Friday, March 31, 2017

Digital Governance Theatre

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

A couple of weeks ago an old friend and colleague Richard Smith (Simon Fraser University) reached out and shared an email newsletter written by Venkatesh Rao (@vgr on Twitter) entitled "Software Adoption is Bullshit". The article -- which is chunked out into numbered tweetable tweets and well worth reading -- argues that we are living in an era of digital governance theatre rather than transformation. Here's the relevant snippets:

I have spent a good deal of time in the last decade involved one way or another in enterprise software: helping to build it, helping to sell it, helping to buy it, writing about it, reading about it. The world of enterprise software runs on the doctrinal antithesis to the idea that software is eating the world: the world is adopting software. Specifically through existing organizations adopting it via a controlled, deliberate, strategic process. There is an entire cottage industry -- and I have participated in it more than I like to admit -- devoted to "strategic" thinking about how to "adopt" software and turn it into "competitive advantage" and "digitally transform" the business model. And loudly celebrating supposed "success stories."

This entire cottage industry, I concluded a few years ago, is unadulterated bullshit.

There are only three ways for an organization to relate to software: you're buying it like you buy potatoes, a pure commodity, while being loudly theatrical about it, or you're getting eaten by it, or you've made the only meaningful strategic decision: to jump to the disruptive "eating" side on a particular contest...

29/ ... we've seen 20 years of bullshit "adoption theater" talk on "e-governance" that was really "digital governance potatoes."

30/ Though some of the sustaining innovations on the e-governance S-curve have been massive and huge (NSA surveillance,, things like India's Aadhar card), they have still been potatoes.

31/ In other words, they are not about strategy or about "digital transformation." They are about doing the same old governance things, the same ways, except with "paperware" in software form.

32/ There have been the same sorts of poster-child "e-governance" stories: wiki constitution efforts in Iceland, e-citizenship in Estonia. Interesting and worth learning from, but fundamentally, theater.

33/ Those are cases of governance adopting potato software rather than software eating governance. We are only just beginning to see what the latter might end up looking like.

34/ So what lessons can you draw from this story? They matter whether or not you're involved in enterprise software. The big lesson is this: don't mistake buying potatoes for software eating you or you doing the eating.

35/ When software eats something, what comes out the other end is deeply, fundamentally transformed...

51/ So why do people indulge in the theater instead of doing the real thing? It's a classic disruption reason: the incumbents don't have any reason to take risks while they have their core markets locked up.

52/ During this period, technology has no strategic value. At best it has marketing value with customers and morale-building value with employees. Neither is strategic or decisive.

53/ You can show-off "innovation" poster children to customers (campaign donors in this case study). "Look at all our cool analytics charts and social media engagement metrics."

54/ For employees (campaign staff), there is an opportunity for live-action roleplaying (LARPing) disruption instead of actually taking the existential risks of disrupting. LARPing disruption is fun.

55/ Don't get me wrong: lots of money can get spent (of dubious value, hence the sub-cottage industry of bullshit "ROI" estimates) and engineers can work hard on hard technology problems.

56/ But without the element of ideological risk -- dropping certain sacred values, adopting previously profane values -- and risking existing value for uncertain lower returns, you're just pretending.

Is he right?

How many of us have spent time building up the importance of digital, helping sell it, helping to implement it, writing about it, reading about it. How many of us are among the cottage industry devoted to 'strategic thinking' about how to 'adopt' digital technology and 'digitally transform' government's business model? How many of us loudly celebrate supposed 'success stories'?

And yet how much of what we have been able to collectively accomplish goes beyond the potato buying paradigm articulated above, how much of it is just LARPing?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The future of citizen engagement is vinyl

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

For the last little while I've been expressing wariness about online citizen engagement, and I'd like to explain that.

Of course a lot of citizen engagement will be online. And it can be incredibly effective. The distinction between online and offline is culturally and practically fading. I've defended the idea that online platforms are no worse than in-person ones; just different, suited for different interactions. The term "online" may have a cultural shelf life itself.

So why am I wary?

Let's shift gears a little and talk about digital audio. When CDs came out, they completely sidelined vinyls and cassettes in a decade. Vinyl basically ceased to exist. Yet today we've seen seven years of double-digit growth in vinyl sales and they're now a $1B market, representing 15-18% of physical music revenues.

