Tag Archives: government of canada

Why not open flu data?

On Monday, Nov. 23 the Globe ran this piece I wrote as a Special to The Globe and Mail. I’m cross-posting it back here for those who may have missed it. Hope you enjoy!

An interesting thread keeps popping up in The Globe’s reporting on H1N1. As you examine the efforts of the federal and provincial governments to co-ordinate their response to the crisis only one thing appears to be more rare than the vaccine itself: information.

For example, on Nov. 11, Patrick Brethour reported that “The premiers resolved to press the federal government to give them more timely information on vaccine supplies during their own conference call last Friday. Health officials across Canada have expressed frustration that Ottawa has been slow to inform them about how much vaccine provinces and territories will get each week.”

And of course, it isn’t just the provinces complaining about the feds. The feds are similarly complaining about the vaccine suppliers. In response to an unforeseen and last-minute vaccine shortage by GlaxoSmithKline (a manufacturer of the vaccine), David Butler-Jones, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, acknowledged in The Globe on Oct. 31 that “what I know today is not what I knew yesterday morning. And tomorrow I may find out something new.”

For those of you who are wondering what this shortage of information reminds you of, the answer is simple: life before the Internet. Here, in the digital age, we continue to treat the Public Health Officer like a town crier, waiting for him to share how much vaccine the country is going to receive. And the government is treating GSK like a 20th century industrial manufacturer you would bill with a paper invoice.

This in an era of just-in-time delivery, radio-frequency identification chips and a FedEx website that lets me track packages from my home computer. We could resolve this information shortage quite simply by insisting the vaccine suppliers publish a website or data feed, updated hourly or daily, of the vaccine production pipeline, delivery schedule and inventory. That way, if there is a sudden change in the delivery amount the press, health officials or any average citizen could instantly know and plan accordingly. Conversely, the government of Canada could publish its inventory and the process it uses to allocate it to the provinces online for anyone to see. Using this data, local health authorities could calculate how much vaccine they can expect without having to talk to the feds at all. Time and energy would be saved by everyone.

Better still, no more conference calls with the premiers sitting around complaining to the Prime Minister about a lack of information. By insisting on open data – that is sharing the data and information relating to the vaccine supply publicly – the government could both improve transparency, reduce transaction costs and greatly facilitate co-ordination between the various ministries and levels of government. No more waiting for that next meeting or an email from the Chief Public Health Officer to get an update on how much vaccine to expect – just pop online and take a look for yourself.

As noted by Doug Bastien over at GC2.0, the federal government has done an excellent job informing the Canadian public about the need to get vaccinated, including using social media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube videos. Indeed, they were so successful they helped contribute to the current vaccine shortage. To ensure we respond to the next crisis successfully, however, we need more than a citizen-centric social media strategy. We need a social media and open data strategy that ensures our governments communicate effectively with one another.

Is it time to get rid of the Foreign Service designation?

dfait_logoA Foreign Service officer (FS) is an employees of the Government of Canada who pass the foreign service exam and are hired by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT)and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

This is important because becoming an FS is no easy task. Every year hundreds of Canadians write the test and few are selected for interviews. Fewer still are hired into the department. This barrier to entry has created a sense of class around the FS designation. To be an FS meant you were the best, the brightest, the most able of public servants – not only a distinct class, but a class above.

But what if this is no longer true? Moreover, what if being a class apart is what’s killing the Foreign Service?

It is worth remembering the environment out of which the FS designation emerged (and for which it is designed for). When Canada’s nascent foreign service began to take shape in the 30′s the diplomatic world looked very different. It was dominated by Europeans and largely populated by quasi royalty – former aristocrats – who had all gone to the right schools, spoke the right languages and knew all the right protocols. Foreign policy was an elite policy area – not just because it was so important – but also because it was dominated by elites (in the class sense of the word). While the role of aristocrats in foreign policy has faded long ago, the legacy of their culture lingered. As a result, the Foreign Service had to ensure that the right people became foreign service officers, no ordinary country bumpkin would do, to have influence in the diplomatic world standards had to be kept.

The FS designation also emerged out of an early and mid 20th century era when public servants did not change ministries. In Ottawa you were a Finance Man, or a Treasury Board Man, or a Natural Resources Man (and yes, for much of that period you were probably a man) and it was uncommon to move from one department to another. In this world, a strong Foreign Service culture made sense since many of the other ministries had a strong sense of culture as well.

