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On Tri-Sectoral Athletes

Friday, May 6, 2016
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Two week's ago at the Driving Innovation: Positive Policies, Instruments and Experimentation armchair discussion at the Canada School moderator Ailish Campbell spoke about the need for a more permeable membrane between the civil service and other sectors; the premise being that we need a diverse set of skills and perspectives if we are to make progress against societies wicked problems. Its an issue that her and I have spoken about in the past, and while its one that's both near to her heart (See: Government from Outside-In) and mine (See: Are Public Servants Interchangeable?) it's also something I haven't heard being discussed much in the current context of overlapping venn diagram that is policy innovation, experimentation and results (deliverology). While I wholeheartedly agree that we need the right talent mix, training and transfers (See Ailish's Lessons from Cross-Sector Experiences) we also need a culture that values -- or perhaps even puts a premium on -- experience outside the civil service.

Enter Tri-Sector Athletes

Back in 2013 Harvard Business Review ran a couple of articles the importance "tri-sector athletes", people who can bridge the chasms of culture, incentives, and purpose that separate the three sectors (See: Triple Strength Leadership and Why the World Needs Tri-Sector Leaders). The articles argued that cross sector mobility promoted the development of a number of specific skills (i.e. balancing competing motives, acquiring transferable skills, developing contextual intelligence, forging a common intellectual thread, building integrated networks, and maintaining a prepared mind) and advocated lowering cultural and structural barriers that inhibit cross-sector mobility for early, mid and senior career professionals. The articles seem to have come out of the work of the Intersector Project which tries to bring together the three different sectors to solve problems that no single sector can do alone; which to me sounds a lot like where good governance meets wicked problems (See: On Wicked Problems).

Rather than rehash any of whats covered in the above, I'd like to share a snippet from a speech given by the Honourable Michael Wilson's in 2011 at the Richard Ivey School of Business (at Western).The speech, entitled The Tri-Athlete: The importance of Private, Public and Not-for-Profit Sector speaks more directly to the issue with a conviction of experience that I can only hope to accumulate:

"There is a concept discussed in the Harvard Business Review called ‘Shared Value’ wherein business decisions serve the public and shareholder interest alike. One major global company in India reduced its demands on the public water supply. This forced itself to be creative in its production process which saved the company money, sustained output and lessened demand on limited natural resources of the country. The result, shared value for the country, the community and the company.

Governments must conduct policies in a way, which takes into account the interests of the private sector. Tax policy must not be overbearing and must provide incentives where possible. Private sector delivery of government services should be used if this does not conflict with the public interest. Regulations must find the right balance between protecting the public interest while not interfering excessively with the operations and natural strengths of the private sector.

It is in this world that tri-athletes become very important. People with knowledge, sensitivity and a broader sense of values that comes from deep engagement on both sides of the private/public divide and experience in the not-for-profit world can make a more substantial contribution to the broad public good.

Now, have I forgotten about the part that the not-for-profit sector would play in this world? Not at all. In many ways, not-for-profit leaders are the conduit or even the glue between the private and public sectors. This is particularly the case in healthcare, social issues, research activities, education and the delivery of services that are typically a government responsibility. The public/private partnership model is a primary example of this as it relates to hospitals, highways, correction centres, and others.

But I think the most important outcome of the broad concept of the tri-athlete is the softening of the edges among the three sectors. With broader and deeper engagement comes greater understanding. That greater understanding leads to a more sensitive and broader set of values in all three sectors that breeds a stronger sense of community within the country."

The key takeaway: the success of each of the sectors is tied directly to the health of relationships between them. Moreover, understanding these relationships in a visceral way is an asset when you are looking to engage with a broader community. And, if you haven't noticed, engagement is the new normal.

Enter Digital

The role of social media in this respect (engagement) was also discussed at the armchair. For those of us who have been operating in that space for some time now the conversation wasn't new. To wit, a friend of my sent me a private message on Twitter that questioned an organizational culture that allots scarce resources to what could otherwise be considered transient communications (e.g. DM approval for a single tweet). Their point was clear: institutionally we have more important things to worry about in an age of complexity and wicked problems. We ought to be more concerned with creating shared/public value than 140 character phraseology. For example, by now we've all read a lot about how our Westminster system of parliament is under tremendous pressure in the digital era, that "government no longer has the monopoly" on advice and/or service. I myself have said as much on stage, in front of a couple hundred public servants in Ontario (See: The Future of Policy Work).

However, the more I think about it the less I'm inclined to agree wholeheartedly. I actually think that government continues to enjoy is nodality (i.e. being at the centre of a network of actors or information) but hasn't been able to wield it as effectively in the digital era as it did in the analogue era. This may be a small nuance, but its an incredibly important one. After all, government's convening power is still rooted in the fundamental idea that government is the ultimate societal back stop, that its our last line of defense when things really go sideways. If you agree -- the nuance that government continues to enjoy nodality but cannot always wield it effectively in the digital era -- then you might logically be interested in building capacity where digital technologies are meeting governance issues (e.g. sharing economy). But in order to do that effectively you need a workforce that can see the issues from all of the perspectives (i.e. sharing economy is an incredibly complex societal issue that has implications for actors all three sectors) but also one that have quickly engage in these broader networks. Hitting the ground running likely means proficiency with social media. It means being able to quickly identify key players, make contact and set up more in depth and detailed exchanges. I can appreciate that there's a palpable feeling in town that the civil service is making gains on this but we haven't really blown that door wide open yet.

