From Public Servant to Public Insurgent

Are you a public insurgent?

Today, a generation of young people are arriving into the public service familiar with all sorts of tools – especially online and social media driven tools – that they have become accustomed to using. Tools like wikis, survey monkeys, doodle, instant messaging or websites like wikipedia, or issue specific blogs enable them to be more productive, more efficient and more knowledgeable.

And yet, when they arrive in their office they are told: “You cannot use those tools here.”

In short, they are told: “Don’t be efficient.”

You can, of course, imagine the impact on moral of having a boss tell you that you must do you work in a manner that is slower and less effective then you might otherwise do. Indeed, today, in the public service and even in many large organizations, we may be experiencing the first generation of a work force that is able to accomplish coordination and knowledge building tasks faster at home than at work.

Some, when confronted with this choice simple resign themselves to the power of their organizations rules and become less efficient. Others (and I suspect not an insignificant number), begin the process of looking for their next job. But what I find particularly interesting is a tinier segment who –  as dedicated employees, that love the public service and who want to be as effective as possible – believe in their mission so strongly that they neither leave, nor do they adhere to the rules. They become public insurgents and do some of their work outside the governments infrastructure.

Having spoken about government 2.0 and the future of the public service innumerable times now I have, on several occasions, run into individuals or even groups, of these public insurgents. Sometimes they installed a wiki behind the firewall, sometimes they grab their laptop and head to a cafe so they can visit websites that are useful, but blocked by their ministry, sometimes they simple send around a survey monkey in contravention of an IT policy. The offenses range from the minor to the significant. But in each case these individuals are motivated by the fact that this is the most, and sometimes only, way to do the task they’ve been handed in an effective way. More interesting is that sometimes their acts of rebellion create a debate that causes the organization to embrace the tools they secretly use, sometimes they it doesn’t and they continue to toil in secret.

I find this trend – one that I think may be growing – fascinating.

So my question to you is… are you a public insurgent? If you are I’d love to hear your story. Please post it in the comments (using an anonymous handle) or send me an email.

37 thoughts on “From Public Servant to Public Insurgent

  1. Nicholas Charney

    David – I am clearly one of those people, and to be honest derive a great deal of personal and professional satisfaction from being “counter-cultural” and pushing the limits of traditional thinking within the organization. That being said, I don’t think that calling insurgents is going to help our cause.


    1. David Eaves

      Hi Nick,

      Thanks for the comment. Two things, one public insurgents was just a catchy blog post, the kind of thing you need to do to get people’s attention. The most important thing was for the blog post to let people who are struggling with this know they aren’t alone, and maybe even share s story.

      Second is, often, in small and/or soft ways these people are working outsides the rules. If you are struggling for legitimacy you, by definition, not legitimate. I think we’ve reached a place where we need, to a certain degree, to celebrate that.

      Around the world we have public sector leaders saying they want public servants to innovate and to take more measured risks, and for many of them, this is simply not possible within the confines of the infrastructure they’ve been given. There is an insurgency, or a counter-culture, or a movement (we can figure out what to call it) of people who want the public service to do better and are will to take risks to explore what that could look like.

      But again, mostly I wanted people to know that they are not alone, and hopefully, one or two of them might share their story.

      1. Nicholas Charney

        I honestly wasn’t trying to sidetrack the conversation, my gut reaction was that the title detracted from the message (as was clear by my comment). My fear is that if others – say those who are currently on the fence – react as I did, they may choose not to share their story. Not everyone may be ready to wear the moniker your post has given them.

        Personally, it’s been a rough few weeks, so maybe I am overreacting, lost the forest for the trees if you will. If it’s any indication of my mind set, I’ve been told by about 2 dozen people that I’ve gone corporate (haircut, tie, etc). But I digress, thanks for the clarification David, I’m looking forward to reading some of the stories people share and doing our panel next week.


  2. Mark Kuznicki

    Personally I think the “Public Insurgent” title is effective and snappy. I wish I had thought of it.

    I am not one, of course. I am an outside consultant who is hired into organizations specifically to bring “fresh eyes”/insurgency from my free agent outsider perspective. It’s a clear decision by someone on the inside to bring the legitimacy of that outside perspective into the organization.