It's because we over-adjusted to the digital audio option. It was seen as the future, and we wanted to future-proof our collections. We wanted to virtue signal the idea that we were modern and technologically savvy. But over time, those psychological bonuses to the economic decision of audio formats subsided, and we returned to a level playing field between vinyl and digital. We could decide in a less biased way between the two options. At which point we rediscovered the virtues of vinyl - the quality, the packaging, the art, the ritual - for some situations.

Which doesn't change that digital audio is the absolute standard, and for good reason.

Back to online citizen engagement. It's seen as nearly free. It's seen as easy. But most of all it's seen as inclusive. That is, because engagement is online it's seen as fair. It's seen as plausibly reaching the entire intended audience.

More simply: online engagement gets used as a get-out-of-jail-free card for thinking through your goals, engagement design, and audience. It's seen as the future, ergo it's good.

It is sometimes. It it not always.

There are many reasons, but let's look at three:

Digital tends to be shallow. As Robin Gregory put it:
"When hundreds or thousands of stakeholders are asked to (a) speak before a panel for ten to fifteen minutes, (b) submit short written statements to a government body, or (c) participate as representatives of identified interests, then the invitation contains an implicit request to be either superficial or one-dimensional."
This effect is exacerbated by our current culture towards online engagement. The idea that public policy issues are complex is repeated daily, but we ask people for bullet points. Yet! It's possible to do small, deliberative working groups that get into the complexities and nuances of an issue. They may report analyses or pros and cons to a larger interested audience, who may vote or be surveyed in a lightweight way. This can all be done online. But people to tend to assume online always means open, public, easy, and everyone.

Digital lets us think we can skip design and facilitation. When you're doing in-person engagement, the level of design is incredibly involved. Session designers or participant experience designers (that's a thing - do you have one for your online engagement?) think through to the individual personalities in the room. They adjust the timing of parts down to 5-minute increments. They pull from a library of techniques for group discussion. And they actively facilitate. We're only flirting with that level of sophistication online; this is where low-fidelity MP3s started getting replaced by high quality-digital audio but we're not quite there yet. It's a little bit about the technology, but far more about how we use it.

The digital divide is real. Canada's well-connected to the internet, but if you look at the top quartile for age, or the bottom quartile for income, those reassuring 90%+ numbers drop to more like 60%. Many people have to choose between home broadband and mobile and opt for the flexibility of mobile, but there are three activities with massive transaction completion drop-off rates on mobile: banking, looking for jobs, and interacting with government. To say nothing of skills, attitudes, and cultures.

All that to say: digital citizen engagement is going to be amazing for public policy-making and for the relationship between citizens and their governments. I really believe that. And digital will be the standard. But it'll only get amazing when we learn to love the record scratch of in-person engagement, realize the shortcomings of online and therefore get better at it, and choose deliberately between the right options for the right situations.

Friday, March 17, 2017

On People, Public Policy, and Technology

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

My Venn diagram of interests has always put me at the confluence of people, public policy, and technology. Here's some of my latest thinking on all three.

On People

How we experience citizenship is changing. The modern state system -- and its corresponding economies -- are increasingly fluid and unreliable. That said, the trend seems to be towards greater diversification:

The trend towards diversification is ostensibly the macro level application of the 'long tail' argument advanced by Chris Anderson in the mid 2000s. This diversification can be positive, negative, or both, depending on your world view (See Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur and/or Clay Shirky's talk on Institutions vs Collaboration). Regardless, the impact of this diversification on our system of government are being felt in numerous ways:

The one notable exception seems to be urbanization, which is concentrating and therefore amplifying all of the above by ensuring that the issues manifest concurrently, in close proximity, and in high volume. The trend towards diversification is problematic for democratic systems (and their major actors) who have traditionally tried to broker compromises in the public interest wherever there are trade-offs.

However views on what is and isn't in the public interest is equally diversified and thus divisive. In other words there is a tension here that isn't necessarily new but is definitely cutting closer to the bone. This is likely part and parcel of the current interest and instinct towards electoral reform, an understanding that the system isn't well suited to represent niche (long tail) interests. An electoral system that doesn't reflect the broader diversification happening elsewhere in society is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile with the broader zeitgeist and experience of citizens in all other facets of their lives.

The bottom line, the trend towards diversification is rubbing up against our centralized systems of government and ideas of governance because diversity provokes thought.

On Public Policy

By now we're all familiar with the narratives around the loss of the public service's traditional monopoly over information and the rise of new policy actors / intermediaries. Yes, how we inform, form, and deliver public policy is changing, (as are the policy domains' relative importance to one another), but in reality its probably not as complicated as everyone has been making it out to be.

