Friday, December 1, 2017

Simple Thoughts On Policy Complexity

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharney

Yes, the world is complex.

Pursuing a given public policy objective (i.e. an outcome) brings that complexity into view; and bringing that view into focus, by gathering information and weighing evidence and opinion, means drawing boundaries around the issue(s) in imperfect ways.

This imprecision has real world consequences. Draw the boundaries too wide and it can produce paralysis by analysis, draw them too narrow and you can end up with governance by gut feeling. Neither of which are ideal, and both can have profoundly negative consequences.

Complexity is really about spillover from one policy domain to another. Determining a logical order or hierarchy isn't always possible because none of the issues can be isolated from those that are adjacent. This complexity is further complicated by the fact that spillover is both omni-present and omni-directional and in a constant state of flux.

This leads me to conclude that the crux of the challenge facing policy makers is calibration; it's about knowing who and what to include and, where where to draw the lines, understanding the inherent consequences and trade-offs, and being willing to accept them.

When trying to solve for especially pernicious problems this becomes exponentially harder because the conventional wisdom is that their solutions lie in the innovation of the adjacent possible (i.e. somewhere in the messy spillover). The same conventional wisdom argues that you ought to spend 95% of your time defining the problem and 5% solving it. That means not only are you actively pursuing work in the messier parts of the problem set you are also spending the bulk of you time calibrating and re-calibrating within it as the landscape continues to shift around you.

I guess its not so so simple after all.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Actively cultivating a patient appreciation for the richness of experience

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharney

As I mentioned previously, my interests have shifted (See: On Professional Maturation). In sum, I have been thinking about life differently than I have in the past. If I had to describe the feeling, I would say it was something akin to a patient appreciation for the richness of experience.

I can’t pinpoint the source of the feeling but it’s starting to permeate through every facet of my life. The best way to describe it is to borrow an explanation from Angela Duckworth, who wrote a book entitled Grit about perseverance, which I currently reading. I did however catch her on Freakonomics Podcast over the summer, and her explanation – the one I want to pull from – struck me.

She spoke about the need for novelty in one’s life; how it is natural to seek out new experiences but acting on that need too often can have negative consequences. Pursuing novel work for example, through a series of lateral moves comes at the cost of depth in a particular field and produces generalists.

The trick, according to Duckworth is being able to satisfy your need for novelty by pursuing the nuance in your field. The best way to do this is to look at everything in your known universe and break it down into its smallest component parts, pick one, and focus on maximizing your understanding, appreciation, or performance of or within that particular subset. This approach simultaneously satisfies your need for novelty but also increases your mastery of your given domain.

I find Duckworth’s logic compelling and I think it applies more broadly. Not only to my work but also in my personal interactions with others and in how I use the internet. I’ve committed mentally to working in my current field for the foreseeable future, I’m pursuing more meaningful relationships with others, and I’m far less interested in what's popular online. In so doing, what I’m finding is that not only do I have a patient appreciation for the richness of experience, but that I enjoy actively cultivating it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Tax policy and open government

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitken

The Government of Canada has proposed changes to the tax framework, which has struck a wide variety of nerves. Moving swiftly past any discussion of that policy proposal itself, it provides a solid example of the environment in which government works today. I still get interest in explanations of what the idea of open government actually means, and this lets us move from the abstract to the practical.

It’s worth noting that while this public debate has emerged recently, the proposal comes from the 2017 federal budget, including some of the tax strategies the government was examining. Any policy discussion exists in the context of the government’s agenda, which shows up in party platforms, budgets, and the Speech from the Throne. And that agenda, of course, came from somewhere in turn: long-standing party positions, industry lobbying, think tank research, government advice, concerns of MPs’ constituents, international agreements, etc. There’s a complex ecosystem of inputs.

The Department of Finance started inviting comments on July 18. Far from the lightweight budget consultations of years past (essentially a webform and the question “What should the government prioritize?”), they posted a brobdingnagian backgrounder with rationale, data, and their calculations. If they posted the raw datasets, I couldn’t find them; the open government ideal would be linking to the same data that government analysts are using (i.e., on Economists, researchers, developers and transparency advocates have long been scraping or copy and pasting information from government websites, which is a barrier to use.

Finance has asked that people read the 27,000+ word backgrounder and provide written comments. There are design decisions baked into this.

One, it’s an email inbox, not an online discussion forum. The written comments aren’t automatically publicly visible, and organizations can consent to publishing or stay mum for privacy.

