Tag Archives: public service sector renewal

A Response to a Ottawa Gov 2.0 Skeptic

So many, many months ago a Peter R. posted this comment (segments copied below) under a post I’d written titled: Prediction, The Digital Economy Strategy Will Fail if it Isn’t Drafted Collaboratively on GCPEDIA. At first blush Peter’s response felt aggressive. I flipped him an email to say hi and he responded in a very friendly manner. I’ve been meaning to respond for months but, life’s been busy.  However, over the break (and my quest to hit inbox 0) I finally carved out some time –  my fear is that this late response will sound like a counter attack – it isn’t intended as such but rather an effort to respond to a genuine question. I thought it would be valuable to post as many of the points may resonate with supporters and detractors of Gov 2.0 alike. Here’s my responses to the various charges:

The momentum, the energy and the excitement behind collaborative/networked/web 2.0/etc is only matched by the momentum, the energy and the excitement that was behind making money off of leveraged debt instruments in the US.

Agreed, there is a great deal of energy and excitement behind collaborative networks, although I don’t think this is sparked – as ensued, by something analogous to bogus debt instruments. People are excited because of the tangible results created by sharing and/or co-production networks like Wikipedia, Mozilla, Flickr Google search and Google Translate (your results improve based on users data) and Ushahidi inspire people because of the tremendous results they are able to achieve with a smaller footprint of resources. I think the question of what these types of networks and this type of collaboration means to government is an important question – that also means that as people experiment their will be failures – but to equate the entire concept of Gov 2.0 and the above cited organizations, tools and websites with financial instruments that repackaged subprime mortgages is, in my mind, fairly problematic.

David, the onus lies squarely with you to prove that policymakers across government are are incapable of finding good policy solutions WITHOUT letting everyone and his twitting brother chime in their two cents.

Actually the onus doesn’t lie squarely with me. This is a silly statement. In fact, for those of us who believe in collaborative technologies such as GCPEDIA or yammer this sentence is the single most revealing point in the Peter’s entire comment. I invite everyone and anyone to add to my rebuttal, or to Peter’s argument. Even those who argue against me would be proving my point – tools like blogs and GCPEDIA allow ideas and issues to be debated with a greater number of people and a wider set of perspectives. The whole notion that any thought or solution lies solely with one person is the type of thinking that leads to bad government (and pretty much bad anything). I personally believe that the best ideas emerge when they are debated and contested – honed by having flaws exposed and repaired. Moreover this has never been more important than today, when more and more issues cross ministerial divides. Indeed, the very fact that we are having this discussion on my blog, and that Peter deemed it worthy of comment, is a powerful counterpoint this statement.

Equally important, I never said policymakers across government are are incapable of finding good policy solutions. This is serious misinterpretation of what said. I did say that the Digital Economy Strategy would fail (and I’ll happily revise, and soften to say, will likely not be meaningful) unless written on GCPEDIA. I still believe this. I don’t believe you can have people writing policy about how to manage an economy who are outside of and/or don’t understand the tools of that economy. I actually think our public servants can find great policy solutions – if we let them. In fact, most public servants I know spend most of their time trying to track down public servants in other ministries or groups to consult them about the policy they are drafting. In short, they spend all their time trying to network, but using tools of the late 20th century (like email), mid 20th century (telephone), or mid 3rd century BC (the meeting) to do it. I just want to give them more efficient tools – digital tools, like those we use in a digital economy – so they can do what they are already doing.

For the last 8 years I’ve worked in government, I can tell you with absolute certainty (and credibility!) that good policy emerges from sound research and strategic instrument choice. Often (select) public consultations are required, but sometimes none at all. Take 3 simple and highly successful policy applications: seat belts laws, carbon tax, banking regulation. Small groups of policymakers have developed policies (or laws, regs, etc) to brilliant effect….sans web 2.0. So why do we need gcpedia now?

Because the world expects you to do more, faster and with less. I find this logic deeply concerning coming from a public servant. No doubts that government developed policies to brilliant effect before the wide adoption of the computer, or even the telephone. So should we get rid of them too? An increasing number of the world’s major corporations are, or are setting up an internal wiki/collaboration platform, a social networking site, even using microblogging services like Yammer to foster internal collaboration. Indeed, these things help us to do research and develop ideas faster, and I think, better. The question isn’t why do we need GCPEDIA now. The question is why aren’t we investing to make GCPEDIA a better platform? The rest of the world is.

