Wednesday, July 30, 2014

In Defence of Bureaucratic Language (and Meaning)

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

Top of the billboard charts right now is the album Mandatory Fun by Weird Al Yankovic (file under: sentences, comma, ones I didn't see myself writing in 2014). It includes the song Mission Statement, which skewers the language of business.

A language that happens to intersect significantly with the language of the bureaucracy. Two years ago our particular Government of Canada flavour of verbiage was taken to task by Sh*t Bureaucrats Say.

But I'd like to mount a defence of this bureaucratic language, or at least, a specific subset of it. Of course, there are arenas in which bureaucratic language is legitimately terrible: where it is used to deliberately obfuscate meaning, or to sound knowledgeable or important (the true meaning of bureaucratese), or where it is used without consideration of whether or not the audience speaks that language.

And there are arenas in which it is legit - like the jargon of any field - in which it represents meaningful shorthand for a complex concept. To a citizen, the name (or acronym) for a sub-division of a government department could be completely meaningless. To a different audience, three letters can immediately convey history, mandate, scope of authority, leadership, and key figures.

But there's another arena, in which the meaningfulness or lack thereof is on a case-by-case basis. The terms that jump to mind are things like:

mission statement
strategic plan
year-end review
performance management

Whether these terms represent a meaningful concept or not is dependent on us. For example:

At its best, a mission statement is a powerful vision of an organization's goals and aspirations, that employees can rally behind. One example is Sony in the 1950s, declaring that it would change the worldwide perception of Japanese products. For such a mission statement to work, a leader must demonstrate why it was articulated as it was, ensure that the values are congruent with people's experience in the organization, and convince people that they are taking it seriously.

At its worst, a mission statement is a line on a website, absent of promise, divorced from reality.

At its best, a strategic plan can be an opportunity to test assumptions, explore the environment, reposition an organization, and set meaningful goals for people. To make sure that everyone is rowing in the same direction, and to provide a baseline to assess success against and launch future improvements.

At its worst, a strategic plan is a document that consumes time. A list of disparate plans, all prefixed with the word "strategic".

There are good reasons why these concepts are staples of our organizations. Their practice and adherence keeps organizations alive. But they don't have meaning in a vacuum; it is our job to create meaning for ourselves and others.

The language we use gets a bad rap - rightfully - when we fail at that.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Web of Rules: Visualizing the Entire Treasury Board Policy Suite

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

Here's the deal. This post is to the point and factual. It's short on commentary and long on crunchy bits to chew on. I've wanted to visualize the Treasury Board Policy Suite for a long time but I didn't know how. I've talked to a lot of people about the challenge, then I bumped into Sarah Chan who told me about Kumua relatively new piece of software; none of this would have been possible without her pointing me in the right direction. Thanks Sarah.

The Treasury Board Policy (TBS) Suite

If you aren't familiar with the TBS policy suite you can find it here; essentially it represents everything public servants need to comply with rule wise. It's often called the web of rules and after visualizing it, I can see why.

The web of rules constitutes:
Meaning that all total, the web of rules is made up of 273 distinct documents that (mostly) relate to one another and need to be considered in tandem. If you take the time to look at any individual framework, policy, directive, standard or guideline online you will see that there is a section on each of their webpages that show you what other frameworks, policies, directives, standards or guidelines you need to read in conjunction with them. Hence, the web of rules. The whole thing is incredibly complicated, but luckily TBS has a great graphical representation of the 'constantly evolving' policy suite (click to enlarge):

And, according to the TBS website, the above diagram:
"... presents the structure and the organization of the evolving Treasury Board (TB) policy suite. The policy instruments will be organized as a cascade of instruments within policy frameworks in key management areas: People; Compensation; Information and ; Technology; Financial Management; Assets and; Acquired Services; Service; and Governance and Expenditure Management:"
Only it doesn't ... at least not when you painstakingly (manually) verify the relationships between all 273 documents by hand using software that can calculate and visualize the actual relationships between them. When you do that, you get something that look more like this:

Now, given that I have never tried to embed a Kumu visualization before, if the above embed didn't work click here, or try opening it in a different window or just drop me a line. Note: there are 3 little dots between the description as the visualization that will expand the visualization while collapsing the description.

