Tag Archives: public sector

Neo-Progressive Watch: Rahm Emanuel vs. Teachers Union

Anyone who read Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope will have been struck with the amount of time the then aspiring presidential candidate spent writing about public education policy. More notably, he seemed to acknowledge that any effort at education reform was, at some point, going to butt heads with teachers unions and that new approaches were either going to have to be negotiated or imposed. It was a point of tension that wasn’t much talked about in the reviews I read. But it always struck me as interesting that here was Obama, a next generation progressive, railing against the conservatism of what is possible the original pillar of the progressive movement: public education.

All of this has, of course, been decidedly forgotten given both the bigger problems the president has faced and by the fact that he’s been basically disinterested in monkeying around in public education policy since taking office. That’s why it is still more fascinating to see what his disciples are doing as they get involved in levels of government that are in more direct contact with this policy area. Here, none is more interesting to watch than Rahm Emanuel.

This Saturday my friend Amy L. pointed me to a New York Times article outlining the most recent battle between Rahm Emanuel and the teacher’s union. My own take is that the specifics of the article are irrelevant, what matters is the broad theme. In short, Rahm Emanuel is on a short timeline. He needs to produce results immediately since local elections both happen more frequently and one is much, much closer to the citizen. That said, he doesn’t have to deliver uniform results, progress, in of itself may be sufficient. Indeed, a little experimentation is profoundly good given it can tease out faster and cheaper ways to deliver said results.

In contrast, the teacher’s union faces few of the pressures experienced by Rahm. It can afford to move at a slower pace and, more importantly, wants a uniform level of treatment across the entire system. Indeed, its entire structure is built around the guarantee of uniform treatment for its members. This uniformity is a value that evolved parallel to but not of progressive thinking. It is an artifact of industrial production that gets confused with progressive thought because of the common temporal lineage.

This skirmish offers a window into the major battle that is going to dominate the our politics in about a decade. I increasingly suspect we are moving into a world where the possibilities for education, thanks to the web and social networks, is going to be completely altered. What we deem is possible, what parents demand, and the skills that are seen as essential, are all going to shift. Our educational system, its schools, the school boards and, of course, the unions, are still bound in a world of mass production – shifting students from room to room to prepare them for the labour and production jobs of the 20th century. No matter how gifted the teachers (and there are many who are exceedingly gifted) they remain bound by the structure of the system the education system, the school boards, and the unions, have built and enforce.

Of course, what is going to be in demand are students that can thrive in the world of mass collaboration and peer production in the 21st century -behaviours that are generally viewed as “cheating” in the current model. And parents who are successful in 21st century jobs are going to be the first to ensure their children get the “right” kind of education. Which is going to put them at odds with the current education system.

This is all this is to say that the real question crisis is: how quickly will educational systems be able to adapt? Here both the school boards and the unions play an enormous role, but it is the unions that, it would appear, may be a constraining factor. If they find that having Rahm engage schools directly feels like a threat, I suspect they are going to find the next 20 years a rough, rough ride. Something akin to how the newspapers have felt regarding the arrival of the internet and craigslist.

What terrifies me most, is that unless we can devise a system where teachers are measured and so good results can be both rewarded and shared… and where parents and students have more choices around education, then families (that can afford to) are going to vote with their feet. In fact, you already see it in my home town.

The myth in Vancouver is that high property values are driving families – and thus children – out of the city. But this is patently not true. The fantastic guys over at Bing Thom Architects wrote a report on student populations in Vancouver. According to their research, in the last 10 years the estimated number of elementary and secondary aged children in Vancouver has risen by 3% (around 2,513 new students). And yet, the number of students enrolled in public education facilities has declined by 5.46%. (around 3,092 students). In fact, the Vancouver School Boards numbers seem to indicate the decline may be more pronounced.

In the meantime the number of private/independent schools has exploded by 43% going from 39 to 68 with enrollment increases of 13.8%. (Yes that does leave a surplus of students unaccounted for, I suspect they are also in private/independent schools, but outside of the City of Vancouver’s boundaries). As a public school graduate myself, one who had truly fantastic teachers but who also benefited from enormous choice (IB, French Immersion) the numbers of the past decade are very interesting to immerse oneself in.

