On Scaling Innovation

Friday, February 26, 2016

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

Earlier this week I sat on a panel at the Canada School of Public of Service with my good friend (and all around great person) Amanda Clarke (Assistant Professor, Carleton University) and Daniel Watson (Chief Executive Officer, Parks Canada) to help launch the Policy Community Project. At one point in our conversation we started talking about the need to 'volunteer' on corporate initiatives that may not have a direct connection with your work but still creates value for the organization. It was advice that many panelists, including myself, drove home. That said, the use of the word volunteer (actually 'bénévole') seemed to hit a nerve. There was a bit of push back on the idea that 'volunteering' was the answer. For some the idea that one would need to volunteer is symptomatic of the problem. The argument being that the organizational culture shouldn't be one where you have to volunteer in order to get better access to developmental opportunities, get noticed, get engaged, derive more meaning from your work, etc.

At first blush it's a fair point but upon closer reflection not necessarily one I can fully get behind. People who have leaned in further and taken on more have always had (and likely will continue to always have) better access to all of those things. It's hard to argue with someone being rewarded for putting in more time and effort then their counterparts. That's the basis of merit and merit is important. However, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't aspire to improving the natural resting place or cultural norms (e.g. needing to volunteer) wherever they are inert, and to generally being better corporate citizens all around. What I found absolutely fascinating was that as the conversation evolved a common thread started to emerge around the need to institutionalize (scale) small innovative pilots that created alternative opportunity streams to volunteering and weave them more purposefully into the fabric of the organization (e.g. NRCan's Micro-missions). The inclination to scale and regularize this type of innovation seems to make sense but when you take a step back it raises some serious questions. What makes the initiative 'innovative' in the first place? Likely is falls outside the traditional reach or capabilities of the organization and if being outside the auto-immune response of the bureaucracy is the key enabling condition that underpins the innovation then surely bringing it into the organization will kill it. In other words, if it could have been done within the confines of the existing system it would have. What makes it innovative is that it isn't beholden to the same set of rules/conditions/cultures/expectations/etc that everything else is.

I still remember (politely) arguing with David Eaves about the future of GCPedia (this was years ago now). His view was that any influx of cash and/or further integration into the institutional frame would undermine (kill) the innovative aspects of the project. At the time I disagreed but in retrospect I think he might have been right. The time simply wasn't right yet to try to force GCPedia into an institutional frame that wasn't ready to absorb it. A lot has changed since then. GCPedia still exists and while it's not a perfect fit, questions of its utility are largely resolved and it still represents significant and untapped potential. (Caveat: did you know that GCPedia can parse HTML, Java, and CSS, ostensibly making it not only a great place for interdepartmental collaboration but also (almost?) a fully functional web development environment.)

Understandably, there's a lot of interest in "scaling innovation" but the truth of the matter is that knowing what to scale and when to scale it is not something that itself can be done at scale. It takes a whole lot of work to identify and prepare receptor sites to receive innovation, to identify competing processes (and kill them) and to anticipate how the rest of the organization will re-organize around the changes. Furthermore much of what frustrates people working in large organizations is actually those things that already exist at scale and inherent lack the flexibility that comes with them.

In short, one does not simply scale all the things.

An honest question on responsible public service

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

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

It seems as though Ottawa (and maybe only Ottawa) is abuzz with trying to interpret and incorporate the new government's direction into their advice, approaches, and presentations. Interpreting, even, how much influence a particular book and author will have on our organizations: the fact that a few core members of the Prime Minister's staff were all reading How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don't Go Crazy was well-known and made the rounds. In our recent review of that book I wrote that one bureaucrat's environmental awareness could be another's reading tea leaves. I think this is worth unpacking and talking about.

Consider mandate letters. The government made Ministerial mandate letters - that is, direction from the Prime Minister to Ministers regarding their portfolios - public for the first time after last year's election.

Of course public servants should read these and be proactive about their role in turning these letters into reality.

But maybe, we should also be wary about mobilizing expensive public resources on the basis of bullet points for which we're not the intended audience. There are opportunity costs of other actions and tasks not done.