    I can say things as an outside consultant that many insiders might know or suspect but are disabled from saying thanks more to corporate culture than a specific written rule or policy.

    When I meet people on the inside like Nick and so many others I’ve met, I am hopeful for the future. I see the possibility of positive change. I think Nick and others should wear their insurgency proudly and openly. You will always have a job on the outside as a consultant. :)

  3. anonymous

    I work in a federal department that celebrates its use of the wiki. Unfortunately, the wiki is near useless from a policy development perspective. It is never updated, it rarely contains topical, up-to-date and relevant information, and is bogged down by hyper-sensitive managers who need to know all communications that come from their respective branches.

    I have tried to develop policy pieces on the wiki as a means of more efficient version management and to foster more collaborative engagement. Sadly this has immediately been denied because some of the material may be ‘secret’ and for other reasons. Now, our division has placed a memo out to its members to detail what wiki articles they have posted in their capacity and what approvals process they followed. This type of monitoring is hardly condusive to more wiki engagement.

    Going onto more of a rant, in my mind one of the biggest problems with a technological resurgence in the public sector is capacity. There simply doesn’t exist the capacity among many of the existing employees to actually post wiki articles or use other types of collaborative software. For many (most) sending a decently formatted email is the pinnacle of their technological achievement. As a result an obstinate and public intransigence to new technologies is a staple of many employees and managers.

    My department has been making efforts. It has sent out multiple surveys and engaged in consultation sessions to promote the wiki and other collaborative tools but this is too often an act of navel gazing. What is needed a clear and purposeful directive from senior management on the use of these technologies. Public servants do not stick their neck out. Until there is clear senior level ‘approval’ to use it to complete the business and objectives of the department then these tools will languish.

    That doesn’t preclude someone like me from continuing the push the issue. I am advocating that we develop our sector business plan on the wiki. This has received lukewarm support so far. Ultimately, though it is tiring and frustrating to continue to advocate against considerable institutional pushback with very little reward. That’s why I believe that most ‘public insurgents’ are also looking for other jobs. I know I am.

  4. Ian Bron

    A good post with a pithy title. When I think of public insurgency, though, I think more about what Rosemary O’Leary was talking about in her book _The Ethics of Dissent: Managing Guerrilla Government_, which dealt with various methods to subvert dangerous or unethical policies and decisions.

    That said, you’ve really hit the nail on the head. There’s a persistent perception by senior managers (mainly technopeasants in their 50s) that the tools you mention are either toys and time-wasters or somehow threatening (e.g. by exposing management to the risk of potentially embarrassing facts becoming public through imprudent action by a subordinate). At the same time, they adopt the language and vocabulary of efficiency and openness when communicating to the public – or even to employees.

    From a personal perspective, I remember my first few weeks in the (federal) government about 10 years ago. I was merrily working away on web-based educational materials when a colleague came over and told me to “sloooow down”, complete with hand gestures. His point was that system couldn’t process material beyond a certain pace – and that I had exceeded it.

      1. David Eaves

        Someone not yet 62… completely agree. Often I run into people who are over 50 who are keen to really push the boundaries or even try something out that isn’t “premitted.” I am more concerned with younger public servants since I’m worried that a larger part of that cohort may seek other jobs (or choose not to enter the public service) but this should not become an ageist conversation. There are people of all ages across government organizations chaffing for change…

        1. Someone not yet 62

          Actually, the average age of our group is quite young, and a large number are late 20’s early 30’s. The work that attracts people doesn’t attract people that like communicating in web 2.0 domains. There is absolutely no prohibition against forum use, wiki use at all whatsoever. There is just lack of interest, pure and simple.

  5. Nina Ilnyckyj

    I’m with Nick on the problematic nature of the term ‘insurgent’:

    -Insurgency is about revolting. Resisting. Honestly, fighting sucks. It depletes energy. When I do something that goes against the status quo and pushes boundaries, I find it works better to align it with values that other people share (and actually most times there is a lot of commonality, it’s just that we as a whole might not necessarily be living up to it. Living up to what other people want is a good approach I find…for ex working in a coffee shop or using unapproved software isn’t really being rebellious, it’s about doing a job right, something everyone wants…it’s focusing on the larger goals).

