Wednesday, June 24, 2015


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

This isn't a thorough exploration of slack's role in organizations, just a few things that were on my mind recently. Would love to hear your thoughts.

But first, an aside

I've been living in Ottawa for seven years, while most of my family lives on the east coast. My mom's side of my family usually has a mid-summer and a Christmas get-together each year, and I haven't made it back east for either in years. It eats at me. It'd be worth my while, but every year I run quickly into the limits of my vacation days and travel budget, especially when it's a given that I'll be going back to PEI to visit my dad, and Newfoundland to visit my farthest-flung brother.

This has been a powerful dynamic in my life for the last half-decade. Every time I book a trip I'm both excited and conflicted, aware that I'm making tradeoffs, aware that some people - that I think very highly of - will go unvisited in a given year.

Collaboration and relationship-building (or, policy and communications, and never the twain shall meet)

To segue somewhat: last week a speaker was asking where the communications people were at a public administration conference. Some people pointed to general tension or misunderstanding between the two worlds, and I threw in a more functional reason, analogous to the above story. We are, as they say, in "an era of fiscal restraint," with tight scrutiny on travel, conference, and training budgets. We all understand that the lines between fields such as policy and communications are blurring, that there are inter-dependencies, and that collaboration is incredibly important. But for an given practitioner, staying informed about their field is still the primary concern, and they're naturally going to maintain relationships with their core community first.

Economically, it's like an artificial cultural ceiling on the supply and demand of public servant relationship-building and collaboration. The question is whether that ceiling is appropriately set in pursuit of broader system goals.

It has become en vogue to ask about communities and conferences, "Who else needs to be here? Who else should we be talking to?" Which is a good question, but if you can't get to their communities, and your community is a few bullets down the priority list for them, it's impractical to expect anyone to bridge that gap.

Creating slack, in this case, would be treating relationship-building with core communities as a given - creating room on the margins to better understand the peripheral players that influence our portfolios.


Google's 20% innovation time doesn't work for everyone. We were all excited about it five years ago, but if it doesn't square with culture, if innovation isn't actually a core goal (which is often appropriate), or if your work doesn't progress through that style of idea generation, it's a silver bullet with no gun and no werewolves.

Since, we've matured in our debate about free time and innovation. Is it slack in the system that generates innovation? Or pressure? It's hard to say, and the only true answer is probably "it depends". However, a recent research paper adds an interesting thesis to the debate (h/t)The short version of the paper: school breaks lead to a sharp increase in Kickstarter ideas being launched and funded because it creates time for mundane tasks.

Their conclusion is that slack time does indeed lead to innovation, but not for the reasons we thought. Instead of allowing creativity and the generation of ideas, slack time allows people the time to execute and move their ideas forward.

However, many public administrators opt for the pressure approach, or are limited to it as an option. In an age of "do better with less", I've seen a worrying trend of people being forced to rush the "better." These are ideas that might work, given the time to do it right. But when people are asked to Innovate right now!pressure gets the better of rigour.


Slack, as it's traditionally regarded, is expensive. However, it seems probable that it's often worth it, albeit in hard-to-measure ways. If that's true, we have two options: create slack, or re-define activities like relationship-building, idea-sharing, focus-grouping, assumption-testing, and the like — those intangibles often first in line for the chopping block — as part of the job description, as part of the ongoing pressure. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Problem With Engagement

by Melissa Tullio RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / creativegov

I left a comment on Kent's recent post (See: The Future Of Online Communities) that was probably out of scope of what his post was about, and started reflecting on engagement in digital spaces versus in real life. Here's a challenge question I started thinking about: "How might we make the best use of technology/online systems to capture public sentiment and insights in a deeper way?" (I'm not going to attempt to navigate that one in this post, but maybe a future post.)

I think the key to this is something Kent also asked, which got me thinking in a different direction: "The question [about online collaboration] will move from 'How can we get people to engage?' to 'Who actually needs to engage, and why would they, in particular?'"

