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What Innovation Feels Like (Part 2: Lack of Trust)

Friday, October 2, 2015

by Melissa Tullio RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / creativegov

Public servants go through a rigorous process to become full-time, permanent employees. I won't get into detail, but it usually requires a lengthy HR process with at least two to three stages of vetting to find the right person for the job. And then, if you’re one of The Chosen, you’re on the inside. Yay, you; your knowledge and expertise were tested against dozens, sometimes hundreds, of other candidates, and now that you're inside, you can get to work and start making use of all that creativity, energy, and expertise you've been specifically chosen to provide. Right?

The experience on the inside is very different than what you expect. When you try to provide that expertise, you’re beaten down by process, by politics (big-P), or by conflicting personalities (little-p). You thought you had something to offer the world, to make things a little bit better for people you’re serving, but by the time you’re able to get something you create through the processes, it doesn’t at all resemble the passion and energy you put into it.

When good people are crushed by process

Most of what we do as public servants resembles the following.
Step 1: Create this [product]. Use your knowledge, expertise, evidence, research, and best advice to create it.

Step 2: Next, slap this template approvals form on top, which requires (minimum) 10 signatures to be approved, and get every single pair of eyeballs listed on that sheet to give you their two cents on it.

Step 3: Use outdated linear proprietary approvals mechanisms to track and incorporate remarks, changes, vague comments, and illegible handwritten markups from all parties involved. Update. Revise. Update. Revise. Co-ordinate/negotiate changes among parties.

Step 4: Lose track of version (due to outdated linear proprietary approvals mechanisms). Backtrack to find original version buried in an email. Re-incorporate all changes you just lost. Repeat.

Step 5: (Miraculously and with much lost sleep) Meet deadline, feeling mangled. Start at the beginning for the next one.
Don't get me wrong; the product we start off with isn't ever perfect, and none of us should be immune to critical feedback, or fresh eyes to take a look at something to make it better. But if you step back and look at the baked-in approvals process, underlying it is an inherent lack of trust (perceived or real, which is basically the same thing to the experts that are hired to provide their best advice).

My Big Idea

Earlier this year, I pitched an idea to change the way we do approvals. It's an interesting play off of one of Kent's posts from the summer – see: Government, Citizens, and Power. What I proposed (without realizing it) would be something like applying the IAP2 spectrum internally to our processes by empowering staff to have a real stake in outcomes and decision making in government.

This approach would start with cross-functional/cross-ministry teams (5-7 max) of senior advisors – those responsible for developing products/policies at the ground level. Some authority would be relinquished from decision makers so that teams are expected to reach all final decisions on the products/policies they developed (ie, ditch the approvals sheet/mechanism all together).

The role of deputy ministers, assistant deputy ministers, and directors would shift: they'd be expected to provide feedback and direction as an advisory committee (which would be decided on before the project begins, meaning leaders from different ministries might be assigned to certain projects, depending on the nature of the work). This advisory body would check in periodically with the project team, and the feedback they provide would be more holistic, bringing in perspectives from all ministries/areas identified as "leads" on the project.

Managers/supervisors would be included on teams as quality control agents, and to ensure advisors have all the information and context they need for any piece of the products/policies. They would also play a facilitating role, determining who teams might need to work with to do their work.

An early sketch of the project flow looked like this (I'd revise this and move DMO (deputy minister's office) and legal to the advisory committee):


I'd also add to this: project teams and advisory committees would include experts (lived experience counts) from outside of government, too.

There's more to explain about how I see this proposed process working in real life (hint: we'd have to change how we do our work, too), but I'll leave it for another day and another blog post.

Let It Go

(#sorrynotsorry for the earworm.)

More and more of our work in government these days depends on all kinds of collaboration: between ministries/departments, and beyond our own level (municipal, provincial, federal) or sector (private, non-profit, community-based/grassroots). The approvals system I described at the beginning of this post does not work any more. It is seriously broken. And what needs to replace it would depend entirely on trust.

Trust means letting go of control, and the current model favours (and rewards) control freaks and micro-management.

Trust means letting go of authority, and the current model presumes that traditional power structures have the final say in everything.

Trust means letting go of fear, putting risk in its place (ie, risk management rather than risk aversion, as a rule), and experimenting with stakeholders instead of believing we have all the answers ourselves.

Richard Pietro, self-proclaimed open government fanboy and all around amazing human being, recently produced the world's first short film on open government, open data, and open source. I'm going to spoil it for you (you should watch the whole thing) and skip to the end. This is what trust feels like.
"You have to let it all go; fear, doubt, disbelief... open your mind."
...and open the processes, starting with the premise that we trust the people we so painstakingly selected for the jobs we've asked them to do.