The Public Service as a Gift Economy

In his description of why Open Source works Eric Raymond notes that open source communities don’t operate as command hierarchies or even as exchange economies. Instead they often operate as gift economies:

Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods… Abundance makes command relationships difficult to sustain and exchange relationships an almost pointless game. In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away.

What is interesting about the public service is that it, in theory, could operate like an open source gift economy. Indeed, there are no survival necessities for those who work in the public service – their salaries are generally acceptable and their jobs secure.

This isn’t to say scarcity doesn’t exist within the public service. But it is driven by two variables – neither of which is intrinsically scarce – but have been made so by the public service’s cultural history and industrial structure.

giftThe first is resources, which are siloed into various functions and cannot allocate themselves to problems without the consent of a centralized administrator.

The second is information, which for primarily historical corporate cultural reasons is rarely shared, and is hoarded in order to maintain control over resources or agendas.

Neither of this are necessary for the public service to function. Indeed, it would function a whole lot more efficiently and effectively if such a scarcity model were abandoned. This is why I’ve been such an advocate for a social networking system within the public service – it would serve as a clearing house to allow information and resources (people) to move around the system more freely and allocate itself more efficiently.

Such a clearing house would reduce the benefits of hoarding information, as it would be increasingly difficult to leverage information into control over an agenda or resource. Instead the opposite incentive system would take over. Sharing information or your labour (as a gift) within the public service would increase your usefulness to, and reputation among, others within the system. Nor would this mean political actors at the centre of this system would have to abandon agenda control – a central authority can still have enourmous influence ascribing value to what should be worked on. It would simply no longer have absolute authority over that agenda (It is worth noting that under the current model this absolute agenda power is merely theoretical anyway – public servants have an amazing ability of doing whatever the hell they want regardless who which party is setting the agenda).

Indeed, the above contrast also explains, in part, the challenge around recuiting. As gift styled economies become more prevalent, the command hierarchy model of the public service is becoming an increasingly undesirable system within which to reside.

Update: Think a gift economy built around reputation and recognition still doesnt make sense? The Ottawa Citizen’s Katheryn May recently noted that “The “churn” of the public service, characterized by the rapid and high turnover of people in jobs, has been identified as a big problem. The APEX survey showed 64 per cent of executives think of leaving their organization at least every month. More than half want to leave because of lack of recognition. (H/T to CPRenewal)”

14 thoughts on “The Public Service as a Gift Economy

  1. Sameer Vasta

    You have a knack for writing about topics just as I’m discussing them with colleagues here at work. Of course, you say it much better than I ever do. I’ll be sharing this with all of them. Thanks David!

    Reply
  2. Sameer Vasta

    You have a knack for writing about topics just as I’m discussing them with colleagues here at work. Of course, you say it much better than I ever do. I’ll be sharing this with all of them. Thanks David!

    Reply
  3. ncharney

    Thanks for dropping us an email. I have your blog on my RSS so I got the post as soon as it went up and then pretty much linked to it immediately on my own site.

    And thanks for the link to the site in your update.

    Cheers!

    Reply
  4. ncharney

    Thanks for dropping us an email. I have your blog on my RSS so I got the post as soon as it went up and then pretty much linked to it immediately on my own site.And thanks for the link to the site in your update.Cheers!

    Reply
  5. Alex Sirota

    Give this some thought:

    Have you ever thought why technology developed by government and the broader public sector is not open-sourced? After all it has been paid for by the public’s tax dollars, therefore it is essentially owned by the public.

    Why wouldn’t all software be open for anyone to use the way Firefox is, for example?

    Reply
  6. Alex Sirota

    Give this some thought:Have you ever thought why technology developed by government and the broader public sector is not open-sourced? After all it has been paid for by the public’s tax dollars, therefore it is essentially owned by the public.Why wouldn’t all software be open for anyone to use the way Firefox is, for example?

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Can Canadian Public Services truly operate as ‘gift economies’? «

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  9. Suesan Danesh

    Thanks David – I think it is very important to get at these notions just as public service leaders are heavily promoting collaboration and executives & management are struggling with how to deliver on it.

    Reply
  10. Suesan Danesh

    Thanks David – I think it is very important to get at these notions just as public service leaders are heavily promoting collaboration and executives & management are struggling with how to deliver on it.

    Reply
  11. Pingback: How Science Is Rediscovering “Open” And What It Means For Government | eaves.ca

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