Monday, November 2, 2020

Three Horizons: an Exercise in Pivot Points

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

In fall 2019, I wrote my first couple posts on CPSR since September 2017, and tried to set myself a commitment device to start writing again. Which failed, and epicly. This is my first since.

I really enjoy writing, and it helped me think through things I was seeing and reading about. I felt like it was an important weekly habit. So I’ve both missed it and felt guilty for a couple years now, and tried to push myself back into the habit. (I still write, just different stuff in different places.)

I had misdiagnosed the absence as just that I’d broken the habit, and subsequently was trying the wrong fix of simply rebuilding it. After a long time, I started to get a better sense of why I wasn’t writing:

·         The stuff I wrote about and my day job became increasingly closely knit, which made critical exploration feel less appropriate

·         For personal reasons, I stepped back a bit from community spaces and events (who and which I also miss), and a lot of my posts were direct results of great conversations with people, both for reasons of insight and inspiration

·         I felt like I was increasingly better off deferring to others with more expertise in difference spaces

The last one is of particular interest for today. I’m a generalist. For a while I felt that there was a value in exploring change and how it fit into the wider ecosystem. But as “collaborative culture” increasingly became the norm, and technological adoption went from “figuring out a tool” to “patterns for finding and figuring out the right tool, in context,” I felt I had less to say. The general trends splintered into niches, and other people had those covered better than I could. A lot of what felt like trends, changes, and innovations in public service was really more like an internet-enabled mass transfer of information across geography and contexts. We’ve gone from primarily expending effort to find information, experts, and practices, to expending effort to filter and distill it. Once that deluge settled from discovery into productivity or dismissal, it became about use in context. Less of a need, I thought, for turbo-meta trend posts.

Everyone goes through pivot points and moments of reinvention. Sometimes it’s borderline accidental, when you take on a new role and change to fill the new space.  But I suspect between the mass forced introspection of 2020 and the fact that hyperconnectivity and collaboration are no longer competitive advantages as public service and internet culture increasingly meet in the middle, there are a lot of people thinking “what’s next for me?”

Three Horizons

I borrowed and bastardized the Three Horizons model that Policy Horizons and Blaise Hebert showed me (if you Google it, there are two models, both good, but for different things). Generally, we’d use this to explore changes to an industry, market, society, or a paradigm.

In general: the things that got us here aren’t necessarily the things we need in the future. So we draw three horizons, representing the fading past, the present in some stage of emergence, and the coming future.

Y axis being importance, X axis being time.

I wrote out the skills, knowledge, and behaviours that had served me in getting to where I am. Then, what I was using currently. Then, finally, what was increasing in importance, what I was finding myself using and leaning on more and more, and what I thought the future looked like.

This, of course, relies on knowing where you’re going, which was also a mystery to me. So I also used this process to explore whether the future direction was desirable and felt right.

Everyone I know has had moments where they’ve given something up for some reason and wanted to “get back into it.” Time passes, and they still haven’t, and then you eventually reflect on whether it’d be worth it now. Would you be happier if you restarted and rebuilt the habit? Or was it just that old you valued it, and now you no longer do, but it’s hanging on as part of your imagined identity?

For me, it was closer to the latter. There wasn’t much concordance between the first and third horizons. I still valued elements of the first horizon. But it wasn’t a portrait of me or my future. The third horizon felt closer to home.

This 20-minute exercise unblocked a long-standing uncertainty for me, and pointed to practical steps, gaps to fill. Might be worth a shot if you’re feeling the same. 

Friday, May 22, 2020

Thoughts on the Public Sector amid the Pandemic

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

First let me preface my thoughts with a well worn -- and probably utterly useless if pressed -- disclaimer: what follows is series of interconnected thoughts on political theory, policy ideas, public institutions, and the public sector writ large. It's a sector I've worked in and written about for nigh on 15 years now, so while my reflections are familiar, the are not intimate. They are based on what I'm observing out there and not what I'm working on in here. I'll try to be succinct.

On Political Theory

I find it incredibly interesting that -- as former Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick remarked in the Hill Times -- (paraphrasing) Canadians have instinctively turned to the public sector for help. Undoubtedly, the role that government(s) play in shaping societies is becoming increasingly more apparent as the Prime Minister, Premiers, and Public Health Officials announce new measures and provide updates to citizens and civil servants successfully deliver on those measures at breakneck speed. Whatever the history books have to say about the public sector's response to the pandemic will undoubtedly come to shape societal views on the role of the sector in society for the foreseeable future.