Two, while the consultation and backgrounder is public, their target audience is clearly a limited group of experts, academics, and businesses (most likely industry organizations that are funded and mandated to analyze and respond to such proposals). The most visible government consultations in recent years have been questions like Ontario Budget Talks, federal electoral reform, or the Innovation Agenda. Those are geared towards broad audiences. However, most government consultations, running quietly for decades under the radar, are closer to this Finance example. The standard has been that government posts an analysis or a draft regulatory change and asks a small community of experts for detailed comments (e.g., on wildlife management strategies or chemical allowances in products). Anyone could respond. But most wouldn't have any fun doing so.

There’s no right or wrong on these two items, just different approaches for different contexts. Making every comment publicly visible can be disenfranchising to many would-be participants. And governments should (generally) design and promote for their actual target audience of stakeholders.

For most people, including many small business owners, their engagement with this consultation will not be in reading the backgrounder and commenting. Instead, they’ll read analyses, op-eds, and updates in the media. Others may contact their MP with their concerns. Others will continue to pay dues to lobbying organizations to do this work on their behalf and trust that their views are represented. This reality will be true of most examples of “open government;” most engagement is through “info-mediaries” rather than direct contact.

The next important feature: government can strategize and plan for the public reaction, but once in the wild, it’s to a large degree out of government’s control. There has been a flurry of media articles written since July 18, taking many different tacks (e.g., that it’s unfair and disincentivizing to doctors specifically) (again, no value judgment here).

For the potential value for government, let’s use Dr. Kevin Milligan as an example. The start of his Twitter thread on the proposal is probably the most-liked tweet ever that starts with “I’ve made spreadsheets…”

Milligan, an Economics professor at UBC, reworked and re-calculated a lot of the data from Finance (and, admirably, posted his work and spreadsheets publicly for government officials or other observers to review). His analysis supports much of Finance’s work, calls some parts into question, but definitely adds value. This is the entire point of of open government and open data: recognizing that expertise exists outside government’s walls and creating ways to work it into public decision-making. Milligan’s analysis, alongside a number of other prominent Canadian economists who contribute actively to public debate, turned into blogs or columns in print and online media. That community, plus pundits and other observers, also debated parts of the proposal and each other’s analyses in short form on Twitter.

The email inbox is still central - Milligan encouraged people to write into it - but it’s one of many ways that people will try to influence the decision, even during a formal consultation with an “official” avenue for input.

Milligan’s work (here’s his blog post) is not far off what we’d trendily call “civic tech” (admittedly it’s relatively low-tech civic tech)*. The more common examples are people creating tech platforms for others to find and understand data and information (e.g., or But the point isn’t the platform, it’s the analysis and the value in the context of a public decision. So Milligan’s analysis and spreadsheets meet that goal and that description for me.

Lastly on the timeline, there’s one big step left: the government will decide what it wants to do in Cabinet. The proposal as originally written by Finance will almost certainly still be the starting point, but the public reaction and expert comments will change or at least flavour that. While the final advice to Cabinet and the discussion is held in confidence, Access to Information laws, modern government communications, public engagement, and social media make that a more limited concept than it was in the past. The black box is getting smaller and smaller. But the point remains: even if the elected government talks to everyone about a proposed policy, it’s still on them to make the decision and to be held accountable for it. And they do this out of the public eye, by design.

So having walked through the example, what’s left? A couple closing thoughts:

One, a common theme is that as open government and telecommunications technology make the world horizontal and connected, government policy analysts will be less subject matter experts and more facilitators and convenors of stakeholders and external experts. I think this take is wrong, and Finance provides the counterexample. They started with a 27,000-word backgrounder, and I’d bet that there’s a much longer version behind it. They need to be able to understand, fact-check, and contextualize technical input from experts. They need to know if Milligan’s numbers are right or wrong when they lead to game-changing conclusions. So I’d actually propose that government analysts have to be better than they’ve ever been to navigate the modern governance environment.

Two, open government can’t be about changing governance models. How government does things always has to serve the things government needs to do. Open government is better found, in the long run, in the nuts and bolts of government policies and programs. In this case, in the data, principles, and analysis behind tax policy.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Alignment and Competition

by Gray O'Byrne RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Gray O'Byrnetwitter / GrayOByrne

“Let’s set up a meeting to make sure our initiatives are aligned and we’re not duplicating effort.”

I have become wary of this line. On the surface, I couldn’t agree more. We want our time to be well spent. The phrase taps into my human aversion to waste, but like everything else, it can be taken too far.