Sure, information is more broadly accessible and the skill to turn that information into insight or influence is more widespread, however the net result is simple: more actors, armed with more data and information, advancing more arguments. This is in part due to the availability of information and skill but it is also amplified considerably by the increased impetus on things like public engagement and open government. In order to be both engaging and open one must be willing to sift through the cacophony of inputs and competing views and evidence. Truth be told we like to talk circles around this point in government but essentially what we are dealing with her is an increase in competing narratives or what is often referred to as multiple truths. Practically speaking this can lead a number of different things: better awareness of complexity and consequences, multiple viable options, paralysis by analysis, additional public scrutiny, faux outrage, etc. As an aside, we often conflate innovation and technology which puts policy makers on a path that given greater influence to the high tech-elite and privileges the application of technological solutions to problems even when those problems are not necessarily technical in nature but rather are rooted in our complex social and economic systems.

With respect to policy formulation, the co-creation of policy options and delivery options has been widely discussed as a goal -- sometimes with Utopian undertones, e.g. government as platform -- but when you strip it down to its core, co-creation is also about as close to government capture as government can possibly stand. At a minimum, citizens actively shaping a particular policy intervention, and contributing to its development, design, and fulfillment, then ultimately privileging from it as a user, ought to raise concerns. Interestingly many of the instruments and approaches that are currently en vogue in the policy innovation and experimentation ecosystem are built around closing the gap between government and it citizens but -- if my recent experience in program implementation is reflective of the larger ecosystem -- little of the innovation from the design phase (inform/form) actually survives delivery.

Delivery, is a beast unto itself. I've remarked before that it's a blind spot in Canada (See: Is Innovation in Service Delivery a Blind Spot in Canada), that innovation faces asymmetric scrutiny (See: Asymmetric Scrutiny, Superforecasting, and Public Policy), and that we can't rely on old delivery mechanisms to deliver innovative solutions (See: Innovation: Design Process of Street Fight?). Quite simply, standard operating procedures and new are anathema. Moreover, the innovation narrative at the centre is far too disconnected from the implementation reality at the periphery. There's not enough connectivity, there's not enough translation, and there's not a good enough understanding of the practical implications of innovation rhetoric at the coal face of implementation. Finally, we often reduce 'innovation' to 'digital', which leaves a whole lot of potential innovations in delivery out of sight out of mind (See: On Organizing Principles: Service or Delivery).

The bottom line, there's plenty of room for improving policy making (and service delivery) but a lack of consensus on what constitutes improvement.

On Technology

I've always had an interest in technology. I used to call local bulletin board systems with a 300 bps modem. improvements to technology over my life time so far have been incredible. Today technology is absolutely pervasive. Everything is connected. Omni-present sensors have created an internet of things. Data is big. Privacy is dead. And we live in filter bubbles that create echo-chambers than justify our world view and amplify our outrage (and self-righteousness).

Technology was supposed to solve many of our problems but in so doing its created a whole swath of new ones. I often joke that its essentially the wild west out there, but there is a kernel of truth to it as well. There's a lot of people out there who purport to have all the right answers when it comes to technology and technologies of the future. In general, I try not to trust anyone who comes with an answer when they ought to ask a question instead.

The bottom line, I'd rather be a thoughtful critic of technology rather than a blind booster of it.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Public Service Anonymity? Get wrecked

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

Last week Kent wrote a longish piece on the evolution of public service anonymity (See: Public Service Anonymity is Dead, Long Live Public Service Anonymity), he concludes:

For those who currently have a public presence, and get benefit from it: don’t lose sight of the fact that this is not an unambiguous win for government writ large. There are risks both short and long term. The public service is built out of the collective expertise and experience of public servants - but also their relationships and biases. For better and worse.

Public service anonymity is dead, and perhaps always was. If so, it’s extra dead now.

We may be able to maintain the value - in particular, the ability of the public service to provide fearless advice - but there’s work involved. It will require a hard look at the public service contract and culture, and a legitimate effort to create and embed a new set of principles for public service that honour the professional, non-partisan role while being realistic about an unavoidably public public service. The good news is that there’s a lot of potential for better governance, if this is done well.