I’ll put this another way: tons of excellent policy solutions are waiting in the shared drives of bureaucrats across all governments.

I agree. Let’s at least put it on a wiki where more people can read them, leverage them and, hopefully, implement them. You sitting on a great idea that three other people in the entire public service have read isn’t a recipe for getting it adopted. Nor is it a good use of Canadian tax dollars. Socializing it is. Hence, social media.

Politics — being what it is — doesn’t generate progressive out solutions for various ideological reasons (applies equally to ndp, lib, con). First, tell us what a “failed” digitial economy strategy (DES) looks like. Second, tell us what components need to be included in the DES for it be successful. Third, show us why gcpedia/wikis offer the only viable means to accumulate the necessary policy ingredients.

For the last part – see my earlier post and above. As for what a failed digital economy strategy looks like – it will be one that is irrelevant. It is one that will go ignored by the majority of people who actually work in the digital economy. Of course, an irrelevant policy will be better than a truly bad one which, which I suspect, is also a real risk based on the proceedings of Canada 3.0. (That conference seemed to be about “how do we save analog business that are about to be destroyed by the digital economy” – a link to one of my favourite posts). And of course I have other metrics that matter to me. That all said, after meeting the public servant in charge of the process at Canada 3.0, I was really, really encouraged – she is very smart and gets it.

She also found the idea of writing the policy on GCPEDIA intriguing. I have my doubts that that is how things are proceeding, but it gives me hope.

The False choice: Bilingualism vs. Open Government (and accountability)

Last week a disturbing headline crossed my computer screen:

B.C. RCMP zaps old news releases from its website

2,500 releases deleted because they weren’t translated into French

1) The worst of all possible outcomes

This is a terrible outcome for accountability and open government. When we erase history we diminish accountability and erode our capacity to learn. As of today, Canadians have a poorer sense of what the RCMP has stood for, what it has claimed and what it has tried to do in British Columbia.

Consider this. The Vancouver Airport is a bilingual designated detachment. As of today, all press releases that were not translated were pulled down. This means that any press release related to the national scandal that erupted after Robert Dziekański – the polish immigrant who was tasered five times by the (RCMP) – is now no longer online. Given the shockingly poor performance the RCMP had in managing (and telling the truth about) this issue – this concerns me.

Indeed, I can’t think that anyone thinks this is a good idea.

The BC RCMP does not appear to think it is a good idea. Consider their press officer’s line: “We didn’t have a choice, we weren’t compliant.”

I don’t think there are any BC residents who believe they are better served by this policy.

Nor do I think my fellow francophone citizens believe they are better served by this decision. Now no one – either francophone or anglophone can find these press releases online. (More on this below)

I would be appalled if a similar outcome occurred in Quebec or a francophone community in Manitoba. If the RCMP pulled down all French press releases because they didn’t happen to have English translations, I’d be outraged – even if I didn’t speak French.

That’s because the one thing worse than not having the document in both official languages, is not having access to the document at all. (And having it hidden in some binder in a barracks that I have to call or visit doesn’t event hint of being accessible in the 21st century).

Indeed, I’m willing to bet almost anything that Graham Fraser, the Official Languages Commissioner – who is himself a former journalist – would be deeply troubled by this decision.

2) Guided by Yesterday, Not Preparing for Tomorrow

Of course, what should really anger the Official Languages Commissioner is an attempt to pit open and accountable government against bilingualism. This is a false choice.

I suspect that the current narrative in government is that translating these documents is too expensive. If one relies on government translators, this is probably true. The point is, we no longer have to.

My friend and colleague Luke C. pinged me after I tweeted this story saying “I’d help them automate translating those news releases into french using myGengo. Would be easy.”

Yes, mygengo would make it cheap at 5 cents a word (or 15 if you really want to overkill it). But even smarter would be to approach Google. Google translate – especially between French and English – has become shockingly good. Perfect… no. Of course, this is what the smart and practical people on the ground at the RCMP were doing until the higher ups got scared by a French CBC story that was critical of the practice. A practice that was ended even though it did not violate any policies.

The problem is there isn’t going to be more money to do translation – not in a world of multi-billion dollar deficits and in a province that boasts 63,000 french speakers. But Google translate? It is going to keep getting better and better. Indeed, the more it translates, the better it gets. If the RCMP (or Canadian government) started putting more documents through Google translate and correcting them it would become still more accurate. The best part is… it’s free. I’m willing to bet that if you ran all 2500 of the press releases through Google translate right now… 99% of them would come out legible and of a standard that would be good enough to share. (again, not perfect, but serviceable). Perhaps the CBC won’t be perfectly happy. But I’m not sure the current outcome makes them happy either. And at least we’ll be building a future in which they will be happy tomorrow.

