Tag Archives: public servants

Banned Blogs

So I’m fed up. I’m tired of hearing about fantastic blogs written by fantastic people that are banned by different federal departments of the Canadian public service.

Banned you say? Isn’t that a little dramatic?

No! I mean banned.

The IT departments of several federal governments block certain websites that are deemed to have inappropriate or non-work related content. Typically these include sites like Facebook, Gmail and of course, various porn sites (a list of well known mainstream sites that are blocked can be found here).

I’ve known for a while that my site – eaves.ca – is blocked by several departments and it hasn’t bothered me (I’ve always felt that blocking someone increase people’s interest in them), But as whispers about the number of blogs blocked grows, I find the practice puzzling and disturbing. These are not casual blogs. One might think this is limited to casual or personel blogs but many of the blogs I hear about are on public policy or the public service. They may even contain interesting insights that could help public servants. They are not sites that contain pornographic material, games or other content that could be construed as leisure (as enjoyable as I know reading my blog is…).

So, in an effort to get a better grasp of the scope and depth of the problem I’d like your help to put together a list. On eaves.ca I’ve created a new page – entitled “Banned Blogs” that lists blogs and the Canadian Federal Government Ministries that ban them. If you are a public servant and you know of a blog that is blocked from your computer please send me a note. If you know a public servant, ask them to check their favourite blogs. If you know of a site that is blocked you can send me an email, at tweet, or an anonymous comment on this blog, I’ll add it to the list. It would be fantastic to get a sense of who is blocked and by which departments. Maybe we’ll even knock some sense into some IT policies.

Maybe.

(Post script: Douglas B. has some great suggestions about how to deal with blocked sites and lists some of the ancient policies that could help public servants fight this trend).

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.

Reforming Government on the Globe & Mail's Wiki

A few months ago John Ibbitson – the Globe and Mail columnist who used to cover Ottawa and now covers Washington, DC – asked me if I’d help edit the 3rd chapter of his new book, Open & Shut.

The chapter, entitled Yes, Mr. President; No, Prime Minister asks why is it that after 8 years of President Bush, President Obama is able to quickly change the direction of government whereas in Canada, newly elected parties often struggle to implement their agenda.

Last week the book was released. As part of the launch process the Globe and Mail created a wiki dedicated to the book’s themes where readers can critic or expand on its ideas and analysis. More interestingly, as readers post to the wiki John will respond to their  ideas, critics and thoughts on a blog hosted by the Globe.

To kick off the wiki on Open Government, John asked me if I would write a short essay answering the following the question:

Federal politicians, and federal public servants, seem increasingly remote and disconnected from the lives of Canadians. Open and Shut maintains that this is because the public service remains closed to outsiders, and because Ottawa has ceded so much power to the provinces. Do we want our federal government to matter more in our lives, and if so, what should we do to give it meaning?

You can see my response, and what I hope will eventually become a growing number of comments on the future of the public service, here.

As an aside, two other sections have been created. One is on Open Politics, which is teed up by John Duffy (political strategist). The other is on Canada/US integration, which is kicked off by Scotty Greenwood (executive Director of the Canadian-American Business Council).

How GCPEDIA will save the public service

GCPediaGCPEDIA (also check out this link) is one of the most exciting projects going on in the public service. If you don’t know what GCPEDIA is – check out the links. It is a massive wiki where public servants can share knowledge, publish their current work, or collaborate on projects. I think it is one of two revolutionary changes going on that will transform how the public service works (more on this another time).

I know some supporters out there fear that GCPEDIA – if it becomes too successful – will be shut down by senior executives. These supporters fear the idea of public servants sharing information with one another will simply prove to be too threatening to some entrenched interests. I recognize the concern, but I think it is ultimately flawed for two reasons.

The less important reason is that it appears a growing number of senior public servants “get it.” They understand that this technology – and more importantly the social changes in how people work and organize themselves that come along with them – are here to stay. Moreover, killing this type of project would simply send the worst possible message about public service sector renewal – it would be an admission that any real efforts at modernizing the public service are nothing more than window dressing. Good news for GCPEDIA supporters – but also not really the key determinant.

The second, and pivotal reason, is that GCPEDIA is going to save the public service.

I’m not joking.