But today the world, Canadians and Ottawa, are different. Every ministry engages in foreign policy – be it healthcare issues, the environment, energy, transport, you name it. There is hardly an issue in Canada that does not have an important international dimension. Moreover, public servants now frequently move from ministry to ministry. Indeed, a successful career in the public service requires that you move around. A broad set of experience is deemed to be essential. Finally, the typical public servant has changed dramatically. Today, Canadians are much more internationalized. Many of us are born abroad, still more of us have family abroad, and with (relatively) cheap air travel many Canadians travel abroad. This is a far cry from even 30 years ago. But not only do Canadians travel more, they are better educated. There may have been a time when the average foreign service officer was significantly better educated than the average public servant – but this is simply no longer the case. Many public servants now have Master’s degrees. Indeed, for a while, you couldn’t get hired without one.

This is the world of the public service in the 21st century, and it presents three challenges for the foreign service.

The first, it has become less and less clear what makes a Foreign Service officer unique. An increasing number of public servants outside of DFAIT and CIDA are successfully engaging in international work: negotiating treaties, attending international conferences, and working directly with other governments. If this work can be done by non-FSs the question arises… what is the value add of the Foreign Service Officer? What unique skills and knowledge do they bring? Whenever I’m in Ottawa I hear colleagues, friends, and even strangers ask this question. This is not to say Foreign Service officers are not incredibly talented- but it is asking what, as a class or group, do they offer?

This first problem is compounded by a second that few within DFAIT and CIDA wish to talk about: elitism. FSs have always thought of themselves as not only different but also (if they are honest with themselves) better than other public servants. There was likely a time when this was true. FSs were better educated and more traveled than their peers. Today however, it is no longer the case. Many public servants are relatively well traveled and well educated. The gap simply no longer exists. The result is that, around Ottawa, FSs are perceived as elitist snobs, a perception that is crippling the department. Not only does the rest of Ottawa now question the department’s value add they also, quite understandably, despise being looked down upon. Everyday a thousand small decisions are made to seek ways to work around – rather than with – DFAIT and those decisions are adding up. Nobody wants to play with the foreign service.

Finally, FS designation itself is a direct problem because it us both keeping Ottawa out DFAIT down. Today, public servants move around Ottawa getting experience in different departments – this is how the game is now played. And yet DFAIT and CIDA sit outside the game – FSs don’t want to work in another department and they often resent non-FSs who come and work in theirs. Consequently, few good ideas developed outside the ministry find there way in. Moreover, because FSs have isolated themselves they have neither the network of interdepartmental colleagues nor the experience and knowledge of how Ottawa works that their public service colleagues possess. They are getting outplayed. Still more problematic, the answers to the highly subjective Situational Judgment component of the Foreign Service Test are determined by senior Foreign Service officers. This means that those who succeed in being hired as FSs are those who are most likely to think like the outgoing generation. This creates a conservative trend within the department that reinforces old ideas and the class like elitism.

If DFAIT wants a leading role in the development of government policy it has a number of obstacles it needs to overcome. The most challenging however is reforming the system that shapes the thinking and culture of its employees. One place to start may be acknowledging that the FS designation – while an enormous source of pride – is also a source of significant problems. Opening up the FS designation to other public servants (treating it more like that the ES designation) could be one approach. Alternatively, focusing the FS designation on crisis management in the field and making it a class for people who are going to work in embassies in hostile territory or politically compromising situations may make more sense. These are just suggestions – what is most important is that the yawning culture gap between DFAIT and the rest of Ottawa must be closed – because increasingly the rest of Ottawa is discovering it can live without DFAIT, but DFAIT cannot live without the rest of Ottawa.

What the post-bureaucratic era will mean for the public service

In a number of blog posts and, in greater detail, in a number of lectures and speeches I’ve been outlining how the social and organizational impact of  information technologies (like wikis and blogs) will uproot and transform the public service. Specifically, in the coming era of self-organizing, the public service will have to find new ways to balance accountability and control with decentralization, accelerated information flows and emergent problem-solving.

There is, obviously, a ton to dive into here, which is what I’ve been having fun doing in my lectures and seminars. The other week while doing a presentation in Ottawa to a group of Health Canada employees, one of the participants asked me what the implications of self-organizing systems and social media would be for the core values of the public service (the Canadian Federal Public Service is the case study here, but this discussion likely applies to most government bureaucracies). More importantly, he wanted to know if they would have to be amended or changed. I’m not certain they do, but that doesn’t mean they won’t need to be reviewed…

For example, zero in on one of the Public Service’s core values in particular:

Professional Values: Serving with competence, excellence, efficiency, objectivity and impartiality.

