Friday, November 28, 2014

Introducing the Wellington Spring Network

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

What follows is a guest post by Janine McGruddy a public servant from New Zealand who recently started a network for civil servants called Wellington Spring.

Hello Canadian public servants! Greetings from the New Zealand public service, where we are discovering we have more in common with you than we thought (and we already thought fondly of you as the Kiwis of the Northern Hemisphere). It all started during one of those “corridor conversations” (already sounding familiar?) when a few of us decided it was time to stop talking and start taking action to get the public service we want, and feel the New Zealand public deserves. It seemed like a good idea to see what other public services around the world were doing (as we realised we were probably not alone in the issues we were facing) and safe to say our searching led us quickly to the virtual doorstep of the Canadian Public Service (or in particular the CPSR and GovLife websites). In fact Canada was pretty much the only place we could find public service activity on this.

We cannot thank you enough for leading the way on this – although we knew what we wanted to do it was pretty daunting, as we knew this was virgin territory for the New Zealand Public Service, and were not sure how we would be received. On approaching CSPR and GovLife about their experiences we had immediate warm and wonderful responses, offers of help and the assurance that taking the leap for them had been more positive than negative.

And so with that heart warming knowledge the Wellington Spring Network (WSN) was born in October this year as an informal network of progressive professional New Zealand public servants wanting to share innovative thinking and work collaboratively to find solutions to problems. We want to help the public service in New Zealand to break down silos and build stewardship from the grassroots. We were fortunate enough to be allowed to repost excellent material from both CSPR and GovLife to demonstrate the positive, but honest, style we wanted to achieve with our website.

We not only want to give voice to the concerns of the NZ public service, but perhaps more importantly, work to find possible solutions to them. As we create solutions we aim to share them with the leadership of the public service to ensure we are heard at the highest level. It is only early days for us but again the feedback has been for the most part very positive. We look forward to posting more of our own material on our website as we get responses from the New Zealand public service. We have even started a “Ministry of the Month” competition to try and find the pockets of excellence already in existence. As we continue to grow we know we do so with the comradeship of our fellow public servants in Canada, and that really does make a difference, so Kia kaha from the WSN.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Influence, Organizations, and Team Players


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


Nick recently wrote about different forms of influence (see: On Influence and Hierarchy in Bureaucracies):

My modus operandi (see: Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants) has never been about acquiring or pulling rank but rather building, safeguarding and levering reputation and ability to influence.

In doing so, he hits on a concept I've been wrestling with. Regardless of what your job description says, you don't start jobs with the right level of ability to influence. It needs to be built.

However, there's always a balance to be struck. Building influence (which is largely building relationships) takes time, and it's time that could be spent working more directly on goals. I'd contend that organizations generally err on the side of narrow goals at the expense of systems, relationships, and, well, better definitions of those goals. But there are dark sides to personally spending time on the latter:

In Tragedy in the Commons - largely a collection of interviews with former Members of Parliament - the story that emerges is that no one ever reached a point where they felt they could just start doing the right thing. Even Cabinet members felt the need to "be good team players" and it was clear that not all were comfortable with the level of compromise. If this is true for end-of-career statesmen, senior decision-makers, I don't think this tension is going away any time soon for the rest of us.

And where building the ability to influence fits the above mold (being "a good team player") it can perpetuate bad systems. I wrote about this idea a while back (see: When Parameters are the Problem), in that sometimes there's a trade-off between doing the right thing and maintaining smooth relationships with our coworkers or hierarchy (and recognizing that sometimes we can get "the right thing" wrong).

I tried to walk that walk since I wrote that post: pushing back against faulty systems. My experience is that it's hard, uncomfortable, and the downsides are greater than I imagined. I'm not ready to rescind that idea, but I can see plenty of scenarios in which it's wise to shelve that maxim. It's an interesting dilemma in which the future I'd want for the public service writ large may be different than the advice I'd give individuals I care about.