Truthfully, there is still a lot of apprehension at the working level (i.e. where managers and working level people meet) about networking across sectors and even more about connecting in open online fora. One only need to look at Kent's post earlier this week (See: Bursting the Filter Bubble) -- where he detailed his reticence to claim even a loose affiliation to his official duties online and even more importantly participate in an event as a representative of the government -- to find evidence of this. If I had to put money down I'd say that the reticence he felt is both lingering and pervasive in the system right now; this is troubling, especially given that Kent's risk tolerance is likely greater than most (i.e. he has been writing publicly on these issues for some time now). In the absence of distinct and clear government wide positive policy statements we are relying on some amalgam of the risk tolerance of individuals (who's perception of risk was forged under the previous administration) and trickle down effects of the subsequent change in political tone. Both of which are unevenly distributed across the system and cannot be relied upon to address our larger culture issues (See: On Risk, Fearless Advice and Loyal Implementation).

Enter Personal Anecdote(s)

Now, my evidence may be anecdotal but I've entertained a number of conversations recently with new public servants who are coming into very junior positions despite a wealth of experience outside government (i.e. not recent graduates). These are bright folks who's employment history began well before they accepted their letter of offer. Their entrance into the fray however is stymied in part by the widespread -- but not overt or malicious -- cultural practice of discounting non-government experience and a reticence (perceived and self-imposed or explicit and imposed) to "allow" them to reach out beyond the internal workings of government; effectively cutting them off from the networks they had prior to joining, networks that Wilson (above) argued were so important. In other words, not only are we discounting their work experience but also asking them to cut ties with the players with whom they did it. This runs counter-intuitive to the entire notion of tri-sector athletes. But really how pervasive is it?

Its hard to say for certain but you can look at some indicators that may hint and/or reinforce the culture. For example, I pulled a random posting for a government job and flipped through it. Notice that it narrowly defines an experiential requirement as "providing advice to senior management at the Director-General level or higher on ...". My question: what if someone has significant experience performing similar work but their organization doesn't have "Directors General"? I doubt it would be difficult to find someone who was otherwise qualified but who was screened out based on a similar technicality alone (in fact I've spoke to a few in similar situations) Conversely, if we took a random sample of resumés from civil servants I wonder how many would include experience outside the civil service? Probably not many, or at least not as many as we'd like if we are sympathetic to the importance of tri-sector athletes. I don't want to dwell on this too much but am generally of the view that the cultural practice of discounting problematic and that it manifests both as a demand side (e.g. in job posters) and supply side (e.g. resumés) issue.

I'm as guilty as the next on this front (at least on the supply side). With the exception of the two-year interchange I just completed with the Institute on Governance, I've left off any experience that precedes my government experience off my resumé, despite having worked for a good 8 years in front line service delivery positions in the hospitality industry for premium brands (e.g. Fairmont and the Ottawa Senators Hockey Club) working directly with the organizations' most important corporate clients. Along the way I dealt with a number of challenging relationships and had the opportunity to manage people, budgets, and facility operations. Yet, I've purposefully left that experience off my resumé because it doesn't necessarily show my "public policy chops". However if you pause and think about it, the experience is inherently valuable if you want to better understand how the public policy rubber meets the deliver(olog)y road. I remember being in an interview a while back trying to explain to a Director General why I had written that I was a mid-career professional on my resumé when I only had 8 years of government experience. They simply didn't value the 10 years I worked prior to joining government, nor did it matter that I was able to work full time while pursuing my academic degrees and starting my family (but that's besides the point).

While I may have omitted the experience from my resumé and -- to be perfectly honest -- no longer describe myself as mid-career, the truth of the matter is that those cumulative work experiences were formative. They were when I first started, and they remain as such even today. I remember a very early conversation I had with a friend and colleague about public service renewal back when Kevin Lynch was the Clerk of Privy Council. I was trying to explain that one of the things that I felt was missing in the public service was the empowerment culture and sense agency that was so critical to success in the service industry. My sense at the time was that folks in government just didn't feel empowered or able to act without first seeking permission. That difference very much became a source of inspiration for my work, my foray into the online world (e.g. this blog) and ultimately informed the advice in Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants. To discount it simply because it happened before my time in government would be to discount all the positive that has become of it is since I joined government, and that is something that I am unwilling to do.

I'm also of the opinion that my experience on interchange -- leaving the public service for two years, then coming back -- was also invaluable. Not only was I able to pursue interests that I wouldn't have been able to pursue inside the civil service but I was also able to better appreciate the cultural distance the civil service traveled as an institution while I was away than I would have been if I stayed. While on interchange I got a better sense of what government relations work is like, learned how to work with different institutional players and expanded my network in ways that would have otherwise not been possible. I was also able to shift much of my attention from immediate operational requirements to bigger picture questions about the future of governance in Canada. That said, I feel as though I was literally frozen in time while I was away. There was little to no contact with my department when I was away and no re-integration plan. We (myself and the two organizations involved) definitely could have definitely levered the opportunity better, but we didn't. If I didn't find an opportunity to come back to a different job my own I would have slid right back into the job I left two years prior. If that's not a strong signal of how the system sees outside experience (and/or reintegration), I'm not sure what is.

NB: I'm not complaining and there's no sour grapes. I'm pretty happy about how it all shook out, my point is that maybe we shouldn't rely on luck and serendipity that as a strategy. You might also be interested in reading Emerging Models of Leadership: PBOs and Tri-Sector Leaders.