If you can see the visualization, here's a couple of things worth noting:
  • The Code of Values and Ethics is represented by the biggest dot; note that it's no where near the centre of the visualization despite it being at the centre of the TBS diagram
  • The noticeable / largest circular cluster is what I would term the Information, Technology and Communications cluster
  • The second noticeable oval cluster is financial cluster (i.e. how we spend money) 
  • There are a number of things that are in fact floating (i.e. not connected to anything else)
You can manipulate and navigate the visualization ...
  • You can zoom in and select any particular node by clicking and holding it; any unrelated nodes should disappear.
  • The nodes are colour coded and you can opt to look at only the relationships between frameworks, policies, directives, standards, or guidelines.
I'm still processing what it all means 

But I do have a couple of thoughts I'd ask you to chew on:
  1. What we say we are about (values and ethics) and what we are actually about (information, technology, communication and, separately, financial disbursements) seem to be very different
  2. If 'web of rules' is an apt metaphor then ought we not focus efforts on reducing the number of nodes in it so as to not get caught up in it so easily? Wait, we already tried that.
  3. Given that the above already reflects a concerted effort to reduce the web of rules, maybe we ought to consider a more aggressive approach, rather then trying to reduce the web, why not reset it completely and build something new from the ground up?

As always, if you'd like to talk about the web of rules or this visualization please feel free to drop me a line; otherwise I am eager to hear your comments.


Friday, July 18, 2014

On defining and communicating the brand

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

When Destination 2020 was first released I remarked that "the recognition that the public service brand (as a profession) was in need of a major overhaul" was one of the most interesting things to come out of the report (See: Unsolicited Thoughts on Destination 2020). Given our recent discussions on public sector ideology (See: The Public Service as Ideology, My Public Service Ideology and Why Worry About Ideology) I thought it might be useful to go back to the 'Fundamentals of Public Service' section of Destination 2020, have another read, and see what shakes out.

Here's what it says:

... Building the Federal Public Service brand is a work in progress, and employee engagement will continue with the goal to further refine the strategy to address this priority area. Two new actions will help the Public Service reach its destination:
Engagement process to define and communicate the Federal Public Service brand 
An engagement process will be launched with public servants to shape what it means to be a public servant. Defining the Federal Public Service brand will include crowdsourcing the definition of who we are and developing a strategy to communicate to Canadians and public servants who we are and what we do.
A suite of measures will support the engagement effort and reach across internal and external channels to foster a strong image of the Federal Public Service, including defining ways to:
  • showcase the role the Public Service plays in the daily lives of Canadians through dynamic vignettes and portraits to show how public servants affect the lives of Canadians directly or indirectly; 
  • strengthen whole-of-government approaches to promote employment opportunities within (e.g., virtual tours, interviews, and videos); 
  • profile the good work public servants do in communities across Canada (for example, the Government of Canada Workplace Charitable Campaign, volunteering with homeless shelters, and adopting a local food bank); and 
  • highlight key achievements of public servants by showcasing awards of excellence and making them more visible, and appointing high-profile current and former public servants as Public Service ambassadors, who can project a strong positive image of the Public Service.

Public Service of Canada Landing Page to profile what public servants do and to promote employment opportunities
To advance these initiatives, a Public Service of Canada landing page will be launched to profile the great things that public servants do to serve Canadians. The landing page will function as a "home" for the Public Service, available to both public servants and Canadians. Horizontal communities will also be featured and can profile the landing page with their members.

What shakes out for me ...

While I agree that the brand is a work in progress, I disagree with the approach. How can we know that a communications strategy and a website are the fix to the problem when we've only just begun to define it (See: When did the public service become an ignoble profession or Can bureaucrats be interesting when the world demands they be boring)?

Haven't we put the cart before the horse? 

Shouldn't the engagement process be designed to unearth new solutions as opposed to validating old assumptions? We need only look back four years to see that Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) tried this before. Remember the short lived Public Service e-Magazine 'It's My Day'?

If not, that's fine the site is still live despite the mag only being operational for a calendar year (2008-09). Prior to Googling it, I assumed that someone at TBS would have archived the pages by now (e.g. when TBS implemented the Standard on Web Accessibility).

