Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Power of Weakness and the World’s Relationship with America

This past week, I had the enormous privilege of being invited to Washington, DC to attend the Academy of Achievement summit. This event – of which I knew nothing before receiving my invite – is an annual gathering of roughly 80 delegates (whose careers have shown some promise) from around the world, along with about an equal number of honorees (those whose accomplishments, in the arts, the sciences, politics and business are widely recognized).

At times, the privilege bordered on indescribable: dining at the US Supreme Court with Justices Sotomayor, Kennedy, and Ginsberg; being invited onto the floor of the House of Representatives to ask questions of Tim Berners-Lee; conversing privately with the a president of one of the world’s most prestigious universities about online education; having no fewer than 5 Nobel laureates explain their research; or enjoying a private concert with Aretha Franklin. And I have probably described less than 5% of the programming.

In many ways, the Academy of Achievement is like an event the capital’s architects might have designed. Washington, DC was famously built to so large and so grand that it would awe visitors into submission, and the Academy – with its access to the most celebrated minds of not just the US, but of the world – is almost a social equivalent to DC’s architecture. The itinerary and the access are hard to imagine anyone else in the world organizing. To be on the receiving end was always mentally stimulating and, with some of the speakers and guests, humbling to the point of tears.

That said, as striking as the impressive lineup was, the program nonetheless had the greatest impact not when it dwelled on America’s strengths, but on its weaknesses.

David Brooks – the New York Times columnist and an honoree – opened up the event with a moving talk about several of the men and women who had become the capital’s most famous and successful figures. In each case, Brooks chronicled how life in the capital forced each one to confront their own internal weaknesses, and how the country’s greatest leaders were those who both constantly engaged in self-criticism and developed the capacity to constantly check their deficiencies.

The theme of this speech hit home more deeply the following day. After dinner, we gathered at a monument dedicated in part to commemorating the terrible cost incurred when leaders fail to do exactly what Brooks described. Here, in the dark of night, we huddled tightly around Neil Sheehan, the Pulitzer-winning journalist who received and wrote about the Pentagon Papers – the documents that chronicled the full cost and failure of the war, and the publication of which tested the limits of free speech in America. Sheehan then proceeded to give a moving talk about the terrible cost of the war and its consequences for the soldiers, the Vietnamese, and the fabric of American society. Behind me, an elderly passerby who happened to stop to listen, started to weep.

And this, for me, was the most powerful moment of the conference. It was also the most awe-inspiring. There are few countries that would invite leaders from around the world and would explicitly take them to a memorial that, in many ways, commemorates one of that country’s darkest hours. Perhaps Germany? It is hard to imagine even my own polite country doing this. Indeed, I couldn’t even tell you if we have a major monument to commemorate a national tragedy of that nature. There is no monument I know of regarding the treatment of First Nations, or to the residential schools program, or to the internment of the Japanese during the Second World War.

This may also hint at why America can be so polarizing to so many people. It is not only that the country matters so much: there are few countries where the leaders’ decisions have consequences to so many outside their borders (a fact that Canadians have a comparatively benign, but nonetheless acute, awareness of). But it is a country that has demonstrated capacity for real introspection – the ability, as David Brooks pointed out, to be self-critical about its actions and its adherence to its ideals. Knowing the capacity exists makes it all the more striking and concerning when it is not exercised, and down right terrifying when – such as during George Bush’s presidency – its absence is encouraged and celebrated.

I don’t know what the future holds for America. But the whole program – in addition to being enormously enriching and motivating (it is impossible to walk away from meeting the 20somethings behind the protests in Russia and Libya and not have your perspective broadened) – has served as an important reminder about the nature of influence and relationships. You don’t get to know someone by seeing their strengths. Deep relationships are cultivated when someone has the confidence and trust to share their weaknesses. There are many choices America has made, and is making, that I vigorously disagree with (#drones, #warondrugs) but it is hard not to be moved when a country is willing to open itself up to you, to not just be great but to also be vulnerable. When it happens it is hard to not want to engage and help it make better choices, not out of anger (or worse hatred) but out of respect.

A country should count itself lucky if it can foster such thinking from those who visit its shores. It could do much, much worse.

Visualizing Open Energy Data in Canada

If you haven’t seen it yet, Glen Newton has done some really awesome visualizations of Canada’s energy production/consumption data. Here’s a version I “edited”:

What is cool is that, what I mean when I say “edited” is that any of the colour bars can be dragged vertically, so one can move around the components to accentuate different elements or paint a different story. This relatively simple interactivity is really quite powerful.

In addition, I was able to understand what is actually a quite complicated piece of information very quickly. If you tried to write this out I would take pages to explain or, would be numbers in a spreadsheet I would never really wrap my head around. This form is so intuitive to understand it really is fantastic. And of course, the fact that you can move it around means you can interact with it, play with it, and so engage it and try to understand it more readily than something that is static.

These flows are visualized in terms of petajoules, but it would be interesting to see if graphed in terms of value (dollars) as well, as I suspect, that the “pipes” would be very different in size.