There's an assumption we make in government, especially in the communications world where I work, that whenever we make an announcement or hold a consultation, people are engaged and interested and will come. This isn't generally a bad assumption to make. We do get engagement; we do get people at the town halls and consultations we run. But the people who attend often represent people who we've heard from, time and again, over the years. The outcome of these consultations is almost completely predictable - we issue management the hell out of it; we can anticipate responses, and come up with plans to "mitigate" them.

So my next challenge question would be, "What's the point?" If you're doing a consultation and you know what you're going to hear, isn't it a big waste of time and resources to do it? Can't we do it in a more meaningful way that generates new solutions or ways to work together?

Beyond the Usual Suspects

One thing about design thinking that's different than other problem solving methods is taking time to interview and empathize with extreme users. It's crucially valuable to do this because taking time to reach out to, and empathizing with, extreme users helps to reveal the deeper, more systemic challenges in the design of your service/program.

This type of ethnographic research is not something we normally do enough of in government. We tend to create policies/programs that end up working for the mainstream user. The way we come to create programs is based on well researched best practices (i.e., existing solutions), which inevitably leaves some users behind in the process. This approach doesn't include extreme users in the problem definition stages (or problem solving stages), so we assume that what we design is good enough, without examining all those hidden assumptions we're making. The kind of research and deeper understanding that you need to do to really empathize with service users requires time, and in a lot of our work in the policy making environment (and exponentially more in the communications space), time is (artificially) something we don't have1.

Another challenge isn't just the process/resource barrier in government work from doing this kind of research. Even if you design a program/policy to include time for this kind of deep dive research, how do you make the case for people who you don't normally interact with to gain your trust and let you into their spaces?

What's In It For Them?

When I previously worked in an HR role for Ontario, I was one of the people responsible for the formal employee recognition program. Something we constantly struggled with was how to tap into people's intrinsic motivation for doing things. There are a lot of smarter people than me who have done research in this area, and the short answer is, "it's complicated." I was most interested in what motivates people to engage and interact with online spaces because another file I worked on was an ideas management system, and I was curious about why these kinds of systems often fail.

Something my team learned is that online engagement is limited. Taking idea generation to the next level requires an in person component that can't be replaced by online platforms (not yet, anyway). An ideas campaign, followed by observational/ethnographic research to figure out what you're missing, followed by a hackathon/jam/competition of some sort to test some theories, followed by an experiment/prototype-making stage, followed by reflections/sharing lessons to improve something, is what you need to make the campaign work through the full spectrum of engagement.
Stanford dschool design thinking steps

That goes back to the old constraint: who has time for this?

Online and in-person engagement

From everything we learned, online platforms simply aren't enough; some tangible, shared outcome from the ideation or consultation stage is needed in order for people to believe you're doing something for them, or else they lose faith and you lose credibility (See: Pulling the Trigger on Chekhov's Gun). Many people are happy with engaging online at the front-end - it's low-friction and easy (also less valuable to gain deeper insights); extreme users, the ones we need to take time for to understand better, need more (and so do we if we want to reach those deeper insights to design things better).

Any online or offline engagement platform not only needs to ask the question, "who needs to engage?" but "who else needs to engage who isn't already raising their hand to volunteer?" Knowing how to answer the corollary question, "how do we motivate them to?" is definitely the tougher one.

1. I'd say resources (people/funding) are something we have less and less of in a more real way than time; time for empathy/good design can be worked into our processes (assuming we've taken a good look at our culture and we're able to move towards changing it to include mindsets like human centered design in our work).

Friday, June 19, 2015

On Transformational Leadership in the Digital Era

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

On Monday I had the opportunity to speak to a room full of Ontario Public Servants about Innovation and Digital Transformation; my Prezi and speaking notes are below.

Good morning everyone.

My name is Nicholas Charney.

I am currently the Director for Engagement and Innovation at the Institute on Governance (IOG); which is just fancy way of saying I got to pick my title.

Before I launch into my remarks this morning I feel as though I should be a good corporate citizen and tell you a little about myself and the IOG.

