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.

12 thoughts on “What the post-bureaucratic era will mean for the public service

  1. Harley Young

    With a few notable exceptions, technology issues in the public sector are not substantially different than those in any other large multinational enterprise. Nonetheless, the public sector appears to have three problems (and one superb opportunity) that distinguish it from most other organizations.Problems – A workforce, filled with institutional knowledge, on the cusp of retirement. – Employment processes that are tragically broken: it’s difficult to move quickly on star candidates, and perhaps even more challenging to terminate perennial underperformers. – Among new graduates, public service suffers from the perception of stultifyingly dull work, with upward mobility being a function of tenure rather than tenacity (and results).OpportunityEngaged citizens willing to work (for free) on projects that are both meaningful to them, and useful to others.In some sense, the problems and opportunity are intertwined: the public sector has a publicity and collaboration problem. Although addressing these problems requires a shift in culture and organizational dynamics, technology can help enable public sector renewal by simplifying processes, encouraging knowledge sharing, and leveraging citizens’ willingness to participate. Change could start by using technology to enable authenticity, connectivity, visibility and availability. You've written about some of the ways that technology can be used to enable these things in some of your other posts. While thinking about the issue of IT as a strategic driver in the public sector, I've expanded on some of your ideas, and pulled in data from ChangeCamp, talks given by Clay Shirky, and papers I've written about the use of electronic social networks among Gen Y. You can read more about it here:http://www.rley.org/doku.php?id=work:it_as_a_st

  2. Dbast

    Not to hark too much on academics here, but the post-bureaucratic era is already here – It's called “New Public Management” (or NPM for short). The bureaucratic era followed the “Traditional Public Administration” era (which followed the Weberian model which brought in our Westminster system), of which the hierarchical model is still prevalent, with concentrated power.The Bureaucratic model brought in the professional public servant, with expertise and guides.The New Public Management model brought in performance targets and client-service orientation. It emerged in democratic countries, but mostly in the Westminster systems, namely the UK (under Thatcher and Tory), Australia and Canada. Emerging post-NPM models are emerging. The popular ones are “Networked governance”, “Collaborative governance” and “Public Value Management” (PVM). I believe PVM will be the dominant one we will see adopted – it's the one I believe being adopted in the US with their Open Government leaning.All still too much to get into here, however look into criticisms on NPM and you'll see the criticisms about government are common across governments applying an NPM model (i.e.: inefficiency, unresponsive, non-participatory, not the other criticisms like corruption, hegemony, polarising, etc.)Interesting thoughts though.

  3. david_a_eaves

    Dbast – thank you for the comment. I definitely haven't got the academic terms quite right. That said, my comment wasn't really aimed at the academic definition of bureaucratic – I think this post could be entitled “What the post-NPM era will mean for the public service” and would still stand.Most important to me is that I hope people find the underlying ideas in the post helpful. And I'll definitely take look at some more papers on NPM.

  4. Dbast

    A few papers you'd like – some that even contradict my point above!I have them on my server in PDF format you can get.This one you would most agree with, very aligned with what you've written:* New public management is dead. Long live digital-era governance. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theoryhttp://wiki.gc20.ca/index.php?title=Image:New_p…This is a very popular paper setting out what's coming next* Public value management – A new narrative for networked governance?http://wiki.gc20.ca/index.php?title=Image:Publi…This paper goes even further than the previous one – I disagree with it, but it has a very good summary of the history of Public Management/Administration* “Public Value Pragmatism as the Next Phase of Public Management”, The American Review of Public Administrationhttp://wiki.gc20.ca/index.php?title=Image:Publi…Tell me if you want any more! I'm just just completing my Masters in Public Admin now, so I still have a bit of memory on them! Cheers.

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  6. becca

    Thanks for your great posts. I think you may put too much emphasis on the impact of information technologies on society, organizations, etc. Isn't this relationship reciprocal? In Lawrence Lessig's 1999 version of “Code and other laws of cyberspace” he argues that the underlying values of code (the actual hardware and software of the Internet) are fundamental to the ways in which users interact with the network and with one another or, in other words, how one experiences cyberspace. At issue here is the claim that the regulatory function of code is a product of human decision-making and, as such, reflects particular values. To Lessig, decision-makers and designers decide (whether consciously or unconsciously) what values to support/embed in code (i.e. Mozilla has favoured openness). This begs the question: How is the public service and its values influencing information technologies?Your posts do a great job at encouraging and reinforcing values of openness, sharing, participation, etc. and for that I salute you :)

  7. david_a_eaves

    Nick – I saw this. Thanks man! Did you see Monday's post on values and the public service?Hoping to write some more stuff this week and get booked for a gig in Ottawa in june…Cheers,Dave

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