Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Doing good in the world of deliverology

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

In February we read and reflected on a book called How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don't Go Crazy. which essentially lays out a playbook for governments to follow up on their priorities and ensure that concrete actions are being taken, by everyone who needs to take them. It's about goal-setting, measurement, tracking, and clearing obstacles to maintain forward momentum.

The book was making the rounds in political and public service circles, but I said I'd wait to see if and when it influenced our organizations. It would seem I was overly skeptical - the results focus and delivery language is here.

With that in mind, a quick thought on measuring, well, anything:

There's a Venn diagram of things that sound good and things that are good. For organizations that are incredibly good at goal-setting, choosing key performance indicators, and measurement, these two circles will overlap reasonably closely. But they'll never match perfectly*.

For the working level, this means you have to think not only in terms of results but also in how those results might be proved, and what audiences are in the stands. It means aiming for the overlap, or trying to make the overlap bigger: that is, changing the narrative so that actions in the things that are good circle start to sound better and better.

For executives, this means recognizing the difference between measurability and genuine impact, triangulating your understanding of the program from multiple sources, and asking the meta-level question: "How do we know our measurements are accurate and valuable?"

*We could go into a much longer discussion about the limits of metrics, and I suspect at least one commenter will.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Most Important Takeaway from the #gc2020 Innovation Fair

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

I managed to pop into the second annual Blueprint 2020 Innovation Fair earlier this week for about 90 minutes. The space was jammed, there were people everywhere, and energy was high. If you are interested in a summary. there's one over at The Public Servant. If you are interested in my key takeaway, read on, it's brief -- and to be perfectly honest, not even my insight.

I was joking around with a longtime friend, colleague and trusted source of advice who replied to a half-joke I made about the fact that "there's a whole bunch of people here doing a whole bunch of things I've never heard about" -- which as an aside, if you step back is also likely one of the reasons to have the fair in the first place, broader socialization and connection between actors -- with: "Isn't that precisely what we want? To get past the point where any single actor can keep track of the players and innovations moving around the system."

Fair point.

Great insight.

If tipping points exist, and if scale is an early indicator of whats to come, then surely the success of the fair is an indication that we are moving further and further down the innovation / adoption curves. Now, obviously, that doesn't mean the work is done -- in fact it may mean that for many the work is about to begin -- but it also may mean that there's more receptivity to it then there has been previously.

Kudos to the Blueprint team for a job well done.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What is open government?

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

Note: if you've never noticed it, now might be a good time to briefly divert your gaze to the disclaimer on the right.

I've probably answered that question - What is open government? - a thousand times in the last couple years. With varying degrees of clarity and convincingness.

This is an attempt at a more universal, albeit less concise, version.

First, some competing definitions

It's an occasionally murky concept, and gets defined differently in different countries, by different people:

"Open government is the governing doctrine which holds that citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight."

"[Government that is] sustainably more transparent, more accountable, and more responsive to their own citizens, with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of governance, as well as the quality of services that citizens receive."
[Open Government Partnership]

My go-to today might be something like this: open government is a commitment to making data and information about government operations and decisions open to citizens, and creating opportunities for people to engage in public decisions that interest or impact them.

But that still doesn't really connect the dots between the ideas that make up open government, so I'm proposing another lens.

The government-citizen relationship

Let's think about information flows between government and stakeholders.

Actually, that's a bit unwieldy. Let's collapse the left side into a simpler ecosystem, while recognizing that there's a lot going on in there. 

There have always been information flows. There was never a point where government was completely closed then suddenly became open. In the 1800s Canada conducted the census to get information from Canadians, created awareness campaigns to encourage people to move west, kept parliamentary records in Hansard, and published changes to laws in the Canada Gazette.

None of which we'd consider "open government" today. But it's part of the ecosystem of information flows on which we're building.

Really, anything that was once "open government" over time eventually just gets called "government." Which is why we'll skip right past huge advances like Access to Information laws to get to 2012-ish. The modern push for open government might look something like this:

Since the digital age, governments have provided far more information about programs, policies, and services. This could be web content, emails, or publications. However, the ability for digital communication also created demand, so governments have started releasing the raw data behind research and statements, collecting more public feedback on policy, and posting documents for the sake of transparency, like expense reports.

However, while there are new formats and documents to release, there are also just fundamentally different types of information. For example, consider data on water levels and invasive aquatic species, the first line in the following diagram. It's been available to citizens for a few years. 

But, while people outside government can use that data, more people can use that data better with a few other links made between Country and Government. In this case, a group called Aquahacking was able to express their needs to government (Environment and Climate Change Canada), who showed up to present and provide context and clarifying information about how the data was collected. To close the loop, the Water Rangers system can now provide reliable measurements back into the data collection process, by enabling kayakers and beach-goers to do citizen science.