Of course public servants should be aware of the political environment, the agenda of the elected government, and how it's being communicated. And of course this should influence their work.

But maybe, it's overkill to have the full slate of public servants interpreting the political zeitgeist and changing their approach to public service and their advice to senior executives. I think it's equally reasonable to say that it's exactly the role of public service executives to contextualize direction - and insight into priorities - to guide work.

Of course public servants should be cultivating good working relationships with Ministers and Ministers' offices, indicating a willingness to work together and to dutifully implement the priorities of the government of the day.

But maybe, we still need to remember that "fearless advice" doesn't disappear during "loyal implementation," and that our best advice is still essential for our machinery of government. If we're implementing a decision that includes downsides, those downsides should be made clear so they can be minimized or mitigated. If the public service advice on an issue changed on October 19, one version simply wasn't the best advice possible. It's not our job to provide the "best advice desired" or "best advice approveable." It's "best advice."

I am emphatically not saying that the government shouldn't pivot when circumstances change, or that it should dig in its heels until hand-held towards action. But the actions and resources of government are not free, and we have to be responsible in their application. Nor am I saying that people are currently acting inappropriately - I'm just thinking about where we'd put the professional rumble strips in case we ever veer a little too far.

Mandate letters are new. Social media and the level of working-level access to Ministers, their staff, and their ideas is (relatively) new. We shouldn't pretend that 100% of the people receiving this deluge of potential insight about government direction will have the 100% correction interpretation and reaction, 100% of the time. 

There's an easy escape hatch to this dilemma and series of tradeoffs, but it has to happen throughout organizations:

Talk about things. Ask questions. Test assumptions.

So... can we talk about this?

"Of course... but maybe" is shamelessly robbed from Louis CK, and this isn't even the first time I've done it.

The "Yes, and ..." Rule

Friday, February 19, 2016
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Ever hear of the "Yes, and ..." Rule?

Basically its a rule-of-thumb in improv that suggests participants should accept what other participants are saying ("yes") and then elaborate on their line of thinking ("and"). This does a couple of things: encourages acceptance, initiates collaboration, and pushes the discussion forward.

Its a rule that -- if applied more liberally within the public sector -- could help shift the culture. It's likely not one that could be universally applied (we can't be all things to all people) but one that could be more systematically deployed in certain scenarios (e.g. ideation phases whenever the 'no-machine' is often deployed in an anticipatory fashion).

Something to think about?

Yes of course, and ....

What has changed?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Yesterday morning was pretty mild, but there was a storm watch in effect and a couple colleagues had emailed to say they were working from home. They were the people I’d have meetings with at work, so I set up a videoconference with screen-sharing for later that morning and stayed home too.

That’s not rocket science. Skype came out in 2003, and the Government of Canada has had WebEx accounts since before I joined in 2009. But in 2009 I wouldn’t have had email on my mobile to coordinate the meeting, wouldn’t have had access to documents at home, and I might not have been a contender for a WebEx account. Plus, as recently as last year I had a manager who generally just preferred to have everyone make to the office if they could.

It’s a relatively minor thing. The worst case scenario would have been a teleconference, or a delayed start so that people could get to the office. But it’s something that is simply different, culturally and technologically. Looking back, it’s something that has noticeably changed about my public service day-to-day.

Change isn’t quick

Way back on April 13, 2013, I wrote my first post on CPSRenewal.ca, titled What You’re Giving Now? You Can Never Give less. The idea was that today is your baseline for how much you’re contributing to your work, and your contribution is just going to keep getting more important. But you’ll be up for it.

At that time, I had just gone through an exercise of jotting down everything I had learned in the last five years and was surprised at how lengthy the list was. Really surprised. Our experience, knowledge, and competence build almost imperceptibly day over day, like children age, and it’s only when it’s brought to our attention do we realize how much has changed. It’s the same for the public service. For example, we collectively just did this exercise for the history of online communities in the Government of Canada (hat tip to Ryan Androsoff).

