is tasked with preserving the public good, giving advice, implementing policy and serving Canadians. But the public service, despite its supposed impartiality, does not exist in a vacuum.

When the public service was created, it had a narrow purpose: support the mandate of the government. Public Works was one such department that was created in 1841 to build roads, bridges, canals. It provided infrastructure support in a country that in its infancy required significant support and momentum-building.

But the public service has grown way beyond those imaginings, or mandate around the time of Confederation. It has certainly grown beyond the imaginings of any one politician. Yes, government determines mandate, but there are pressures that exist in Canada that no one person (or politician) can manage on their own. (Even in Sir John A Macdonald's time, and despite his best efforts, he couldn't manage everything.) In that sense, the public service is not just responsive to government, it has become responsive to, or feels a responsibility toward the public good; to Canadians.

But if that’s the case, the values under which the public service operates are multi-faceted. Add in the organizational principles or trends that influence to the public service like groupthink, New Public Management, bureaucratic politics, and we’re now looking at a very complex public service that is trying to walk a tightrope of competing and sometimes confusing values.

One way in which Blueprint 2020 differs from previous renewal initiatives is that it asks about a vision for the public service in 2020. It is unfortunate that the conversations around Blueprint 2020 are often not about a vision for 2020. From what I have seen, the conversations are revolving around functionality, technology, effectiveness, efficiency.

Nick has already made the same kind of argument (see: The Question Blueprint 2020 Should Have Asked But Didn’t) that the conversations are less about a vision for 2020 and more reflective of a desire to catch up and keep up. I’ve seen few, if any, conversations about vision, values and ideology that the catching up and keeping up are couched in.

While I don’t think everyone should stop what they’re doing, book a boardroom and explore their feelings, I do believe a conversation about the nature and values of the public service is important. (See: Collaboration is about shared values.)

It’s the proverbial cart before the horse—talking about what to change before talking about the values and vision that could or should guide those decisions. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that public service ideology is an elephant in the room—I don’t think people are avoiding it. I think most simply haven't thought about it.

And we may not all be on the same page.

Friday, June 20, 2014

On the Clerk of the Privy Council

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

I co-wrote this month's Canadian Government Executive Magazine cover story with the Institute on Governance's Maryantonett Flumian; the article explores the relationship between the Clerk of the Privy Council Wayne Wouters and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Here's an excerpt:

To describe Wayne Wouters’ journey, we have to begin by acknowledging that this journey is in part directed by another very significant leader, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. Without the mutual respect and understanding by these two Westerners of each other's roles and the institutions that each heads, there can be no sustained progress for either Canada or its public service.

A prime minister, on his best days, is the guardian and steward of the country's prosperity, humanity and resilience. He holds those values close to him as he leads a government on behalf of Canadians. The Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet is head, guardian and steward of a vital national institution that contributes to supporting the agenda of the government of the day. He ensures that the values of the public service, including stewardship, excellence and integrity, are honoured and oversees the non-partisan institution as it strives to protect Canada's national interest while maintaining its relevance. [Full article]

I think it's timely given all the chatter recently ...

... have a read, and let me know what you think; also Happy National Public Service Week :)


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Impossible Conversations: Tragedy in the Commons

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

A group of us started a Public Administration/Political Economy Book Club in March 2013, prompted by a tweet from George Wenzel.

The June discussion was fantastic. The last two months have added some sharp new voices to the group, and the most recent book, Tragedy in the Commons, by Samara founders Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan, made for great fodder. The book is a dive into the (recent) state of Canada's parliament, based on interviews with former Members of Parliament, a demographic that allows for candid reflections.

We invite members to provide their reviews and reflections for posting here. Alison was kind enough to join us via Hangout to discuss the book when we met, and asked for suggestions for future editions, as well.

Thank you to Alison, and to everyone who takes part.

Nick Charney

Sequence matters; this book is a perfect complement to Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes and Savoie’s Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher. Taken together, these books provide great insight into the evolution of the political-bureaucratic interface in Canada. That said, I was taken aback by the fact that many of the interviewees saw themselves as the citizen’s solution to interfacing with the bureaucracy when things break down, choosing to cast themselves as ombudsman dealing with symptoms rather than legislators fixing systems. Unsurprisingly the book casts the ‘bureaucracy’ as amorphous and a part of the problem. To the best of my recollection none of the MPs questioned ever spoke of to the issue of the ongoing relationship between elected officials and the public servants that serve them or working with the civil service to achieve a particular end. It’s almost as though the relationship didn’t even register. I find it fascinating because of the amount of attention the relationship gets from the other side of the equation; bureaucrats, former bureaucrats and public admin academics (especially those in Ottawa) love to weigh in on the relationship (See: On The Trust Gap). I think it would be fascinating to conduct similar exit interviews with former civil servants and see how their answers stack up. My gut tells me we’d see an incredible gap in concerns, a gap that might be contributing to the Tragedy of the Commons.