Open government is about adding more information flows, to more people, in more ways that are more appropriate to needs (see: Innovation is Information). This is both about government releasing information, as well as creating new opportunities for citizens to provide ideas, concerns, and expertise into public decisions.

On that note, there's another expansion to the model that's taking place. The information flows were once largely between small groups in those two circles, Country and Government: lobbyists, the well-connected, and bigger businesses and NGOs for the former and parliamentarians, communications shops, and top executives for the latter. Now those circles look more like this, with many more information flows between many more nodes throughout the ecosystem.

But we'll collapse the model again for simplicity, and end on this: dense, layered, multi-channel information flows between country and government. For a given policy issue, it could be something like this:

Open government really describes a period of acceleration. It's a term than connects these information flows and expresses a commitment to adding more while strengthening the ones that exist. Not just data and information, but more abstract concepts like context, reliability, rationale, understanding, lived experience, trust, and simplicity. Going both ways and back-and-forth.

Which means the question isn't "How do we open government?" but perhaps: "What do we actually need?" "What can we do better?" "What do we open next?"

Friday, April 15, 2016

Innovation: Shiny Object or Existential Crisis

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

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague a couple of weeks ago about spectacle as a driver of innovation. His observation: often folks see something 'cool' somewhere else and decide it would be equally 'cool' to do it too. They grab hold of the public face of the innovation (which is often different than the real face), strip it from its context and jam it into their own. They use the evidence that its worked elsewhere as a proxy for evidence that it will work here.

This is innovation as shiny object syndrome, it's fuelled by the perception that those who ushered it through the system were rewarded, it's more common than any of us are really willing to admit, and it's categorically the wrong approach for public institutions that are supposed to be creating public value. The ugly truth of the matter is that 'innovation' makes and breaks careers, and there's competition -- sometimes fierce -- even if we are all rowing in the same direction.

Where we landed in our conversation was the need to approach innovation from the perspective of existential crisis, where we question whether our approach/intervention has any meaning, purpose, or value. If we truly believe that we are in the midst of fundamental societal changes than we need more introspection, we need to ask ourselves tough questions and be willing to abandon long-standing assumptions.

And yet we also agreed that most folks simply aren't there yet for one reason or another. Perhaps they can't feel the heat from the burning platform from wherever they are in the system. Perhaps they are simply responding to the incentive structure around them (perceived or otherwise). Perhaps the list goes on ad infinitum, well, because culture, and the truism that culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Anecdotally I've heard a lot of talk about how if we tried to apply the same level of rigour to current government activities as we do to proposed government activities we might find more than a couple of glaring discrepancies in terms of what constitutes acceptability. For example, how many of our current activities are measured against clear baselines that demonstrate the unequivocal impact of those activities? Or, how many of our current activities are based on a robust theory of change that has been clearly and publicly articulated?

In many ways I think the shift we -- the public sector innovation types -- are seeking to hasten is one that moves from shiny object syndrome to existential crisis. Of course I say all of this with all of the caveats and hedging of bets that one would expect from a bureaucrat (e.g. not tearing down the whole Westminster system and/or baby with the bathwater inspired hooliganism). One where everyone speaks the same language and has a shared understanding that the world is changing and we need to change with it. Where you don't need to spend time arguing about the need for change and move that time downstream to arguing about the crunchier questions about what that change ought to look like and how it can best be achieved.

Friday, April 8, 2016

10 Takeaways from the Canadian Open Dialogue Forum

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

Last week I attended the Canadian Open Dialogue Forum (See: Defining Open Dialogue); by all accounts the event was well run, interesting and full of familiar faces. On Wednesday Kent reflected a bit of what he heard at the Forum (See: Culture and Risk) and I wanted to do the same.

1. The show of political support was impressive

There were two federal ministers and six provincial ministers from Ontario in attendance; all of whom seemed to be saying the right things.

2. Ontario has a new public engagement framework

Check it out here.

3. 'Evergreen Policy' was something that was discussed, albeit not enough

There was a lot of discussion about being open by default but far less discussion about evergreen policy; the notion that times change and with them so should our policy approaches. Today's policies may not serve tomorrows interests and we need to do more work in updating our approaches wherever they are falling behind; ideally this is a shift from reactive (we've fallen behind!) to proactive (we know the world is changing, let's get out in front of it!). This is something I've touched on previously and see it as akin to the cradle-to-cradle design (See: Now What -- circa 2010 -- and Redux: Vizualizing the Entire Treasury Board Policy Suite).

