Tag Archives: ottawa

Canadian Open Cities Update

For those who have not been following the news there have been a couple of exciting developments on the open data front at the municipal level in Canada.

First off, the City of Edmonton has launched its Apps competition, details can be found at the Apps4Edmonton website.

Second, it looks like the City of London, Ontario is may do a pilot of open data – thanks to the vocal activism of local developers and community organizers the Mayor of London expressed interesting in doing a pilot at the London Changecamp. As mentioned, there is a vibrant and active community in London, Ontario so I hope this effort takes flight.

Third, and much older, is that Ottawa approved doing open data, so keep an eye on this website as things begin to take shape

The final municipal update is the outlier… Turns out that although Calgary passed a motion to do open data a few months ago the roll out keeps getting delayed by a small group of city councillors. Reasons are murky especially since I’m told by local activists that the funds have already been allocated and that everything is set to go. Will be watching this unfold with interest.

Finally, unrelated to municipal data, but still important (!), Apps4Climate Action has extended the contest deadline due to continued interest in the contest. The new submission deadline is August 8th.

Hope everyone has a great weekend. Oh, and if you haven’t already, please join the facebook group “let’s get 100,000 Canadian to op out of yellow pages delivery.” Already, in less than a week, over 800 Canadians have successfully opted of receiving the yellow pages. Hope you’ll join too.

The Most Dangerous Website in Ottawa

What is the more dangerous website in Ottawa? Here’s a secret. It isn’t a x-rated site, or loaded with tips and tricks on how to make weapons or break the law. It isn’t – contrary to what some politician might feel – even a newswebsite.

No, the most dangerous website in Ottawa is much, much, more boring than that.

The most dangerous website is actually a small site run by the Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform or FAIR (see you are yawning already).

But one simple page on the site, entitled Some Canadian Whistleblowers, is potentially the most damaging website in Ottawa. In one swoop the site is a devastating critique of a Conservative Government (and Liberal Government before it) that ran on accountability but that crushes those who seek to advocate for it, it is damning appraisal of a public service that is willing to turn on its own and even wreck the careers of public servants and citizens who try to prevent the defrauding of Canadian taxpayers or ensure the integrity of our government, and it is a cautionary tale to public servants who may be tempted – by their ethics and good judgment – to speak out when they see something is deeply wrong about how the country is being run.

Consider this, of the 29 Whistleblowers highlighted on the website:

  • one public works employee and a group of five RCMP employees who spoke out together have the appearances of a happy ending. (The RCMP employees were publicly commended by a parliamentary committee and the public works official ran for office).
  • 7 were attacked by the public service but ultimately have managed to keep their jobs but their careers have been negatively impacted.
  • 15 more found themselves turfed out of their jobs, often by the very authorities that should have protected them.
  • The final person – Richard Colvin – still has his job, but the Conservative Government has effectively muzzled him by refusing to pay his legal fees (as he is entitled).

One might suspect that these stories have political angles to them, like that of Dr. John O’Connor, an Alberta doctor, who work uncovered unusually high rates of cancers among the residents of Fort Chipewyan, in the Athabasca oil patch. As the site details:

His findings contributed to concerns that oil extraction operations may be contaminating the environment with carcinogenic chemicals.

In what was perceived as an attempt to muzzle him, Health Canada doctors lodged four complaints against O’Connor with his professional body – charges which could have resulted in the loss of his licence. Doctors were alarmed by this incident, since such reports from doctors in the field have been vital to the detection of new diseases such as AIDS. Consequently, in 2007 the Canadian Medical Association passed a resolution (#103) calling for whistleblower protection for doctors – apparently to protect them from Health Canada.

But these are actually more isolated incidents. The real lesson from the website is that your story doesn’t need to be political in nature at all – all you really need to do ruin your career is speak out. Indeed, from the stories on the FAIR website, it is easy to see that if you are a public servant and you note illegal or unethical activities to your supervisors you may seriously damage your career. Should those supervisors ignore you and you opt to go public with those allegations – your career will be literally or effectively over (regardless of whether or not those accusations end up being true).

This is why this is the most dangerous website in Ottawa. Politicians (particularly Conservative politicians) don’t want you to see it, the Public Service doesn’t want to have to explain it, and Canadian citizens and public servants don’t want to end up on it.