Because these day-to-day decisions add up, over time, to those outcomes: influence through soft power or influence through positions in the hierarchy. And we should consider our approaches with caution and thoughtfulness.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Future of Policy Work

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

***Updated Nov 28 to reflect changes to remarks between the original draft and the speech I delivered.***

On Tuesday next week I will have the privilege of addressing a large number of policy professionals in the Ontario Public Service as a part of Polivery V: The Future of Policy Work. What follows is a first draft of my remarks, pardon the style, it helps me deliver. As always, your comments are more than welcome... (it's late, this is a draft, and I'm tired, etc).



Good morning everyone.

I'm not sure you know how lucky you all are to have such an esteemed panel before you today.

I'm not really sure how I snuck on to the bill.

My name is Nicholas Charney.

I'm the Director for Engagement and Innovation at the Institute on Governance.

We are small not for profit organization whose mission is to advance better governance in the public interest.

We do this through our ongoing advisory work, learning activities and by conducting primary research with academic partners.

I’m a policy professional and currently on interchange from the Government of Canada where I've spent the last 8 years working at the confluence of people, public policy and technology.

There are many things that I could say the future of policy work.

I could start by saying that in the future having the right skills will be essential.

Or, that a talent-focused culture will be critical.

Or, that organizational agility is the key to effective outcomes.

But I could say all of that and have said nothing.

I'd rather start out by saying that future of policy work is still being written.

That there is no shortage of wicked problems, demand for ideas, or need to bring them bear.

That technology and Zeitgeist are changing the nature of public policy.

That these changes are creating a number of challenges and opportunities.

And that how you deal with them today will ultimately determine what your future holds.

First the challenges.

Challenge #1 - The hollowing out of capacity.

Strategic policy shops have quickly become issues management shops.

Driven by increased transparency and a 24/7 news cycle.

We often sacrifice the long-term health of our democracy to deal with that which is immediately before us.

This is the fast food approach to public policy.

It might taste good at 2 o'clock in the morning, but ultimately it's terrible for our health.

As my mother used to say to me when I came home late at night, we need to make better choices.

Policy makers need to re-claim their relationships with the media, with elected officials, and with each other.

They need to stand by less and stand for more.

The faceless bureaucrat is no longer a tenable position in this environment.

Challenge #2 - Innovation by check box.

Everyone is suffering from innovation fatigue.

When everything is innovative, nothing is.

Labeling something as such is as meaningless as labeling it as secret in today's environment.

Yes - innovation hubs, labs, dragon's dens and hackathons are all in vogue right now.

But the true test isn't what goes into them, but rather what comes out of them.

Too often our best and brightest are put to work on matters of process rather than substance.

Let's put more smart people next to hard problems and stop treating problems as puzzles to be solved.

That metaphor assumes that all the necessary pieces are already on the table.

That they just need to be rearranged or reprogrammed.

But that’s not true.

‘Policy Innovation’ defined as moving the pieces around or adding more processing power won't disrupt the status quo.

That is the status quo

Challenge #3 - Hyper-bureaucratics

Process has always been the bureaucratic panacea.

But by now we must be fast approaching what I like to call peak bureaucracy.

The point where we simply cannot add any additional layers without incurring untenable costs.

Be wary of those who refuse to do the hard work of flattening hierarchies, simplifying processes and minimizing barriers.

Be wary of those who would rather establish processes to diffuse blame than simplify them to consolidate responsibility.

We need more decisions and less diffusion.

Challenge #4 - The loss of monopoly & increased competition

We have new roles.

We've moved from that of a monopoly provider to something more akin to a sensor, sense-maker, connector, a validator.

It can be unnerving but don't panic.

Embrace the fear and explore the new opportunities.

Opportunity #1 - Bask in the complexity

We have never had a better understanding of how things are interconnected.

But focusing solely on technology or innovation actually prevents us from realizing the art of the possible.

We know that connecting people and ideas has never been easier.

Yes the policy shop of the future deploys technologies to connect people around ideas but also employs people to do the same.