Anonymity is of the issues he and I (and many others) have been discussing for some time now. The (doomsday) scenario I often bring up in those conversations is one whereby I can use existing sentiment and network analysis tools, apply to them to a public servants' online presence, cross reference it with their Government Electronic Directory Service (GEDS) entry, identify their policy domain, infer their political opinions and effectively make a case that they are in some way, shape or form, partisan. Couple that with whatever could be attained via Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) provisions and you could pretty much wreak havoc on any public servant out there. Especially given that the litmus test for conflicts of interest in the public service is perceived rather than proven conflict. Couple all of that with a decimated news industry that chases click-based add revenues and there is a very real possibility that someone out there is going to completely eviscerated, most likely without cause.

Indeed as Kent points out, we are firmly in the territory of an unavoidable public public service, however, given the trend line in our conversations about as lofty as "governance" I'm not sure I agree that there's much good news to be had.

When the stakes are high enough, someone somewhere is going to -- in the language of the internet -- get wrecked.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Public service anonymity is dead, long live public service anonymity

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

Very long read. Here's a print-friendly version. - Kent

Here’s my starting point:

  1. Public service anonymity is dying, and was probably always more dead than you’d think
  2. This will come with both upsides and downsides, and probably more of the latter than you’d think
  3. We should probably take steps to fill the current policy and culture vacuum

I find the concept of public service anonymity fascinating. That is, the convention that public servants work behind the scenes and should publicly receive neither blame nor praise for their work. It’s tied to the idea of Ministerial responsibility, for which we’ll turn to the Library of Parliament:

The essence of the theory of ministerial responsibility can be simply stated: ministers are responsible for the conduct of their departments. Reality, as C.E.S. Franks comments, "is much more complex and less satisfying than the theory."

Shielded from the publicity and politics of publicly accounting for outcomes, public servants can therefore provide honest and impartial advice to their Ministers, over a long career,  with the public’s trust to do so. They are "formally accountable internally - and only internally - to the ministers they serve." More on this later.

Public servants are clearly not anonymous in the general sense of the word. What we might call “public service Twitter” may not be obvious to those outside that bubble, but there’s an active community of public servants talking about government daily. But there are other trends:

  • Public servants’ emails, analyses, organizational charts, and and job descriptions are all subject to Access to Information laws
  • Anyone can look up who sits where in any government organization through the Government Electronic Directory Services
  • Public servants deliver speeches and presentations to public audiences

Examples like that are a part of, but not a full accounting for, the pressures against the anonymity convention. Within the concept, we can start making sub-divisions. Talking publicly about research, or trends within a field, is different from talking about one’s job and work. Talking about policy options pre-Cabinet is different from talking about implementation. And the general use of the term anonymity (the public not knowing who you are) is different from the meaning here: being held to account for policy advice and successes or failures: that is, answerability. Likewise, where a mistake is made in the bureaucracy, the Minister accounts for it, is responsible, but is understood not to be personally at fault. The end result is that public servants are theoretically kept out of the limelight.

There is, as you might imagine, a lot of gray area.

This post is going to be a fairly lengthy exploration of the concept, and I’m intending it as a conversation starter. I’d love feedback, challenges, or conversations. If it’s an interesting discussion but you’re not comfortable discussing it publicly, please feel free to re-post behind government firewalls and discuss there... while remembering, of course, that it’s still subject to Access to Information laws.

Origin stories

Where did this all come from, and why are we talking about public service anonymity anyway? You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a meme, and only exists because public administration academics, journalists, and public servants keep talking about it. The concept doesn’t appear in, for instance, the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector.

We could skip to more recent history, but evidently such a piece wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Northcote-Trevelyan.

In 1853 the British Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone (roughly equivalent to a combined Minister of Finance and President of the Treasury Board) commissioned a report on how the civil service should work. The resulting Northcote-Trevelyan report led to the creation of Her Majesty’s Civil Service, and set out many of the principles on which the UK (and therefore Canadian, though somewhat later) civil service operates: professional, non-partisan, and merit-based.

However, the flipside of merit is the reduction in patronage and politically-driven appointments, which meant a separation from political circles. Eventually this became a convention that made its way to Canada as well, cemented in 1918 through the Civil Service Act.

The convention got an in-depth treatment in 1995/1996 by the Task Force on Public Service Values and Ethics established by the Clerk of the Privy Council, in the form of  a report called A Strong Foundation.

That report refers to “discretion, anonymity, impartiality, and loyalty” as public service values, but also notes the fuzzy origins: “Rightly or wrongly, many public servants appear to believe that public service had always been based on an implicit bargain.” Donald Savoie characterizes this bargain as, essentially, less pay at senior-most levels and no public praise in exchange for a steady, anonymous career.

