Friday, December 23, 2016

Two Lessons After a Few Weeks In

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

I quietly changed roles recently -- shifting away from a role working on policy innovation at the macro systems level to working on the implementation policy innovation at the micro program level. I'm enjoying the experience so far and (as usual) have been reflecting a bit on what I can learn along the way.

The danger of templates and the tension of task completion
Templates might be useful tools for standardization but they also create an artificial barrier that limits our thinking, especially templates that only push us to think to a certain milestone (e.g. design) and stop short of another (e.g. implementation). In other words they can create artificial barriers that reinforce an "out of sight out of mind mindset" when in reality those things -- while downstream -- ought to be given due consideration upstream. Similarly, there's a constant tension between doing completing the task that is immediately in front of you and that which is not. It takes a high degree of effort to say no to the pressure of the immediacy and keep your focus on longer term objectives. The risks closer to you often seem more important than those downstream but it is that very proximity that inflates their severity not their inherent characteristics.

The importance of stepping outside of strategic policy
Take the time to step outside the strategic policy world and work in or on a program and/or on implementation; there's a lot to be learned.


  • If you are interested in stepping into parts of my old role you can find more information on it here (internal link).
  • I'll be in DC talking policy innovation + holding a small hackathon on the Policy Innovation Portal (internal link); contact me if you'd like to set up a meeting or hit the link above to register for the event.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Collaboration takes time that organizations don't have

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

A couple years back I wrote about a vicious cycle of centralized decision-making and the what it meant for executive attention on important issues. I don’t think there’s a single major issue in large organizations that doesn’t, at some level, stem from the meta-problem that the demands on executives’ time are incredible. At some point in the dissection of every systemic issue you could include “And executives don’t have the time for it.” Every major new initiative includes, as a factor for success, “senior executive support.” 

I’ll recreate the same model because I think it’s still interesting. Today I’d add organizational design and I’d probably fingerpaint it, but I think it mostly holds up.

The long story short is that more time spent on content means less time on process, including coaching, big-picture thinking, and organizational design. Which ultimately leads to the need for even more centralized decision-making in the absence of experienced delegates and effective governance. 

The compounding problem is that executives are structurally hamstrung from recognizing and correcting this pattern. Throughout an organization, there will be some sub-organizations with a manageable workload where everything gets dealt with. However, from the top, those organizations will look the same as those where things are falling through the cracks. Some issues that would otherwise be important will remain invisible because there’s no time to make them visible. And your delegates will start curating demands on executives' attention on their behalf out of sheer practicality - and from a smaller-picture lens - removing the ability for pattern recognition.

That is, for someone running at 100% capacity - as in, an actual maximum at, say, 80 hours per week - they’ll never know if the amount of work that should, given current systems, require their attention would actually add up to 120 hours per week. The extra 40 hours of work is impossible to see.

From the ground floor, this often results in issues that are paradoxically so important that they can only be resolved by [X] level of executive, but so unimportant that they won’t possibly make it to that level in the absence of good luck or a media article that catalyzes attention. 

When this problem exists in an organization, people probably don’t - and can’t - know the extent of it. 

Right now I'm doing work on digital-era governance, and there are recurring themes: collaboration, systems thinking, user-centricity. But collaboration takes time - particularly when we're talking about formal, long-term collaboration between organizations or even orders of government - and time is already an incredibly stressed resource, in ways that are very difficult to fix.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Four Thoughts on Public Engagement

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

I was doing some work with a communications and public engagement wing of an organization recently and a couple of things came up that are worth repeating.

First - We've probably reached peak engagement. 
Not everything merits a public engagement campaign and people are tapped out. Sometimes you and your organization should stick to (or return to) simply communicating. If your campaign is aimed at the general public, it aimed at no one in particular. Everyone wants to be inclusive but the reality is more likely that there are a handful of experts from whom you want to hear from and they are already likely known to you.

Second - Don't think that public engagement upstream will be a defence to criticism downstream. 
In all likelihood it's not opportunity to participate in the public engagement process that people wants but rather to influence the actual outcomes from that process. Basically, people don't feel heard unless their views are those actioned.

Third - most organizations have moved beyond just public engagement.
If you agree with what most of the behavioural economics schools are teaching out there right now then you would also agree that there tends to be significant difference between what people say they want and how they act when actually confronted by a particular choice or decision. This is why things like data, design, and ethnography have all risen (returned?) to popularity. These additional inputs can act as a powerful signal (evidence?) checks on the results of pure public engagement.

Fourth - all politics are local and nimbyism reigns supreme. 
This always has and always will influence public policy and public engagement. Its why you shouldn't fight public relations battles you know you can't win (See: Machiavellian Infrastructure Spending) and why I'd rather give advice than have to choose (See: To Govern is to Choose).