Correct or incorrect, it would seem parents are opting for schools that offer a range of choices around education. Of course, it is only the parents who can afford to do this that are doing it. But that makes the outcome worse, not better. With or without the unions, education is going to get radically rethought. It would be nice if it was the public sector that lead that revolution, or at least was on the vanguard of it. But if our public sector managers and teachers are caught arguing over how to adjust the status quo by increments, it is hard to see how our education policy is going to make a quantum leap into the 21st century.

Interview with Charles Leadbeater – Monday September 19th

I’m excited to share that I’ll be interviewing British public policy and open innovation expert Charles Leadbeater on September 19th as part of a SIG’s webinar series. For readers not familiar with Charles Leadbeater, he is the author of We-Think and numerous other chapters, pamphlets and articles, ranging in focus from social innovation, to entrepreneurship to public sector reform. He served as an adviser to Tony Blair and has a long standing relationship with the British think tank Demos.

Our conversation will initially focus on open innovation, but I’m sure will range all over, touching on the impact of open source methodologies on the private, non-profit and public sector, the future of government services and, of course, the challenges and opportunities around open data.

If you are interested in participating in the webinar you can register here. There is a small fee I’m told is being charged to recover some of the costs for running the event.

If you are participating and have a question you’d like to see asked, or a theme or topic you’d like to see covered, please feel free to comment below or, if you prefer more discretion, send me an email.

Open Data and New Public Management

This morning I got an email thread pointing to an article by Justin Longo on #Opendata: Digital-Era Governance Thoroughbred or New Public Management Trojan Horse? I’m still digesting it all but wanted to share some initial thoughts.

The article begins with discussion about the benefits of open data but its real goal is to argue how open data is a pawn in a game to revive the New Public Management Reform Agenda:

My hypothesis, based on a small but growing number of examples highlighting political support for open data, is that some advocates—particularly politicians, but not exclusively—are motivated by beliefs (both explicit and unconscious) forged in the New Public Management (NPM) reform agenda.

From this perspective, support for more open data aims at building coalitions of citizen consumers who are encouraged to use open data to expose public service decisions, highlight perceived performance issues, increase competition within the public sector, and strengthen the hand of the citizen as customer.

What I found disappointing is the article’s one dimensional approach to the problem: open data may support a theory/approach to public management disliked by the author, consequently (inferring from the article’s title and tone) it must be bad. This is akin to saying any technology that could be used to advance an approach I don’t support, must be opposed.

In addition, I’d say that the idea of exposing public service decisions, highlighting perceived performance issues, increasing competition within the public sector, and strengthening the hand of the citizen as customer are goals I don’t necessarily oppose, certainly not categorically. Moreover, I would hope such goals are not exclusively the domain of NPM. Do we want a society where government’s performance issues are not highlighted? Or where public service decisions are kept secret?

These are not binary choices. You can support the outcomes highlighted above and simultaneously believe in other approaches to public sector management and/or be agnostic about the size of government. Could open data be used to advance NPM? Possibly (although I’m doubtful). But it definitely can also be used to accomplish a lot of other good and potentially advance other approaches as well. Let’s not conflate a small subset of ways open data can be used or a small subset of its supporters with the entire project and then to lump them all into a single school of thought around public service management.

Moreover, I’ve always argued that the biggest users and benefactors of open data would be government – and in particular the public service. While open data could be used to build “coalitions of citizen consumers who are encouraged to use open data to expose public service decisions” it will also be used by public servants to better understand citizens needs, be more responsive and allocate resources more effectively. Moreover, those “citizen consumers” will probably be effective in helping them achieve this task. The alternative is to have better shared data internally (which will eventually happen), an outcome that might allow the government to achieve these efficiencies but will also radically increase the asymmetry in the relationship between the government and its citizens and worse, between the elites that do have privileged access to this data, and the citizenry (See Taggart below).

So ignoring tangible benefits because of a potential fear feels very problematic. It all takes me back to Kevin Kelly and What Technology Wants… this is an attempt to prevent an incredibly powerful technology because of a threat it poses to how the public sector works. Of course, it presumes that a) you can prevent the technology and b) that not acting will allow the status quo or some other preferred approach to prevail. Again, there are outcomes much, much worse the NPM that are possible (again, I don’t believe that open data leads directly to NPM) and I would argue, indeed likely, given evolving public expectations, demographics, and fiscal constraints.