But surely this time around things will be different

NB: I wrote an entire section here that I decided to pull because I could neither contain my sarcasm nor drive home my point effectively without it; just re-read the subtitle, it captures the essence. 

Sarcasm aside

I'm genuinely interested in how this engagement rolls out; not so much from the process standpoint but in terms of its content and more importantly the resolve that will be required to wade into it in a meaningful manner. Despite the challenge, I think we have a tremendous opportunity in front of us. But I can't help but wonder, do we have what it takes to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty on this one?

Are we going to ask the tough questions? 

Are we going to take a good hard look in the collective mirror of our common interests?

Are we willing to honour the fact that despite our differences we are all bound in the same social contract be we citizens, public servants, elected officials, union bosses, journalists or academics?

Are we willing to accept our own fair share of the blame for the mistakes of the past and take greater responsibility for our future?

Or, will we choose to keep our hands clean and resign ourselves to yet another website?

Non-sequitur: I published an article on Public Sector Transformation (co-written with IOG President Maryantonnet Flumian) in this quarter's Commonwealth Innovations Review, if interested you can download the journal here.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Why Worry About Ideology?

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

Last week Nick declared his public service ideology, his cards on the table.

I've been thinking about ideology since Tariq wrote that we all have one, and I had planned to write out mine upon reading Nick's piece. But it's a delicate question of wording, and something that, if done, I want to do right. I want to make sure that it's not influenced by the issues of the day, including the deserved attention that the public service is getting recently (see: the list at the start of My Public Service Ideology).

(It's also worth considering the comments on that post, including Andrew's comment noting the blurry line between values and ideology. I'll stick with the term for now.)

It's particularly tricky where my ideology seems imperfectly aligned with commonly held principles about the Canadian public service. When this happens, there are several possibilities:

  • My ideology should evolve
  • My understanding of the principles is incomplete
  • The principles need to evolve
  • The common interpretation of the principles is misguided

Occam's Razor - the most obvious answer - would be that I need to either evolve my thinking or learn more. Also plausible is that the common application of the principles is misguided - recently I suggested that the phrase fearless advice, loyal implementation was a slight but profound tweak on the intended idea, propagated through repetition. The least likely answer is that the principles that have been written into law and carried our democracy this far need to evolve.

(That said - unlikely, but not impossible. Much has changed since those principles were established, and we've realized that things are often more complex than they seem.)

Almost a year ago our public administration book club read The Ethics of Dissent, which walks through case studies of public servants exiting official channels - to achieve a goal or to whistleblow. Abandoning, temporarily, loyal implementation. It's fascinating food for thought. But the most amazing thing to me was our discussion about the book - the nature of our own Values and Ethics Code was an hour-long debate, even among people who take time to understand it. But V&E is neither simple nor always easy to apply to our day-to-day experiences. So, my takeaway was that these issues merit more discussion.

For instance, the idea of public service anonymity hasn't been thoroughly revisited since 1996, when the internet looked like this:

Yes, that's GeoCities. Yes, I had one.

Alternatively, recently an executive put the question to a group of us: "What's the Public Service mission?" We've gone from the days of Supply and Services Canada to Public-Private Partnerships and Alternative Forms of Delivery. Has the mission changed?

Which leads to an assumption I'm making that begins to reveal my ideology. I frequently question whether my approach to public service is appropriate. That is, questioning everything and trying to understand the system in which I work. The alternative being functional stupidity, which is an unnecessarily harsh term for a reasonable approach: marginalizing doubt and communication, worrying instead about carrying out whichever tasks you've been given.

However, I don't think that's the correct approach. So I agree with Nick, where he believes in a public service that trusts its people, that is deeply connected to its sense of purpose, and where pride in one's work is the rule, rather than the exception. In short, a public service in which public servants ask higher order questions about what they're doing and why. That is, they feel that they can ask those questions, and they do.

So, to start I had to ask myself the question of why I worry about public service ideology at all, whether it should be left to others, and whether it's an appropriate discussion to try to advance. And here, once again I agree with Nick:

"I believe that public service is at the same time personally rewarding, professionally meaningful, and vitally important to the health of the nation."

Particularly the last clause (see: here, there, everywhere). And I think it's in asking these kinds of questions that we understand and maximize our contributions and their meaning.