It asks people to lean in and slog through the messy stuff: the history, the economics, the philosophy, the art, the ambiguities, the contradictions, the trade-offs.

The stuff technology can't fix.

This takes time and effort.

The policy shop of the future retains the time-honored tradition of subject matter expertise and encourages depth, not just breadth, of experience.

Opportunity #2- Engage in social media

Listen to what people are saying.

Find the experts.

Weigh their analysis.

Read what they read.

What's the Zeitgeist telling you?

Be curious.

Create content don't just consume it.

Lean in and slog through the hard stuff yourself.

Write things down and work through problems.

And don’t forget to take the time to unplug once in a while.

Put down your phone

Put down the remote and read a book.

Like a paper book.

Break its spine, dog ear the pages and write in the margins.

Opportunity #3 - Experiment with data

Find, verify and link or liberate useful data sets inside your organization or within your field of work.

Explore what happens at the margins where different data sets interact.

Create visualizations that cast an old problem in a new light.

If you find something interesting broaden the tent and engage others.

I did this recently by visualizing all 278 instruments in the Federal Government’s Treasury Board Policy Suite.

I did it out of interest, shared it to the Internet and wound up in front of the ADM responsible for the suite within a week.

Don't worry, it was a good meeting.

If you don't have the skills to do this or the time to learn, find people who do, and work with them.

Opportunity #4 - Use design thinking

Empathize with problem.

Be creative when thinking about solutions.

Be rational when mapping the solution to the problem.

Match people's needs with what is feasible.

This is something we are teaching right now in collaboration with the GovLab @ NYU.

Its surprising how effective a two day deep dive on a problem can be if you approach it with the right methodologies.

In case you are interested, both NYU and the d.school at Stanford have a number freely available methodologies online.

Opportunity #5 - Read up on behavioural economics

Commonly referred to as nudge.

There are a lot of books on the matter and some interesting work has been done recently in the UK.

Long story short, slight tweaks in your approach vector can drive vastly superior outcomes.

Behavioural Economics brings sentiment, analytics, and design to ground by emphasizing what people actually do when faced with a given situation rather than what we think they ought to do.

The US government just invested $100 million dollars in a simple nudge.

They doubled the value of the SNAP benefits – or food stamps – for people who use them to buy local fruits and vegetables at farmers markets.

They got the idea itself came from a farmers market that had been doing it on its own without the government subsidy.

In conclusion I want to say

How you go about your work will continue to change but ultimately being able to frame up advice that helps leaders make good decisions will always be a critical skill for policy makers.

Indeed, it always has been.

Now if you recall in my opening remarks, I told you that the future of policy work is still being written.

In closing I want to appeal to your sense of agency and remind you that when it comes to policy advice you literally have the pen.

Invest that pen.

Familiarize yourself with the trends and new techniques, but don't chase breadth at the expense of depth.

Do you best to balance both, stay curious, and remember, the pen is mightier than the sword.

Thank you

Friday, November 7, 2014

On Influence and Hierarchy in Bureacracies


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

In bureaucracies we often mistake hierarchy as a proxy for influence.

But my view is that hierarchy is knowable, straightforward and discriminate, whereas influence is elusive, subtle and complex.

I consider hierarchy as akin to a hard power, influence as a soft power. And I've always been more interested in soft power then hard. My career path has been one of relationships over level and rewarding work over the greasy pole. My modus operandi (see: Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants) has never been about acquiring or pulling rank but rather building, safeguarding and levering reputation and ability to influence.

While I fully admit that sometimes influence flows from hierarchy and that those who ignore hierarchy ignore it at their peril (myself included), I also believe that it is increasingly the case that influence flows from some undefinable blend of serendipity, panache and resolve. I think we tend to prefer hierarchy because it offers the illusion of certainty and allows us to ignore the fact that influence is messy and that it can be neither poured neatly into an organizational chart nor contained within the strict limits of its boxes. And so our bureaucratic cultures continue to mistakenly treat hierarchy as a proxy for influence.