Friday, December 2, 2016

On the Practical Experience of Safe Spaces

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

Last week I met Charles Jaimet -- a senior developer at Post Media -- and chatted about the confluence of journalism, civics, and the internet. Prior to our meeting Charles took some time to read the handbook Scheming Virtuously and so we discussed that too. After the conversation I invited him to write up his thoughts so we could share them more broadly. Below are Charles thoughts on the practical experience of safe spaces.

If you'd like to get in touch with Charles, you can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Here are my thoughts on safe spaces in the work place.

You wrote:

"Safe spaces are places where you have latitude to speculate, and where creativity is encouraged."

I believe very much in this approach but my experience has been that employees should embrace safe spaces but with caution.

As an employee, seek out safe people above safe spaces. Anyone can say a space is safe, but I've very often seen comments come back to bite honest employees during job reviews and promotion consideration.

Just because a manager says a space is safe doesn't make it so, and if you can't trust someone outside a safe space, odds are you can't trust them inside one.

Managers can start building trust, which as you said is key to working safe spaces, by taking risks inside the space themselves - confiding in staff, or agreeing with their disapproval of bad processes inside the organization. When everyone is speaking honestly, then no one has as much to fear.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Public Service: The Long Game and the Dark Side

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

I’m optimistic. About the public service, its mission and work, and my role in it.

Teresa Amabile analysed journal entries for months from 238 employees in 7 countries, and determined that the singular difference between a good day and a bad day for a professional is whether or not they made progress on meaningful work. That’s it. Just that they got to do their job, and they felt that it meant something.

We can zoom out and look at Corporate Executive Board’s research on employee engagement. They didn’t get into journal entries, but surveyed 11,000 employees around the world and came to a similar conclusion: the number one driver of employee engagement is the sense of connection between what you’re doing and the organization’s mission.

And if I wanted to really hammer the point home, Gallup did a meta-analysis - an analysis of other analyses - of 1,390,941 employees. Same thing. Connection to mission comes out as the number one driver.

This kind of engagement is emotional. It’s something you feel, day to day.

Which is sometimes hard to reconcile with a mission of long-term stewardship.

In the public service jobs are, by their nature, part of a long-term mission. Political parties come and go and we stick with the ship of state. In Canada our senior civil servants are modelled after “Permanent Secretaries” in the UK, charged with making sure that departments function smoothly through political changes. The values and ethics code includes Stewardship and Respect for Democracy as pillars.

Although you’d be more likely to hear those pillars interpreted in the news as “risk-averse” or “slow-moving.” Thick skins required.

For individual public servants, this grandiose role of stewardship gets broken down, then broken down more, into day-to-day tasks. Sometimes this is exciting and engaging, and sometimes it is decidedly not. But it’s all a part of something bigger. Public service is about the long game.

When I first started in the public service, I admittedly wasn’t incredibly excited about my job, for the most part. I sat in my cube wondering if I could do this for the rest of my life. Eventually, I decided I’d stop worrying about it, and did the most bureaucratic thing possible to do so: I set an appointment in Outlook to worry about it later, on my three-year anniversary of public service employment.

This was a mistake.

As it turns out, the three-year mark is when you’re statistically likely to hit rock bottom for engagement in your career. For your first three years you’re full of enthusiasm, ideas, and idealism. But then you start running into obstacles, limits, and the realization that as a public servant you don’t get to do everything you want, or even all the things you think are in the public interest.

And to be honest, I was wrong a lot. Many of those obstacles are purposeful and useful, and they are, if nothing else, democratically legitimate. But it doesn’t mean it still doesn’t hurt a little when you run into them.

This is the dark side. You can rationally appreciate the long-term calling, but you still want the emotional day-to-day engagement.

So what happens to your level of engagement as time stretches towards the end of your career?

You start getting more responsibility, more control over outcomes, and more involved in the bigger mission of the organization. In fact, executives (in general, not necessarily government) tend to be the most satisfied with their jobs. I’ll stress tend - I have immense concern and sympathy for the all-too-real and prevalent mental health challenges for many over-taxed executives. The satisfaction is not universal, and the distribution is more interesting than the average. 

But for young public servants, that’s ages away. It’s hard to think about where you’ll be, and if you’ll be happy, 20 years from now. I mean, you should be happy now. 35 years of service would put my retirement date at May 5, 2044.


That is hecking terrifying. That is a date that only ever crosses my consciousness in science fiction. Even Star Wars happened before then.

Of course, it all depends on how we look at it.

Here’s some homework. Take out a sheet of paper and write the date ten years ago. November 30, 2006. And start making a list of everything you know how to do now, everything you understand, everything you’re good at, that you weren’t, then. That you’ve learned in the last decade.

It’ll be a long list.

