Public Service: The Long Game and the Dark Side

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

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.

Machiavellian Infrastructure Spending

Friday, November 25, 2016
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?

Lessons from Free Agency

Friday, November 18, 2016

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.

A starting point for becoming a digital public servant

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

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

I wrote this up for a colleague recently, and thought it might be interesting for others joining the fray. This one's written for a public servant audience, and if you found this via Twitter, you might be good to just straight-up skip it. I recognize that this isn't the first such blog post in the ecosystem, and this is truly a starting point.

First off: why?

  • Wanting to better understand the digital environment because it’s a big part of the lives of the public we serve
  • Modern government is rooted in collaboration and sharing information between government and citizens and it’s about walking the walk
  • Some good news: it actually just is incredibly valuable and rewarding. It’s a path to increased understanding and empathy, a passive mental rolodex of experts and potential collaborators, and a way to continuously scan the environment for news, challenges, opportunities, and risks
  • And as a bonus, if you create relationships with the people in your field and community, you’ll hear about interesting developments before anyone else

What: Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Apps, blogs, and GCconnex/GCpedia


About 40% of Canadian internet users have a Twitter account. Many national conversations and news stories get nuanced, corrected, and defined over Twitter. There’s also an active government, politics, and public administration community on Twitter.

Twitter how-tos (how @mentions work, quoting, retweeting, etc.) are easily Googleable, so I’ll focus on Twitter for gov. 

At minimum, have an account with a fake name and an egg avatar (the default) and check Twitter daily, both for what the people you follow are saying but also relevant hashtags: #cdnpoli, #opengov, #goc, #leadersgc. But I’d tend to advocate for an account with a real photo and bio, even if you don’t tweet (or don’t tweet much, or don’t tweet much yet).

Tone and content has to be up to you. It has to be natural, and it’s obvious when it isn’t. That said, the easiest starting point is tweeting articles/links of interest - ideally with short reflections or comments. But there should be some personality in the mix. You tweet good content for a while and eventually your followers get a sense of what you’re interested in and start sending you things or starting conversations. Promoting one’s work, or GC work, should be a distinct minority: the community interest posts create social licence for a bit of promotion. A bit.

A note on branding. Most conventional wisdom about “what works” on Twitter is written by social media and marketing consultants that are aiming for followers and traffic. There are myriad tips and tricks for increasing “engagement.” I.e., getting retweets and clicks: images and video work well. Etc. But we’re not selling anything, and our work is interesting and important on its own - to certain people. Should you choose to share things publicly, your work, your content, and your personality will be your brand.

Lastly, we're moving out of the "public sector" sphere of discussions and more public servants are engaging with the people in their fields, and a lot of value will lie in connecting to the community outside the GC.


A rare few communities do well (Digital Government in Canada being one), and very occasionally you might start good conversations here. But, it’s an online CV. LinkedIn has great SEO (search engine optimization) so it’s always at the top of Google searches for your name (and people will search for you). People have gotten used to checking people’s LinkedIn profiles to get a quick sense of where people work and what they do, and it's a way for people to follow-up when they don’t have a more personal option. You don’t need to care about LinkedIn or check it often, but maintain an account with your photo, contact information, and the highlights of what you’re working on. (Alternatives for this purpose include and personal websites.)

Google Apps

I mostly mean Google Docs by this, but you’ll occasionally run into the need to trade files through Drive and spreadsheets through Sheets. When working on non-sensitive work with external partners, get used to working in Google Docs. It’s the standard simply because it’s very well designed – it just works. Important features:
  • Sharing and permissions
  • History
  • Comments
  • Formatting and accessibility

Google Hangouts

It’s basically Skype - videoconferencing over the internet - but it can handle up to 10 people and can be streamed live over Youtube. We’ve done Google Hangouts with public officials to promote consultations - the panelists videoconference in, and an audience views it on Youtube. In the GC we can (and generally should) use WebEx for videoconferences but we have this option for sharing virtual presentations and panels to a wider audience.


This is is really personal; it’s not for everyone. But, I’d highly recommend writing blog-length articles about topics of interest. If you have something to write about, there are many options for where it sits:, Canadian Government Executive Magazine, Canadian Public Service Renewal, Policy Options, a personal blog, or GCconnex. Blogging is great for A) thinking through issues, but perhaps more so B) to start conversations and give people reasons to reach out to you. It’s also a publicly available (and Googleable) record of your interests and expertise.


For those in the GC, you should really get at least the generalities of these tools by now. Some communities essentially don’t exist on the GC2.0 tools, and some communities have incredibly active people all the time. It can be an outreach tool: you can post updates and calls-to-action in relevant groups then again on The Wire, which is an internal Twitter-like service. GCconnex just passed 100,000 members and is opening up to academics and FPT partners. GC2.0 is part of the culture of collaboration in the GC on which Open Government is building (really: the people who “get” Open Gov now are the people that “got” GC2.0 six years ago). Most execs don’t have time for GC2.0 (with some notable exceptions), but I encourage you to bear in mind that these are now far from fringe platforms and should still be among our many working-level channels to reach people. They just take a little time to situate oneself in.