CPSRenewal.ca is about, well, public service renewal. How things keep changing. Sometimes, people talk about change or even make structural changes - and culture eats it for breakfast. Other times, without any particular guidance, things slowly shift and settle into a new equilibrium. Typically on this blog, I dissect those things that I think are changing too slowly. But if we started to list the changes, I think we'd surprise ourselves at how long the list would be.

What has changed?

My original plan was to pose the question purely rhetorically, but I'll add a more tangible option as well. I’ll invite you to add anonymous or attributed anecdotes in this What Has Changed doc, and I’d also welcome stories in the comments.

Ten Enabling Conditions for Innovation Labs

Friday, February 12, 2016

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

We've written a lot about innovation and innovation labs in the past (See: The Future of Innovation Labs: Accelerating Social Movements of Convening Solutions Ecosystems,Innovation Strategies: Centralized and Dedicated or Distributed and Open, On Prioritizing Policy Innovation: Wicked or Tame Problems?Why Governments Would Never Deploy Adobe's Kickbox and Why Maybe They Should, etc.) but now having worked inside one for the last month I can say with a degree of certainty that the biggest differentiating factor between a lab environment and a traditional government office (at least in my experience) is the underlying ethos of hope and experimentation. Both of which have been sadly absent from most of the places I've worked previously.

Now, that's not to say I haven't worked with good people (I have) or done good work (I have) but even in environments where I've been able to do good work with good people I haven't felt the same sense of hope or willingness to experiment that I have in my current role. Maybe I've drunk the kool-aid but the energy is nothing short of contagious

Surely there are a number of factors that help enable this kind of environment, and I doubt all labs are the same. That said, I'll try to name a few of the enabling conditions that I've observed thus far (in no particular order):

  1. People who are curiously optimistic, outcome focused and willing to fail in the pursuit of creating new public value streams
  2. Leadership that is willing (mindset) and able (skillset) to act as first line of defence against the "no-machine"
  3. Senior Management that is accessible, audibly champions experimentation, and puts their weight behind it through their actions
  4. Just enough hierarchy to get things through the system but not so much as to weigh any person or project down
  5. Direct ownership over projects / files (and all that comes with it)
  6. No duplication of work
  7. Trust as proxy for formal checks and balances
  8. Rigorous time management and firm commitment to deadlines
  9. Open and honest communication among team members
  10. Flexible working arrangements for everyone at all levels
I'm sure there's more, but that's as good a place as any to start.

Impossible Conversations: How to Run a Government

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The latest in our book review series is How to Run a Government so that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don't Go Crazy, by Michael Barber. The book covers Barber's experiences working with governments around the world to create "delivery units," teams responsible for mobilizing the civil service into delivering on a handful of top priorities - and the range of strategies and tactics Barber has tried to make that approach effective. Here are our joint reviews and reflections:

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

As with any author there’s noticeable cherry-picking and rose-coloured glasses. However, I must say that I really enjoyed Barber’s book and I find the idea of refocusing government culture around delivery refreshing. That said, the reason that I think the book is a must-read isn’t necessarily about its contents but rather its context. Barber recently briefed cabinet and all of Ottawa is abuzz with talk of deliverology (see: here, here, here, and here). If you want to understand the shift in culture/mindset that may be about to make its way through the bureaucracy you need only look to the table on page 154 of the book which describes the difference between ‘Government by spasm’ and ‘Government by routine’. If you are a public servant, you’d probably do well to pick yourself up a copy. 

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it’s genuinely useful. As much as we might like to, most of us public servants don’t spend our days up in the theory clouds; we have deliverables, deadlines, and performance expectations. Once in a blue moon, we might have a few days to grapple with and devise solutions for a complicated issue that wasn’t even on the radar a few weeks before. Barber’s book is practical in that way: it deals with the nitty gritty of policy and program delivery, and provides simple, road-tested conceptual tools that can help you think through those tough situations. I’ve already found myself referring to his approach in meetings and referring to some of his charts while writing up some documents - the same can’t be said of, say, the Evgeny Morozov book, much as I appreciated it. 