I’ll truncate and summarize the Strong Foundation points quickly, but they’re somewhat required reading for this topic. They pegged this as an emerging trend over two decades ago:

“Many public servants assume, rightly or wrongly, that the principles governing the relationships between themselves, ministers and Parliament are shifting, but they do not yet understand what the new principles are to be… [including] that the concepts of ministerial responsibility and public servant anonymity are under threat and lightly treated, and that this is undermining the foundations of public service…

[W]e do not see any reason, at this point, why it could not or should not evolve in ways that are largely consistent with the vital or essential principles of the past.”

As a side note, this is not quite a universal take, and some observers think the shift is more recent. In 2009 The Globe and Mail wrote “Few Canadians have heard of Kevin Lynch, which is as it should be with a member of Canada’s permanent public service.” Dennis Grube studied public speeches made by Clerks of the Privy Council - Lynch’s former position - as a new phenomenon in a 2013 paper.

Have the principles shifted? Let’s set aside Ministerial accountability and look at just anonymity. In 2013 Destination 2020, the most recent report on public sector renewal, called for “An open and networked environment that engages citizens and partners for the public good.” In 2015 a piece written by the former Clerk of the Privy Council included that “Canada needs policy-makers who are more networked, open and collaborative: our policy community needs to be set to ”open” by default.”

The devil, as always, is in the details; open doesn’t necessarily mean always, or two-way, or from every individual employee, or to the public. But I think it’s fair to suggest that the signposts are pointing in a particular direction.

I do not think, however, that the understanding and conventions on conduct, values, ethics, or culture have evolved in lockstep. This is territory for which there’s no map.

Government in 2017: from anonymous to open, networked, and anxious

We could ask whether the environment is changing - open government, digital media, collaboration, etc. - but I’d like to back up even a bit further and return to an opening line: public service anonymity was probably always more dead than you’d think.

It’s easy to point at Twitter and say that “anonymity is dying,” but it’s really hard to distinguish between genuinely new trends and trends that are merely new to the observer.

Public servants on Twitter is a novel behaviour, of course, because Twitter didn’t exist until 2006. However, it’s hard to say what the state of “collaboration with professional communities, stakeholders, and partners” would be in the absence of a given platform or tool. It’s likely that at least a portion of the weight we’re assigning this trend is because the digital age has revealed to us attitudes and behaviours that were, in part, always there. For example:

  • Public servants presented to external audiences before Twitter
  • Grube notes that public servants are increasingly called to Parliamentary committee hearings
  • The memoirs of Former Clerk of the Privy Council Gordon Robertson make it clear that people knew the senior public service community in the 1940s and 1950s
  • We could consider the “street-level bureaucrats” that Michael Lipsky studied in his 1980 book: front-line service delivery officials with a lot of leeway and little oversight in their interactions with citizens
  • Non-executives are named in media stories born from requests through the thirty-year-old Access to Information law

Anonymity was never a perfect arrangement, but the limits - and the behaviours that resulted - were more hidden from observers. Anonymity was always a more fragile and conflicted convention than we might admit, but I think it’s inarguable that the scope and and speed of the shift is increasing.

Anonymity, meet reality

Here’s a disjointed set of cases to consider.

First, the decline of anonymity is tied to larger shifts in governance practices. Starting in 2005, academics started painting a portrait of the shift from New Public Management (NPM) to Digital-Era Governance, which was as much built on the lessons learned from decades of NPM as it was from new digital possibilities. Some of the themes start to demand collaboration and interaction with actors outside government, beyond what’s possible through procurement, the political layer, or the creation of arm’s-length agencies:

  • Delivery-level joined-up governance
  • Client-based or needs-based reorganization
  • Co-production of services, especially in behavioural public policy (‘nudge’) fields
  • Citizens testimonials as substitutes for central regulation
  • Open book government and citizen surveillance as substitutes for central audit
  • Development of ‘social web’ processes within online government, and field services

Next: I’ve heard that social media is a thing. Almost two thirds of Canadians not only have accounts but log in at least once a month. While there’s a wide range of approaches to social media - attributed versus anonymous, professional versus personal, consuming versus contributing - it’s common to have a profile that is uniquely identifiable that references one’s professional position. LinkedIn is a good marker because it’s almost invariably both attributable and professional. I can find stats saying that 12% and 20% of Canadians use it - which includes public servants listing their roles, duties, and accomplishments.