Think about all those things, then start imagining what’s possible in the next ten years. The next 20. The next 30. That’s your horizon. Don’t worry about specifics, now, just the overall potential.

I, for one, am very excited about what is possible over this long horizon. The kinds of projects I’ll be able to contribute to, and the kinds of meaningful progress we’ll be able to make, individually and more importantly, together. I can look at that 2044 date and think “I’m going to get to work on so much amazing stuff by then.”

Listen to this man:

Jen Palhka, founder of Code for America and former White House Deputy CTO, said that to work in government you need to hold two contradictory thoughts in your head at once. “You need to love government, yet want to change it.“

The problem with thinking about change in fiscal years, or even three-year stretches, is that nothing happens. Ever. It’s like the turtle that keeps on getting halfway to the finish line, but never quite reaches it.

Even three years is too short for massive changes unless something breaks. Public servants are here to be stewards, the steady hand on the wheel, but that means the job is to keep things from breaking, not wait for turmoil to ensue when it does.

But the crazy thing is that they actually do happen. New Public Management actually happened. That’s a massive change. And now, of course, we have to un-change it, and that’s a nightmare. But it happened. The public service is capable of significant course changes.

Public servants don't get to scream what they think. But they're close to the fulcrum of the levers of change. When the lever moves, it can have a lot of impact for a lot of people.

Interpret that as both reward and duty.

At many points you will be the ones with the hard decisions. It’ll be up to you to think about stewardship and respect for democracy and to not say no because it’s easier than saying yes.

If you forget how important your job is, it will immediately become unimportant.

If you forget how much is possible, many things immediately become impossible.

If you ever say “it can’t be done”, or “there's no appetite for that,” you'll be right, because you just made it that way.

It’s about the long haul, not the quick wins. That’s the mission to connect to. When you feel like you’re missing that piece on any one day, remember the long game.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Machiavellian Infrastructure Spending

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

I'm a PoliSci guy at my core; a long time ago I wrote about Machiavellian Social Media. More recently I've been thinking about infrastructure spending (long story) and was wondering if we can apply the lessons of Machiavelli's The Prince to the challenge of building public infrastructure.

Basically my core takeaway from the Prince was that if you are going to do harm do it it one fell swoop -- because as Thaler explains in Misbehaving, people feel losses twice as strong as they feel gains (See: Impossible Conversations: Misbehaving by Richard Thaler)-- and to parse out gains slowly as to maximize the (for lack of a better term) public relations benefits over time.

The challenge with infrastructure is that it is next to impossible to be swift with the gains and/or consolidate the negative impacts into a single experience. If fact, big infrastructure projects do the opposite. They stretch the pain out over extended periods of time (e.g. LRT construction in Ottawa) and doll out the benefit at the end (e.g. system actually coming online). Meaning that if Machiavelli was right, there is no way for a government -- of any stripe or operating within any jurisdiction -- to win in the court of public opinion when it comes to infrastructure projects.

I suppose the lesson is, if it is truly a war of attrition, why do we still throw scarce resources at fighting the PR battle in the first place? Wouldn't shifting those resources upstream (e.g. speeding up the development project) be a more effective strategy?

What would Machiavelli do?

Friday, November 18, 2016

Lessons from Free Agency

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

You may or may not be aware that I'm a part of the first cohort of federal public servants in an HR pilot called Free Agents (internal). At its core the program is based on Deloitte's GovCloud model and seeks to treat human resources more akin to cloud computing resources: deployed just in time to solve a particular time bound and well scoped problem. The program just welcomed its second cohort of successful candidates earlier this week and I had the opportunity to chat with them quickly as a part of their on-boarding.

Here's what I had to say

I think the hardest part of being a Free Agent is having an maintaining two separate but equally important work teams. When I first started my Free Agency I told Abe (the program manager) that my biggest concern was "not having time to make 10 new friends". As a result I approached the program (and perhaps the group of people in it) with a fair bit of skepticism. In short, I thin sliced the experience and pre-determined that I wanted very little to do with what I thought was the rhetoric, administrivia and the forced socializing of the program. But over time I realized that I was wrong, the program -- and more importantly the individual people in it -- won me over. Its a strong group of knowledgeable, dedicated and risk taking public servants (i.e. its an HR pilot that could result in job loss) that are interested in digging in, learning more, and leaning into new challenges; and by and large its a group of people I wouldn't have crossed paths with if it weren't for the program.

So -- my advice to you (the next cohort) is this: take time to invest in each other, lean on each other, offer help, and seek advice. The best thing about this group of people is that you've all already demonstrated that at a minimum you share a set of common values: a commitment to public service, innovation, new ways of working, risk tolerance, mobility, flexibility, etc. There's likely a lot more common ground to explore with your Free Agent counterparts than there will be wherever you end up on assignment, don't be afraid to use it.