The point here is that this decision reaffirms a false binary: one based on a 20th century assumptions where translations were expensive and laborious. It holds us back and makes our government less effective and more expensive. But worse, it ignores an option that embraces a world of possibilities – the reality of tomorrow. By continuing to automatically translate these documents today we’d continue to learn how to use and integrate this technology now, and push it to get better, faster. Such a choice would serve the interests of both open and accountable governments as well as bilingualism.

Sadly, no one at the head office of the RCMP – or in the federal government – appears to have that vision. So today we are a little more language, information and government poor.

Three asides:

1) I find it fascinating that the media can get mailed a press release that isn’t translated but the public is not allowed to access it on a website until it is – this is a really interesting form of discrimination, one that supports a specific business model and has zero grounding in the law, and indeed may even be illegal given that the media has no special status in Canadian law.

2) Still more fascinating is how the RCMP appears to be completely unresponsive to news stories about inappropriate behavior in its ranks, like say the illegal funding of false research to defend the war on drugs, but one story about language politics causes the organization to change practices that aren’t even in violation of its policies. It us sad to see more evidence still that the RCMP is one of the most broken agencies in the Federal government.

3) Thank you to Vancouver Sun Reporter Chad Skelton for updating me on the Google aspect of this story.

What Governments can Learn about Citizen Engagement from Air Canada

Yes. You read that title right.

I’m aware that airlines are not known for their customer responsiveness. Ask anyone whose been trapped on a plane on the tarmac for 14 hours. You know you’ve really dropped the ball when Congress (which agrees on almost nothing) passes a customer bill of rights explicitly for your industry.

Air Canada, however, increasingly seems to be the exception to this rule. Their recent response to online customer feedback is instructive of why this is the case. For governments interested in engaging citizens online and improving services, Air Canada is an interesting case study.

The Background

Earlier this year, with great fanfare, Air Canada announced it was changing how it managed its frequent flyer reward system. Traditional, it had given out upgrade certificates which allowed customers who’d flown a certain number of flights the air-canada-logoability to upgrade themselves into business class for free. Obviously the people who use these certificates are some of Air Canada’s more loyal customers (to get certificates you have to be flying a fair amount). The big change was that rather than simple giving customers certificates after flying a certain number of miles, customers would earn “points” which they could allocate towards flights.

This was supposed to be a good news story because a) it meant that users had greater flexibility around how they upgraded themselves and b) the whole system was digitized so that travelers wouldn’t have to carry certificates around with them (this was the most demanded feature by users).

The Challenge

In addition to the regular emails and website announcement an Air Canada representative also posted details about the new changes on a popular air traveler forum called Flyertalk.com. (Note: Here is the first great lesson – don’t expect customers or citizens to come to you… go to where they hang out, especially your most hard core stakeholders).

flyertalk_logoVery quickly these important stakeholders (customers) began running the numbers and started discovering various flaws and problems. Some noticed that the top tier customers were getting a lesser deal than ordinary customers. Others began to sniff out how the new program essentially meant their benefits were being cut. In short, the very incentives the rewards program was supposed to create were being undermined. Indeed the conversation thread extended to over 113 pages. With roughly 15 comments per page, that meant around 1500 comments about the service.

This, of course, is what happens with customers, stakeholder and citizens in a digital world. They can get together. They can analyze your service. And they will notice any flaws or changes that do not seem above board or are worse than what previously existed.

So here, on Flyertalk, Air Canada has some of its most sophisticated and important customers – the people that will talk to everyone about Air travel rewards programs, starting to revolt against its new service which was supposed to be a big improvement. This was (more than) a little bit of a crisis.

The Best Practice

First, Air Canada was smart because it didn’t argue with anyone. It didn’t have communication people trying to explain to people how they were wrong.

Instead it was patient. It appeared silent. But in reality it was doing something more important, it was listening.

Remember many of these users know the benefits program better than most Air Canada employees. And it has real impact on their decisions, so they are going to analyze it up and down.

Second, When it finally did respond, Air Canada did several things right.

It responded in Flyertalk.com – again going to where the conversation was. (It subsequently sent around an email to all its members).