First off, duplication is sometimes necessary. In a sense it’s impossible to replace an existing system without duplicating it. As we build digital services for citizens, we are duplicating the existing ones. Introducing digital services may not be controversial but what if the existing system is trying to slowly digitize itself? How do we decide if it’s worthwhile trying something new rather than invest more in the improvement efforts?

In a lot of cases there is no clear answer and rather than investing in the new idea, we align ourselves with the existing initiative to avoid duplication. This could be contributing to how long it is taking governments to built digital-first services.

When developing new services we also have a choice to make about what tools or approaches to use. Sometimes a single team has the resources and expertise to try out several options instead of picking just one, but what happens when it’s two different teams each with their own idea? We seem to have very little tolerance for allowing both teams to continue even if it’s unclear which idea is more promising.

In this scenario, instead of waiting to see what we learn from each team, we tend to ask one of them to stop. I’ve seen several promising initiatives shut down this way. The project team eventually met with a group who had more authority and who felt their own project would be doing the same thing. “Why would we create two solutions to the same problem?”

These tendencies to stop others from trying different approaches to solving the same problem are what I am pushing back against. We need to be investing in a variety of approaches because they can all teach us something. Sometimes the alternative projects will result in better services, sometimes in wasted effort but if done properly we will always learn.

Unfortunately multiple groups tackling the same problem means there will be competition between ideas, projects and even the people who want to see their own approach succeed. But there are benefits to competition as well! We’ve come to accept that it is a net positive and helps drive innovation In the private sector and just because there is some competition between groups, it doesn’t mean we need to have winners and losers vying for space in government.

Rather than aligning on execution we can align our goals. Through collaboration we can ensure each project takes a unique approach so it will generate unique insights. Information sharing at all stages will be key, we need to experiment and learn as a whole. The hard part will be for everyone to come together once individual projects have been tested, but it can be done.

I’ve had some success with this approach. 

When collaborating to build a micro-tasking platform for the federal government, my team took a conscious step back from the working group. We knew we could rapidly deploy something in our organisation and felt the group could learn more from us building an advanced prototype than if we participated in the same way as everyone else.

We kept in touch, we built in the open and challenged our colleagues to make something better. This was deliberately duplicative but we got to benefit from our prototype quickly and were able share our work and insights back with the group. A year later when the working group had their solution in place, it had many of the features we had designed. At this point we shut our prototype down so our users would join the superior platform and benefit from the broader community that had access to it.

The strength and weakness of this approach are the same to me: we are working with humans. On one side, a little competition and a strong sense of ownership are both extremely motivating. Trying out a few different ideas in earnest can also help when our intuitions are wrong. On the downside, competition is uncomfortable. If people feel like “it’s us or them” they could stop sharing openly and even create barriers for others. As a believer in human awesomeness, I think these downsides can be managed by aligning our goals (not our approaches) and collaborating openly within our organisations. To get us started though, we will need to become comfortable with the idea that attacking a problem from multiple angles is an acceptable form of duplication.

Friday, August 25, 2017

On Professional Maturation

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharney

Apologies in advance for another long meander through my psyche. I've been struggling with these ideas for some time now and have yet to come to ground with precisely how to frame them. What follows is more personal philosophy and storytelling than lessons public service.

First, life's good.

I love my job. I've never felt more supported, appreciated, important, challenged, trusted, respected, and fulfilled in my public service career than I do now. It's equal parts roles and responsibilities, colleagues, and the ability to play to my strengths while leaving ample room to grow. I'm not sure I've ever been able to say that as earnestly as I can right now, and that's pretty awesome. I'm working with two cracker jack teams on two hot files and my days are full to the brim and just as rewarding.

The flip side of loving one's job of course is that one loses the sense of outrage at all of the parts of the bureaucracy that one would normally find offensive. As someone who primarily identifies with archetypal characters who buck the system (i.e. tricksters) this feels a lot like 'losing your edge' or -- as I've put it previously -- gentrifying (See: The Gentrification of #w2p). For a long time the idea of gentrifying to me felt like betrayal. As a self-stylized perpetual underdog, it's been a slow and difficult progression away from that mindset, but despite popular belief, maturing is never easy.

Relatedly, one of the most interesting pieces of advice I've ever received was from an executive who said "the one gift I really wish I could give you but can't is the gift of experience". The irony of course being that that advice would become increasingly salient over time and with experience. It means more to me now that it did then, and I appreciate it more now in hindsight. In all honestly, at the time I took it as validation of what I had already learned (i.e. I'm ready for more responsibility, bring it on!) rather than a confirmation of how much more I had to learn and how much better I could be at what I do.