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

We pursue that mission through our virtuous circle of advisory work, courses and research programs.

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

My core responsibility at the IOG is to help build out or digital governance applied research program.

The program is based on the premise that two forces – digital and governance – are meeting like tectonic plates, shifting the landscape and giving rise to new peaks and valleys around key governance questions that all citizens need to be concerned about:
  • Who has real power?
  • How should decisions be made?
  • How can all players make their voices heard and ensure that account is rendered. 
We've divided the research into a number of applied domains: policy analysis, service delivery, regulation and accountability.

You can learn more about the project, how to get involved and even watch the star studded panels from our launch event at

Now, with that out of the way, there are a number of things I could say to you about digital transformation. 

I could start by saying that having the right skills is essential.

Or, that a talent-focused culture is 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 digital transformation is what you as leaders make of it.

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

That technology and the Zeitgeist are combining in some interesting ways and changing the nature of the public service.

That these changes are creating both challenges and opportunities that require us to think differently than we have in the past.

That's what I want to spend the majority of my remarks on today: thinking differently.

I'm often told that I think differently about problems than others do.

And to be honest I'm not entirely sure it’s a compliment. It gets me into trouble with my wife and it gets my children into trouble too.

Case in point, I have a very particular view on innovation (See: Innovation is Tricky, Literally and Finding Innovation).

My view on innovation is largely informed by a book by Lewis Hyde  – a cultural anthropologist – entitled Trickster Makes This World: How Disruptive Imagination Creates Culture.

According to Hyde, Tricksters are classical cultural figures.

They represent a certain flexibility of mind and spirit, a willingness to defy authority and invent clever solutions that keeps cultures (and stories) from becoming too stagnant.
  • crosses physical and social boundaries
  • traveller / nomad
  • blurs distinctions between right and wrong
  • invents new cultural goods or tools 
  • sexually over-active, irresponsible, and amoral. 
  • creative liars 
  • tells stories that make people laugh and inspire
Wait – let’s just redact a couple of lines there to keep the FIPPA people happy.

There we go.

Tricksters have something to say about how culture gets created, and about the nature of intelligence.

They steal fire from the gods, give it to man, and remake the world. 

In contemporary innovation rhetoric: they break traditional trade-offs, create new markets, and reveal the art of the possible.

In collaboration rhetoric: they use flattening communications technologies to cut across hierarchy, create new channels for influence and show the stark contrast between the world out there and the command and control culture in here.

Admittedly that’s how I go my start: experimenting with social media for collaboration behind the firewall.

As you can imagine I fancy myself a bit of trickster. 

I think it’s an incredibly important role, and one that I've chosen purposefully, because I'm willing to accept the risks, bear the consequences, and reap the rewards.

Now you may have noticed that this idea of innovation as tricksterism is a cultural approach to innovation rather than an institutionalized approach to innovation – say in the form of innovation labs.

I prefer to focus on the culture because whenever someone points a finger at what isn't working in the bureaucracy its almost always the culture. 

I prefer prioritizing people to structure and think that in many ways the root of many of our problems is the fact that we often prioritize them the other way around.

But rather than get up on that soapbox I’d rather show you something that tricksters can get up to when you put a little technology in their curious little hands.

In the federal government there is this thing called the Treasury Board Policy Suite.

Essentially it’s all of the rules that all federal civil servants need to abide by and is commonly referred to by public servants as the web of rules.

Here's what it is supposed to look like according to Treasury Board.
  • 1 Code of Conduct - Values and Ethics; 
  • 8 policy frameworks; 
  • 73 policies; 
  • 76 directives; 
  • 56 standards; and 
  • 59 guidelines.
For a total of 273 different policy instruments. 

Now I took some time and went through the suite and mapped the actual relationships between these instruments (See: Redux: Visualizing the Entire Treasury Board Policy Suite). 

Truth be told the web of rules looks more like this.

As you can see the two are very different beasts.

First a note on methodology.

