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Government From the Outside-In

Friday, September 19, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

As is typical this time of year you can find me making contributions to the GTEC blog. As such, below you will find an interview that George Wenzel and I did with Kent that explores this year's conference theme: Government From the Outside-In.

The interview it positioned to the backdrop of us having both just left the public service (myself on interchange, George on a leave without pay) to explore other developmental opportunities. I asked GTEC (via Kent) if we could republish the content here because I think it's warranted. It related directly to my recent observations about interchange (See: Are Public Servants Interchangeable?) and, more importantly, is in many ways complimentary to an article that was published in the 2014 Fall edition of Public Sector Digest entitled "Lessons from Cross-Sector Experiences" (login required, bootleg available here) by my friend Ailish Campbell.

In short, where George and I wax about the technology, Ailish deals more directly with the issues of talent, training and transfers. I'd encourage you to read it, leave me a comment here with your thoughts, or contact Ailish directly with your feedback.

But first, here's the interview from GTEC blog:

AN INTERVIEW WITH NICK CHARNEY AND GEORGE WENZEL

The theme for GTEC this year is Government From the Outside-In, exploring the observer, citizen, and business view – in short, the Canadians’ view – of government technology. However, many outside perspectives can miss elements of the complex history and context that influences how the public service operates.

To delve into this theme with an eye to discerning between the legitimate opportunities for progress and the legitimate considerations facing the public sector, we reached out to Nick Charney and George Wenzel. Nick and George are both public servants, but are currently on interchange and leave, respectively. They’ve both been strident followers and commenters on the government technology space, and I thank them both for their time.

As a starting point, as employees, how have you found the experience differs between public sector and private sector, in terms of technology?

N: The transition out to the not-for-profit sector was probably the smoothest job transition I’ve had in my career. I showed up on my first day to a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) environment, complete with open wifi, unfettered access to the internet and a Mac on every desk. Gone were the days of Novell Groupwise and Records and Document Management Systems. We use a slew of cloud based apps and I can get to my information seamlessly from anywhere. One of my biggest concerns is what happens at the end of my interchange. What kind of environment am I going to step into? Should I expect to step into an office environment of the past, present or (hopefully) future?

G: My transition was similarly seamless – I moved to a not-for-profit with a centralized system of virtualized desktops connected via thin clients with dual monitors. Every employee could ‘hot-desk’ at any computer and phone in the organization and immediately have access to a common set of tools. BYOD was not actively encouraged or supported, but I was still able to use my personal Google Calendar and keep it synced to my work calendar in Outlook. As a not-for-profit with a number of very small (under 3-person) offices across the country, our IT support was amazing. Especially since the entire IT department was two guys in Vancouver. Like Nick, when I return to the public service I’m expecting a shock — returning to a restrictive corporate network where information security and records management trumps effectiveness and efficiency.

Why do you think causes the divide?

G: I can’t speak for all employers outside of the public service, but for the not-for-profit where I worked the seamlessness mostly came about because of a forward-thinking IT manager who, out of necessity, needed to set up a virtualized system that could be administered remotely. He had full authority to set things up in a way that made sense. The entire organization had less than 100 employees, so I’m not sure this kind of flexibility could scale.

N: The scale issue that George raised is huge (pun intended). To be honest, I’m not sure my experience can be replicated in a government setting without ignoring the rules, breaking the rules, or changing the rules; and I doubt there is much appetite for that. If there are any IT visionaries out there, I’d invite them to prove me wrong.

Why do you think it matters, from the internal perspective?

G: I think the public service is facing similar challenges to large private organizations – trying to implement effective IT infrastructure while at the same time meeting the demands of a workforce that has expectations borne of the consumer technology space.

N: We are our own worst enemy in the technology space, the only thing holding us back is ourselves. We all know we are losing ground here, there are a lot of options that could help us close the gap but they require some heavy lifting at the top and some serious risk (real or perceived) management.