It noted that it had been listening and learning from its customers.

More than just listen, Air Canada had taken its customers feedback and used it to revise its air travel rewards program.

And, most importantly, the tone it took was serious, but engaging. Look at the first few sentences:

Thanks to everyone for the comments that have been posted here the last few days, and especially those who took the time to post some very valuable, constructive feedback. While it’s not our intent to address every issue raised on this forum on the changes to the 2011 Top Tier program, some very valid points were raised which we agree should be addressed to the best of our ability. These modifications are our attempt to do just that.

Governments, this is a textbook case on how to listen to citizens. They use your services. They know how they work. The single biggest take away here is, when they complain and construct logical arguments about why a service doesn’t make sense use that feedback to revise the service and make it better. People don’t want to hear why you can’t make it better – they want you to make it better. More importantly, these types of users are the ones who know your service the best and who talk to everyone about it. They are your alpha users – leverage them!

Again, to recap. What I saw Air Canada do that was positive was:

  • Engage their stakeholders where their stakeholders hang out (e.g. not on the Air Canada website)
  • Listen to what their stakeholders had to say
  • Use that feedback to improve the service
  • Communicate with customers in a direct and frank manner

Air Canada is doing more than just getting this type of engagement right. Their twitter account posts actual useful information, not just marketing glop and spin. I’m not sure who is doing social media for them, but definitely worth watching.

There’s a lot here for organizations to learn from. Moreover, for a company that used to be a crown corp I think that should mean there is hope for your government too – even if they presently ban access to facebook, twitter or say, my blog.

Big thank you to Mike B. for pointing out this cool case study to me.

The Open Data Debate Arrives in Ottawa

The Liberals are promising to create an open data portal – opendata.gc.ca – much like President Obama has done in the United States and both Gordon Brown and David Cameron have done in the United Kingdom.

It’s a savvy move.

In May 2010 when it launched a public consultation on the Digital Economy, the government invited the public to submit proposals and vote on them. Two of the top three most voted ideas involved asking the government to open up access to government collected data. Three months after the submissions have closed it appears the opposition has decided to act on Canadians wishes and release a 21st century open government strategy that reflects these popular demands.

Today, at 1pm EST, I’ve discovered the Liberals will announce that, if elected, they will adopt a government-wide directive in which “the default position for all departments and agencies will be for the release of information to the public, both proactively and responsively, after privacy and other legal requirements are met.”

There is much that both ordinary citizens and advocates of greater government transparency will like in the proposal. Not only have the Liberals mirrored the most aggressive parts of President Obama’s transparency initiatives they are also promising some specific and aggressive policies of their own. In addition to promising to launching opendata.gc.ca to share government data the document proposes the creation of accesstoinformation.gc.ca where citizens could search past and current access to information requests as well as see response times. A third website, entitled accountablespending.gc.ca is also proposed. It would allow government grants, contributions and contracts to be searched.

The announcement brings to the Canadian political debate an exciting issue that first gained broad notoriety in early 2009 when Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, called on the world’s governments to share their data. By May of that year the United States launched data.gov and in September of 2009 the British Government launched data.gov.uk both of which garnered significant domestic attention. In addition, dozens of cities around the world – including Vancouver, Edmonton and, most recently, Ottawa – have launched websites where they shared information that local charities, non-profits, businesses and ordinary citizens might find useful.

Today, citizens in these jurisdictions enjoy improved access to government information about the economy, government spending, access to information requests, and statistical data. In the United States developers have created websites that empower citizens by enabling them to analyze government data or see what government data exists about their community while a British program alerts citizens to restaurant’s health inspections scores.  The benefit however, not limited to improved transparency and accountability. An independent British estimated that open data could contribute as much as £6 billion to British economy. Canada’s computer developers, journalists and entrepreneurs have been left wondering, when will their government give them access to the data their tax dollars paid to collect?

One obvious intent of the Liberals is to reposition themselves at the forefront of a debate around government transparency and accountability. This is ground that has traditionally been Conservative, but with the cancellation of the long form census, the single source jet fighter contract and, more recently, allegations that construction contracts were awarded to conservative party donors, is once again contestable.

