The Open Source Public Service

Consider these to quotes side by side:

First,

“Human beings generally take pleasure in a task when it falls in a sort of optimal-challenge zone; not so easy as to be boring, not too hard to achieve. A happy programmer is one who is neither underutilized nor weighed down with ill-formulated goals and stressful process friction. Enjoyment predicts efficiency.

Relating to your own work process with fear and loathing (even in the displacing, ironic way suggested by hanging up Dilbert cartoons) should therefore be regarded in itself as a sign that the process has failed. Joy, humor, and playfulness are indeed assets…”

– Eric Raymond, The Cathedral & The Bazaar

(BTW: Who would have thought that the entire line of Dilbert cartoons – their humorous reflections on how organizations (dis)function – could be made depressingly painful in one brief phrase.)

Second,

“Disability claims and stress leaves are soaring. For many public service managers, the work-life balance is so unhealthy that one major federal department has tried to implement a BlackBerry ban between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., so that people can reclaim some of their personal time. Management scholars are using the public service as a laboratory to study workplace dysfunction…

…The discussion about public service renewal is ongoing, but one valuable contribution arrived this week. In a report released Wednesday, the Public Policy Forum, an Ottawa-based think tank, succinctly identifies some of the key problems facing the public service. Few of these observations are likely to surprise Ottawa insiders, but it’s useful all the same to see them legitimized by respected researchers.

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The report confirms, for example, public servants feel so tangled up in procedure and regulations they are unable to get meaningful work done… Yes, public servants need to be accountable, especially in the post-Gomery universe, but if the “web of rules” is completely extinguishing every spark of innovation and producing the most risk-averse organization in the country, then there’s a problem.”

The Ottawa Citizen Editorial Board

The narrative of the public service as a byzantine, rule bound place has become so accepted it is now unquestioned gosple. The truth is always more complicated. I know of, and occasionally hear from, people who work in places where (usually small) teams of public servants work in flat collaborative groups that are able to achieve great things. But the narrative exists for a reason – as the above Ottawa Citizen piece attests. This is why where you work in the public service (and often who you work for) is far more important than what file you work on.

So how much work in the public service falls within the optimal-challenge zone described by Raymond? More importantly, how many public servants would continue to do their job if they weren’t paid? 10%? 35%? 50%?

My suspicion is that the open source community for public policy is actually quite large. It includes those in the public service – who are tied up and tied down in their silos, but also extends much further. The problem is that it is tied down by process and an industrial model to “churning out” policy that doesn’t work well with today’s knowledge workers.

Canada25 showed that hundreds and indeed thousands of young people wanted to think about, engage in, and write about public policy in their spare time. All we did was allow them to focus on whatever they wanted and create as frictionless a process as possible. The result? Four well received policy papers in 6 years on top of numerous smaller projects, debates, discussion groups and countless other outcomes I don’t even know about.

The main point is that “open” can work in policy development. So maybe it is time to set the public service free? To allow policy analysts to self-organize and focus their attention to where they believe they can best contribute, rather than having hundreds if not thousands of them babysitting files that simple don’t move?

Why not treat policy challenges like open source software programs. Create a policyforge (modeled after sourceforge) where the policy can reside and where the module policy owner, can foster a community and accept its ideas, opinions and edits.

Will it work? I can’t guarantee it. But we’d better start experimenting because the one thing we do know. The current system is beginning to crack.

5 thoughts on “The Open Source Public Service

  1. Jeremy Vernon

    I’ve always believed that the process of designing good software isn’t too far afield from the process of designing good law – policy is the software of organizations after all.

    Has anyone done / is doing a comprehensive Business Process Model description of the government?

    Reply
  2. Jeremy Vernon

    I’ve always believed that the process of designing good software isn’t too far afield from the process of designing good law – policy is the software of organizations after all.Has anyone done / is doing a comprehensive Business Process Model description of the government?

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Bookmarks about Service

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