    -‘Insurgency’ means revolting against authority. This implies that we perceive that we do not have power. We do. In a democracy, all are the authority (well, theoretically). So why would we revolt against ourselves, instead of just being powerful?

    -The term embodies an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality. I think the movement we are part of is the opposite. It’s about working together with people in govt, communities, other jurisdiction, all levels, ages, etc. Let’s go above the fighting mentality that over and over again keeps society from trusting each other and holds us back. Let’s take the higher ground, lose the teenager angst mentality. Focus on commonalities.

    1. Mark Kuznicki

      Nina, to your point and as a way of thinking about this, I wanted to share this post from Saul Kaplan of the Business Innovation Factory: “Innovate Through Connected Adjacencies”: A quote: “Don’t go to war with current models and systems. Too many are in love with them and you will lose.”

      Public Insurgents are innovators and intrapreneurs. Like intrapreneurs in other industries, they are challenged to develop and introduce the new when much of the existing structure is designed around the old. They should above all learn the methods of other intrapreneurs and adapt them to their contexts.

      Connected adjacencies are initiatives designed so that they are memetically consistent with the host organization, its goals and its culture. Public service leaders and heads of departments should consider creating specific innovation labs and projects in order to create a safe space for experiments.

      1. Nina Ilnyckyj

        Thanks for the link Mark, I like the idea of connected adjacencies, and totally agree with the principle of meshing pilots into the existing system…I guess that is what public servants are doing when they push boundaries. Doing things a different way but within the existing context.

    2. non-cynic (optimist?)

      IMO sidling up to the upholders of the framework of discourse is just as nauseating as fighting them. In the long run, neither strategy will amount to much. The best is to ignore normal and follow your passion and instinct. You’d collect a following.

      Maybe Nick might hear me here re “scheming virtiously”. I think authenticity is why e got his following. More are on teh same because we’re all in the same boat, moreor less consciously. Orchestration is what kills it. Authenticity and honest intentions do win out in the end, because they’re inspring – unless there is some seriously intransigent intention to preserve the status quo, rather than the mere habit that I suspect it is.

  6. Mike Kujawski

    As an external consultant who regularly sees “the insurgents” in action, I couldn’t be happier. Why? because if it wasn’t for them, I likely would have lost all motivation for what I do by now. You see, I work primarily with government clients in the fields of strategic marketing and digital engagement, that’s my niche. Most consultant reports (not all), rarely get anything accomplished other than helping a branch spend its money due to a plethora of internal barriers, some of which you mentioned. That’s frustrating for someone like me who is absolutely set on influencing change, and making the public service more efficient and effective. As a result, I have been measuring my own personal “success” by the size of the groundswell of “insurgents” within the government of Canada. You see, by telling other public servants about these communities, best-practices, and “rogue” leaders (through speaking, training and consulting), it gets proactive people excited and sparks some hope within them, often reminding them why they joined the public service in the first place. Individual “insurgent” communities may feel like their efforts are insignificant relative to the organization, however I can tell you they are wrong. I get to work outside of the fishbowl, and thus whenever I see an opportunity to connect people, I do it immediately. As a result, the “insurgent” community gets bigger. There are plenty of others like myself doing the same. We all have a role to play in the transformation of government. David, I’m sure you can also attest as to how much positive change has occurred thanks in large part, to people on the inside, pushing things forward organically. Keep the insurgency alive!

  7. anon

    This is my first time commenting on your blog, David, but I just wanted to strongly second the thoughts of the commenter above. I too work for a government department that in theory supports the ideas of collaboration, openness and using technology to make our work more effective and meaningful. But the institutional pushback when one tries to actually put these ideas into practice is consistent and discouraging.

    My work largely revolves around information, and yet the tools that I need to do my job effectively are unavailable. I can understand (though disagree with) the case for blocking Youtube or Facebook. But the fact that I can’t access Google Reader or Calendar, Gmail, Twitter, Delicious, Blogger or stream any kind of media — even Question Period through CPAC’s website! — is, in my view, indefensible. As a young public servant, I feel like a fish out of water trying to stay informed of the issues that matter to my job, without having the tools that make sorting through information manageable. So much of this is generational: I once raised the issue to senior management, only to be told that “we’ve been getting our information from the Globe and Mail for decades; it has worked fine, and people (read: middle aged middle management) are happy with it. So why should we change?” If that doesn’t speak to the problem, I don’t know what does.