Experts and observers of the Public Service has been talking for the last decade about the demographic tsunami that is going to hit the public service. The tsunami has to do with age. In short, a lot of people are going to retire. In 2006 52% of public servants are 44-65. in 1981 it was 38%, in 1991 it was 32%. Among executives the average ages are higher still. EX-1’s (the most junior executive level) has an average age of 50, Ex 2’s are at 51.9, Ex 3’s at 52.7 and Ex 4’s at 54.1. (numbers from David Zussman – link is a powerpoint deck)

Remember these are average ages.

In short, there are a lot of people who, at some point in the next 10 years, are going to leave the public service. Indeed, in the nightmare scenario, they all leave within a short period of time – say 1-2 years, and suddenly an enormous amount of knowledge and institutional memory walks out the door with them. Such a loss would have staggering implications. Some will be good – new ways of thinking may become easier. But most will be negative, the amount of work and knowledge that will have to be redone to regain the lost institutional memory and knowledge cannot be underestimated.

GCPEDIA is the public service’s best, and perhaps only, effective way to capture the social capital of an entire generation in an indexed and searchable database that future generations can leverage and add to. 10’s of millions of man-hours, and possible far more, are at stake.

This is why GCPEDIA will survive. We can’t afford for it not to.

As an aside, this has one dramatic implication. People are already leaving so we need to populate GCPEDIA faster. Indeed, if I were a Deputy Minister I would immediately create a 5 person communications team whose sole purpose was two fold. First to spread the word about the existence of GCPEDIA as well as help and encourage people to contribute to it. Second, this team would actually interview key boomers who may not be comfortable with the technology and transcribe their work for them onto the wiki. Every department has a legend who is an ES-6 and who will retire an ES-6 but everybody knows that they know everything about everything that ever happened, why it happened and why it matters. It’s that person everybody wants to consult with in the cafeteria. Get that person, and find a way to get their knowledge into the wiki, before their pension vests.

The Financial collapse and the unsaid thoughts of public servants

Fascinating week in Ottawa. Been having a great time, enjoying brown bag lunches and meeting with friends old and new.

I’m here to talk about public service sector renewal and as the the issue comes up on many occasions people ask me if I think the financial crises and the poor economy will make the government a more attractive choice for gen Yers.

I think the generation lens is the wrong one, because the public service needs not only good gen yers, but also good gen xers. That said, I think the answer, broadly, is no. The crisis will not have a big impact on applications. Richard Florida hit on the reason why on Monday in his Globe and Mail piece about the asymmetrical distribution of unemployment the recession will visit upon the work force.

Critically, government needs to recognize that, these days, it is hiring creative class workers and that this group, by and large, will be significantly less hurt by the economic collapse than service sector and blue collar workers:

Unemployment rates among the working class have been more than triple the rate of those in the creative class and about double the rate of those in the service class over the past decade. Service-class unemployment has been about double the creative-class rate and has not diverged from it in the past 20 years.

And look at the last recession in Canada. Unemployment rates among the working class rose to nearly 16 per cent in 1991, while the creative class and service class experienced much more modest increases.

So will there be an uptick in people interested in working for government? Mostly likely. But expect it to be modest. But also remember. those who decide to apply may be motivated by safety and security, not a sense of public duty.

Oh, and one other thing. I’ve had several friends tell me that people who’ve applied for jobs that have had to wait 6, 9 or even 14 months before getting an offer. For those who are really made to wait, by the time they find out they have a job, the recession could be over…

The Open Source Public Service

Consider these to quotes side by side:

First,

“Human beings generally take pleasure in a task when it falls in a sort of optimal-challenge zone; not so easy as to be boring, not too hard to achieve. A happy programmer is one who is neither underutilized nor weighed down with ill-formulated goals and stressful process friction. Enjoyment predicts efficiency.

Relating to your own work process with fear and loathing (even in the displacing, ironic way suggested by hanging up Dilbert cartoons) should therefore be regarded in itself as a sign that the process has failed. Joy, humor, and playfulness are indeed assets…”

– Eric Raymond, The Cathedral & The Bazaar

(BTW: Who would have thought that the entire line of Dilbert cartoons – their humorous reflections on how organizations (dis)function – could be made depressingly painful in one brief phrase.)

Second,

“Disability claims and stress leaves are soaring. For many public service managers, the work-life balance is so unhealthy that one major federal department has tried to implement a BlackBerry ban between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., so that people can reclaim some of their personal time. Management scholars are using the public service as a laboratory to study workplace dysfunction…

…The discussion about public service renewal is ongoing, but one valuable contribution arrived this week. In a report released Wednesday, the Public Policy Forum, an Ottawa-based think tank, succinctly identifies some of the key problems facing the public service. Few of these observations are likely to surprise Ottawa insiders, but it’s useful all the same to see them legitimized by respected researchers.