Erin Gee

Freshly off Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes, I tried to guess (without much luck) whether or not any of the interviewees were playing the political marketing card. Tragedy in the Commons shed an interesting light into the world of politics, and despite the subject matter, remained accessible (so whether you’re a political junkie or not, you should read it). What struck me the most was the candour with which the interviewees spoke. They were (seemingly) incredibly forthright in their responses and I’m curious to see how future MP exit interviews may turn out.

Kent Aitken

Nick and Erin both mentioned the context of other books we've read. I'll second the value of reading these books together, and add the warning it may feel like a slight punch in the gut.

Where to even start? Alison asked for suggestions for improvements, and while any book could be improved, suggestions for Tragedy would be minor quibbles. They've done an excellent job, and published an engaging read out of powerful and unique source material. It's a worthwhile addition to the interim reports from the same interviews. My one concern would be that, given the qualitative nature of the research, those that disagree could dismiss the narrative as being a product of the authors' perspectives. Fortunately, many direct quotes from former MPs will hold much weight on their own.

TL;DR: I've probably thrown around the term "must read" in the past, but this absolutely is, for anyone interested in politics or public administration.

For reflections:

I was struck by the idea of MPs considering themselves "outsiders" to the heart of the process, and working for ways to make a difference. Many seemed torn between "playing the game" and delivering results for their ridings and the country. Since I wrote When Parameters Are The Problem I've been seriously debating where the balance is between fitting neatly within the system, and adhering to one's principles (at least, when the two are indeed in conflict). I just didn't realize that the conflict would apply to MPs, as well.

I was also intrigued at the lack of agreement on what an MP's job is in the first place: trustees of their riding, or delegates? There to echo voices or make decisions on their behalf? Simultaneously, should they be acting as ombudsmen for the bureaucracy to citizens, as Nick notes?

I finished this book over a month ago and it's still rolling around in my mind. When voters go shopping, pick this up.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Reflections on GovJam and a call for feedback from it's winner

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

As promised last week I wanted to circle back and share some of my more substantive thoughts on last week's GovJam and share an email from one of it's winners (See: Notes From Ottawa Govjam).

Reflections on Govjam

Remember the hype cycle; today's innovation focus — from behavioural economics to big data (and everything in between)— will inevitably walk the same path as yesterdays push towards social media.

The similarity between the cycles is readily apparent: discussions among early adopters at meet ups on the periphery of our organizations, ideas slowly crossing the chasm, some people falling off, others staking ground and building careers around the ideas/approaches that will eventually (2-3 years from now) will be operationalized to varying degrees within the mainstream, while still others moving on to whatever the next thing is. (See: Blending Public Sentiment, Data Analytics, Design Thinking and Behavioural Economics and More Thoughts on the Copernicus Formula).

The Winner

The Jam's winning entry was a project called Co-create Canada, a platform that seeks to connect engaged citizens more directly to entrepreneurial civil servants. There's a video explaining the concept, but I couldn't find a way to embed it so you will need to click the link above.

One of the group members, John Kenney (a sometimes contributor here), reached out to Kent and I via email to solicit some additional feedback. I'm reproducing that email below and inviting feedback on it on the groups behalf (w.e. with permission). Please feel free to leave a comment on this blog post, fire me or any of the team members listed below a tweet, or email John directly.

[Full disclosure: John's a friend and all around good guy, he asked for my feedback, I asked if I could put it to you, he checked with his team, they said yes.]

The Email ...

Greetings Kent and Nick,

Picking up where GovJam left off, I pitched a Co-Create Canada app idea to the team today. It was well-received, so, honestly, I'd love to get your critical perspectives. Here’s the gist of it.

Co-Create Canada focuses on making connections between change-makers inside and outside government as a first step , which, the theory goes, could help to build relationships and trust leading (potentially) to the co-creation of solutions to achieve desired outcomes.

Along with being the 2014 GovJam theme, “trust” was the topic of conversation among a few people during an intermissions at the last Policy Ignite. Blaise Hebert, a fellow public servant, used dating as an analogy in an effort to simplify the complexity of trust. He recommended thinking about trust in relation to a first date, which got me thinking about connections

What’s one the hottest dating apps going right now that’s simple to use and enabling people to make connections? Tinder.

