The dark side of community engagement as a public servant

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

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

Last week I had a dark thought. I considered the possibility that my stakeholder community would possibly be equally well off if I was an anonymous public servant who never got out of the office. You might imagine that this goes against my general philosophy on modern public service, and you’d be right.

So I want to share my experience as a public servant for the last few years, with an emphasis on the "public" part. I recently wrote this on Twitter in response to Amanda Clarke, on the trend towards public servants having digital presences linked to their roles in government:
And I believe that, but I have to nuance it.

Three years ago I joined the Government of Canada's Open Government team (I've since taken a year of interchange). I took a broad view of Open Gov, and considered the principles and in a way the ideology in how I worked and wanted the team to work: open, engaged, collaborative, empathetic. I didn't think we could run a successful Open Gov program if our world was an office in Ottawa.

I wanted to get the know the community, hear from stakeholders, and look for opportunities to work together with groups in and outside of government. And I feel as though I did a reasonably good job of that.

In three years I've learned so, so much from people. Over Twitter, over beer and coffee, in meetings, and at conferences. My understanding of the problem space is immeasurably richer for those conversations, and they made me better at my job. 

Here's the downside.

For all of those insights and partnership possibilities, I was able to act on them and help change things maybe, maybe 10% of the time. Which, in my view, means I couldn't fully respect the time and effort that the community puts into helping governments and government employees. Increasingly, I started telling people that I'd love to help them but that they may want to contact my senior executives directly and try that route as well. Which is time-consuming for everyone, and hamstrings the analyst-level value of adding context and considerations.

I don’t think I was delusional. In many cases, executives in my organization responded positively to the ideas and partnerships discussed. But people in such organizations rarely make complete decisions; instead, they make parts of decisions while this complex amorphous thing called an “organization” is responsible for the overall picture.

So where does this leave me? I’m going to stick with being a public public servant. I’d feel like I had earplugs in and blinders on otherwise. But that impact gap concerns me. In a vacuum, the more senior a public servant is engaging with a community, the better it is for the community - except for the fact that available time to engage in “rigourous hanging out” decreases in proportion to seniority (see: relevant Matt Bailey Twitter essay). This concern, like so many others, has common roots in big governance questions, including how well we align expertise, responsibility, accountability, and authority. And I don’t know if we can get to an open, user-centric, empathetic, and ultimately a more effective government without addressing those questions.