Friday, January 27, 2017

On Kids, Imagination, and the Civil Service

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

Last week I was tasked with organizing an event at the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC. When I got home I told my (almost) 12 year old daughter about it during our daily "how was everyone's day" family debrief. She immediately thought that planning a party (its not actually a party) sounded like fun and starting throwing creative ideas out there about what the event could look like. We spoke about it for an hour and I encouraged her to continue to run with it. After our conversation she went away with her iPad and wrote up the event description. Kids have this amazing penchant for creativity and openness that many adults lose along the way and it was refreshing to see the world of government through her eyes. I asked her if I could share it her with you today, and am posting her work (lightly edited as her first language is French) with her permission.

Dinner party for Nicholas Charney!

It will be a party for 30 at the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC.

How to get there: 

  • 15 hot air balloons, (2 people per hot air balloon) each one having its own letter so when they will all be up in the sky it will spell: Nicholas Rocks! 
  • Every hot air balloon will have a Starbucks Barista Serving drinks on us!! 😊

The restaurant schedule:

  • Dinner will start at 5:00 PM. 
  • Appetizers arrive at 5:30 PM.
  • Discussion at 6 PM. (When YOU are done eating your appetizer)
  • Main course comes at 6:30 PM.
  • Finish the discussion at 7 PM. (or when everyone is done eating)
  • Discussion at about 7:30 PM
  • Everyone goes to get changed into a onesie at 7:45 PM. (We will provide them)
  • 8:00 PM will be when the party really gets going there will be a DJ playing some throwback hits of the 90s!
  • At 8:30 PM a big unicorn piñata will slowly lower itself to a good height and then you guys can smash it and what's going to be in the unicorn piñata will be a $20 bill for each person that comes and candy of course!

How to get to your hotel: 

  • You will be escorted out of the building and to your hotel by a taxicab but please note you will have to pay for the taxi! But we will pay for one of your nights at the hotel.


  • Onesie: 20$ (if you wish to purchase one)
  • You will have to pay for dinner! (Cause let's get real we have a budget)
  • Your Starbucks barista will give one drink of your choice on us! If you wish for more than one drink you will have to purchase it yourself.

--- Fin --- 
Hot air balloons with Starbucks baristas, 90s classics, onesies, and a piñata? Looks like I've got my work cut out for me. Something this innovative probably needs to go the Deputy...

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Community as competency

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

Here's what happens 10% of the time: "Hey [employee], there's this network/community/working group and I think you should represent our organization."

(And that will often be with the subtext "...because no one else wants to.")

Here's what happens 90% of the time: "Hey [manager], there's this network/community and I'd like to make a case that I should be a part of it."

I think we need to upend that iceberg, as professional and collaborative networks are too central to the success of both individuals and organizations. 

Individuals who understand the by-times complementary or conflicting goals of adjacent organizations help head off problems, manage complexity, and find mutual wins. Even when organizations are all on the same team, relationships reduce the friction of collaboration and moving information.

But as it stands, participation in networks is personality-driven, left up to individuals to identify and pursue. It is seen as a happy accident or a bonus; a feature of the person rather than the position.
Which is too unreliable. Far better to make relationships, network awareness, and collaboration part of people's jobs.*

*To which there are limits and exceptions, of course; post on that side of things coming shortly.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Problem of Administrivia

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

I have often said to my public sector colleagues that We have seen the enemy and it is us

By that I simply mean, more often than not we get in our own way. Someone wants to try something innovative but there's a myriad of reasons why they can't: policies, directives, compliance, because it flies in the face of the way we've always done things. But everyone knows we wrote the rules, we enforce the rules, and we reinforce the culture.

It's easy to say its complicated, and there's a lot of moving pieces 

One could highlight that often whenever someone looks for the flexibility they think they need to try something new they are denied permission to do so. That those who would grant them license see themselves as gatekeepers that enforce existing rules rather than enablers looking to forge new, better -- 21st century -- ones.

And so we continue to ask for permission rather than beg forgiveness

But this surely this is madness. Bureaucrats assembled, huddled in a boardroom somewhere, parsing sentences into the myriad of its different possible meanings. Expending scarce resources through repetitive discussions, constant email traffic, and the endless 'what ifs', 'ands', and 'buts' about what is possible and what is not.