Which is particularly important for knowledge workers, and as per the Government of Canada, “changes are occurring in the Public Service workforce with a shift towards more knowledge workers.” Having a digital presence is increasingly not only a benefit but an imperative for professional advancement. At its starkest, government simply couldn’t recruit new digital communications talent if those people couldn’t have a digital presence and portfolio, as that would mean nearly ruling out private sector and not-for-profit work later in careers.

Likewise, government digital teams are a noticeable outlier for both their level of public presence and their propensity to push against what used to be limits for how public servants talk about their work. The culture may be a smidge outside government norms:

[Department of Defence digital lead Chris] Lynch was originally recruited to the USDS by [US CTO Todd] Park. “I swear to God, I had no fucking clue who Todd Park was,” Lynch recalls. “Then I got this email from the White House. So then I looked and I was like, Oh shit, Todd is the CTO of the country!”

Basically, partially because of the “tour of duty” approach to bringing people into government as a sojourn from longer private sector careers, and partially because of the need for top talent, the rules were bent for digital. For example: The White House Gives Up on Making Coders Dress Like Adults.

The UK digital team started their blog in 2010 and started attributing posts to team members in 2011. (It took us until 2016 to get there.)  Notably, the common maxims of those digital teams, expressed through those blogs, are often essentially a (small-p) policy shift. Particularly in the case of calls to use open source software where possible.

The digital talent example also hints at the reality governments will face creating a “porous” public service with regular movement between public and private sectors, which is an increasingly common goal. The top talent in a field will have a public record of statements, presentations,  blogs, and social media expressing their views from their time outside the public sector. An interesting characteristic of the internet is that content has two audiences: the current, intended audience and an infinitely large hypothetical, unpredictable, future audience.

For career public servants, the Government of Canada’s 2013 Policy on Acceptable Network and Device Use was explicit about what employees could do publicly, including:

  • Participate in a video or audio conference with colleagues or clients from other organizations or jurisdictions through tools such as Skype or Google Hangouts;
  • Develop and share code repositories in collaboration with departments, other jurisdictions and private sector organizations via code sharing tools such as GitHub;
  • Maintain an up-to-date profile on professional networking sites such as LinkedIn;
  • Read, contribute to, or edit articles in work-related wikis, online forums or discussion groups;
  • Discuss professional issues or participate in professional associations via online forums or social networking sites

Leadership and policy is changing too. In the Government of Canada, a handful of high-priority government-wide initiatives (Blueprint 2020 most notably) have directly solicited comments about public servants’ work - and done so in public spheres. The community-led #LeadersGC tweet chats, while unofficial, get as close to an official blessing as possible through the participation of senior executives. In these cases and others, public servants get rewarded (or their wrists go un-slapped) for what could be seen as breaches of the anonymity convention far more often than they get training or reminders about what it means to be a professional in the public service.

Meanwhile, public service executives have been regularly named in media stories about the Phoenix pay system, and people have been putting public pressure on whether or not they receive performance bonuses. This goes beyond anonymity and well into answerability and accountability.

Why should we care?

Taking stock: the principle of anonymity exists precisely because it has value for public sector governance in Canada. But it never worked perfectly, and the pressures weighing on that convention are increasing. Which means what, exactly? As per Grube, again:

“I argue that the reason these changes matter is because the traditional anonymity of civil servants is linked in important ways to the impartiality of the civil service. To dispense with the former is to endanger the latter in ways that re-shape the core role of civil service leaders in a Westminster system.”

Then, quoting Peter Aucoin:

“The anonymity of public servants, as invisible to parliament or the public, disappeared some time ago…[M]inisters, sometimes explicitly, usually implicitly, expect those public servants who are seen and heard in countless public forums to support government policy, that is, to go beyond mere description and explanation…[W]hen the public value of what the government is doing is disputed, they expect public servants to rise to the challenge. To the degree that ministers can expect public servants to do so without instruction, the culture is infested with the norm of promiscuous partisanship.”

There’s a range of ways public servants can talk about government. Lindquist and Rasmussen put the ends of the spectrum as “neutral competence” and “political instrument.” Alternatively, consider these differences, taking public sector science as an example:

  • “There were X number of fish in the Fraser River in 2012 and Y number in 2013.”
  • “There were X number of fish in the Fraser River in 2012 and Y number in 2013, and the impacts will be Q.”
  • “There were X number of fish in the Fraser River in 2012 and Y number in 2013, and to correct this trend government could do Z.”
  • “There were X number of fish in the Fraser River in 2012 and Y number in 2013, and government should do Z.”

