Open gov, values, and the social contract

Friday, May 22, 2015
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

The following is the first in a series of guest posts by Melissa Tullio, a friend and fellow public servant; its a cross post from one of the internal platforms within the Ontario Public Service. We are trying to convince her to join the blog as a regular contributor so if you like what you see please share the post, leave a comment or contact her directly; you can find Melissa on Twitter @CreativeGov.

There’s a great line that may be familiar to you from Yes, Minister – a BBC show from the 1980s that followed the life of civil servants in the office of Administrative Affairs. It frequently comes to mind whenever I hear the phrase open government: “You can either be open, or have government!”
I'm not a cynic, but being in government for more than seven years, it seems like this sentiment continues to be deeply embedded in the way we do things. We create silos to restrict who gets what information. We typically need to ask permission to share draft work with colleagues outside of our office. Some of us even password protect documents (eek!) to add more layers of security because we don’t want to be caught as public-servant-zero who accidentally leaked information to the press about some potential decision.

It’s time to have a conversation about values.

Open government will not work if it does not start with public servants exhibiting behaviours that demonstrate values that align with it. If we’re going to achieve transparency, and if our goal is to have truly open dialogue with citizens, we need to examine if what we say aligns with what we do.

The other night, I went to Design with Dialogue – a monthly event hosted by OCAD university. The topic was timely: Cultural Values and Social Change. Our facilitator, Aryne Sheppard, took us through a number of exercises to identify what kinds of values we think we need to have in order to tackle some of the biggest problems we’re trying to solve – climate change, homelessness, and poverty/inequality, to name a few.

values circle.png
A graphic that visualizes groupings of values as a circle. Click for full-sized image.

The framework she used is from the Schwartz values theory. It divides values into sub-groups like universalism (valuing equality, wisdom, social justice, etc.), tradition (valuing devoutness, moderation, acceptance of the way things are, etc.), power (valuing wealth, social influence over others, preserving the public image, etc.) – among others. Values on opposite sides of the circle are inherently in conflict, while values that are close to each other are complementary.

She emphasized throughout our conversations that there are no bad or good values; studies show that cross-culturally, and around the world, there are a consistent set of values [PDF] that emerge. The key is how each of us prioritize our values, and what to do with the cognitive dissonance that results when values are in conflict with each other.

For example, like our Yes, Minister quote suggests, if we say to the public that we value openness, but inside government we behave in a closed manner, the underlying tension this causes makes it seem like we’re not being genuine (hence, we can have one or the other; not both). Not only that, but it makes it difficult for staff to feel engaged with the priorities we say publicly that we're supposed to be exhibiting.

It’s time to revisit our social contract with people.

Kent Aitken from the federal public service has an interesting blog post from early this year that starts digging into the question, “What is government for?” He mentions the social contract: the “deal or arrangement we can expect from the institutions, people, and environments around us, having been born into a society.”

Kent shared with me a Mowat Centre initiative on this very topic: Renewing Canada’s Social Architecture. The premise is that while we haven’t changed our institutions much since the 1960s (suffrage for Aboriginal peoples was finally granted in 1960, for example), societal values and expectations have changed dramatically.

I believe, like he does, that it’s time we start thinking about a new social contract. And I believe it starts with values.

So the question is, how might we, inside government, start shifting our culture (rooted in the values we exhibit) to become more aligned with social values?

What might a “cognitive government” look like?

One of my contacts recently shared this Nesta post on “cognitive government” with me, which is what got me thinking about all of this. A core element of a cognitive government – a government that adapts more rapidly to emergent shifts – is that “Governments should do more than just opening up; they need to become parts of co-creation ecosystems.” Among other things, this implies the end of the siloed mentality from the days of Yes Minister.

These new ecosystems Nesta refers to are being created and recreated all the time, and outside of any perceived control we think we have inside government. The capacity people have to self-organize and start movements has grown ever more rapidly since the birth of the internet and technologies that bridge geographic barriers to seek out and collaborate with like minded people. To become an activist these days, it’s as easy as clicking “retweet.”

We need to start asking deeper questions.

Are we playing in these spaces? Are we connecting with citizens in a meaningful way – in a way where they have a real stake in decision making, where they’re empowered to co-create policies alongside us, where we truly value their experiential knowledge and apply it to the way we deliver programs to them?

And what about inside government? Do we create safe spaces for experimentation and collaboration across ministries? Have we made an attempt to map the employee experience and identify where risk aversion comes from, and where we can intervene to fix some of the bottlenecks to innovation?

Systems visualized as an iceberg (source). Click for the full-sized image.

Are we thinking beyond the surface level to change our patterns? Have we taken a look at those lower-iceberg levels where our mental models and unconscious or conscious biases continue to define our behaviour?

Who’s willing to try to figure this out with me?