What I think I'm learning about what I will call professional maturation is that -- for me at least -- it is about being less reflexive and more reflective. While one may think this understanding comes naturally, one's reflexes are their strengths honed over time through repetitious positive reinforcement. Reflexes are always at play and feature more prominently in stressful situations. If you're like me and on balance you feel as though your reflexes have served you well and are prone to throwing yourself into high stress files, its even harder to step away from them.

That said, if being reflexive and being reflective were on opposite sides of a continuum than what I've been doing is trying to increase the distance between them. This requires one to understand the nuance that reflexes are there to fall back on but that one should lead with reflection.

In practice this means digging in more, reading more closely, asking more poignant questions, being more methodical, writing notes and lists, verifying that everything has been covered off that you wanted to cover. Some people do this more naturally than others, others (like me) have to work at it more.

Second, my interests are shifting.

I'm still interested in the confluence of people, public policy, and technology but I'm investing my time differently than I used to. I used to spend a lot of my free time trying to learn about what new (shiny!) thing was coming around the corner and how it would eventually impact the business of the public service. This has generated a lot of interesting lines of thought that I've shared over the years on this blog. That said, I'm growing increasingly tired of the meta-narratives around engagement, openness, and innovation that underpin them, so I'm less inclined to feed them with greater reflection. It's not to say that meta-narratives don't have value, only that they no longer pique my intellectual curiosity in the way that they once did. Another aspect of professional maturation seems to be shifting away from simply holding strong views to a model of strong views weakly held.

There's a number of reasons why my interests have shifted, but one of the most predominant is that while these narratives all share the same roots, they've all branched out into their own unique paths. There are now simply too many players and viewpoints to put one's arms around in any meaningful way (See: The Many Challenges of Convening the Policy Innovation and Experimentation Ecosystem). When there were fewer networks, nodes, and information flows it meant that certain voices were amplified and one could reasonably expect to know who most of the key players were. Moreover, information networks have grown in number and been flooded with users, making keeping up simply impossible. Another likely reason is that my work has taken me to the coalface of the innovation discourse/implementation disconnect enough times to temper my enthusiasm for meta-narratives (See: The Innovation Discourse Disconnect). A couple of recent lessons here include the importance of not being a tax on the productivity of others and the perils and intellectual laziness of invoking specters of the powers that be, but I'll save those for another time.

Third, I'm (re)investing my time accordingly.

I'm pursuing a healthier lifestyle (exercising more, eating healthier, drinking less), investing more in interpersonal relationships (being more social IRL, putting my phone away when with others, retreating from social media), and reading more books (paper books, non-fiction books about things I'm interested that aren't work related). All of which takes time and energy away from engaging with and writing about the civil service.

I'm at fewer meetups, I'm writing less, but I'm still coming to work everyday and killing it for Queen and country.

 I'm just doing it a little differently.

Friday, July 21, 2017

On the Canadian Digital Service

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharney

Budget 2017 announced the creation of a new Canadian Digital Service (CDS):

Informed by similar initiatives in the U.S. (the U.S. Digital Service/18F) and the United Kingdom (the Government Digital Service), the Government will adopt new ways of serving Canadians. Better use of digital technologies could improve the ways in which businesses can access government services, speed up immigration processing times through better-integrated information, or make it easier for Canadians to access benefits or tax information online.

Earlier this week, their website and social media feeds went live. I checked out their site and (unsurprisingly) there are a lot of friendly and familiar faces on the team. These are good people looking to do good things and I'm looking forward to working with them on my core work (having had a kickoff meeting thereon a few weeks ago).

Now, all that being said the reaction to the CDS is unlikely to all be positive, one only needs to speak to folks working in any of the agencies listed above (e.g. 18F) to know that a couple basic rules of the internet are probably going to apply, haters gonna hate and come at me bro, spring to mind.

Haters are going to hate the CDS

Why? Because it's different, plays by different rules, and gets the fast lane. Or at least those are likely the charges that will be laid against them. I can hear it now, 'of course they could do x, they aren't restrained by y'. That CDS may have all of its T's crossed and I's dotted by the highest echelons of power is unlikely to influence people's perception of the service.

Look at 18F, good people looking to improve the way government delivers its services but the organization has also dealt with watchdogs coming down on their poor financial management in 2016 and their disregard for IT security policies in 2017. It also was flying close enough to the sun to publicly debate whether or not the agency's talent should continue to serve after the change in administration, but on this I'll reserve any further comment.

