Bootstrapping culture in government

Friday, June 23, 2017

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.