Is this the future of accountability in Ottawa?

Is it time to get rid of the Foreign Service designation?

dfait_logoA Foreign Service officer (FS) is an employees of the Government of Canada who pass the foreign service exam and are hired by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT)and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

This is important because becoming an FS is no easy task. Every year hundreds of Canadians write the test and few are selected for interviews. Fewer still are hired into the department. This barrier to entry has created a sense of class around the FS designation. To be an FS meant you were the best, the brightest, the most able of public servants – not only a distinct class, but a class above.

But what if this is no longer true? Moreover, what if being a class apart is what’s killing the Foreign Service?

It is worth remembering the environment out of which the FS designation emerged (and for which it is designed for). When Canada’s nascent foreign service began to take shape in the 30’s the diplomatic world looked very different. It was dominated by Europeans and largely populated by quasi royalty – former aristocrats – who had all gone to the right schools, spoke the right languages and knew all the right protocols. Foreign policy was an elite policy area – not just because it was so important – but also because it was dominated by elites (in the class sense of the word). While the role of aristocrats in foreign policy has faded long ago, the legacy of their culture lingered. As a result, the Foreign Service had to ensure that the right people became foreign service officers, no ordinary country bumpkin would do, to have influence in the diplomatic world standards had to be kept.

The FS designation also emerged out of an early and mid 20th century era when public servants did not change ministries. In Ottawa you were a Finance Man, or a Treasury Board Man, or a Natural Resources Man (and yes, for much of that period you were probably a man) and it was uncommon to move from one department to another. In this world, a strong Foreign Service culture made sense since many of the other ministries had a strong sense of culture as well.

But today the world, Canadians and Ottawa, are different. Every ministry engages in foreign policy – be it healthcare issues, the environment, energy, transport, you name it. There is hardly an issue in Canada that does not have an important international dimension. Moreover, public servants now frequently move from ministry to ministry. Indeed, a successful career in the public service requires that you move around. A broad set of experience is deemed to be essential. Finally, the typical public servant has changed dramatically. Today, Canadians are much more internationalized. Many of us are born abroad, still more of us have family abroad, and with (relatively) cheap air travel many Canadians travel abroad. This is a far cry from even 30 years ago. But not only do Canadians travel more, they are better educated. There may have been a time when the average foreign service officer was significantly better educated than the average public servant – but this is simply no longer the case. Many public servants now have Master’s degrees. Indeed, for a while, you couldn’t get hired without one.

This is the world of the public service in the 21st century, and it presents three challenges for the foreign service.

The first, it has become less and less clear what makes a Foreign Service officer unique. An increasing number of public servants outside of DFAIT and CIDA are successfully engaging in international work: negotiating treaties, attending international conferences, and working directly with other governments. If this work can be done by non-FSs the question arises… what is the value add of the Foreign Service Officer? What unique skills and knowledge do they bring? Whenever I’m in Ottawa I hear colleagues, friends, and even strangers ask this question. This is not to say Foreign Service officers are not incredibly talented- but it is asking what, as a class or group, do they offer?

This first problem is compounded by a second that few within DFAIT and CIDA wish to talk about: elitism. FSs have always thought of themselves as not only different but also (if they are honest with themselves) better than other public servants. There was likely a time when this was true. FSs were better educated and more traveled than their peers. Today however, it is no longer the case. Many public servants are relatively well traveled and well educated. The gap simply no longer exists. The result is that, around Ottawa, FSs are perceived as elitist snobs, a perception that is crippling the department. Not only does the rest of Ottawa now question the department’s value add they also, quite understandably, despise being looked down upon. Everyday a thousand small decisions are made to seek ways to work around – rather than with – DFAIT and those decisions are adding up. Nobody wants to play with the foreign service.

Finally, FS designation itself is a direct problem because it us both keeping Ottawa out DFAIT down. Today, public servants move around Ottawa getting experience in different departments – this is how the game is now played. And yet DFAIT and CIDA sit outside the game – FSs don’t want to work in another department and they often resent non-FSs who come and work in theirs. Consequently, few good ideas developed outside the ministry find there way in. Moreover, because FSs have isolated themselves they have neither the network of interdepartmental colleagues nor the experience and knowledge of how Ottawa works that their public service colleagues possess. They are getting outplayed. Still more problematic, the answers to the highly subjective Situational Judgment component of the Foreign Service Test are determined by senior Foreign Service officers. This means that those who succeed in being hired as FSs are those who are most likely to think like the outgoing generation. This creates a conservative trend within the department that reinforces old ideas and the class like elitism.