4. Corporate interests can but do not necessarily always align with the public interest
Or at least that was my observation. My tweet got some traction so it got put to the panel, one of whom "disagreed with the premise of my question" (which wasn't really a question) and proceeded to frame a response in terms of consumer interests, to which I simply replied that I disagreed with the premise of the answer. Another panellist said that it was an old school view (which was the first time I've ever been called such). That said, on day two a corporate voice managed to frame up the discussion better than it was framed on day one and was speaking in terms of high tides raising all boats.

5. The logic of crowdsourcing and the logic of policy making are difficult to reconcile

Intuitively I think most people can see this makes sense, but this paper is probably worth a look if you want to know more.

6. The technology may be sufficiently developed to realize open government but our capacity to wield that technology, less so

We likely need to work on capacity, within government and civil society writ large.

7. Transparency and openness are deeply political issues

We need to stop pretending otherwise.

8. Public service anonymity needs a rethink in the digital era

See: On Partisanship and Anonymity in the Internet Era.

9. We are dealing with a lot of legacy issues that are built into our current institutions

If we started from scratch today, would the machinery of government look the same as it does today? Probably not. We need to be thinking hard about how to get from here to there, but maybe we should start with a discussion about what there actually looks like.

10. The technology worked well

Kudos to the Publivate team for integrating a crowdsourcing platform into a live event in a seamless way, I haven't seen it done well before and they knocked it out of the park.

Bonus: Tweetable tweet goes to ... Ailish Campbell 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Culture and risk

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

"Culture, as the saying goes, eats strategy for breakfast, apparently it also eats technology, and probably has a taste for deliverology as well."
- Thom Kearney [You can change culture now]
The culture-eats-strategy theme was thickly present at last week's Canadian Open Dialogue Forum, a direction-setting conference about citizen engagement in Canada.

Citizen engagement is messy. It's uncertain. And it's in the open. So naturally, in lockstep with the culture-eats-strategy theme was the question of whether government is prepared for risks (real or perceived) associated with citizen engagement and open government.

Former Clerk of the Privy Council Wayne Wouters spoke about culture and risk, asking "How can you do something as a public service employee if you feel 'I'm breaking a rule'?" He disparaged the stock answer to mistakes in the public sector, which is to create a rule to ensure that X never happens again.

The problem is that any system, no matter how reliable, will generate errors with enough repetition - a fact that's at odds with a previous Clerk, Paul Tellier, who called for "an error-free administration." As Deputy Premier of Ontario Deb Matthews lamented, “We’re not allowed a failure on version 1.0 in government.” Unfortunately, that's the culture that has stuck.

A couple stories

Last year, a handful of public servants wrote a letter of praise, intending to send it to the managers of a colleague who'd been doing an amazing job and who was really helping out the broader community through sharing information and advice. When asking for signatories, a number of people said this: "This could backfire - collaboration may not be universally seen as  positive." That is, people were worried that drawing attention to an employee's collaborative, whole-of-government approach would diminish that person's standing in the organization.

Collaborative, networked, whole-of-government approaches are the strategy. Culture 1, strategy 0.

More recently. an NGO called In With Forward came to Ottawa to conduct a design lab with policymakers, exploring ways to support street-involved adults. From their blog:
We were testing what it would take to add ethnographic data to policy briefs. How could we give people in power direct access to the experiences of street-involved adults, and how could they use this information in the decision-making process? An oft repeated response was, “We can’t use stories. That’s not what we are asked to provide up the line. I wouldn’t even try to get it through the approval process.”
Design thinking, social innovation, and user research are part of the strategy. Culture 2, strategy 0.

What gives strategy something to chew on?

Ryan Androsoff and Xenia Menzies were exploring a possible hierarchy on Twitter throughout the conference: 

structure > incentives > culture > strategy

Strategy, in this model, has somewhat of an uphill battle. The left side, if poorly aligned with strategy, represents "organizational debt" that has to be addressed before you can make investments and start gaining ground (see: Nesta on Innovation in the public sector: Is risk aversion a cause or a symptom?)

Simply telling people that it's okay to take risks only works on the margins. And, like in the letter example, I'd even argue that it can backfire, leaving employees conflicted between what they're hearing and what they're experiencing.

Structural and systematic biases - in this case, a bias against risk - need structural and systematic responses. Governments have done this with Official Languages and Employment Equity, but we're never going to have a Key Performance Indicator for risk tolerance. Governments can't have risk quotas to meet (I'd dread the reporting: "We undertook 100 activities this year and 5% of them were classified as high-risk.")

Which means we need to dissect the structure, incentives, and culture to figure out the DNA of why public sector employees and executives make the decisions they do.

That said, in the meantime I'd propose a natural starting point: risk and hierarchies don't play well together. Short of calling for removing layers, I'd suggest that we revisit the assumption that hierarchies and decision-making chains have to be the same thing. In Australia, for instance, policy directors send advice and briefs directly to Ministers; the senior executives focus on coordination and administration. There are alternatives.