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The report confirms, for example, public servants feel so tangled up in procedure and regulations they are unable to get meaningful work done… Yes, public servants need to be accountable, especially in the post-Gomery universe, but if the “web of rules” is completely extinguishing every spark of innovation and producing the most risk-averse organization in the country, then there’s a problem.”

The Ottawa Citizen Editorial Board

The narrative of the public service as a byzantine, rule bound place has become so accepted it is now unquestioned gosple. The truth is always more complicated. I know of, and occasionally hear from, people who work in places where (usually small) teams of public servants work in flat collaborative groups that are able to achieve great things. But the narrative exists for a reason – as the above Ottawa Citizen piece attests. This is why where you work in the public service (and often who you work for) is far more important than what file you work on.

So how much work in the public service falls within the optimal-challenge zone described by Raymond? More importantly, how many public servants would continue to do their job if they weren’t paid? 10%? 35%? 50%?

My suspicion is that the open source community for public policy is actually quite large. It includes those in the public service – who are tied up and tied down in their silos, but also extends much further. The problem is that it is tied down by process and an industrial model to “churning out” policy that doesn’t work well with today’s knowledge workers.

Canada25 showed that hundreds and indeed thousands of young people wanted to think about, engage in, and write about public policy in their spare time. All we did was allow them to focus on whatever they wanted and create as frictionless a process as possible. The result? Four well received policy papers in 6 years on top of numerous smaller projects, debates, discussion groups and countless other outcomes I don’t even know about.

The main point is that “open” can work in policy development. So maybe it is time to set the public service free? To allow policy analysts to self-organize and focus their attention to where they believe they can best contribute, rather than having hundreds if not thousands of them babysitting files that simple don’t move?

Why not treat policy challenges like open source software programs. Create a policyforge (modeled after sourceforge) where the policy can reside and where the module policy owner, can foster a community and accept its ideas, opinions and edits.

Will it work? I can’t guarantee it. But we’d better start experimenting because the one thing we do know. The current system is beginning to crack.

The Public Service as a Gift Economy

In his description of why Open Source works Eric Raymond notes that open source communities don’t operate as command hierarchies or even as exchange economies. Instead they often operate as gift economies:

Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods… Abundance makes command relationships difficult to sustain and exchange relationships an almost pointless game. In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away.

What is interesting about the public service is that it, in theory, could operate like an open source gift economy. Indeed, there are no survival necessities for those who work in the public service – their salaries are generally acceptable and their jobs secure.

This isn’t to say scarcity doesn’t exist within the public service. But it is driven by two variables – neither of which is intrinsically scarce – but have been made so by the public service’s cultural history and industrial structure.

giftThe first is resources, which are siloed into various functions and cannot allocate themselves to problems without the consent of a centralized administrator.

The second is information, which for primarily historical corporate cultural reasons is rarely shared, and is hoarded in order to maintain control over resources or agendas.

Neither of this are necessary for the public service to function. Indeed, it would function a whole lot more efficiently and effectively if such a scarcity model were abandoned. This is why I’ve been such an advocate for a social networking system within the public service – it would serve as a clearing house to allow information and resources (people) to move around the system more freely and allocate itself more efficiently.

Such a clearing house would reduce the benefits of hoarding information, as it would be increasingly difficult to leverage information into control over an agenda or resource. Instead the opposite incentive system would take over. Sharing information or your labour (as a gift) within the public service would increase your usefulness to, and reputation among, others within the system. Nor would this mean political actors at the centre of this system would have to abandon agenda control – a central authority can still have enourmous influence ascribing value to what should be worked on. It would simply no longer have absolute authority over that agenda (It is worth noting that under the current model this absolute agenda power is merely theoretical anyway – public servants have an amazing ability of doing whatever the hell they want regardless who which party is setting the agenda).

Indeed, the above contrast also explains, in part, the challenge around recuiting. As gift styled economies become more prevalent, the command hierarchy model of the public service is becoming an increasingly undesirable system within which to reside.

Update: Think a gift economy built around reputation and recognition still doesnt make sense? The Ottawa Citizen’s Katheryn May recently noted that “The “churn” of the public service, characterized by the rapid and high turnover of people in jobs, has been identified as a big problem. The APEX survey showed 64 per cent of executives think of leaving their organization at least every month. More than half want to leave because of lack of recognition. (H/T to CPRenewal)”