There's a 'related instruments' tab on each instrument that provides a hyperlink to instruments that ought to be considered in conjunction with that which you are currently reading.

The visualization simply represents those relationships.

Size depicts prevalence, e.g. the number of connections the instrument has to others.

Colour depicts instrument type.

Line type and arrows – which are there but impossible to see at this distance – represent directionality and type of relationship. 

The first thing worth noting is that the placement of Values and Ethics is not central as it was in the official representation.

The heart of the suite is right here in what I call the culture cluster is right here.

You can see how tightly wound up it is.

And why it might be so hard to innovate in these spaces, there’s simply too much oversight and control.

The cluster is pretty much exactly what you would expect: 
  • Policy on Government Security | 88# | 33%
  • Policy on Internal Control | 71# | 26%
  • Policy on Management of Information Technology | 59# | 22%
  • Policy on Privacy Protection | 56# | 20%
  • Policy on Information Management | 55# | 20%
Conversely, if you look at the periphery, where there is likely more room to innovate you will see that there is very little of consequence out there to innovate on.

Transformational institutional change is unlikely to be found in the Workplace Fitness Program Policy, the Uniform Directive or the Policy on Workplace Daycare Centres.

That said, I'm more than sympathetic to an argument that much good could come from innovation in those areas from an employee wellness perspective but that is likely a conversation for another day.

Now I put this thing together in my free time with some free online tools that I've never used before.

I published it to my blog along with some of my preliminary thoughts.

The thing went viral – or at least it went government viral, meaning that a couple of thousand people saw it.

I got a phone call from a Director General’s office whom I've never met who wanted a briefing on my work.

She just so happened to be the person responsible for the renewal of the policy suite.

I went in to brief her and her team.

Later I went in to brief her ADM.

Everyone wanted to know why I would do such a thing?

For me the answer was simple, because the opportunity was there waiting for someone to pluck it out of the sky.

Because I crossed social boundaries and knew the policy suite renewal was coming down the pipe before it was officially announced.

Because I was an outsider and was free to experiment.

Because I was curious and wanted to blur the lines a little.

Because I was able to use new tools and technologies to create a new lens through which we could look at the problem.

Because I was looking for an opportunity to be creative.

Because I wanted to be able to tell the story.

Because that’s what tricksters do.

Pretty impressive right?

Truth be told this data visualization is fairly bush league when you think about the scale and pace of changes that are on the horizon. 

I mapped something a handful of bureaucrats care about. 

It’s the wild west out there right now.

Governments services are being compared to private sector services.
The media’s business model has imploded and created a perverse incentive structure that rewards muckraking, click bating and faux outrage.

Your staff email, text, Facebook, Twitter and snap-chat, each other all day and can circumvent any attempt you make to limit their ability to communicate with someone else.

In many cases they can send a direct message on Twitter directly to a Minister. Directly to their Minister.

Their online profile can be analyzed, partisanship inferred, and then targeted for scandal through a freedom of information request

And that’s just a fraction of what’s going on. 

Everyone carries a government issued GPS device in their pocket, you could collect, aggregate and analyze that data to know exactly how big of a physical footprint you need, how to better plan public transit to your office locations, when and where elevators should rest in those office locations and even what unit should be located next to another.

And what about drones, don’t even get me started on drones.

An engineering student in Europe built a prototype of a drone that is equipped with a defibrillator.

There’s a great Youtube video, I suggest you go watch it.

This is a major technological advancement in public health.

But what about liabilities?

What happens when urban drone hunting becomes a pass time?

What about drinking and droning?

I could go on at length.

But instead I want to close out my remarks by giving you some advice on where I think you can find innovators in your organization. 

As leaders if you aren't trying to identify and groom people who see the world differently than you do you aren't doing your job effectively. 

Transformative leaders incubate the next generation of transformational people, curate their ideas and lay the ground work today for them to be successful tomorrow.

I want to close out my remarks by giving you some advice on where you can find innovation within your organization. 

Look to immigrants or nomads.