The role of the media is also far more prominent as the demand for information increases, so too does news consumption, and the importance of reliable, evidence based reporting. Literacy is even more important as the battle between reliable information and misinformation unfolds across a myriad of platforms, legitimate or otherwise, that are either hand curated or algorithmically served to users. Make no mention of people in key leadership positions -- ranging from big 'P' political to small 'c' community -- spreading misinformation (by design or by neglect) and putting others at risk. As your average upper-middle class, university educated human being, I am consuming everything from thoughtful public affairs programming (i.e. TVO's The Agenda w/Steve Paikin) to random reddit threads highlighting the absolute breakdown of social fabrics and basic human niceties. That said, I take some solace in the fact that the latter of which doesn't seem to be as bad in Canada as it is elsewhere.

I'm also interested in the relationship between Canadian's sense of civic duty and the pandemic. Voluntary stay at home orders seemed to been taken seriously and we've avoided having to invoke mandatory lockdowns. I'm wondering how much of this is rooted in la politesse Canadienne and our relationship with our healthcare system. It stands in sharp contrast to much of what's being reported on from our neighbors to the south.

There's a lot being written about mission-orientation, how mission-driven governments have fared better in the COVID-19 crisis, how the pandemic creates an opportunity to develop a new, public-interest-based approach to innovation, and ultimately, how we should recognize the state’s power to create value. A successful mission-oriented strategy is one that mobilizes all sectors of society (i.e. public, private, not-for-profit, academic, etc.); it requires that governments play a strong shaping and convening role, that the media act as an independent check and balance on progress, and that citizens accept the fulfillment of the mission as a part of their civic duty.

There is equally increasing attention being paid to modern monetary theory (MMT). Some have argued that the Coronavirus has destroyed the myth of the deficit, others that MMT is the only appropriate response to the pandemic, and still others that we ought not be worried about public spending to stabilize the global economy. There are also a couple of policy ideas that are gaining attention (discussed below) that are very much linked to the MMT school of thought even if discussions about them don't invoke the nomenclature.

In short, the Overton window seems to be opening more widely and the range of what is being discussed as viable policy options is broader. Many are citing Rahm Emanuel's old adage, "Never let a good crisis go to waste," but are cutting the quotation short, leaving out the equally important second half: "It's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." Surely there will be consequences to missing the opportunity.

On Policy Ideas

The pandemic has had an incredible impact on global economies and (for some) completely obliterated their work-life balance. As our economies re-open, some are arguing for a shorter, 4-day work week, including the Prime Minister of New Zealand (who is currently the country’s most popular leader in 100 years thanks to her pandemic response).

With countries creating a myriad of new economic supports, some countries (e.g. Scotland, Spain, Finland) are looking at Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a potential solution. In the United States, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has given former presidential candidate Andrew Yang $5M to build his case for UBI, which is starting to look like a viable policy option. Here in Canada, David Dodge (former Governor of the Bank of Canada) remarked in a recent Public Policy Forum podcast that this is the closest Canada has every been to having UBI. Former Senator, Hugh Segal (a long time UBI advocate) made a compelling case for the underlying economics (and simplification of our social safety net) in a recent Recovery Project webcast, and the Macleans editorial board just asked whether or not UBI will be this country's pandemic legacy. It's also worth noting that a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister rejected the idea for now, but that doesn't mean it isn't being discussed.

In the midst of stabilization attempts, Governments are also concurrently planning their stimulus/recovery measures. Recognizing this, many are calling for Green Stimulus. The UN chief asked governments not to use public funds to save polluting industries, the International Energy Agency has said that the crisis will wipe out demand for fossil fuels, and more recently here at home, a new advocacy group (with some notable names) is pushing for a green recovery plan (joining the likes of organizations such as Smart Prosperity and Pembina). We know the pandemic has had an impact on global emissions but that much more needs to be done if we are to meet our climate objectives. Using stimulus money to advance climate (and other societal) goals (i.e. diversity and inclusion) seems to make sense. In fact a recent study indicates that it would be the most cost-effective way both to revive virus-hit economies and strike a decisive blow against climate change. Perhaps it could even put to bed the false dichotomy of economy vs environment.

