Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Hope is not a strategy

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

There seem to be two themes in any discussion on public sector reform. One is that our systems and structures are broken and need repair - perhaps referring to procurement, policy development, accountability, and so on - and the other is that people's culture and choices need to change. The strongest versions of this take the form of “government needs to take more risks” or “people need to just do [X].”

With apologies, as I’m about to disagree with people whom I greatly respect, but I see little utility in calling for courage as a way to improve our public sector.

Here’s an analogy. If you run a website and people consistently, repeatedly click the wrong page when they’re looking for something in particular, the response is to interview visitors, generate hypotheses, and test alternatives. The history of the internet is full of examples where the people running a business guessed wrong at what would work best for people. It happens. But the real mistake it to react to how people are using your site with “But all users have to do is click there, then there, and they’d find it.”

Sure, they can. But a predictable proportion of them don’t. And we have - or should have - the data to prove it. It’s the responsibility of the website owner to design for what people actually do, just like it’s the responsibility of leaders to design for outcomes.

In the private sector, these metrics - drop-off rates on transactions due to misconceptions, or misleading language or navigation - can be converted directly into revenue gained or lost. In the public sector, the carrots and sticks are blurrier, but should be taken just as seriously.

What people actually do is the David to all of the good intention Goliaths of policy.

We hear things like “Procurement isn’t broken, people can write contracts for agile development now.” But do they? If not, or if less than they should, then procurement is as good as broken. Maybe the procurement policy is fine. But the procurement system is broken. The answer might lie in any combination of training, communications, management, oversight, or making the policy more explicit towards the desired outcomes. The theoretical possibility of desired outcomes is no consolation if they’re not being achieved.

To be fair to those who call for courage and risk-taking: in most cases, they’re speaking to audiences asking to be inspired, less so to those people pulling the levers of the machinery of government. Encouraging people to do their jobs well is perfectly warranted in those forums. And as individuals we should always be asking more of ourselves, working towards outcomes in whatever system we work within.

But that's not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Because many people have their hands on those levers. A manager’s policy interpretation will trump their staff’s courage in an instant. (Courage needs to win every day; authority often needs to win only once.) So it’s a message that’s as dangerous as inspiring, were we to let it seep in: that all we need to improve government is for people to suddenly start behaving differently. It sounds nice, but it’s too unreliable for organizations responsible for stewardship of the public good.

Understand people. Get the data. Design for outcomes. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Bootstrapping culture in government

by James McKinney RSS / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / James McKinneytwitter / James McKinney

When I started to work in government last year, I discovered that little was documented in a clear, accessible, or easy-to-discover way. This was especially common when it came to tasks that are done once (like getting a key card) or that have no business value (like accessing bike cages). The main way of sharing knowledge was word of mouth—or ‘lore’. Alternatively, instead of gaining knowledge to do something yourself, you asked others to do it for you (like asking the IT help desk). The government-wide onboarding information was about compliance (accessibility, safety, etc.), and the ministry-specific onboarding information was about roles and responsibilities. Nothing explained how to actually do anything.

So I started documenting everything.

Although everyone agrees that documentation is important, that belief—even strongly held—doesn’t translate into a culture of documentation. You need to be surrounded by a culture for its customs to become natural to you. My reason for documenting everything I encountered wasn’t a completionist obsession; it was a deliberate strategy to create that surround. For example: If you spend your first day at a new job working through a well-written onboarding guide, you come to expect that future tasks will be well documented. With that expectation, when you encounter a new task, your instinct will be to look for documentation, rather than find an expert to pass on the oral history of installing printers. If you see a large catalog of how-to guides on your team’s wiki, you intuit that the team has a practice of documentation. With that understanding, when you encounter a task that’s undocumented, you may consider documenting it yourself. In ways like this, members of a team can incorporate the value and custom of documentation.

People often quip that culture change in government is hard. Many efforts to change culture focus on policies and trainings and speeches and measures of performance. But those are the tools of maintaining and enforcing a culture. They are overt, hard, foreground gestures. To change beliefs, expectations, values, approaches, you need more covert, soft, broad interventions. You need to change the background to change the culture.

Changing the foreground (the policies and procedures) without changing the background (the beliefs and values) produces a culture where people know the words but not the music: a culture in which people self-censor and otherwise change their overt behaviour—in order to conform—without changing their beliefs or valuation of their work and colleagues. Silent, dutiful compliance is short of vocal, enthusiastic support.

The important opportunity here is that it doesn’t take everyone to change the background. You can bootstrap it. A small team, working full-time, can produce enough documentation to normalize it as a practice.

My earlier work on open data provides an example of bootstrapping a norm (of which cultures are made). In 2014, no municipality in Canada was publishing its elected officials’ contact information in a standardized machine-readable format. Over two years, I solicited 18 municipalities with open data initiatives to adopt a standard for this dataset, out of about 60 such municipalities. Today, municipalities starting open data initiatives adopt the standard independently. The standard has become part of the background. When a municipality looks at neighbours’ open data catalogs for inspiration, they see this dataset and the standard it uses. The question of whether to adopt is not even asked. In this case, it took one person’s work to establish one norm that is self-sustaining.