As noted, you’ve both been part of the ongoing online dialog – social media, blogs, etc. – about the public service, how it operates, and how it uses technology. Do you find a different perspective from where you work now? Either for yourselves, or from your colleagues and networks?

N: I’ve got three related but unsequential thoughts. First, bureaucrats still think the world is small, they are too easily lost in the minutia of their respective areas of influence and responsibility. What I’ve learned is that those with a particular influence inside the system often have it under the narrowest of circumstances; it’s something you are blind to when you are stuck in it but hyper aware to it when all of a sudden the protocol of following the hierarchy no longer applies. I’ve managed to meet and work with people outside the civil service that I likely would have never gotten to work with if I was still inside it. Second, I’ve noticed that people outside the civil service are far more willing to discuss the importance of the political ongoings of the day and the influence of those ongoings on the bureaucracy. Generally, my experience has been that public servants expend a lot of energy refusing to comment on politics for fear of it being misconstrued as partisan and thus suspect; but the truth of the matter is that what happens in the political realm is relevant and ought to be more openly discussed because it impacts the work of the civil service. A professional public service is one that can be political without being partisan. Third, there’s way too many processes, gatekeepers, and bureaucracy between civil servants and the technology they need to be effective.

G: Within the public service, there was a constant dialogue about the role of the bureaucracy and that of politicians, fear of having a mistake show up in the media, and a level of introspection that simply didn’t exist in the nonprofit world. Outside the public service, there’s more emphasis on simply getting work done and achieving the organization’s mission, by whatever means reasonably possible. Attempts at different processes or technologies, even if later considered failures, were actively encouraged as part of organizational learning.

What do you think causes that frame within the public service?

N: For me it comes down to culture and leadership. I’m in a small organization run by a former Deputy Minister who is both thoughtful and vocal and encourages other people in the organization to be the same. We are a flat organization so leadership permeates quickly and easily.

G: Nick is bang-on. If there isn’t leadership from the top and a supportive culture, stagnation will be the norm.

There seems to be a link back to the “employee experience” question from earlier.

G: Technology is just one element of workplace culture, but it’s indicative of the differences between the public service and the rest of the working world. When I joined the government in 2001 I recall being impressed by the technology that was available on my desktop. New public servants in more recent years haven’t had the same positive impression. I’m not sure that the public service considers itself a ‘model employer’ any longer.

The idea that the public service has lost its monopoly on policy advice is a common theme these days. CBC’s technology commentator Jesse Hirsch talks about a shift in the nature of authority – from institutional in nature to cognitive – driven by technology and the internet. Is Hirsch’s assessment correct, and does it apply to government policy advice?

N: The authority model is definitely in flux. The web lowers transactions costs, eliminates communication barriers and creates opportunities to influence. The very fact that you are engaging in this discussion with George and I is evidence of this, our blog is evidence of this, every opportunity you and I have had as a result of publishing our thoughts online is evidence of this. What does this mean for policy advice? Everyone seems to think that it ought to improve the quality of advice because expertise can be readily located, tapped into and brought to bear. That said all of these flattening tools could also be used to further insulate the policy process from dissenting views and engage in decision-based evidence making. At the end of the day, to govern is ultimately to choose, advice doesn’t have to be taken, and in some cases can’t even be.

What do you think should be at the top of federal, provincial, and municipal CIOs’ agendas going into the GTEC this year?

G: I think the big question is whether it’s possible to find an alignment between scalable cloud technologies and security. There’s a cultural fear of cloud-based systems and recent news stories about data loss have only heightened that fear. Large organizations like the University of Alberta have migrated to cloud-based systems and open networks. Municipalities like the City of Edmonton have done the same. Clearly there are some examples that could be followed and lessons learned.

N: Of course CIOs need to be concerned with security, privacy, and information management. Of course! But maybe, maybe they ought to focus on how to remove barriers between employees and enabling technologies that are already widely available on the Internet and less on how to deploy last year’s technology behind the firewall.