The PM’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service: The Good, The Bad, The Hopeful

On February 25th Paul Tellier and David Emerson – two men whose understanding of Ottawa I have a tremendous amount of respect for – released The Fourth Report of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service. It is a document that is worth diving into as these reports will likely serve as reference points for (re)thinking on renewing government for the foreseeable future.

The Bad:

On the rough side, I have a single high-level comment: These reports are likely to be as close as we are going to get in Canada to Australia’s Government 2.0 Taskforce (on which I served as part of the international reference group) or Britain’s Cabinet Office Power of Information Taskforce Report (which would have been tremendous to have been involved in).

To be clear, this is not the fault of the committee. Its terms of reference appear to be much broader. This has to predictable consequences. First, relatively little time is dedicated to the general reorganizing of society being prompted by the now 40 year old internet revolution is only carving out a small role. The committee is thus not able to dive into any detail on how the changing role of information in society, on open data, on the power of self-organization, or the rising power and influence of social media could and should re-shape the public service.

Second, much more time is dedicated to thinking about problems around HR and pay. These are important issues. However, since the vision of the public service remains broadly unchanged, my sense is the reforms, while sometimes large, are ultimately tweaks designed to ensure the continuation of the current model – not prompting a rethink (or the laying of groundwork) for a 21st century public service which will ultimately have to look different to stay relevant.

The best example of the implications of this limited scope can be found under the section “Staying Relevant and Connected.” Here the report has two recommendations, including:

The Public Service must take full advantage of collaborative technologies to facilitate interaction with citizens, partners and stakeholders.

The Public Service should adopt a structured approach to tapping into broad-based external expertise. This includes collaboration and exchanges with universities, social policy organizations, think tanks, other levels of government and jurisdictions, private sector organizations and citizens.

These are good! They are also pretty vague and tame. This isn’t so much renewal as it is a baseline for a functioning 20th century public service. More importantly, given some of the other pieces in the report these appear to be recommendations about how the government can engage in pretty traditional manners (exchanges). Moreover, they are externally focused. The main problem with the public service is that its members aren’t even allowed to use collaborative technologies to interact among themselves so how can they possible be ask to collaborate externally? As I say in my OCAD lecture and my chapter in Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice – a digital citizenry isn’t interested in talking to an analogue government. The change required is first and foremost internal. But advocating for such a change is a major effort – one that will require significant culture and process change – which I haven’t found so far in the report and which is probably beyond its scope.

The Good:

That said, when the report does talk about technology and/or collaboration – it broadly says the right things. For example, in the section Creating A Modern, Enabled Workplace the report says:

creating a workplace that will attract, retain and empower public servants to innovate, collaborate and be responsive to the public. Among other things, this must include the adoption of collaborative technologies that are increasingly widespread in other sectors.

And, perhaps more importantly, under the section Strengthening Policy Capacity: A Relevant and Connected Public Service the report states:

A public service operating in isolation runs the risk of becoming irrelevant. We believe that the quality of policy thinking must be enhanced by additional perspectives from citizens, stakeholders and experts from other jurisdictions and other sectors (e.g. business, academia, non-governmental organizations). We believe sound government policy should be shaped by a full range of perspectives, and policy makers must consistently reach beyond the National Capital Region for input and advice.

Furthermore, the Public Service now has an opportunity to engage Canadians, especially younger ones, through the use of Web 2.0 collaborative technologies such as wikis, blogs and social networking. These offer an excellent way for the Public Service to reach out and connect.

Again, great stuff. Although, my concerns from above should also be reiterated. A networked public service is one that will need new norms as it will function very differently. The task force has little to say about this (again because of their expansive purview and not through their own fault). But this issue must be addressed in full. I frequently argue that one reason public servants are so stressed is that they live double lives. They already live in a networked workplace and play by network rules in order to get their job done, however, they are perpetually told they live in a hierarchy and have to pretend they abide by that more traditional rule set. Double lives are always stressful…

The Hope:

As the committee moves forward it says it will:

…consider and advise on new business models for the Public Service with a view to creating an innovative and productive workforce that continues to deliver increasing value for money by taking advantage of new tools and technology;

I hope that open data, open systems and some of the ideas around a network government I’ve been advocating and talking about along with numerous others, get in front of the committee – these all represent building blocks for a significantly more flexible, innovative and product public service.