In this regard, the article sets of up a false choice. Open data is going to reshape all theories of public management. To claim it supports or biases in favour of one outcome is, I think beyond premature. But more importantly, it is to miss the trees for the forest and the much bigger fish we need to fry. The always thoughtful Chris Taggart summed much of this up beautifully in an email thread:

I think the title — making it out to be a choice between a thoroughbred or Trojan Horse — says it all. It’s a false dichotomy, as neither of those are what the open data advocates are suggesting it is, nor do most of us believe that open data is solution to all our problems (far from it — see some of my presentations[1]).

It also seems to offer a choice between New Public Management (which I think Emer Coleman does a fairly good job of illuminating in her paper[2]) and the brave new world of Digital Era Governance, which is also to misunderstand the changes being brought about in society, with or without open government data.
The point is not that open data is the answer to our problem but society’s chance to stay in the game (and even then, the odds are arguably against it). We already have ever increasing numbers of huge closed databases, many made up of largely government data, available to small number of people and companies.
This leads to an asymmetry of power and friction that completely undermines democracy; open data is not a sufficiency to counteract that, but I think it is a requirement.

It’s possible I’ve misunderstood Longo’s article and he is just across the straights at the University of Victoria, so hopefully we can grab a beer and talk it through. But my sense is this article is much more about a political battle between New Public Management and Digital Era Governance in which open data is being used as a pawn. As an advocate, I’m not wholly comfortable with that, as I think it risks misrepresenting it.

Interview on Open Source, Open Gov & Open Data withe CSEDEV

The other week – in the midst of boarding a plane(!) – I did an interview with the CSEDEV on some thoughts around open data, open government and open source.

The kind people at CSEDEV have written up the interview in a kind of paraphrased way and published it as three short blog posts here, part 2 here and part 3 here.

Part of what makes this interesting to me is how a broader set of people are becoming interested in open government. Take CSEDEV for example. Here is an Ottawa based software firm focused on enterprise solutions. It’s part of an increasing number of software companies and IT consulting firms are taking note of the open government and open data meme. Indeed, another concrete example of this is Lagan, a large supplier of 311 systems, announced the other week that they would support the open311 standard. This dramatically alters the benefits of a 311 system and the capacity for it to serve as a platform and innovation driver for a city.

But, even more exciting, the meme is starting to spread beyond IT and software. I was recently asked to write an article on what open data and open government means for business more generally, here in BC. (Will link to it, when published)

These moments represent an important shift in the open data and open government debate. With vendors and consultants taking notice governments can more easily push for, and expect, off the shelf solutions that support open government initiatives. Not only could this reduce cost to government and improve access for public servants and citizens, it could also be a huge boost for open standards which prove to be transformative to the management of information in the public sector.

Exciting times. Watch the open government space – now that it’s linked to IT, it’s beginning to gain speed.

How Science Is Rediscovering "Open" And What It Means For Government

Pretty much everybody in government should read this fantastic New York Times article Sharing of Data Leads to Progress on Alzheimer’s. On one hand the article is a window into what has gone wrong with science – about how all to frequently a process that used to be competitive but open, and problem focused has become a competitive but closed and intellectual property driven (one need only look at scientific journals to see how slow and challenging the process has become).

But strip away the talk about the challenges and opportunities for science. At its core, this is an article is about something more basic and universal. This is an article about open data.

Viewed through this lens it is a powerful case study for all of us. It is a story of how one scientific community’s (re)discovery of open principles can yield powerful lessons and analogies for the private sector and, more importantly the public sector.

Consider first, the similarities in problems. From the article:

Dr. Potter had recently left the National Institutes of Health and he had been thinking about how to speed the glacial progress of Alzheimer’s drug research.

“We wanted to get out of what I called 19th-century drug development — give a drug and hope it does something,” Dr. Potter recalled in an interview on Thursday. “What was needed was to find some way of seeing what was happening in the brain as Alzheimer’s progressed and asking if experimental drugs could alter that progression.”