  • Public servants must work within the laws of Canada and maintain the tradition of the political neutrality of the Public Service.
  • Public servants shall endeavour to ensure the proper, effective and efficient use of public money.
  • In the Public Service, how ends are achieved should be as important as the achievements themselves.
  • Public servants should constantly renew their commitment to serve Canadians by continually improving the quality of service, by adapting to changing needs through innovation, and by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of government programs and services offered in both official languages.
  • Public servants should also strive to ensure that the value of transparency in government is upheld while respecting their duties of confidentiality under the law.

None of these values are wrong. What will be challenging is how emerging technologies will shift expectations among citizens around how these values should being interpreted and what that means for how government operates.

In his 2008 Bertha Bassam Lecture at the University of Toronto, David Weinberger points out that for the last several centuries we have associated credibility (read: professionalism) with objectivity and impartiality (note values listed above). However, the rise of the internet is beginning to erode the link that once bound credibility to objectivity and impartiality:

“Wikipedia is far more credible because it shows us how the sausage is made makes Wikipedia far more credible. Yet this is exactly the stuff that the Britannica won’t show us because they think it would make them look amateurish and take away from their credibility. But in fact transparency – which is what this is – is the new objectivity. We are not going to trust objectivity, we are not going to trust objectivity unless we can see the discussion that lead to it.”

Replace Britannica in this sentence with “the public service” or “government” and you see the problem. The values of the public service presume that objectivity and impartiality will lead to credibility.  Increasingly, however, this is no longer the case. We want the right to see how the sausage is made. More importantly, as an increasing number of organizations like Mozilla, Wikipedia and DirectLauncher make it clear that such transparency is both technically and practically feasible – even when managing highly complex and sensitive tasks – our expectations around what we expect of government is starting to shift. Who do you trust more? Wikipedia or the Government of Canada’s website? Who let’s you see the discussion? This answer to this question is getting less and less clear.

Indeed it is this increasing number of transparent organizations that throw the last bullet in the section on professional values into sharp relief:

Public servants should also strive to ensure that the value of transparency in government is upheld while respecting their duties of confidentiality under the law.

Even if the public’s expectations of what should be legal confidential does not shift, radical change will still be necessary. Already you see people beginning to demand better access to all sorts of government data sets (think the Sunlight Foundation). And we haven’t even mentioned the whole process of Freedom of Information Requests (FOI). Here is a system that is clearly overwhelmed. But think more carefully about the whole process of FOI. The fact that information is by default secret (or functionally secret since it is inaccessible to the public) and that it must be requested is itself a powerful indication of just how fundamentally opaque government is. In a world where information generation is growing exponentially, will the government really be able to manage and access all of it, and determine what is confidential and what isn’t? This seems like a system destined for real challenges. All of this to say that even if the last line of the value statement above does not change one iota, what it means – and citizens expectations around its implementations – is going to change radically.

This transition – the movement from a public service that is opaque by 21st century standards to one that is transparent is going to be gut-wrenching, challenging and painful, not because it isn’t technically possible, but because it is going to require reversing 200 years of culture, values and modes of operation that are embedded within the public service and deeply embedded within the political class. This isn’t to say that the transition will erode the power or influence of these groups, it won’t. But it will be different, and that in of itself is often scary enough to create resistance and a painful transition.

In conclusion, I suspect that the few of the values will, or need, to change – indeed most are necessary and good. However, while the values themselves won’t change, continuing to adhere to them will require dramatic changes to how the public service operates.

Canada's Foreign Policy: Canadians'… you are on your own

Numerous commentator have asked why Canadians don’t seem to care about Foreign Policy. Well, maybe it is because our foreign policy so rarely cares about them.

Consider the plight of Abousfian Abdelrazi, the Sudanese-born Canadian whose name is stuck on the 1267 UN no-flight list. And let’s be clear, both Canadian and Sudanese authorities have cleared Abdelrazik of any association with a terrorist organization.

So what happens when your own government determines you should be presumed innocent? Do they help you get home? Do they advocate on your behalf? Do they help in any meaningful way?

The answer is simple: no.

As Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said to the Globe and Mail.

“It’s up to him, its incumbent on him to make sure he gets off that list”

And how, exactly, is a lone citizen like Abousfian Abdelrazi supposed to lobby the UN security council to change his status? It is bad enough that he is functionally exiled with no access to appeal or any due process. What is appalling is that his own government has effectively abandoned him.

Remember this could be you, if in some Brazilesque bureaucratic hic-cup you could end up on a no-fly list.

Sadly, if you end up on a no-fly list (as Senator Ted Kennedy once famously did) the Canadian government will write a letter on your behalf (they the UN Security Council in December 2007 to ask to have Abdelrazik removed). However, what we now know is that doesn’t work out – too bad, you are on your own.