Subtle but important.

Yet, Grube writes that the core of it isn’t even “promiscuous partisanship,” but just the possibility of “perceptions of partisanship,” which he says only anonymity can solve. Any public explanation of programs or policies, however factual, may sound like support. Which is also true for social media: a public servant amplifying official government channels or spreading the word about events (I hesitate to use the word “promoting”) is likely going to be conflated with supporting that material. And on the flip side, public servants are very limited by the Values and Ethics Code in publicly addressing challenges in implementation, or expressing empathy towards affected stakeholders.

Grube concludes that “If governments are moving towards expecting civil servants to play a more public role, then some reconsideration of what we expect of administrative leaders is required. Westminster tradition needs to catch up with the new realities of practice and evolve some conventions that allow civil servants to fulfill their public roles without being targeted with allegations of partisanship.”

I’d suggest that the “more public role” exacerbates the issue, but barely matters. Government has to reconsider anonymity and the public service’s ability to provide fearless advice regardless. Cabinet documents are still held in confidence, but it’s not hard to piece together the advice to government from the ecosystem of inputs, and people outside government now know far more about what’s happening inside government: Access to Information requests have increased by 3,000% since the law was passed: from 2,229 in 1984-85 to 68,193 per year in 2014-15. Requests are currently increasing at roughly 13% per year.

I’d also suggest that governments don’t have to wonder whether they “[expect] civil servants to play a more public role.” I’ll invoke the argument from inevitability: whether it’s public servants being officially sent out to events as representatives or simply the combined portrait of their public activities, public service anonymity is good and dead. To resuscitate it, the entire contract for public service professionalism would have to be rewritten for the modern age, and very principled lines around public statements drawn and enforced. Which would have to be for both personal or professional contexts; the line between the two is disappearing.

And, while this may sound unlikely - particularly coming from me - I think that should be on the table.

But as it stands we’re in a bit of a policy vacuum, and it’s easy to imagine downsides:

  • Actors in the ecosystem could put pressure on one another to “not put that in writing” and hamper fearless advice
  • Public servants could paint themselves into corners through politically benign public statements that get viewed as partisan by observers
  • The impartiality of the public service could come into question (more than it already is) if advice is seen to change between political transitions
  • Public servants could asymmetrically build both relationships with, or understandings of, different stakeholder communities (e.g., what if the Director of a policy shop has a relationship with Google but not Facebook? What if they gain insight into stakeholders’ needs but they’re only connected to an unrepresentative sample of stakeholders?)

And let’s be honest, the word “could” is doing a lot of work in those bullets. For instance, research from South America has shown that transparency initiatives do indeed make officials more reluctant to share information.

So anonymity is dead, it’s going to cause some issues for the public service’s ability to provide advice to Ministers, and we should probably re-professionalize the public service in a new context and put some serious legwork into policies, principles, cultures, and training: to protect both the public service as an institution from perceptions of partisanship, and to protect public servants from pressure against fearless advice.

No individual will ruin the standing of the public service as a politically neutral, professional institution. But it could happen as death by a thousand cuts, a slow culture and perception shift driven by thousands of actors exploring an increasingly public world - and with many more citizens and journalists noticing that exploration. Which also means that it’s a tragedy in the commons situation, and no one actor has a reason to change behaviour. Particularly when a digital presence can help people’s careers. And the public service, as an organization, rarely drives people’s training and education; it’s mostly driven by individual employees, which makes it hard to reinforce messaging on values and ethics repeatedly throughout careers.

The good news

So you weren’t planning to renovate your kitchen, but some pipes froze and you have to rip out the counters anyway. Might as build it the way you want it this time. As for the public service contract, we should at least consider if there are changes we want to make, and I’ll suggest some possible benefits.

One, if the nature of accountability is changing, we could reconsider the relationship between accountability, responsibility, authority, and expertise. Right now we hold Ministers accountable for the minutia and complexity of vast portfolios, including things for which they cannot be reasonably expected to have control or expertise. Likewise, we make public servants with subject matter expertise responsible for activities over which they have no authority. (And somehow measure their performance on that.)

I cannot stress enough how important this concept is: that we hold Ministers accountable for the minutia and complexity of vast portfolios. Consider:

The anonymity convention was born (roughly, subject to debate) in 1854.