On Public Institutions

Often when I speak to folks about innovation in the public sector I start by asking them to engage in a thought experiment. For a minute imagine that you can throw away all of the existing structures of government, name your five biggest policy priorities, and explain to me how to most effectively tackle them. Chances are it looks different then the current institutional array. That said, it likely includes government institutions, many of which likely look a lot like those institutions we currently have. However, what folks usually describe is something broader and less restrictive. More often, it sounds a lot like mission orientation, mentioned above, without necessarily invoking the term. The truth is that there is an incredible amount of value in the current institutional array, and we should be skeptical of anyone who argues we should tear it all down and start from scratch. Everything isn't broken, we don't need to change everything. Let's take what works and build around it. One needs to look no further than the how the pandemic has impacted the United States to see the cumulative impacts of winding down various state run programs, departments, and agencies. Again, our conceptualization of what public institutions can and can't do could shift dramatically against the backdrop of the pandemic and the actions taken (or not taken) by governments around the world.

On Technology within the Civil Service

Civil servants at all levels, regardless of their opinion, now have to deal with working from home. Resisting telework and/or flexible work arrangements is now impossible. In retrospect many of the arguments against it seem silly in retrospect seem silly. Or do they? While the usual suspects were quick to issue their "I told you so(s)" and "the genie's out of the bottle(s)", there's still a lot to be done. To invoke a quotation favoured by the technologists, future is here, it just is unequally distributed. Not everyone has access to hardware they need to connect to government networks securely, not everyone can be on the VPN (which never expected to carry a full workforce for an entire 9-5 workday). Hardware is in demand and networks are actively managed, certain tracks of work are being prioritized, others de-prioritized. We may have been thrust into the deep end of flexible work, but not everyone knows how to swim, and there simply isn't enough room in the pool for all of us to be in there at once, less few of us drown (to continue the metaphor at risk of straining it). While the experts in digital and/or open government and/or public engagement have historically focused their attention on the tools of the trade (social media, data, dialogue, etc.) what we are in most need of is more of what I will call 'meat and potatoes' IT infrastructure. Whether or not your department's IT department blocks social media or your Minister is on Twitter is moot when you don't have the tools you need to get on the network in the first place. The importance of 'hard digital infrastructure' cannot be understated, its a core business enabler.

The successful deployment of the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit could not have been possible without digital technology. The deployment of the benefit has proved that governments can deliver IT projects effectively and efficiently -- and quite frankly, calls into question why years later public servants are still dealing with pay issues arising from the Phoenix Pay System (but let's park that). By all accounts, the project has been an incredible success and is helping millions of Canadians access benefits almost immediately, without issue. That said, the underlying technology or the digital skills needed to develop, deploy, and maintain it, are only as valuable as the analogue, old school, policy chops, needed to design and implement the policy measure. Analogue threads the needle, digital delivers the goods; we should be talking more about the policy choices we are making and less about the digital infrastructure we use to make good on them.

On the Culture of the Civil Service

Much like the status of individual civil servants IT infrastructure, results may vary. If your team culture sucked before the pandemic, it likely sucks now. Good teams, and good teams with experience working flexible work arrangements have a distinct advantage. My team was just getting its feet wet with flexible work arrangements and we fared pretty good, but there was definitely an adjustment period, and we are constantly working to improve the experience for everyone. Job mobility is also incredibly difficult right now -- unless you are in a rotational program or moving to Pandemic related files -- and on-boarding on new teams virtually is the new normal. In short, we are in this for the long haul. Personally, I'm mentally preparing myself to work from home for the next year. As a manager I'm quite comfortable managing people remotely. As a people person, I must confess that I miss daily face-to-face interactions my team members tremendously.

On Linking it All Together

How governments respond over the next year will be more important than ever. They could embrace MMT and leverage the value public institutions to create country (or global) missions that fundamentally reshape the fabric of societies. They could take advantage of a wider Overton window, enact green stimulus measures to mobilize all sectors of society, and introduce conditionality on government support that helps ensure non-government actors continue to work towards that mission. They could introduce measures that incorporate changes to how we work and how we are compensated for that work with a view to creating a more diverse and inclusive society. They could appeal to our renewed sense of civic duty, and build that mission safely from our homes, strengthening the current institutional array where is makes sense and creating new supports where they are most needed. Or, they could just let the opportunity pass them by. 

Ultimately, the choice can be simplified: will governments work to get 'back to normal' despite the pandemic exposing the holes in our social fabric, or will they try to mend them, and build something better?