Another reason I enjoyed the book is that it serves as an effective wake-up call for the public service to get its own house in order. Barber humorously describes the silly things us bureaucrats do all the time, from the point of view of a politician or staffer - think of our attachment to the status quo, our tendency to claim that something can’t be done, our proclivity to engage in ridiculous turf wars, our stalling tactics, etc. If we agree that these kinds of behaviours are pervasive and counter-productive, we won’t be able to rely on ‘deliverology’ to save us, given that there wouldn’t be delivery units for most of the things the government does. So if the Government of Canada as a whole is going to become the kind of modern, high-performing, data-literate organization that Barber is envisioning, then bureaucrats will have to deal with some of our own purely internal performance issues in a more ambitious fashion (all within the framework of our delegated authorities, yada yada yada). Better diagnosing the nature of the silliness, and the possible solutions the bureaucracy could reasonably implement on an internal basis, is a topic for another day.

There’s also a lot I didn’t like about this book. My main irritant is that Barber is a poor social scientist. He usually conforms to a ‘logic model’ vision of government, where, for any given policy problem (e.g., low literacy rates) you just need to find the one right lever to pull (i.e., forcing teachers to teach one new literacy class a week in elementary school). Um.. hold on a minute.  For most policy issues, there’s a lot more going on under the hood - I dunno, maybe persistent social exclusion driven by economic inequality, systemic discrimination, or uncontrollable economic forces over which governments have little to no control? (Pick your poison.) So yes, I was somewhat disturbed by Barber’s tendency to make sweeping statements about complicated situations, without much in the way of caveats. So you might want to listen to Barber to decide on how to ‘run a government’, but take his opinions on what the actual policy responses should be with a massive grain of salt. (Don’t get even me started on his frequent claims that ‘the markets vs. governments debate is over’ - the guy’s a pro-market social liberal with light redistributive tendencies. Which is fine; just don’t try to make a drive-by ‘end of history’ argument which passes that off as being the only viable political/policy approach out there.)

Argh, there’s a ton of other things that annoyed me about this book, but I want to keep this review ‘lengthy’, as opposed to ‘unreasonably lengthy’, so I will leave it at that - I won’t even address Barber’s constant humble-bragging and lack of critical self-reflection, or the unsatisfactory way in which Barber discussed the risks of over-relying on metrics (I’ll leave Prez to do the explaining, from way back in 2004). Another topic I would have liked to explore is that ultimately, Barber really only addresses a small sliver of what policy implementation actually involves (a lot of the times it seems to comes down to tracking bureaucrats in order to scare them into coming up with new solutions, but he doesn’t often tell you what the actual solutions were), but I’m a slow writer, and a man has to have evening hobbies that go beyond reviewing books.   

    John Kenney

I liked the book and agree with Nick that Barber’s focus on delivery is refreshing. Here are a few things on my mind in relation to how it might be applied, particularly at the federal level:

One of the things that makes the “science of delivery” different than, say, federal public administration via the Management, Resources and Results Structure (MRRS) and the Management Accountability Framework, is that deliverology focuses government on strategy and priorities. The point is not to “deliverology” everything. In theory at least, it requires a government to make deliberate choices, understand where it’s going and how it’ll know if it’s making progress getting there, and if not, learning and adapting as needed. It’s hardcore when it comes to assessing whether or not the government has the capacity to deliver on what it sets out to do. While some of that may sound like the good intentions of the MRRS or “integrated planning”, deliverology takes it to a new, concentrated level with political engagement and leadership.

Deliverology strikes me as a convergent practice. It picks up at a point where a government has identified its priorities and what it intends to do to achieve them. In the context of complex public problems (aka “wicked problems”), new and emerging policy approaches are attempting to embed divergent and integrative thinking, user research and experimentation into the policy design process in advance of converging on solutions. If well-executed, deliverology could expose the (non)effectiveness of intended policy solutions earlier in the policy cycle and open up opportunities for creative problem-solving and experimentation. I like how it builds in (some) stakeholder engagement, rigourous (enough) performance measurement and monitoring, learning and iteration to rapidly improve and address delivery problems as they arise. It’s an action-oriented and continuous learning approach. Arguably, governments need more of that assuming they’re open to learning, acknowledging when things aren’t going well and adapting their approach to hit the mark. 