What if we built a Co-create Canada app prototype based on the Tinder format? We'd test the prototype first, but imagine the scaled up version:
  • Anyone would have access to the app, but it would primarily attract change-makers inside and outside gov (any level really).
  • Instead of profiles of people, the app could host profiles of their projects that they believe would benefit from connecting to people either inside or outside of gov.
  • To post a project, the user would have to provide basic, but compelling info (at least to make that first connection) – e.g. problem, purpose, expected outcomes, why gov or citizen involvement is necessary, location, other partners, etc.
  • Just like with Tinder, the app user could scan projects in their geographical area (or where ever), swiping to the left or right depending on their interest in the project.
  • Connections are made when there’s a match between change-makers inside and outside gov who are interested in the same project.
What do you think? Crazy? Brilliant? Something else entirely? Thanks!

- Hope Harris, Vu NguyenAdamira TijerinoSarah Reda, Janice CudlipRichard Pietro, John Kenney.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Don't Rush to Define Impact

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

A quick addendum on a line in my last post (In Between Disruption and Incrementalism): "Great ideas with a snowball's chance in hell of success are not great ideas."

The other form the argument could take (it's come up a few times lately) is that we must be pragmatic about the possibility for change, and about the willingness to change of others. The one clarification I'd like to make is that many ideas that ostensibly fail in their stated goals will have been great ideas. It just depends on how broadly you define success, and to what length you're willing to take pragmatism.

Rejected ideas still move the goalposts for those around you. They slowly change people's ideas of what's normal, what's possible, and where things should be. They inform and improve others' ideas. They rattle others' standards for what's acceptable and achievable.

History is rich with examples of ideas that took decades, even centuries, to work.

We all want to have impact. And that impact is most satisfying when the equation is "I did X, and Y happened." But that's unicorn rare. That is, it doesn't exist - we don't work in a vacuum, and our contributions exist in an ecosystem of many actors and influences. There's a lot of power in the long tail of reverberations from those actions - as there is in every time we make sacrifices for the sake of small wins, but send the message to those around us that such sacrifices are necessary.

We can all work out X and Y, but none of us are prescient enough to figure out that long tail of impact. So I think we should err on the side of the way it should be, rather than the way we wish it wasn't but accept.

Don't rush to define impact or success. It's far harder to keep track of impact when you're enabling others to make it, rather than doing it yourself. But in the long run, we'll succeed as a collective when we focus more on just doing things right.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Notes from Ottawa GovJam (#OGovjam)

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

I spent some time at Ottawa Govjam this week as a participant, a speaker, a mentor and (oddly enough) a sponsor. I'm sharing my Prezi and (raw, unedited and unchecked against delivery) speaking notes below as well as a couple of my tweets from the the event that include links to some of the older cpsrenewal blog posts that came up in conversation. I'm going to circle back with comments and reflections later. Cheers.

- Nick



Govjam Logo
  • Thanks for the opportunity
  • [joke] buying mic time as a sponsor

IOG Logo
  • Intro self
  • Intro IOG
  • Twitter @'s
  • Hackathons, Dragons Dens and Innovation labs are all the rage right now
  • And while a lot of people are buying into the hype, I’m skeptical

  • I’m skeptical because these approaches are ultimately still vulnerable to the same structural imperatives that created the need for them.
  • I’m skeptical because they tend to be bolted on rather than being baked into their fabric from the get go.
  • I’m skeptical because they tend to be flashy and the sensationalism is as best unnecessary, at worst undermining.

fix (greater than) hack
  • Call me old fashioned but I’d rather fix government than hack it
  • Have a conversation than hold a dragon’s den

steak (greater than) sizzle
  • In short, I’m tired of being sold the sizzle
  • Even a skeptic has to eat
  • So let’s set the table.

  • target the broken, overly complicated and poorly designed or executed
  • These are your best entry points in the system
  • Creative destruction is your friend, kill the bad, grow the good.
  • recognize that scrutiny, scalability and longevity are your achilles’ heel
  • Usability starts in the ideation phase, not the design phase
  • What are the pain points you are addressing?
  • What is your approach vector?
  • What is the appetite for the solution?
  • Validation is the first, last and omnipresent ingredient.
  • Don’t allow your jam to be decontextualized from the challenge
  • Use your mentors, talk to the other teams
  • To paraphrase a friend – none of this exists in a vacuum

value each other
  • value each other because this is neither your first nor your last rodeo
  • You are going to continue to cross paths with everyone here so be kind

  • remember that in the public sector the road one travels is often as important as the destination
  • so act accordingly

  • Help leaders burn their ships
  • Build something so compelling that it cuts off the way backward
  • Give leaders a commitment strategy
  • And finally …

gl hf

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

In Between Disruption and Incrementalism

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

In Tragedy in the Commons, Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan quote columnist Andrew Coyne:

"People often ask: how can we reform politics? And the answer is: we can’t. There are very few institutional changes that would do any good, and whatever would has no chance of being enacted."

