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.