6 thoughts on “The PM’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service: The Good, The Bad, The Hopeful

  1. Pingback: Lucca Bike 9th -11th April 2010 | Together in Tuscany & Umbria | Bicycling Leisure Knowledge

  2. jhcarleton

    I just thought I'd quickly respond. Thanks for providing your comments on the report. I'm very interested in renewal issues myself and I am a federal public servant.I think you focus too much on technology and the tools and not on creating the culture that supports those tools. I'm quite skeptical of just simply providing these tools to people in government without changing the culture. I see that GCPEDIA exists but I don't see a lot of take-up of it, even thought it's potentially a great tool. Even younger people I know in the government don't really see the purpose of GCPedia and it's fine to blame it on them, but I don't think that really serves much of a purpose.Given the small number of public servants who are passionate about social media and web 2.0, I fail to see how focusing on these tools will lead us to renewal, without also focusing on the broader questions of renewal, the Pay system is so broken it's not funny, fixing that will have huge benefits.Perhaps your thinking is more integrated than this, but often I find what you're saying is that “Pursue these tools, and it will lead to renewal”Anyways thanks for your comments and for your insights, I am looking forward to hearing your presentation this week in Ottawa on open government.

    Reply
  3. David Eaves

    jhcarleton, thank you for comment. I think we are complete agreement – or at least, I completely agree that the tools are not sufficient – the biggest challenge here is not the technology but – as you say – the culture. Indeed, this is something I've written about in places like here, here, a little bit here and more broadly that just the PS here. I think probably the single most quoted line in my presentations is that PS renewal isn't going to be solved by a new policy (or a new technology) but by leadership and modeling of behaviour.That said, I think it is hard to talk about what a culture should look like in isolation of context – and the technology is the context. The public service looked different (and operated more slowly before the advent of the telephone – that change in context changed the public service. I'd argue that the digital economy is a significantly greater shift than the advent of the phone. I'm simply asking that we engage in our rethink about what the public service should look like – it's structure, its processes, accountability, and its culture – with a networked era in mind.

    Reply
  4. Thom Kearney

    If I can just jump in here for a second with a couple of sound bites: Its not about the tools, its about the behaviour the tools enable. In other words the culture you are both talking about. GCPEDIA has a fuzzy purpose because right now it is the only tool everyone can get to, it is an experiment that is revealing an emerging purpose. Actually a set of purposes, but those will evolve as new tools become available, new tools which enable new behaviours. I like what you say about technology being the context David, I also think it can be a powerful catalyst for change. The other day when reflecting on my last two years leading the GCPEDIA project it occurred to me that it was that it was, and still is, a transformation project masquerading as a tools project. As a last point to add to jhcarleton's comment. The upatake of GCPEDIA has been consistent since inception growing from 50 new registrations per week to up to 500 the last months I was there. Activity as measured by the edit to view ratio was relatively consistent the whole period. Even so, at 12,000 users that represents less than 5% of the of the public service, so there is lots of room for growth.

    Reply
  5. Thom Kearney

    If I can just jump in here for a second with a couple of sound bites: Its not about the tools, its about the behaviour the tools enable. In other words the culture you are both talking about. GCPEDIA has a fuzzy purpose because right now it is the only tool everyone can get to, it is an experiment that is revealing an emerging purpose. Actually a set of purposes, but those will evolve as new tools become available, new tools which enable new behaviours. I like what you say about technology being the context David, I also think it can be a powerful catalyst for change. The other day when reflecting on my last two years leading the GCPEDIA project it occurred to me that it was that it was, and still is, a transformation project masquerading as a tools project. As a last point to add to jhcarleton's comment. The upatake of GCPEDIA has been consistent since inception growing from 50 new registrations per week to up to 500 the last months I was there. Activity as measured by the edit to view ratio was relatively consistent the whole period. Even so, at 12,000 users that represents less than 5% of the of the public service, so there is lots of room for growth.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: Gov 2.0: Changing government standards and ‘Common Look and Feel’

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