Skipping ahead almost a century, in 1937 the entire Ottawa contingent of the External Affairs department (now Global Affairs Canada) was eleven officers. In 1939 there were only six missions abroad. Now it’s 5,890 employees.

Similarly, the federal public service was 46,000 people in 1939. Today it’s more like 260,000 people.

And compared to the mail-based eleven-person External Affairs of 1937, modern governments have several orders of magnitude more contact points with stakeholders and citizens. We recognize the complexity of issues and the need for collaboration: both of which require significant time investments and on-the-ground, user-centric knowledge. We designed public institutions around a long-standing belief that public policy issues were far simpler than they are, and for policy shops, meaningful connections to stakeholder communities are a vital source of insight, understanding, and reality about how policy decisions affect people. And they’re likely to be two-way connections. It seems reasonable to at least consider where individual accountability might meet the original reasons for anonymity halfway. As the head of the UK Government Digital Service, Mike Bracken, put it:

[The Permanent Secretary at the Department of Business] says that the best way to get impartial advice is to ask an impartial adviser, if there is such a thing. These days, sadly, those impartial advisers don’t know enough. Advice must come from the doers – the people at the coal face that understand the shortcomings of their services and who are brimming with ideas for how to make them better.

This, in my view, is the response to what I’d consider the best argument for maintaining anonymity and bolstering the primacy of the Minister as the person responsible for a department. To suggest a bigger role for the public service could easily be conceit, where Ministers are the democratically legitimate representatives and, of course, should be speaking for the portfolio and setting policy direction. I agree, but I also humbly submit that to consider that principle in an absolute form in 2017 is somewhere between nuts and impossible.

Two, there are benefits that will flow from the move towards open governance and citizen engagement that are simply in conflict with the ideas of anonymity. Governments have been consulting extensively online and in-person. So for starters, we can throw anonymity straight out the window when a public servant is representing government by sitting in a room with stakeholders; they’re going to associate that person with the eventual policy decision by default. As well, the value proposition for participants is in knowing that they’re giving their input to someone who can do something about it. There’s no engagement without a degree of authority, and no reason for trust without a degree of accountability.

Third, governments have long relied on their authority in communications, perhaps at the expense of credibility; telling, not showing. The exact phrase “The government is committed to” gets 1,200,000 results in Google. The idea is that if it came from government, people should trust it. Yet what we’re seeing is a decades-long decline in trust in government, and Canada was an outlier in the 2017 Edelman trust barometer: a -10 percentage point drop from 2016. This is also a tragedy in the commons: governments should be more forthcoming, credible, and honest in their communications and comments to media, but no individual should. One misstep that hurts the government outweighs a hundred moments where an honest interaction with a journalist would add quality and context to a story. As Deloitte’s Bill Eggers puts it:

“Bureaucracies tend to punish failure, which is memorable, and reward mediocrity, which doesn't produce a metric you can pin to a file.”

The current construct also means that governments can’t actually ever use social media for anything than a broadcast channel. People interact with and have relationships with people, not governments. (See: Why Government Social Media Isn’t Social.)

Yet. As per Edelman: the most trusted source of information was the employees of governments and firms - on multiple topics.

It’s not like there won’t be downsides to pushing more authority to officials to interact with citizens and stakeholders. Too far, to some extent, that way madness lies. But the question should be on the table - largely because it's already happening, but without guidance.

So where does that leave us?

For those who currently have a public presence, and get benefit from it: don’t lose sight of the fact that this is not an unambiguous win for government writ large. There are risks both short and long term. The public service is built out of the collective expertise and experience of public servants - but also their relationships and biases. For better and worse.

Public service anonymity is dead, and perhaps always was. If so, it’s extra dead now.

We may be able to maintain the value - in particular, the ability of the public service to provide fearless advice - but there’s work involved. It will require a hard look at the public service contract and culture, and a legitimate effort to create and embed a new set of principles for public service that honour the professional, non-partisan role while being realistic about an unavoidably public public service. The good news is that there’s a lot of potential for better governance, if this is done well.

I dislike analyses that end with  “Governments have to think about X” rather than providing concrete recommendations. In this case, however, the issue is too fundamental to our democratic institutions. This cannot be meaningfully explored without elected officials, and so if pursued, it - anonymity, but within the larger question of accountability - would have to be a question for a commission, task force, or a Parliamentary Committee. My recommendation for this piece is that it should be. In the meantime, organizations' heads are responsible for making sure that their employees have an appropriate understanding of public service values.