Friday, April 17, 2020

Book Review: The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato

A few weeks ago I received an email from Stewart Fast. Stewart is a fellow public servant and wanted to share his review Mariana Mazzucato's The Value of Everything.

He can be found on Twitter @S_Fast_ and on LinkedIn, his review is below (Thanks Stewart!)

The Review

Mariana Mazzucato’s “The Value of Everything” provides a compelling critique of economic assumptions of value-creating activities, innovation policy and the role of the public sector. At this moment of extraordinary government investment and intervention in the Canadian economy to withstand the COVID-19 pandemic, Mazzucato’s arguments for more recognition of the role that government plays in not only regulating markets, but in creating them are timely.

The book’s main argument is that many activities regarded as value-creating are in fact value-extracting with some nefarious consequences for societies. In a highly accessible fashion, Mazzucato documents a change in economic norms to narrowly regard value as anything that can be priced. As a result, many activities (e.g., financial services, specialty drug sales, Uber) that would be seen by classical economists as creating no new wealth and engaging in unproductive rent-seeking behaviour are instead immensely profitable activities aided by government policy. She uses this distinction to good effect throughout the book showing perverse examples such as huge increases in the price of drugs not invented by the companies that are enjoying the profits.

Mazzucato dedicates a sizeable portion of the book to “financialization”, or the spread of financial practices and attitudes into the “real” economy. She notes that until the 1960’s national accounts considered financial activity as outside of the production sphere and adding no value to GDP. In current assessments banks make a positive contribution to GDP calculated in part by the difference between lending and borrowing rates. While recognizing that financial services are important to the functioning of the economy, Mazzucato questions whether the intermediary function of financial institutions can truly be thought of as creating value.  After all, the mortgage backed security market that led to the 2008 financial crisis was generating substantial interest payments and thus was tracking as GDP growth before being ultimately revealed as deeply problematic.

As a public servant working in research funding and science / innovation policy, I found Mazzucato’s extended assessment of financialization particularly provocative as it relates to corporate investment behaviour. She critiques the practice of maximizing shareholder value of publicly traded companies through share buy-backs which have the effect of increasing earnings per share. Earnings per share has become a measure of corporate success but chasing earnings per share in this fashion may be occuring at the expense of investment in plant and equipment and R&D. She cites evidence that investment rates for publicly traded companies under pressure to maximize earnings per share are substantially less than privately owned companies.

The challenge of how to increase business investment (expenditures) in research and development (BERD) has long been a priority for Canadian science and innovation policy-makers. The Superclusters initiative and a wide range of R&D support programs all aim to address this, yet Canada continues to rank lower than the OECD average in BERD. The Council of Canadian Academies 2018 report on the state of R&D in Canada comprehensively documents low BERD and suggests part of the reason is a high proportion of low-tech sectors in Canada. Mazzucato’s observations point to another possible factor at play. Perhaps Canadian industry is maximizing shareholder value through short-term financial strategies rather than long term investment in R&D.

The final chapters of the book advocate for a reorientation of the current innovation narrative to recognize, celebrate and advance the role the public sector plays in risk-taking and developing new technologies. This message will be familiar to readers of her 2013 book “The Enterpreneurial Statereviewed previously. Mazzucato returns to those arguments stressing that it was government, not private-sector, investment that led to key technologies including GPS and touch-screens at the foundation of whole new sectors. She advocates for the state to reap some return from successful investments and for state investment in infrastructure, R&D and in risky technologies especially in times of austerity.

My only real criticism with Mazzucato’s book is that it is light on analysis of her proposed solutions. We are told for example that policy-makers should broker deals that generate symbiotic private-public partnerships through state investment banks focussed on long-term finance to support risky endeavours, or that the price of drugs should be made to reflect the overall input from state supported research and not force the taxpayer to pay twice. Yet, there are real-life instances of government action for both of these examples. What can we learn from those efforts?

In “The Value of Everything”, Mariana Mazzucato has once again thrown down a challenge for readers to see government in a different light. While some may quibble with her assumptions, the overall call to look deeply at what value means in our economy is compelling. In this time of unprecedented public investment to face the challenge of COVID-19, the importance of government as a lender of last resort, a funder of life-saving discoveries and an economic stimulator is clear. Even skeptics may begin to look more seriously at Mazzucato’s invitation to recognize, celebrate and advance government as a risk-taking innovative co-creator of markets.