    I find your idea of public insurgents to be compelling, and I would humbly consider myself one of them. While in the office, I constantly I use my personal smart phone to monitor Twitter and blogs for developing issues that pertain to my job. For awhile, I figured out that the mobile Twitter website wasn’t blocked on my work computer; that was a nice few weeks until the monitoring software caught on. Moreover, I was reprimanded for including metadata/tags when I saved files, because although it makes things so much easier to search for later, all of these words and phrases apparently unnerve the less computer-literate. And if I need to conduct an informal videoconference, I’ll often bring my laptop into work and just use Skype, instead of using the official (useless and expensive) closed government technology.

    As you say in your post, this rule-bending/breaking is borne not from a desire to cause problems, but from a desire to fix them! By depriving public servants of the technological tools that they need, departments are basically telling us to run a marathon in winter boots instead of sneakers. It’s a terrible feeling to wake up in the morning and know that you won’t be able to live up to your own standards of productivity and effectiveness, due to arbitrary constraints that simply need not be there. That’s why we are so fortunate to have advocates on the outside, like David, who are fighting the good fight for those of us within the system. From what I’ve seen, it’s the only way that change will come about.

  8. David Tallan

    There is a fourth option. Beyond “give up”, “quit” and “break the rules” there is also “work to change the rules”. That’s how tools like Intellipedia, GCpedia, OPSpedia, etc. get built. Once these tools get started, there is working with them, and building success stories showing how these new tools can help us be more effective at our work.

    There is a lot of intertia and momentum behind the status quo but the civil service can adapt and change. There’s no way it would have lasted this long if it couldn’t. In may ways, tough times like we’re facing may make it easier for change to happen as leaders know that they have to do things differently. If you can show success in doing things better and cheaper – public sector leaders aren’t averse to associating themselves with that sort of success.

    And the demographics are inexorable.

    1. Alex Sirota

      Indeed, working to change the rules is probably the best definition of “insurgency.” Positive means to go about making cultural and technological change is the best way to have government adopt new means. And corporate America is taking notice.

      For example, just recently Microsoft (well 2 MS partners really in DC/Virginia) open sourced a fairly deep grant management system called Grants360. This is not insurgency, but it sure is a hell of a way to insert a modern system into an archaic process, and it doesn’t have to cost millions.

  9. Stefan

    My only quibble is the thought that this is a new thing. It’s a very long time since I was a young person arriving in public service, but in the more than twenty years since those heady days, I have never not been wanting to use technology years ahead of what my employers have been willing to provide and it is about that long since I first bent the rules on the use of IT to breaking point.
    That matters not to rehearse old war stories but for two reasons. One is to endorse David Tallan’s point: rules change, and the rules I broke all those years ago are not rules any more. The other is that if we assume that only young people and those new to large organisations are frustrated by them, we risk badly underestimating both the desire for change and the force available to harnessed to achieve it.

  10. *~*

    The problem is not reducible to demotraphics. The issues I face are due to several factors including:
    Severely ailing infrastructure (known and noted by all) and ad hoc workarounds;
    No ontological niche for the tabling of “possibility” – reporting requires clearly delimited deliverables.
    No ontological niche for the tabling of organic, horizontal interconnections – reporting is by branch, by unit, by individual.
    No support for managing the shared electronic workspace (so no one even thinks about a shared directory, let alone a wiki, just to put things in perspective.)

    So people generally learn not to think in terms of “what if…”. They like saying “break it down into manageable tasks” not realizing that this is not the way to work in a complex world. We need to cross boundaries, to synthesize, to open possibilities.

    It’s broadly a cultural phenomenon. Used to work OK when you’re working with profits (then maybe not) but when your bottom line is qualitative (the public good), not quanitative, a quantitative viewpoint is going to cause systemic problems. Actually, things based on the quantitative, instrumentalist view are causing massive systemic problems globally, but that is another topic.

  11. George Wenzel

    The irony here is that to share this article with my director, I need to copy the text to an email, because blogs are blocked at work.