Friday, July 11, 2014

My Public Service Ideology

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

There's been a whole lot of public discussion in the media lately on the role of the public service:
Photo courtesy of the NCC

And of course there was Tariq's timely reflection on the public service as an ideology and subsequent discussion in the commentary (See: Public Service as Ideology).

All of this – the experts weighing in and my discussions with friends and colleagues – has got me thinking more and more about my own public service ideology; and while anyone could probably deduce it from views from the last 6 years of blog posts, I figured why not just simply declare it outright.

My public service ideology

I believe that public service is at the same time personally rewarding, professionally meaningful, and vitally important to the health of the nation.

I believe in a public service that trusts its people, where public servants are confident to exercise autonomy within the boundaries of their work and resist the urge to codify that which could otherwise be normative.

I believe in a public service that pursues continuous improvement in its service to citizens, a public service that consistently puts people before processes and seeks mastery over its professional domains by investing more heavily in the former than the latter.

I believe in a public service that is deeply connected to its sense of purpose, that holds up its end of the social contract and in so doing allows public servants to connect to mission the way they connect to everything else in their lives: directly, with few or no intermediaries.

I believe in a public service where pride in one's work is the rule, rather than the exception. One that allows civil servants to demonstrate their pride through their ongoing work as civil servants but also in their pursuits as citizens.

I believe in a public service that sees and accepts the challenge of innovation for what it is: the hard work of future-proofing society. One that understands that there is no magic bullet, and that leans into the hard work of governance.

I believe in an inclusive public service that recognizes that some divisions are artificial. One that recognizes that we are bound together through our common service to the country and its people regardless of our geographic location, place within our classification systems, or jurisdiction within which we operate.

But I also believe in a public service that recognizes that some divisions are necessary. One that recognizes that ultimately, the elected government represents the will of the people, and continues to respect that.

Finally, I believe in a public service that sees the time-honoured principles of fearless advice and loyal implementation as not only the bridge between those artificial and necessary divisions, but also as ongoing, concurrent and constant - rather than static, sequential or time limited.

There you have it. I've declared my public service ideology.

What's yours?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Game Mechanics, Hype, and Motivation

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

For a while I wondered if the idea of gamification would stick on our collective radars. It seems that it will, at least for a while longer - it gets listed as part of the "emerging policy toolkit", written about in business magazines, and several departments are at least exploring the concept.

(A quick definition: gamification is the application of game mechanics to non-game concepts, to drive engagement on initiatives, or to solve problems.)

However, when the idea comes up, it tends to be a narrow view of the subject. Last month an article showed up in Fortune called Looks like that whole 'gamification' thing is over. The author may have overdramaticized the title as clickbait, but there are two issues with the take.

One, she references Gartner's research on the idea's market penetration, but implies that it means that gamification is on the way out. In fact, a period of overhyping followed by a call for maturation is exactly what Gartner predicted (always predicts) would happen.

Two, she only references games. Badges, rewards, educational games for employees at Marriott.

I think there are actually two distinct lenses about game mechanics that are really interesting for organizations. The first is the possibility in some scenarios to create games that serve as problem-solving platforms, such as that Fortune article describes. Though it's important to remember that games are just one part of a much larger toolkit - it is not a hammer such that one should just go looking for nails.

The second, which is in my mind should be far more interesting to most people, is the fact that games provide a preposterously gigantic body of research on why people expend discretionary effort and engage. Gaming companies have accidentally proven amazing points about motivation for managers to learn from.

Mission, discrete goals, challenge, progress, and feedback. With these factors present, people engage.

For a real-world government example, read Blaise Hebert on engagement.

I recommend a trifecta of books that all approach that equation from very different angles:

Drive and The Progress Principle are through-and-through business books. But interestingly, Reality is Broken about gaming is in many ways the one that provides the playbook for managers (though I believe McGonigal avoided the term gamification in it). It sparks the questions to answer about employees' day-to-day experiences.

Game Mechanics

In some cases, government actually building a game - to solve a problem, for education, for outreach - may be the most effective approach. But this will be the outlier application for the idea. For most, the valuable insight into motivation should keep eyes unrolled when the term gamification comes up.