A likely example most would be familiar with is the Executive Assistant (EA) who is actually more like an Executive Director (ED) than an EA.

In my experience, many EAs don't have the rank they ought to. The ones worth their salt (and I've worked with many) are in fact more like EDs. Yes, they may have the tedious task of managing an executive's calendar but they are also the only ones trusted to do so; meaning that if you are the one requesting a meeting with your boss you are essentially at the mercy of the EA.

Now, it's easy to discount them but they have better access leadership and information flows than most - just by way of where they sit. The really good ones are easy to spot: they build skills and subject matter expertise, they sit at management tables, they have their boss's ear and they follow them from one job to another (and/or spend their entire careers in similar roles).

But I digress. All of this to say that the influence isn't a corollary of hierarchy and that many ignore that fact at their peril.

My hunch 

Actors without hard power tend to be better at wielding soft power because they have to, whereas those with hard power are weaker at wielding soft power because they don't. In other words, if hierarchy privileges you, you needn't worry as much about how to influence others, whereas if hierarchy doesn't benefit you, then you need to. As I'm reflecting on this I'm wondering if there is a tipping point (not in the Gladwellian sense) somewhere along your career trajectory where your levers and/or approach changes because there are suddenly more people below you than above you within the system.

This is not a slight to those on either side of the divide, nor do I think it's a hard and fast rule. It is an observation that may explain some of the interpersonal dynamics at play within bureaucracies that so many people find bothersome; namely, executives pulling rank on folks without it and/or folks without rank disrespecting and side-stepping the hierarchy.

What do you think?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Quick Notes from the GTEC Conference


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


Monday's notes
I've been attending GTEC - the Government Technology Exhibition and Conference - for four or five years now. My first public service job was (a non-IT job) in an IT branch, and I wanted to dig in. I went once, and it stuck.

The underlying, unofficial theme since I've been going is that technology leaders have to be business leaders, capable of managing people and portfolios, acting as strategic partners to CEOs. This is what I've found most interesting: how do subject matter experts become managers and leaders? How does one develop a sense of strategy?

It's these broad, business-meets-IT questions that I'm drawn to, and they form the basis of my shortlist of interesting snippets from last week at GTEC.


  • We can think of leadership in multiple ways: business leadership, thought leadership, and change leadership. The point made here was that as interesting and appealing as thought leadership is, and as necessary as change leadership is in turbulent times, 85% of what keeps organizations humming is "good, old fashioned business leadership". That which is unexciting, normalized, day-to-day, and hopefully effective.

  • Engaging all employees is not as simple as communicating to all employees, and often the best way to figure out what people want is not necessarily to ask them what they want. The quote here was to work with "the right people, in the right way" - which sounds simple but is often overlooked. If I may editorialize, there are very few skills we learn for which the intuitive approach is the most effective. Think golf swings, card games, cooking - anything. There's always some level of sophistication we eventually reach, or can be taught. The term beginner's mistake is common for a reason, yet we often apply intuitive (and wrong) approaches to management, leadership, and in this case, employee engagement.

  • Security and privacy are, and will be, the foundation of every government decision on information technology. You could tell because every other sentence was about security and privacy. Don't get me wrong: this is actually the level of importance that should be assigned, and it provides the reassurance that security and privacy sit duly highly in government's decision-making framework. But the fact that governments are taking it seriously needs to become a boring base assumption, so that government IM/IT leaders can actually talk about information and strategy instead.

That's the shortlist, but there was much more. And there are two other talks with a shared theme that I'd like to highlight, but I'll do that in a standalone post later.

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Note that while we work as public servants this is entirely our own initiative and what we post here does not necessarily reflect the view of the government, our offices or our positions there in.

Notez bien que nous travaillons commes functionnaires, ceci est entièrement notre propre initiative et ce que nous publions sur ce site ne reflète pas nécessairement le point de vue du gouvernement, de nos organisations ou de nos postes.

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