    I may print the while thing on parchment and share it, just to emphasize the point. Not sure it’d have the intended effect though…

    1. *~*

      Are you also planning to give her a feather pen and a pot of ink so she can respond? Tell her the typesetter is expensive? That the “horsepower” delivery takes a few weeks/months from Ottawa to Vancouver? Would that make a difference in the pace of change?

  12. Richard Stebeck

    David, great to talk with you this morning. Even though I am personally not a fan of the term “public Insurgent” when you brought it up this morning, it did make me search this out, read , learn and leave a post. This is new for me, so if the goal was to get a public servant engaged you succeded.

  13. Todd Kennedy

    To continue the analogy, how do you fight an enemy that doesn’t care if you exist or not?
    Most people in the public sector don’t care about these new tools. I think the focus needs to be on incorporating these tools gradually into standardized work processes so people become more aware.

  14. Insurgent by nature

    Fear of the word “insurgents” – the need to get it edited out of the discourse on change – is evidence of how deeply conservative the PS cultural narrative is, even among people who claim to be change agents. Welcome to the tribe.

  15. Pingback: Instigator, not an insurgent | Canuckflack

  16. Walter Neary

    It’s all about slogans, isn’t it? Politicians are promoting use of these new tools to get votes far more than they are to conducting genuine dialogue. In that environment, where the upper level managers see cynicism, they’re going to assume the tools are either for pandering to voters or for getting in trouble (Headline News: City Employee Spotted on Facebook) Those who want change need to keep making the case that using these tools will make for a better world, and gradually the scale will tip and it will be recognized that blogger, Facebook or whatever can be used for the good and there should be some flexibility. It’s not so much about government: I have to use a personal computer to get some essential work done for my private employer, and I know I’m not alone. That’s just the way it is when you’re innovating, or trying to.

  17. Walter Neary

    It’s all about slogans, isn’t it? Politicians are promoting use of these new tools to get votes far more than they are to conducting genuine dialogue. In that environment, where the upper level managers see cynicism, they’re going to assume the tools are either for pandering to voters or for getting in trouble (Headline News: City Employee Spotted on Facebook) Those who want change need to keep making the case that using these tools will make for a better world, and gradually the scale will tip and it will be recognized that blogger, Facebook or whatever can be used for the good and there should be some flexibility. It’s not so much about government: I have to use a personal computer to get some essential work done for my private employer, and I know I’m not alone. That’s just the way it is when you’re innovating, or trying to.

  18. Brad Johnston

    Mark – I agree with the concept of creating Innovation Labs inside Government. A Lab can be a little centre of innovation culture and expertise which can swing out to be a catalyst on multiple projects by being their internal innovation champion and process resource. We don’t have enough experience and knowledge for supporting innovation inthe public service. Bring the epertise together.

    Procter & Gamble has Global Innovation centres like the GYM, based in Cincinnati, which act just this.

    1. Mark Kuznicki

      Brad, glad you like the idea. I think Chris Moore, CIO at the City of Edmonton, is showing the way with this kind of organizational transformation in a government technology organization. It may be easier to do at the municipal level, perhaps. At the Federal level, I think one can look at the big Canadian banks for models – see Royal Bank and BMO’s innovation organizations.

      The point is to create a legitimized innovation cell within the organization. To David’s initial thought about “public insurgents”, imagine collecting these folks all altogether and giving them a mandate that is duly authorized by the most senior management. No long subversive or kept at the margins, they are brought into the centre of organizational strategy and development.

      Find them, pull them together, give them a mandate and fund them to realize it. This isn’t rocket science or impossible. It’s done in very large and change-resistant organizations all the time.

  19. Elin Whitney-Smith

    I would also offer that the current information revolution is making government obsolete in the same way as the printing press made the church obsolete. Not that governments will not have power but that like the church that power will be limited by the new way of organizing – in our case probably global, probably networked, probably growing out of the increasing need for regulation that goes beyond national boundaries.

    for more see

  20. guest

    Would be a worthy replacement to the discontinued (in 2008) Coordination of Access to Information Requests System (CAIRS) that TBS used to administer.

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  22. Pingback: Interesting elsewhere – 11 October 2010 | Public Strategist

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