A quick stock-take on public service renewal

Wednesday, June 22, 2016
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Last week I almost wrote a post just to announce a hiatus for the summer. I’m getting into the home stretch of an MSc dissertation. A break would be a little about freeing up time, but at least as much about A) simplification of my weekly to-do list and B) trying to keep some semblance of a quality standard in my writing. I think I’ll stop short of a full hiatus, and just apologize for sparse posts for the next few months. Which probably feels to me like a much bigger deal than it is, but I like the weekly rhythm.

I’d like to keep it up because I do feel like writing these days. There’s a ton going on around the public service that is inspiring me lately and bouncing around my head. In 2012 I wrote about possibilities for tectonic change in the public service, and I’m starting to feel like some of those ideas are becoming real. Not for any one reason - it’s many things lining up and coming together.

When looking for something like “culture change,” it’s sometimes hard to differentiate between what’s actually different and what you, yourself, are seeing differently. It’s inevitable that the longer you've been around, the more you’ll see of everything: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And with that massive bias in mind, I’m still more optimistic about the future - this whole 
“public service renewal” thing we keep banging on about - than I have been for a long while. I’m thinking of things like digital service redesign (maybe with some friendly competition from Ontario’s soon-to-be-minted Chief Digital Officer), citizen engagement on policy making, and more opportunities to work with the private sector and civil society - including more opportunities for civil society to hold government accountable to outcomes.

Part of the interest here is the potential to get out of our comfort zones a little bit and experiment with different ways of doing government. But there’s a value proposition much deeper than “experiment and we’ll see if it works” here. One of the threads that connects digital service, citizen engagement, and government releasing more information is that whole accountability piece: people and organizations having more information, and more avenues, to put pressure on government. Which will have its bad sides as well, but if nothing else will nudge government towards more honesty and authenticity.

I’ve felt the conversations - and communications products - changing over the last few years. It’s harder to respond with talking points to people who can talk back.

And, it’s harder to respond with talking points to people who you really understand and empathize with, which is one of other connecting threads. I’ve made this point before, but here it is a tad more bluntly: whether or not a given public servant truly understands their stakeholder communities may be the single biggest factor influencing their perspective on their work.

Jared Spool’s research on usability and design keeps coming back to this magic number: 2 hours every 6 weeks interacting with the end users of a thing. For everyone who influences the design (that includes senior executives) I’d argue that this principle would apply to a surprising range of things: products and websites, but also policies, service interactions, and communications.

The good news is that we’re all increasingly becoming front-line public servants.

Which means that not only are things poised to get better, but poised to get systematically better, which is the real kicker.