Really awesome work by Glen here.

Doing Government Websites Right

Today, I have a piece over on Tech President about how the new UK government website – – does a lot of things right.

I’d love to see more governments invest two of the key ingredients that made the website work – good design and better analytics.

Sadly, on the design front many politicians see design as a luxury and fail to understand that good design doesn’t just make things look better, they make websites (and other things) easier to use and so reduce other costs – like help desk costs. I can personally attest to this. Despite being adept at using the web I almost always call the help desk for federal government services because I find federal government websites virtually unnavigable.  Often I find these websites transform my personality from happy affable guy into someone who teeters between grumpy/annoyed on the mild side, to raving crazy lunatic on the other as I fail to grasp what I’m supposed to do next.

If I have to choose between wasting 45 minutes on a website getting nowhere versus calling a help line, waiting for 45 minutes on hold while I do other work and then getting my problem resolved… I go with the latter. It’s not a good use of anyone’s time, but it is often the best option at the moment.

On the analytics front, many governments simply lack the expertise to do something as simple as Google analytics, or worse are hamstrung by privacy and procurement rules keep them from using services that would enable them to know how their users are (or are not) using their website.

Aside from, another great example of where these two ingredients came together is over at Honolulu Answers. Here a Code for America team worked with the city to see what pages (e.g. services) residents were actually visiting and then prioritized those. In addition, they worked with staff and citizen to construct answers to commonly asked questions. I suspect a simple website like this could generate real savings on the city’s help desk costs – to say nothing of happier residents and tourists.

At some risk of pressing this point too heavily, I hope that my TechPresident piece (and other articles about gets widely read by public servants, managers and, of course, politicians (hint: the public wants easier access to services, not easoer access to photos and press releases about you). I’m especially hoping the good people at Treasury Board Secretariat in the Canadian Federal government read it since the old Common Look and Feel standard sadly ensured that Canadian government websites are particularly terrible when it comes to usability.

The UK has shown how national governments can do better. Let’s hope others follow their lead.


Playing with Budget Cutbacks: On a Government 2.0 Response, Wikileaks & Analog Denial of Service Attacks

Reflecting on yesterday’s case study in broken government I had a couple of addition thoughts that I thought fun to explore and that simply did not make sense including in the original post.

A Government 2.0 Response

Yesterday’s piece was all about how Treasury Board’s new rules were likely to increase the velocity of paperwork to a far greater cost than the elimination of excess travel.

One commentator noted a more Gov 2.0 type solution that I’d been mulling over myself. Why not simply treat the government travel problem as a big data problem? Surely there are tools that would allow you to look at government travel in aggregate, maybe mashed it up against GEDS data (job title and department information) that would enable one to quickly identify outliers and other high risk travel that are worthy of closer inspection. I’m not talking about people who travel a lot (that wouldn’t be helpful) but rather people who engage in unusual travel that is hard to reconcile with their role.

While I’m confident that many public servants would find such an approach discomforting, it would be entirely within the purview of their employer to engage in such an analysis. It would also be far more effective, targeted and a deterrent (I suspect, over time) than the kind of blanket policy I wrote about yesterday that is just as (if not more) likely to eliminate necessary travel as it is unnecessary travel. Of course, if you just want to eliminate travel because you think any face to face, group or in person learning is simply not worth the expense – than the latter approach is probably more effective.

Wikileaks and Treasury Board

Of course re-reading yesterday’s post I was having a faint twinge of familiarity. I suddenly realized that my analysis of the impact of the travel restriction policy on government has parallels to the goal that drove Assange to create wikileaks. If you’ve not read Zunguzungu blog post exploring Assange’s writings about the “theory of change” of wikileaks I cannot encourage you enough to go and read it. At its core lies a simple assessment – that wikileaks is trying to shut down the “conspiracy of the state” by making it harder for effective information to be transmitted within the state. Of course, restricting travel is not nearly the same as making it impossible for public servants to communicate, but it does compromise the ability to coordinate and plan effectively – as such the essay is illuminating in thinking about how these types of policies impact not the hierarchy of an organization, but the hidden and open networks (the secret government) that help make the organization function.

Read this extract below below for a taste:

This is however, not where Assange’s reasoning leads him. He decides, instead, that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s  information environment. Which is why the point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective. Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire:

This is obviously a totally different context – but it is interesting to see that one way to alter an organizations  is to change the way in which information flows around it. This was not – I suspect – the primary goal of the Treasury Board directive (it was a cost driven measure) but the above paragraph is an example of the unintended consequences. Less communication means the ability of the organization to function could be compromised.

Bureaucratic Directive’s as an Analog Denial of Service Attack

There is, of course, another more radical way of thinking about the Treasury Board directive. One of the key points I tried to make yesterday was that the directive was likely to increase the velocity of bureaucratic paperwork, tie up a larger amount of junior and, more preciously, senior resource time, all while actually allowing less work to be done.