Those who are new to your organization or those who move around a lot may in fact be your most innovative.

New arrivals bring fresh eyes, instinctively connect their new experiences with their previous ones creating a new middle ground for the organization to explore.

Look to people who can take more than a single world view.

They have a diversity of interests that drives them to read things from and maintain relationship in different sectors.

As a result they bring in ideas that seem foreign to many but yet always seem to contain some kernel worth exploring

Look to those who are willing to start from square one, willing to walk away from sunk costs and challenge the fundamental assumptions that dominate the discourse.

People who don't accept that the answer "because that is the the way we've always done it here”

Look to people who are good communicators.

People who make you feel at ease about things that you are usually uneasy about, who easily bridge the gap between those at the working level and senior managers, knowing how to couch their words with either group.

Look to the people who are comfortable with change.

They see everything as an opportunity and welcome whatever the newly reshaped world has in store for them.

Finally, look to the troublemakers.

The peoples whose transgressive nature exposes the more deeply problematic roots of more systemic and pressing problems.

They use intellect, humour and satire whenever possible, nothing is off limits, and as a result they wind up getting into hot water now and again.

Your job as transformational leaders is to inspire, encourage and when necessary, protect, them.

The future of your organizations depends on it.

Thank you.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Our Governance Algorithms

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

I spent a couple of days this week attending the Marcom Forum in Ottawa. I've been on the conference's advisory board for almost as long as I've been a public servant and its always a nice change of pace to spend a couple of days locked in a conference room full of marketing and communications people. It gives me the opportunity to apply a totally different lens on my work and is a healthy signal check with respect to how different vocations prioritize strategies, tactics and ultimately, outcomes.

One of the things that stuck out for me from the Fab Dolan's (Google) keynote address was the idea that the pace of technological growth is no longer linear but exponential. That single purpose technology is now being widely diffused and applied to other areas (e.g. IBM's Watson to Health Care) and that consumers (and thus citizens) are increasingly interested in immersive experiences rather than static ones. In many ways this isn't necessarily a new insight but I found being reminded of it in a different context extremely helpful.

The other thing Dolan mentioned — the thing I want to reflect on today — was the idea that ethnography generates insights too slowly for today's marketplace whereas data allows you to test all of your hypotheses immediately and at a fraction of the cost. Dolan went on to illustrate his point by talking about machine learning in the context of video games and explain its marketing corollary dynamic creative.

Dynamic creative is a fancy way of saying continuous and concurrent A/B testing. Think 'nudge' not in the policy innovation sense but rather in the classic marketing sense, generating conversions. Essentially dynamic creative allows marketers to perpetually test and improve their marketing algorithm in real time using the behavioural data people generate when using the web.

But here's the rub.

Yes our current institutional array – our governance algorithm – is under pressure because in many ways it remains linear when everything else around it is becoming exponential, but its also the result of hundreds of years of the evolution of our thinking. To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure there's a natural corollary to the world of public policy.

What does dynamic governance – or cognitive government (See: Open Gov, Values, and the Social Contract) – actually look like?

Where's the data that governments can tap into, use to test hypotheses against and lever to improve its governance algorithms in real time?

And, more importantly, even if we could do such a thing, should we?

Food for thought.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Future of Online Communities

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

Within online communities, there are different types of users with different levels of engagement. These might be called "power users," "contributors," and "lurkers," and this tends to apply to everything from Wikipedia to political discussion forums to Amazon reviews.

However, within these levels of engagement (measured in edits, comments, visits, or whatever), there are also different motivations, and this should have an impact on how we consider digital communities, crowdsourcing, or engagement.

A rough divide:


This group is largely agnostic about engagement methods. Their motivation centers on the recognition that a given community represents a means of advancing their goal: connecting to an audience, or getting the ear of key players. Strategists could be those building goodwill with communities as inbound marketing, lobbyists looking for influence avenues, or activists looking to have their voices heard.