Risks and pitfalls

Trolling: this means people replying or posting with deliberately asinine comments intended to rile people up and get them to say dumb things. The universal wisdom is “don’t engage with trolls,” but watch out for falsely writing people off as trolls, too - we learn a lot from our critics even if their delivery is rough.

Malware: be cautious of links from people you don’t know. Almost everything on Twitter is fine, but if you get LinkedIn messages, emails, or Direct Messages that feel “off,” they very well might be. You can expand shortened links (e.g., “”) through to check them.

Values and Ethics: of course. Our V&E regime hasn’t quite adapted to the digital age yet, so I advocate erring on the side of caution (my presence is likely over the traditional "line"). Reflect the government well and avoid politics. That said, don’t cheerlead either. Admitting the challenges that governments face (saying “governments” rather than the GC is useful) can reflects the GC well because it demonstrates concern, thoughtfulness, and empathy.

Some would still say that public servants shouldn't have a digital presence such that it could be associated with their specific role in government (the principle of anonymity), and they may be right. But it's happening, let's admit it, and do it well when we do. You may well choose not to go the digital presence route, and there are solid arguments supporting that stance.

Passwords and info security: no information security professional behaves online like most people do, because they know more. Don’t reuse passwords, don’t use obvious passwords, don’t include any info in profiles that appears in password recovery (e.g., DOB) and enable two-factor authentication. Google good infosec practices. This paragraph shouldn’t scare you; signing up for digital networks is really quite fine, but due diligence is worth it.

Other platforms in the ecosystem

You may, at some point, be called upon to join one of the following platforms to work with external partners. The good news is that they’re getting increasingly intuitive, and the more you play with any platform the easier you’ll pick up the next - you'll start to learn common interface patterns. Avoid “Can you email me that document? I’m not on Slack.” You’d be registered and working on the document in the same amount of time it’d take for them to respond.

Ones you might be asked to use

Slack: Slack is the current standard for collaborative project and team management. It’s a conduit for chats, discussions, file-sharing, etc. If you get invited to a “Slack channel” it means a private space set up for a particular group of people to work together on something. Intuitive and slick.

Facebook: can be really powerful for government outreach. If you’re on Facebook personally, spend some time with your privacy settings.

Basecamp: another project management / team collaboration tool: discussions, groups, file-sharing.

Trello: a group to-do list on steroids: a map of activities, a way to pass tasks back and forth, and an easy way to get to links. 

Dropbox: tool for sharing large files.

Ones you should just know exist

Github: Github is a collaborative coding community. Businesses can use private instances to manage their proprietary code, but it’s more interesting for us from the point of view of open source software. Some GC projects post their software code there, and many people who build sites, programs, or apps post their code here, to be re-used or improved by anyone else.

Sourceforge: similar to above.

Stack Overflow: a public discussion board where community members help each other solve problems and discuss projects. It started off as being about about software and coding, but has collated around themes.

Reddit: an immensely popular discussion board on basically every topic ever, including many that just shouldn’t exist. However, more and more public officials are hosting time-bound discussions on Reddit (Q&A sessions called “Ask Me Anything” or AMAs) and Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Canada just hosted part of their Innovation Agenda consultation there. It’s a go-to-where-the-community-is approach and a way to get traction. Should be at least a consideration for future Open Gov engagement.

Yammer: enterprise instant messaging; on the decline, it seems.

Instagram: immensely popular social photo-sharing.

Snapchat: preposterously popular photo and message sharing app, particularly among young people. It’s a texting app that’s optimized for quick photo-taking and -sharing, with rules that people like (videos and photos auto-delete being the major one).

Flickr: photo-sharing tool. Works for, say, Parks Canada. Less so for departments like Treasury Board Secretariat.

Slideshare: presentation-sharing tool.

Jive and Sharepoint: enterprise collaboration software. These are the GCconnex idea as created by major software firms.

Impossible Conversations: Misbehaving

Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Our October book was Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard Thaler, covering the history of the Behavioural Economics field and what it has meant to our understanding of economics in general. Thaler presents it as somewhat of a personal chronological narrative; he was early into behavioural economics scene and is intimately familiar with how it came to be, which included no shortage of tension with mainstream economics. Oversimplifying a bit, but where traditional economic models assumed rational, profit- or utility-maximizing individuals, behavioural economics injects a healthy dose of human psychology and imperfection. The field explores all the ways that human behaviour deviates from economic expectations, and why.

Practically, it’s useful for businesses and governments trying to set up incentives for customers and citizens and design interactions. Sales play into our psychology, and we react to them irrationally: we tend to think that we’re “gaining” the difference in price rather than spending. Or governments can set up attractive funding models for retirement savings that people will ignore, because it doesn’t fit with their mental model of how they make and spend money.

