Thursday, October 31, 2019

The internet is up to things again: thoughts on

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

Way back in the early years of the internet, online political mobilization was studied as a question, a hypothesis, a phenomenon. 20 years ago the following was a novel, while perfectly reasonable, statement in academia: “Well into the twenty-first century, the Internet is no longer an exotic political medium.”
Since, we’ve gone through a bit of an emotional roller coaster. The internet would level the playing field and usher in a new era of democracy and a country-wide public conversation. Now we’re in the era of fake news, website content farms, bots scripted to vote en mass on public consultations, and, worst of all, newspapers’ online comment sections. But there's lots of good stuff, too. Today, it's not even a question; of course the internet can be used for dialogue and community mobilization.

The above is a dramatic, exaggerated, and unreasonably short overview in order to set the backdrop for a project worth note:

Some Thoughts launched with a social media push on that aforementioned 50th birthday. It’s a collection of just shy of 100 articles covering “an idea, policy, strategy, or best practice” for the future of cities, organized into 14 “conversations.”

Contributors span community organizers and activists, not-for-profits leads, think tank analysts, public servants, academics, CEOs, journalists, and beyond. There are names like Jim Balsillie and John Ralston Saul (whose contribution title takes a somewhat “didn’t I warn you all about this in 1992?” tone).

Skipping merrily past any assessment of the conversations themselves and into the meta, I want to describe a few reasons why this project is interesting within that history of the internet as a public discourse platform.

It’s coordinated, but independent

There was a time when Lead Now and might have been the likely bets for observers guessing online political game-changers: getting massive amounts of people to sign petitions with single, one-size-fits-all statements. Or, in the same vein, open letters penned by <10 people, but written generally enough to get general agreement from a large section of the general interest community. Some Thoughts makes no statements of solidarity, nodding instead at the idea that discord and contradiction are a part of the project. However, the collection and the collective networks of the contributors made this project impossible to miss for anyone working at the intersection of technology, governance, and community.

(Perhaps, one day, the  history of governance discourse in Canada may one day point to this coordinated but independent approach and recognize the humble but rugged Civic Access Listserv as a foundation.)

It aims deep, not shallow

While the internet permitted increasingly broad public discourse, it simultaneously encouraged brevity. You can interpret any number of votes, read a fair number of short comments, but full conversations and back-and-forths break quickly at scale. This feature of online discourse is common, replicating a feature of the public townhall, people-get-a-few-minutes-with-the-mic problem described by Dr. Robin Gregory:

"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."

While Some Thoughts was clearly designed for internet reading, and to encourage people to read multiple essays, it’s hardly one-dimensional. Some of the more academic contributors, for instance, produced short but reference-packed miniature journal articles.

Which, in a way, starts to return us to the public engagement pedigree of the GC: technical, wonky, and long papers submitted in response to proposed changes in federal regulations, every one of which has to be announced via the Canada Gazette and opened for comment.

It rejects the convened space

There’s an idea I think is wildly important for government public engagement, and accordingly I quote it (too?) often. It’s the reminder “that communities and individuals have power of their own that is not conferred on them by the decision-maker.” This project was born out of the public engagement process around Sidewalk Labs in Toronto. For the last few years, organizations and governments have endeavoured to create and foster spaces for public discourse on issues, experimenting with new platforms and formats. However, the “official” spaces will always be situated in the much-less-controllable and much-more-densely-trafficked mass media, social media, and community spaces that already exist around those topics. Some Thoughts in this case, represents a parallel, community-generated but net new space for discourse. It’s not the first such platform, but noteworthy in its reach and execution. 

In sum

If you’re interested in the future of cities, go read and explore. If you’re interested in trends and ideas of how public discourse takes shape and can shape public engagement processes and policy option development, go explore and reflect.

I’m deliberately maintaining an observer stance with this post, but the one opinion I’ll offer is that models that create fuller, more thoughtful, and more constructively combative discourse should be warmly welcomed. We’re still experimenting with the best balance of reach versus rigour in online dialogue.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Fully, completely.

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

The last three-ish years have been busy both personally and professionally for me. In that time, I played a critical role in helping design a new challenge-based government program, took on management responsibilities within that program, and had the opportunity to assemble a crackerjack team that is absolutely crushing on its delivery. We're a weird hybrid of policy advice on innovation and impact, and experimentation with program delivery. Our team works well not because of a particular governance structure, but rather because of the culture we've been able to cultivate, the quality of the our team members, and our trusted relationship with our executive cadre.

Over the same period of time, I stopped writing. It was a slow but continuous denouement that culminated in me hanging up skates and declaring that I used to write things on the internet. I was a new manager, we were a new team, we were working on a new program. It was all very exciting and I wanted to dig into the substance of the task at hand. Doing that took significant amounts of time, mental energy, and was (at times) all consuming.

It was a tremendous learning opportunity, but entailed certain sacrifices. For example, I had always told myself that writing about my experience in the public service was something that I wanted to do throughout the course of my career. That being able to look back on this blog as a sort of journal of public service things would be valuable to myself and, if I struck the right tone or raised the right issues, to others. I thought it was an all or nothing proposition. I've always been an all or nothing kind of person, to quote the late (great, and highly influential to me personally) Gord Downie: "Either it'll move me or it'll move right through me. Fully, completely".

But careers are funny things, they ebb and flow, and while everyone's opinion may differ, mine has evolved to a place where I feel like there's neither a right nor a wrong way to go about making decisions about them. I was speaking to a friend of mine recently about relationships but his advice applies equally to careers and other human endeavors (paraphrasing): "You've only got some much energy to give, if you make a withdrawal in one place, someone else has to come in and pick up the slack. That or the relationship suffers." Or put another way by another friend (again, paraphrasing): "Time is your most valuable resource, and you once you've spent it you can't get it back".

I was so busy doing the work -- designing a program, delivering it, managing the day to day operations of the team -- that I simply didn't have the time to share what I was learning with others the way I had previously. Sure, I was still having conversations, exploring issues and positing solutions, but I was hyper focused on the immediate issues and people in front of me. Reporting back on what I was dealing with and learning along the way didn't seem as important, or if I'm being honest, interesting, or even fair to those who were living through it with me.

Often I was just trying to keep my head above water, but along the way I learned that solving real problems in front of you, and seeing the impact of their resolution first hand, is an incredibly meaningful experience; that helping the five people immediately in front of you can feel (and be!) more meaningful then writing some esoteric think piece that gets loaded into 5,000 anonymous web browsers (the impact of which is hard to quantify and more importantly, qualify).

Last year I also had the good fortune of being able to spend ~3 months in Denver, Colorado on a temporary duty assignment as a Trade Commissioner. The experience was unlike any other in my career and forced some introspection -- I'm in the middle of what I'm jokingly referring to my 'early' mid-life crisis.

When I got back I started to reflect on how much I've learned by doing, how many different people, ideas, and issues I've collided with over the past few years and what I find the most rewarding about my work.

Embracing interesting ideas and even more interesting people is what made me who I am today, it's what put me on the path, gave me the skills, and created the worldview that I continue to bring to bear on difficult but important tasks such as creating new programs, building new teams, and learning how to continue to be a positive influence on the our systems of governance.

I feel as though I'm emerging somewhat from the personal and professional ether, and if I'm being completely honest with myself, I'm not sure what this all means.

Maybe it means taking time to pause, reflect, and share more. If that's the case then sharing a new updated version of Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants.

The new version includes new content under both the Scheming and Virtue headings as well as hints for both employees and managers. You can also watch me deliver the handbook as a talk should you be interested. Thanks to the Canada School of Public Service for making the video available online.