Subject Matter Enthusiasts

These are the people for whom the community ostensibly exists. They are part of a give and take of knowledge, learning, and contributing. The health of the community strengthens their field and enables networks and relationships. There may be a degree of strategy among this group, but it's secondary to enthusiasm about the subject matter.

The Collaboration Community

It is unlikely that those Wikipedians with 100,000+ edits are either subject matter experts or economically rational time maximizers. They are instead part of the Collaboration Community, those who contribute based partially on subject matter interest but primarily on community interest (if you’ve never watched The Internet is my Religion, please do so). That is, they are interested in the network itself and want it to succeed. This happens on the Government of Canada's internal networks, as well. Regardless of the topic, alongside the subject matter experts there's always a noticeable contingent of "usual suspects".

Novelty Explorers

Novelty Explorers are the group that engages because the opportunity to engage is new and exciting. A chance to help scientists make discoveries, a way to see their name and contribution immortalized on the internet, or an opportunity to weigh in on the activities of their government. This is the logic of "Holy ___ — [large organization that I read about in the news] wants my input!"

The Attention Economy

Novelty Explorers are a particularly fascinating group, because government is increasingly asking for the time and attention of citizens at the same time everyone else is: citizen science, crowdsourcing campaigns, crowdfunding campaigns, TripAdvisor, Yelp, as well as all of the discussion forums and Usenet groups that came with the early internet days.

But now everyone wants people’s input, and asking for it isn't special anymore. This fact demands recognition and a change in tactics. People are contributing at their whim, and the novelty will wear off. Not all explorers will turn into collaborators, strategists, or experts.

So far online communities have thrived* through experimentation and a sheer volume of potential collaborators. But as demand increases and novelty doesn’t, those asking for the time, attention, and effort of online communities will need to up the ante in the years to come**. The question will move from “How can we get people to engage?” to “Who actually needs to engage, and why would they, in particular?” 

*Relative frequency of “thrived” versus “throve” since 1800:

**Blaise pointed to the concept of Evaporative Cooling in online communities before, an interesting read about how communities inexorably become less valuable to precisely those people that provide the most value to them. Which raises interesting questions about the value of such communities.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Building Trust and Transparency Through Failure

by Melissa Tullio RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / creativegov

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a communications conference. The theme was "Think, Think, Nudge, Nudge": how we might start applying some behavioural insights techniques in our work to deliver more impact/meaning in our messaging to audiences (not to mention using a more evidence-based approach to do things). Ontario's own behavioural insights team was brought in to present how they've used randomized control trials to improve outcomes for various Ontario ministries, and speakers from ideas42 provided a couple of hands on workshops for us to learn some of the methods.

The keynote speaker was Michael I. Norton from Harvard Business School, who delivered an amusing and thought provoking talk that gave loads of examples illustrating how people react in the randomized control trials he's run. An example that really stuck with me was the results from a prototype of Boston's Citizens Connect app. It's kind of a "fix your street" for Boston, where citizens can report potholes, graffiti, and other broken things in the city. The data is uploaded to a map, which shows the status of each of the submissions - the prototype had red flags for open tickets, yellow for recently opened, and blue for closed tickets.

The test worked like this. They showed three versions of the app to people. The first didn't provide an illustration showing that the city was taking action on the open tickets - it was probably just a form for people to submit problems to the city. The second showed only the closed tickets, which cast the city in a positive light (but wasn't necessarily the most honest). The third showed all the open tickets and closed tickets (the open tickets greatly outnumbered the closed tickets, which may leave a negative impression of the city). A key insight that came out of the test was that even the map showing all of the open, red tickets was received more positively by people than the version that showed nothing at all.

What's going on here?

Michael's research on consumer behaviour shows that people like to see the work. Transparency in the processes that we're using to deliver a service builds credibility and trust in the institutions we rely on. As a consumer, this seems pretty intuitive to me. It feels a lot better seeing the person behind the glass preparing the burger with fresh ingredients than to order it through an intercom and pick it up a few minutes later like some human vending machine.