Now if a government department were a computer, and I was able to make it send more requests that slowed its CPU (decision making capacity) and thus made other functions harder to perform – and in extreme cases actually prevented any work from happening – that would be something pretty similar to a Denial of Service attack.

Again, I’m not claiming that this was the intent, but it is a fun and interesting lens by which to look at the problem. More to explore here, I’m sure.

Hopefully this has bent a few minds and helped people see the world differently.

Broken Government: A Case Study in Penny Wise but Pound Foolish Management

Often I write about the opportunities of government 2.0, but it is important for readers to be reminded of just how challenging the world of government 1.0 can be, and how far away any uplifting future can feel.

I’ve stumbled upon a horrifically wonderful example of how tax payers are about to spend an absolutely ridiculous amount of money so that a ton of paper can be pushed around Ottawa to little or no effect. Ironically, it will all in the name of savings and efficiency.

And, while you’ll never see this reported in a newspaper it’s a perfect case study of the type of small decision that renders (in this case the Canadian) government both less effective and more inefficient. Governments: take note.

First, the context. Treasury Board (the entity that oversees how money is spent across the Canadian government) recently put out a simple directive. It stipulates all travel costs exceeding $25,000 must get Ministerial approval and costs from $5000-$25,000 must get Deputy Head approval.

Here are the relevant bits of texts since no sane human should read the entire memo (infer what you wish about me from that):

2.5.1 Ministerial approval is required when total departmental costs associated with the event exceed $25,000.


2.5.5 Deputy head approval of an event is required when the event has the following characteristics:

Total departmental costs associated with the event exceed $5,000 but are less than $25,000; or

Total hospitality costs associated with the event exceed $1,500 but are less than $5,000; and

None of the elements listed in 2.5.2 a. to g. are present for which delegated authority has not been provided.

This sounds all very prudent-like. Cut down on expenses! Make everyone justify travel! Right? Except the memo suggests (and, I’m told is being interpreted) as meaning that it should be applied to any event – including an external conference, but even internal planning meetings.

To put this in further context for those who work in the private sector: if you worked for a large publicly traded company – say one with over 5,000, 10,000 or even more employees – the Minister is basically the equivalent of the Chairman of the Board. And the Deputy head? They are like the CEO.

Imagine creating a rule at such a company like Ford, that required an imaginary “safety engineering team” to get the chairman of the company to sign off on their travel expenses – months in advance – if, say, 10 of them needed to collectively spend $25,000 to meet in person or attend an important safety conference. It gets worse. If the team were smaller, say 3-5 people and they could keep the cost to $5000 they would still need approval from the CEO. In such a world it would be hard to imagine new products being created, new creative cost saving ideas getting hammered out. In fact, it would be hard for almost any distributed team to meet without creating a ton of paperwork. Over time, customers would begin to notice as work slowly ground to a halt.

This is why this isn’t making government more efficient. It is going to make it crazier.

It’s also going to make it much, much, more ineffective and inefficient.

For example, this new policy may cause a large number of employees to determine that getting approval for travel is too difficult and they’ll simply give up. Mission accomplished! Money saved! And yes, some of this travel was probably not essential. But much, and likely a significant amount was. Are we better governed? Are we safer? Is our government smarter, in a country where say inspectors, auditors, policy experts and other important decision makers (especially those in the regions) are no longer learning at conferences, participating in key processes or attending meetings about important projects because the travel was too difficult to get approval for? Likely not.

But there is a darker conclusion to draw as well.  There is probably a significant amount of travel that remains absolutely critical. So now we are going to have public servants writing thousands of briefing notes every year seeking to get approval by directors, and then revising them again for approval by director generals (DGs), and again for the Assistant Deputy Ministers (ADMs), and again for the Deputy Minister (DMs) and again, possibly, for Ministerial approval.

That is a truly fantastic waste of the precious time of a lot of very, very senior people. To say nothing of the public servants writing, passing around, revising and generally pushing all these memos.

I’ll go further. I have every confidence that for every one dollar in travel this policy managed to deter from being requested, $500 dollars in the time of Directors, DGs, ADMs, DMs and other senior staff will have been wasted.  Given Canada is a place where the population – and thus a number of public servants – are thinly spread across an over 4000 kilometer wide stretch I suspect there is a fair bit of travel that needs to take place. Using Access to Information Requests you might even be able to ball park how much time was wasted on these requests/memos.

Worse, I’m not even counting the opportunity cost. Rather than tackling the critical problems facing our country, the senior people will be swatting away TPS reports travel budget requests. The only companies I know that run themselves this way are those that have filed for bankruptcy and essentially are not spending any money as they wait to be restructured or sold. They aren’t companies that are trying to solve any new problems, and are certainly not those trying to find creative or effective ways to save money.

In the end, this tells us a lot of about the limits of hierarchical systems. Edicts are a blunt tool – they seldom (if ever) solve the root of a problem and more often simply cause new, bigger problems since the underlying issues remain unresolved. There are also some wonderful analogies to wikileaks and denial of service attacks that I’ll save that for tomorrow.