I’m intrigued by the application of deliverology at the federal level. The UK and Ontario are oft-cited examples of deliverology in action, and in both cases, they are arguably closer to where the rubber hits the road as far as delivering policy interventions directly to citizens go. I’m writing generally here and it will depend on the policy priorities and strategies in question. The government and implicated jurisdictions are open to challenge conventional assumptions of how stakeholder arrangements may work to deliver the public goods, at least in theory (possibly in practice?).

Deliverology is not a magic bullet. Barber doesn’t present it as one so let’s not get cult-ish about it. There’s a lot of good stuff to learn and apply, but note that the same federal government that appears eager to apply its principles and practices has also been clear on the need to create the time and space for (super)forecasting, designing citizen-centred digital services, and experimenting with new policy instruments and approaches, including behavioural and data-driven insights, and engaging Canadians via crowdsourcing and open data initiatives. It remains to be seen how consistent and compatible those approaches are with deliverology, which, as Barber writes, “...is still in its infancy”. He concludes the book with three rules on the future of delivery:

  • Big data and transparency are coming (prepare to make the most of them);
  • Successful markets and effective government go together (avoid the false dichotomy); and,
  • Public and social entrepreneurship will become increasingly important to delivering outcomes (encourage it).

Deliverology is not a linear approach although it can sometimes come across as one. While Barber’s focus is intentionally on delivery here, there’s a continuous learning loop built into it that, if executed effectively, could yield insights that inform ongoing and future policy design and delivery approaches.

I’ve added “in theory”, “if executed effectively” and “assuming that…” in a number of places above. I agree with Francis that Barber oversimplifies things a lot to demonstrate the lessons (or “rules”) for government. I like many of them in principle (there I go again), but if and how deliverology is applied to influence complex systems and human behaviours both within the public service and beyond may depend on its openness to adapt where necessary to the policy contexts and needs of numerous implicated users and stakeholders at different times and scales.

Kent AitkenRSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Er… well done, gentlemen. I’m getting to this joint review late, and Nick, Francis, and John have covered a lot of ground in spectacular fashion. I only have a handful of points to add.

One is to re-emphasize Nick’s angle, which is that part of the reason this book was so interesting was the possibility that it’s about to influence public administration in Canada - possibly in tangible, day-to-day ways for some public servants. That said, during the discussion I also cautioned that one bureaucrat's environmental scanning or forecasting may be another bureaucrat's tea-leaf-reading. I’m trying to resist reading too far into things until deliverology rears its head for real.  

The second is to sum up what the core of the book, and the idea of deliverology, was for me: it’s government knowing what it wants to do, and knowing for sure that those things are getting done. Which sounds pretty reasonable. Barber highlights in the book that holding administrators to account for results isn’t about a blame game, it’s actually about helping and clearing obstacles for initiatives that are challenging to implement. (Which, I suspect, is an ideal that some past “implementers” may not have felt at the time.)

Which leads into a related third point: I’m curious as to how bureaucratic writing and deliverology will mesh. Government officials can tend towards non-specific language like “commit to,” “enhance,” “support,” “enable,” and “facilitate” in their planning and reporting - which I don’t think would cut it to a delivery unit: “Okay, but what did you really do?”

Lastly, which contrasts a little with the above reviews: as a public servant, I spend my time in the weeds of public administration. I think about the details, the working level, and the implementation. Barber’s ideas are those of someone who has to take the 10,000 foot-high view, working with heads of state or their close circles. So where Francis and John (rightly) express concern with how these ideas work in complex, day-to-day realities, the book gave me some perspective on what delivery might look like to a country’s senior officials - who are forced to look for the best ways to condense their information intake while making things happen.