All the while Rome burns

A large part of the "innovation problem" in government is quite simply the degree to which public servants prioritize their organizations' own internal machinations over creating public value for Canadians.

In my old unit we referred to this as administrivia (you may know it as 'feeding the beast') and our rule of thumb was to avoid it whenever possible. We realized that the organization often doesn't understand the true opportunity cost it pays for administrivia.

The work is often low value that is either speculative, over-engineered, for 'back pocket' products, and/or faux deadlined. It produces not only a burden on individual civil servants but can also clog up information channels. In short, it's a tax on productivity, a barrier to innovation, and it undermines civil servants' ability to create public value.

But it's also sexy

It creates a false sense of urgency, importance, and sometimes even achievement. It can give you an immediate goal or deliverable that is achievable in the short term. It creates an incentive system to prioritize tactics (the next deliverable) over the strategy (the long game). Administrivia creates a strong incentive to shorten your shadow of the future, ignore the horizon and focus inward. It's easy to be enthralled, especially if you have trouble connecting your work to more tangible outcomes out there in the wild.

The allure of administrivia is dangerous and I fear that it has supplanted far too much meaningful work across the system. How much time does the average public spend focused on the internal machinations of their own department?

Technology isn't helping

We wrongly prioritize electronic communication, creating confusion and leaving too much room for interpretation. It amplifies the adminstivia tax. Instant communication creates false urgency. Email can reinforce or level hierarchy depending on how it used.. The spirit and tone with which someone writes something writes isn't necessarily the same with which it is read.

If there is anything I've learned about electronic communication, it is that it always creates more ambiguity than face-to-face communications. This is not a new lesson, but those who don't learn it and take it to heart are doomed to repeated it. My advice is pick up the phone, schedule a meeting, look your colleague in the eye and find common ground together.

It's one way to cut the adminstrivia - the other is taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

How things usually go right and occasionally go wrong

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

The idea of failure reports has been in vogue for a few years. Engineers Without Borders is probably the best known organization that does this, and I've heard that example cited in government circles a handful of times as a model for accountability and sharing lessons learned.

What I've heard less of is how you'd write one. The last project post-mortem I was a part of was mostly HIPPO - the Highest Paid Person's Opinion - on what they'd like to see done differently the next year. Asking people to fill out templates on what they'd do differently tends to generate the obvious answers, and it has the same problem I ran into when I tried to write a personal failure report: people don't work in a vacuum, and they often don't actually know why others took the actions they did (to say nothing of organizational politics and interpersonal dynamics acting on the person holding the pen). Even the Auditor General has expressed concern that his office's recommendations to government rarely lead to sustainable improvements

I ran into Etsy's Debriefing Facilitation Guide last year, which sawed through each of those shortcomings in the first few pages.

"Most traditional accident investigations tend to focus on "Someone did not do something they should have, according to someone else." ... "this results in an obvious recommendation for the future: "Next time, do what you should." Unfortunately, this approach does not result in the safer and improved future we want."

They describe the goal state to be "the presence of people's expertise, not simply the absence of accidents," which leads the principle that the goal of the debriefing is "to discover... what [people] actually did, and how they perceived the world at the time."

At which point the document segues into principles and guides for a structured, facilitated exercise. Not simply asking people. A lot of work has to go into creating a comfortable space for discussion, and getting past surface-level answers. There's a reason the "Five Whys" is such a sticky concept in strategy and planning.

All of which takes time, particularly when a project team spans 3-5 levels of the hierarchy - as it inevitably does, though debriefs rarely honour this fact. A working-level debriefing in the absence of the people who provided guidance, direction, and governance will fall short. But, if we're talking about projects that span years, involve an array of stakeholders, or carry big price tags, systematically learning why the organization produces the outcomes it does will outweigh the costs.

"The goal of a debriefing is not to produce recommendations... The goal is to seize the opportunity for an organization to learn as much as they can, in a relatively short period of time, about how people normally perceive and perform their work. Because the people involved were doing their normal work on a normal day when the event in question happened."