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein became well-known for their 2008 book, Nudge, which focused on the psychology of interaction design. That is, making it easier for people to make a particular decision without changing the underlying policy or program, though some argue that this bleeds into paternalism or manipulation. Regardless, “nudging” talk has made its way into government as a way to maximize the effects of policies - a lever on a lever.

Our discussion ranged from a dissection of the field of economics writ large, opportunities to do more of this in government, whether economists are biased in making policy for non-economists (yes), to existing “accidental” nudges in government (experiments or insights that preceded nudging but would be called it today).

Some of our highlights:

Mathieu Mazur-Goulet

Overall, an enjoyable and memorable read. The book reads as a journey through the (very recent) history of behavioural economics, told by one of its earliest practitioners. I found that the narrative device used -- that of relaying the origins and key understandings of behavioural economics through the author’s personal memories -- an enjoyable way to enliven what could otherwise be a very dry read. 

Having read Sunstein’s Simpler and Dubner and Levitt’s Freakonomics, many of the concepts covered in the book were already familiar to me (e.g.  the role of incentives and fast vs slow thinking), but there were many concepts new to me that I found intriguing. First is the concept of “mental buckets”, which proposes that humans tend to separate money into discrete categories of spending, rather than treat all money as fungible. This leads to illogical behaviour such as taking out a short-term high-interest loan to cover a temporary shortfall rather than take the money out of low-interest personal savings -- a net loss -- in order not to deplete money earmarked for “savings”. Second is the idea that people discount future benefits in favour of benefits today. The further off into the horizon the benefit is, the less it is valued, which goes a long way to explaining why Canadians today aren’t saving enough for retirement. Third is the idea that losses are valued at twice the rate of gains: we would rather get a sure $20 rather than even odds at winning $200 or losing $100. 

While it is not novel to claim that humans are not perfectly rational or logical in their thinking and behaviour, the key takeaway from this book is that humans are irrational in systematic ways. The implication for policy design is that policy can be designed in such a way as account for these very human shortcomings in a way that ultimately benefits recipients. One recent example is the recent expansion of the CPP: a small, bearable cost for workers today will lead to a more secure retirement in the future. 

The ideas in the book, and of behavioural economics in general, are compelling and impossible to ignore -- once exposed to them, it is very hard to believe that we once thought of human beings as, in economics parlance, “rational utility maximisers”. 

Nick CharneyRSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

The book is a lot of anecdote mixed with popular behavioral economic lessons; it can be boiled down to this: people feel loses twice and much as they feel gains. In other words, Machiavelli’s The Prince was early and on point. 

If you've already read any of the literature in this field, you can safely take a pass on this book. 

On Leveling the Status Quo-Innovation Playing Field

Friday, November 11, 2016
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I sat in and spoke with a class of Carleton University students earlier this week (c/o Amanda Clarke) and was asked, among other things, "What's the biggest barrier to innovation in the public service right now?".

My answer was fairly simple - the uneven playing field civil servants face whenever they decide to pursue innovation rather than the status quo. While I've argued previously that the transaction costs of innovation are far higher than that of the status quo (See: The Problem of Asymmetric Scrutiny) it only dawned on me in the classroom that there is likely more than one way to level the playing field.

We tend to focus on 'enabling' innovation

In my experience whenever we talk about innovation we tend to focus on how to 'grease the wheels' or 'reduce friction' in the system to allow innovation to move through it (from ideation to implementation at scale) more easily. This often leads to the creation of new knowledge products, the design and delivery of workshops, changes to governance, etc. In short the focus is on making innovation easier, rather than on making the status quo harder. But, what if we started to focus our attention there instead?

Should we consider 'confining and restricting' the status quo?

At first blush this sounds akin to the further bureaucratization of the civil service -- and perhaps it is -- but only insofar as it would mean layering over the same amount of institutional inertia that slows down innovation in the system on the rest of the system. At this point you may think that is impossible (that we can't possibly get any more bureaucratic -- that we've already reached Peak Bureaucracy), and you may be right.

To be honest, it's difficult for me to articulate how to effectively 'confine and restrict' the status quo within the context of the civil service. It could mean things such as increasing the administrative burden on current operations, imposing higher evidential requirements on current programs, and/or reducing the resources allocated to maintain those policies and programs.

Again, most civil servants would balk at the idea (and perhaps even me personally) for suggesting the further bureaucratization of the bureaucracy but what I am driving at (I think) is that making the pursuit of the status quo as difficult as the pursuit of innovation by increasing the transaction costs of that pursuit would mean that innovation in the civil service would know longer be a herculean task, that the levels of effort required to pursue either path would be commensurate.

Now, whether or not an even playing field would allow civil servants to shed the path dependencies of the current normative culture (e.g. risk aversion) is another question altogether.