If you’re on a team that wants to change a culture in government, explore ways to make the practices and values that you want to instill across the the public service (like ‘putting users first’ if you work in digital) part of the background—the surround, the default, the assumption, the first example that comes to mind. Much of that relates to better documenting, communicating and supporting existing cases that exemplify those values. If you need to constantly win the same arguments until everyone who disagrees leaves or retires, you aren’t changing culture; you’re just outlasting.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Innovation Discourse Disconnect

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

I couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of irony walking through the annual Innovation Fair a few weeks ago on the way to a kickoff meeting for a new initiative I'm working on.

I’ll spare you the detail but my observation is that there is a fundamental disconnect between the public face of public sector innovation -- which manifests in events such as the well-attended, high energy, social media friendly innovation fair – and the quiet and difficult backroom discussions about policies, exemptions, expected results, and (of course) accountability.

Now, the following comes with all the usual caveats. There’s a lot at play. No one has all the answers. I'm not naming names. And it's always easy to be an armchair innovator and call out the problems.

But all that aside, there are a number of things that seem self-evident and far too often I’ve seen our own Canadian politeness get in the way of calling a spade a spade and unlocking the value that can bring to the table. So let's be honest about a few things (excuse my stream of consciousness):

Policies exist for a reason – they set the frame and baseline.

There’s a whole accountability infrastructure in place to ensure those policies are followed.

This is a good thing, accountability is important. But so too are achieving outcomes in the public interest. There's an equation we've yet to define about complex relationship between accountability and outcomes that we've all got views on and they differ greatly. This is playing out all over our organizations at all times.

One can never mount an argument against accountability. Which is to say that no one is against accountability. One can however, be against risk -- the foil of accountability. Everyone is against risk.

This makes accountability culture the dominant in government, it sets normative behaviour and creates incentives.

Innovation by its very nature seems to fall outside of standard operating procedures. It provokes the accountability infrastructure and those whose job it is to enforce it.

This creates conflict. This conflict is about things that are open to a degree of interpretation (rules, norms, etc) but plays out inter-personally among people.

The balance of power in this equation is always tipped in the favour of those enforcing accountability by virtue of policy (and history) being on their side. This means they set the bar, and theirs is the language for negotiation. Even when we speak about taking 'smart risks' we do so in the language of accountability (otherwise we'd simply take action).

This means that the burden of proof always falls to those who propose something new. They have to martial evidence and present a compelling case and even then the result is typically time limited agreement (e.g. a ‘pilot’) on condition of additional oversight and compliance measures.

During these negotiations (which is often theatre), we spend a lot of time hypothesizing about what the 'powers that be' actually want or need to feel comfortable about with the 'inherent' 'risks' posed by a given 'innovation', but we rarely just pick up the phone and ask them for an early signal check. This often takes the form of invoking the name of the organization, a position of authority, or even an elected official when asking a question or demanding evidence. In other contexts some may even call it fear-mongering. Conjuring threats that haven't actually been substantiated and too few are willing to call someone's bluff.

In practice this means doing what we've always done is always easier than trying something new. This is likely where the idea that "innovation requires heroic effort" comes from and reinforces an 'us versus them mentality'.

This is why we end up with perpetual skunk works at the peripheries of our organizations rather than addressing systemic barriers. Innovative forces are finding individual paths of least resistance. These paths tend to be personality driven rather than organizationally decided. This is innovation in fits and starts, not innovation as transformation.

All of this is exacerbated by the fact that the pro-innovation discourse is often initiated by the same centers of power that have the ability to grant or withhold the authorities required to actually execute meaningfully against that discourse. Speaking to the importance of innovation -- sending the signal -- may be important but it pales in comparison to actually leaning into the hard work of systematically setting the stage for it.

Finally, (and in fairness) those who would give permission -- even the most permissive of permissions -- will always fall short of the expectations of those who would seek them because the givers bear the burden of having to consider the whole system at once while the seekers enjoy the luxury of entertaining only their own ideas and machinations.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Enjoy the Theatre

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

Last week I sat down with a former Deputy Minister to get some advice. During our conversation I registered my disdain for having to sit through some of the more theatrical elements of public service when I'm fairly certain that decisions have already been taken. In short, I find things like invoking hierarchy, rules (written or otherwise), or processes, exploiting information or influence asymmetries, or just plain old small-p politic-ing, to be frustrating.

His advice was simple: enjoy the theatre. There's lots to be learned in how people posture, invoke their ministers or the machinery of government. If you are only ever frustrated by it then you are more likely to shut it out when what you need to do is let it in just enough to allow the lessons to register without getting caught up in the underlying behaviours.

So I guess its on with the show!