Our government’s are struggling too. They are caught with a 20th-century organizational, decision-making and accountability structures. More to the point, they move at a glacial speed. On the one hand we should be worried about a government that moves too quickly, but a government that is too slow to be responsive to crises or to address structural problems is one that will lose the confidence of the public. Moreover, like in healthcare, many of the simpler problems have been addressed. citizens are looking for solutions to more complex problems. As with the scientists and Alzheimer’s we may need new models to speed the process up for understanding and testing solutions for these issues.

To overcome this 19th century approach – and achieve the success they currently enjoy – the scientists decided to do some radical.

The key to the Alzheimer’s project was an agreement as ambitious as its goal: not just to raise money, not just to do research on a vast scale, but also to share all the data, making every single finding public immediately, available to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world.

No one would own the data. No one could submit patent applications, though private companies would ultimately profit from any drugs or imaging tests developed as a result of the effort.

Consider this. Here a group of private sector companies recognize the intellectual property slows down innovation. The solution – dilute the intellectual property, focus on sharing data and knowledge, and understand that those who contribute most will be best positioned to capitalize on the gains at the end.

Sadly this is the same problem faced within governments. Sometimes it has to do with actual intellectual property (something I’ve recently argued our governments should abandon). However, the real challenge isn’t about about formal rules, it is more subtle. In complex siloed organizations where knowledge is power the incentives to maximize influence are to not share knowledge and data. Better to use the information you have strategically, in a limited fashion, to maximize influence. The result, data is kept as a scarce, but strategic asset. This is a theme I tackled both in my chapter in Open Government and in blog posts like this one.

In short, the real challenge is structural and cultural. Scientists had previously existed in a system where reputation (and career advancement) was built by hoarding data and publishing papers. While the individual incentives were okay, collectively this behavior was a disaster. The problem was not getting solved.

Today, it would appear that publishing is still important, but there are reputational effects from being the person or group to share data. Open data is itself a currency. This is hardly surprising. If you are sharing data it means you are doing lots of work, which means you are likely knowledgeable. As a result, those with a great deal of experience are respected but there remains the opportunity for those with radical ideas and new perspectives to test hypothesis and gain credibility by using the open data.

Unsurprisingly, this shift wasn’t easy:

At first, the collaboration struck many scientists as worrisome — they would be giving up ownership of data, and anyone could use it, publish papers, maybe even misinterpret it and publish information that was wrong.

Wow, does that sound familiar. This is invariably the first question government officials ask when you begin talking about open data. The answer, both in the scientific community and for government, is that you either believe in the peer-review process and public debate, or you don’t. Yes, people might misrepresent the data, or publish something that is wrong, but the bigger and more vibrant the community, the more likely people will find and point out the errors quickly. This is what innovation looks like… people try out ideas, sometimes they are right, sometimes they are wrong. But the more data you make available to people the more ideas can be tested and so the faster the cycle of innovation can proceed.

Whether it is behind the firewall or open to the public, open data is the core to accelerating the spread of ideas and the speed of innovation. These scientists are rediscovering that fact as our some governments. We’ve much to learn and do, but the case is becoming stronger and stronger that this is the right thing to do.

Upcoming talk: Toronto Innovation Showcase

Just a little FYI to let people know I’m going to be in Toronto on Monday, November 2nd for the City of Toronto’s Innovation Showcase.

I’ll be doing a panel Open Government with Maryantonett Flumian (President of the Institute On Governance, I remember meeting her when she was Deputy Minister of Service Canada), Nick Vitalari (Executive Vice President at nGenera), and Peter Corbett (CEO of iStrategyLabs – which runs the Apps for Democracy Competitions for Washington DC).

The Showcase will be running November 2nd and 3rd and our panel will be on Monday the 2nd from 10:15am until noon in the City Council chambers. Registration is free for those who’d like to come and for those interested but not in Toronto, you will be able to watch a live webcast of the event online from their website. You’ll also be able to follow the event on twitter hashtags #TOshowcase and #opendataTO

The goal of the showcase is to provide:

“a venue for you to come and meet with your colleagues to discuss these questions, hear their success stories, share experiences about opportunities and challenges in the public sector using social media, propose suggestions, exchange information on IT and trends, create connections, knowledge, tools and policies that address the increased demand by citizens for better public service, transparency, civic engagement and democratic empowerment.”

Should be fun – hope to catch you there and to have something fun to blog about after it’s over.

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.