CDS will likely have to adopt a come at me bro attitude

Why? Because it can't come out swinging (that wouldn't be very collaborative!) but it will need to defend itself when others start taking aim. The reflex here is likely to be "delivery is the strategy" (or in old fashioned terms "putting its money where its mouth is") but that reflex may be insufficient when the criticism isn't aimed at the end but rather the means (i.e. the aforementioned CDS fast lane).

Final thought on CDS

One of the more interesting things to watch with CDS will be how they reconcile their personal social media with their official organizational online presence. As of right now their contacts page lists employee's Government of Canada email address, their personal Twitter account, their personal LinkedIn account, and/or their personal GitHub account (as applicable). To my mind it's the first such conflation of personal and professional online media on a Government of Canada website.

Friday, July 7, 2017

10 tips for building supportive government fellowship programs (and convincing participants to stay)

by Nisa Malli RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewaltwitter / nisamalli

In the name of innovation and openness, many public sector organizations have committed to porousness and career flexibility, grafting more agile HR mechanisms onto existing systems through short term fellowships, internships, and exchanges. It’s a model used to bring in temporary technical and subject matter expertise, attract mid-career professionals, and to recruit graduates from fields outside of public policy and political science. But as these initiatives expand, we need to think carefully about how to design these programs in order to support participants and create the conditions for success for their projects. As I wrap up a year in municipal government with the Toronto Urban Fellowship, I’ve been thinking about what makes an effective government fellowship and how we can use these kinds of programs to fill gaps in our recruitment strategies by convincing participants to stay.

  1. Think carefully about the purpose of your program when designing it: What gap in existing HR mechanisms and recruitment are you trying to solve? What is the ideal role of participants and program alumni in your organization? If you want people to stay on after their placements, what combination of experiences will best prepare them for future careers in your organization?
  2. Consider expanding your eligibility requirements beyond your organization's usual constraints. Do you really need participants with graduate degrees or would other training and professional experience suffice? Can you open this program up to other academic fields? Could participants work remotely so that they don’t need to relocate?
  3. Create cohorts so that participants will have peer community no matter where they are placed. If you are air-dropping a brand-new government recruit into a branch or division, they will need connections to other parts of the organization and peers to commiserate and problem-solve with.
  4. Ensure that the placements and projects you offer match the skillsets, experience, and interests of your recruits and your program objectives. Even early career professionals have developed expertise and experience in specific fields. Boring, frustrating, or assigning your participants to known bad managers increases the likelihood of mid-program dropouts.
  5. Build an onboarding and training program. What do recruits need to know about your organization before starting their placement? What training can you provide them in advance and during the program that will make their immersion in government easier? Remember that if your participants come from diverse backgrounds they may not all need the same training modules; an urban planner doesn’t need City Council 101; a policy analyst doesn’t need to learn how to write a briefing note.
  6. Give them the tools they need to excel at their jobs. For some roles, this might look like specific software or technology, for others it might just be remote access to email. For everyone, quick access to health and dental insurance, vacation days, and sick days can go a long way towards preventing burnout and recruiting the best from other sectors. New employees, especially ones in short rotations, will face challenges getting support from corporate functions like HR and IT. Clear some of the red tape cobwebs away for them in advance if you can to make sure they don’t waste the first week or two just trying to get an ID badge and a computer login.
  7. Pay them at a level appropriate to their experience and the level of work expected from them (this might mean jumping some internal HR hoops to give participants higher seniority or pay than other new recruits). Student debt and increasing rental prices are making it harder to accept pay cuts, even to work on worthwhile causes.
  8. If your program has rotational placements, ensure they match the length of the projects. Four months isn’t usually enough time to start and finish anything; consider 6-month, 9-month or 12-month placements.
  9. Develop an exit strategy. Your organization is investing a lot of money in program participants; if you want them to stay, create bridging mechanisms to make it easier for their placement hosts to keep them or give them preferential hiring in open competitions. Maintain their access to internal job postings if they aren’t hired on right away and make sure gaps between postings don’t impact their benefits in their next position.
  10. Document success and failure! Track and report on what past participants worked on and learned and their recommendations for future iterations of the program. Fresh eyes can provide useful perspectives on how your organization operates and the work you do. This might look like failure/impact reports, exit surveys and interviews, a project database, or bringing alumni in to present to next year’s cohort.

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.