I'd like to stress that I want to consider this quote as a reflection on institutions, which I think can stand quite separately from the context of the column in which it was written.

This hits on a truth about many institutions: the changes that make the most difference are unlikely, precisely because they're changes. And institutions are structured as they are because of the way things have been.

Coyne applied this to politics. It can apply equally to corporations, trade organizations, policy and legal environments, governance bodies, or bureaucracies. And it does not assume a priori that change is necessarily good. It's simply a feature for organizations, of any kind, for would-be changers to consider.

So I'd like to explore a thought experiment for those who are interested in change, but have watched others before them try and fail.

Snowball Policy

One common example of behavioural economics applies to retirement savings. When people are asked if they'd like to increase their savings rate today - through increased deductions to their paycheque - they pass. They'll increase it later, after they pay X off, when things are less tight, etc. However, when asked if they'd like to commit to increasing their savings rate in the future - same deduction to take-home pay, but synced up with their next pay raise - they sign up.

The principle is simple. We can be rational about our long-term good, but immediate, emotional, and visceral needs often supersede our rationality. So what's the institutional version of that approach to retirement savings, scaled up?

It's not committing to political reform for the next time an election is called, and it's not committing to governance changes for the next time a CEO retires. Such systems are vastly more complex than even retirement savings.

The deck is stacked against anyone simply volunteering to dramatically alter the institutions they control. At the very least, it's uncertain, it's change. But it seems that many players would agree to future commitments: an algorithm, a series of if, then statements that would improve institutions, level the playing field, and leave a legacy. Especially when it's hard to predict which side of the playing field one will be on in the future.

A Thought Experiment

Take an idea like proportional representation for voting, where (in one form or another) parties gain numbers of seats based on popular vote. It's complex, a major change from the status quo, incredibly contentious, and almost certainly fits Coyne's assessment of "no chance of being enacted." That is, if a motion was to introduce legislation establishing proportional representation. What if, instead, a motion was made to introduce legislation that required parliament to do the following? (Excuse the sheer volume of variables, denoted by capital letters.)

"If voting rates were below a certain threshold in year A, form a committee of B nature to provide C number of options on electoral reform including some form of D, E, and F, and if G level of public consultation led to H result, a public referendum would be held and if I percentage of the Canadian population agreed, parliament would hold a binding vote of J nature."

Convoluted, yes, but I'm trying to draw as extreme a thought experiment as possible. Regardless, it strikes me as more likely of enactment than a straight call for a vote. And if the principle is sound, then it's really a question of degree. What's the balance of reliability, effectiveness, and distance into the future that people will actually agree to? That's the key. Great ideas with a snowball's chance in hell of success are not great ideas.

There are examples of governance through this mechanism. Consider radio spectrum auctions. These are characterized by well-entrenched interests, massive stakes in potential profits, and complex institutions. Yet, all the players agree to a complex set of conditions for future decision making and (generally) abide by them, which can maximize both fairness and public good. This isn't out of reach. It's the social contract, the legitimacy of democracy, scaled down.

Typically we consider our options for change as disruption or incrementalism. A third option has always existed, which is stealth: a disruptive plan masquerading as incremental. System consensus - in which actors agree to the conditions and systems of future decision-making, without necessarily agreeing to the decisions made - strikes me as a fourth option ripe for additional exploration.

Within the Public Service

I used a massively thorny, nation-wide concept for the thought experiment. I'd also see it as the most likely solution to persistent trust gaps (see: Risk, Failure, and Honesty and On the Trust Gap). However, I think this could apply throughout any organization.

The most likely arena for this approach to change would be where bureaucrats and elected officials intersect, in the advice and options put forth to Cabinet on big-P Policy. But here's a smaller example: the fall 2013 Policy Ignite session, in which public servants pitched innovative policy ideas to a Dragon's Den of senior executives. The executives then further explored the top pitches - which suddenly makes them responsible for the ideas.

Consider, instead, if the rule had steadfastly been that the top ideas would get piloted as presented. In this scenario, those executives are responsible for the decision to hold the competition but less so for the outcome of the pilot. Obviously there'd have to be other parameters built in, but this approach could in many ways provide the more stable platform for experimentation and testing unconventional ideas.

The question is still defining the problem, then considering all of the tools at one's disposal. But this could be one to consider adding. Maybe disruption will work, maybe the slow and steady approach, or maybe, asking for a commitment to a long-term future.