If DFAIT wants a leading role in the development of government policy it has a number of obstacles it needs to overcome. The most challenging however is reforming the system that shapes the thinking and culture of its employees. One place to start may be acknowledging that the FS designation – while an enormous source of pride – is also a source of significant problems. Opening up the FS designation to other public servants (treating it more like that the ES designation) could be one approach. Alternatively, focusing the FS designation on crisis management in the field and making it a class for people who are going to work in embassies in hostile territory or politically compromising situations may make more sense. These are just suggestions – what is most important is that the yawning culture gap between DFAIT and the rest of Ottawa must be closed – because increasingly the rest of Ottawa is discovering it can live without DFAIT, but DFAIT cannot live without the rest of Ottawa.

What the post-bureaucratic era will mean for the public service

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.

So much data… locked away

I’m preparing for the keynote on Public Service Sector Renewal and technology I’ll be giving at this year’s DPI conference on Thurdsay in Ottawa. I’ve been working on creating a series of slides that I’m hoping will be quite interesting and tha I promise to share either here or via slideshare.net.

What has been most interesting is how hard it is to get data about the government. In my case, I’ve been trying to determine the address of every major ministry (or, if you must, department) in Ottawa in 1930, 1960, 1980 and today. I know this information exists – the problem is finding it. It would appear that it can only be found in the national archives – in hard form, from a protected document that people aren’t really allowed to access.

Sigh.

It makes me think of how much data the government has collected over the years – or even minute by minute that gets stored – even digitally – in inaccessible ways, making it harder for companies, non-profits or other entities to leverage the public resource.

If our government is going to get one thing right, it would be enabling its citizens to do that.

Tough week for everyone in Ottawa

So the Liberals are getting lambasted for letting the Conservative Budget stand. (click on the second video)

Old Conservatives are refusing to testify (usually not a good sign) and New Conservatives have been (allegedly) caught trying to bribe an independent MP (a terribly sign).

The NDP can’t seem to get any traction.

The Bloc is still losing ground.

The Green’s still can’t get into a nationally televised debate.

Nobody is going anywhere – at least not right now.

The Public Service is from Mars, We are from Venus

Last week the Clerk of the Privy Council gave a speech this speech in Vancouver. There is much in the speech that is promising, and some that remains problematic.

That said, I want to key in on the last part of the Clerk’s speech. Myth number 8: “The Public Service is out of touch with Canadians — they’re from Venus, we’re from Mars.

In this piece the Clerk touches on the traditional critiques of how the public service is out of touch. He goes out of his way to outline how the geographic, linguistic and ethnic, are or have been addressed. In addition he outlines why – through outreach – the culture gap between private and public sector can be overcome.

We can debate if these concerns have been sufficiently addressed, and if not, how they should be. I think it would be hard to argue with the notion that enormous progress has been made on this front in the past few decades. However, none of them represent the differences that concern me most.  One which I do not think we can resolve and so requires further thought.

Today, public service employees are members of a union, enjoy life long job security, are eligible for a generous pension plan, and, by and large (particularly in the more senior ranks) live in Ottawa – a city shaped by and dominated by, the public service.

There was a time when the first three traits meant that employment experience of a public servant – such as one’s notions about: job security, opportunity, the expectations of their employer, and relationship with their boss and peers – was not dissimilar to that of many other Canadians.

Today however, this is less and less the case. Fewer and fewer Canadians are unionized, enjoy job security, or a pension.

Simply put, there is a culture gap.

A public servant’s career, life choices and opportunities are shaped by a system that is far removed from that experienced by the vast majority of Canadians. This, in a city where your average public servant comes into contact with non-public servants less and less.  I’m not saying this shouldn’t be the case. What I am saying is that the capacity of a institution to make policy for a public it resembles less and less, and whose experience is increasingly far removed from its own, is troubling and worthy of further exploration. It’s a culture gap I think is on few people’s radar – even the clerk’s.