What will be interesting to see is the Conservative response. It’s been rumored the government has explored an open data portal but to date there has been no announcement. Open data is one area where, often, support exists across the political spectrum. In the United Kingdom Gordon Brown’s Labour government launched data.gov.uk but David Cameron’s Conservative government has pursued the project more aggressively still, forcing the release of additional and higher value data to the public. A failure to adopt open data would be tragedy – it would cause Canada to lag in an important space that is beginning to reshape how governments work together and how they serve and interact with citizens. But perhaps most obviously, open data and open government shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

From Public Servant to Public Insurgent

Are you a public insurgent?

Today, a generation of young people are arriving into the public service familiar with all sorts of tools – especially online and social media driven tools – that they have become accustomed to using. Tools like wikis, survey monkeys, doodle, instant messaging or websites like wikipedia, or issue specific blogs enable them to be more productive, more efficient and more knowledgeable.

And yet, when they arrive in their office they are told: “You cannot use those tools here.”

In short, they are told: “Don’t be efficient.”

You can, of course, imagine the impact on moral of having a boss tell you that you must do you work in a manner that is slower and less effective then you might otherwise do. Indeed, today, in the public service and even in many large organizations, we may be experiencing the first generation of a work force that is able to accomplish coordination and knowledge building tasks faster at home than at work.

Some, when confronted with this choice simple resign themselves to the power of their organizations rules and become less efficient. Others (and I suspect not an insignificant number), begin the process of looking for their next job. But what I find particularly interesting is a tinier segment who –  as dedicated employees, that love the public service and who want to be as effective as possible – believe in their mission so strongly that they neither leave, nor do they adhere to the rules. They become public insurgents and do some of their work outside the governments infrastructure.

Having spoken about government 2.0 and the future of the public service innumerable times now I have, on several occasions, run into individuals or even groups, of these public insurgents. Sometimes they installed a wiki behind the firewall, sometimes they grab their laptop and head to a cafe so they can visit websites that are useful, but blocked by their ministry, sometimes they simple send around a survey monkey in contravention of an IT policy. The offenses range from the minor to the significant. But in each case these individuals are motivated by the fact that this is the most, and sometimes only, way to do the task they’ve been handed in an effective way. More interesting is that sometimes their acts of rebellion create a debate that causes the organization to embrace the tools they secretly use, sometimes they it doesn’t and they continue to toil in secret.

I find this trend – one that I think may be growing – fascinating.

So my question to you is… are you a public insurgent? If you are I’d love to hear your story. Please post it in the comments (using an anonymous handle) or send me an email.

Getting Government Right Behind the Firewall

The other week I stumbled on this fantastic piece by Susan Oh of Ragan.com about a 50 day effort by the BC government to relaunch its intranet set.

Yes, 50 days.

If you run a large organization’s intranet site I encourage to read the piece. (Alternatively, if you are forced (or begged) to use one, forward this article to someone in charge). The measured results are great – essentially a doubling in pretty much all the things you want to double (like participation) – but what is really nice is how quick and affordable the whole project was, something rarely seen in most bureaucracies.

Here is an intranet for 30,000 employees, that “was rebuilt from top to bottom within 50 days with only three developers who were learning the open-source platform Drupal as they as went along.”

I beg someone in the BC government to produce an example of such a significant roleout being accomplished with so few resources. Indeed, it sounds eerily similar to GCPEDIA (available to 300,000 people using open source software and 1 FTE, plus some begged and borrowed resources) and OPSPedia (a test project also using open source software with tiny rollout costs). Notice a pattern?

Across our governments (not to mention a number of large conservative companies) there are tiny pockets where resourceful teams find a leader or project manager willing to buck the idea that a software implementations must be a multi-year, multimillion dollar roll out. And they are making the lives of public servants better. God knows our public servants need better tools, and quickly. Even the set of tools being offered in the BC examples weren’t that mind-blowing, pretty basic stuff for anyone operating as a knowledge worker.

I’m not even saying that what you do has to be open source (although clearly, the above examples show that it can allow one to move speedily and cheaply) but I suspect that the number of people (and the type of person) interested in government would shift quickly if, internally, they had this set of tools at their disposal. (Would love to talk to someone at Canada’s Food Inspection Agency about their experience with Socialtext)

The fact is, you can. And, of course, this quickly get us to the real problem… most governments and large corporations don’t know how to deal with the cultural and power implications of these tools.

We’ll we’d better get busy experimenting and trying cause knowledge workers will go where they can use their and their peers brains most effectively. Increasingly, that isn’t government. I know I’m a fan of the long tail of public policy, but we’ve got to fix government behind the firewall, otherwise their won’t be a government behind the firewall to fix.