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.
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.
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…
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.