In a previous blog post (See: Open Gov, Values and the Social Contract), I talked about values, and mentioned how we can't say, as government, that we're open, if we don't then follow through and act in an open way. Ryan left a really interesting comment on that post: "not everything can (or dare I say, should) be 100% open 100% of the time." I agree with this; transparency isn't about revealing everything, but revealing what we can in the context of protecting citizens' privacy (we're not a burger joint). And, as behavioural insights evidence shows us, it's also about revealing, when we're able to reveal things, both the bad and the good outcomes of the things we're trying (e.g., the map showing the red flags as well as the blue ones).

Vulnerability as a Value

This all left me thinking about a value we're not so great at demonstrating in government: vulnerability. I'm willing to bet that every public servant working inside government today has felt risk aversion from colleagues or superiors in some form. We're afraid to fail, and even more afraid to show that we've failed. We cringe at the thought of ending up as a headline in the morning paper because of a mistake we made (I literally just got goosebumps thinking about this).

But what if the spaces we built inside government supported experimentation? Kent's recent post proposes that we're already experimenting, and I think it's true. The part we're missing is transparency - showing people that we don't have all the answers, and we need their help to figure stuff out.

What if we let users/citizens into the experiments? What if we had spaces to try stuff out before launching programs/policies that might fail anyway, regardless of how much thought we've put into them to avoid failure? And what if one of the guiding values for playing in those spaces were vulnerability - demonstrating to ourselves, and people who rely on us for services, that failure is OK, as long as we learn and build something better from it?

Is it reasonable to believe that transparently demonstrating to people that we're good at failure can build trust between us and the people we deliver services to? And if you agree, how might we move the culture towards embracing vulnerability as a value?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

You're Experimenting Right Now

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

You may be familiar with the trolley problem in ethics:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

The latter option is better from a purely utilitarian perspective, but many people lean towards the first option, which absolves them of participation or responsibility in the outcome.

The current public administration zeitgeist would more likely point to behavioural economics to prove the power of defaults to provide a level of comfort and confidence in people’s decisions (see: How Nudges Work for Government). But the point stands: we are unduly comfortable with the status quo, and we wrongly absolve ourselves of culpability for outcomes generated through the status quo. In the trolley problem, doing nothing is a big decision*.

Duty and Responsibility

Let's say you're debating a pivot in your career. You've been working in a field for a few years, and you're considering trying something new. It could just be a different job within your organization, or it could be throwing everything out the window, including yourself, and taking a leap of faith. Everything along that spectrum comes with uncertainty, discomfort, and perhaps a degree of fear.

Or, let's say you're an politician debating a policy change: it could be a minor adjustment or something major like mandatory voting or a guaranteed basic income, both of which have been proposed in Canada lately. It's not the sort of thing you can pilot in a vacuum; you have to change the way things things work to gauge how people react. Like the career pivot, it's  uncertain, uncomfortable, and scary.

Who knows how such experiments will work out? Will they be worth the risk? It's impossible to say with 100% certainty, which is the nature of experiments.

It’s tempting to think that those changes are experiments, whereas the course we are on is not. But the status quo is not a valueless, neutral starting point. It’s an experiment. It represents a plethora of design decisions, all of which influence how people behave and make decisions. And you are — we all are — complicit. As Richard Thaler, co-author of Nudge has put it, “There’s no avoiding nudging. Like in a cafeteria: You have to arrange the food somehow. You can’t arrange it at random. That would be a chaotic cafeteria.”

You’re Experimenting Right Now

You've never gone through a career on your current track before. No one ever has, in today's particular environment. Are you in digital media, for instance? Exactly zero people ever have put in a 30-year career in that field.

Likewise for policy. Canada has never entered the 21st century before, our policies have never stood up in the economic, demographic, or technological context they're about to face.

You're experimenting right now. We all are. And we have to weigh the costs and benefits of both the changes we’re considering and the track we’re already on.

* If you find yourself finding holes and rationalizations, Michael Sandel will cure that in his amazing lecture on ethics.