Tag Archives: public service of canada

Has Canada entered a Bush-Like Vortex?

No new piece on eaves.ca today as I wrote a special for the Globe and Mail.

The piece is entitled Has Canada entered a ‘Bush-like vortex’? and explores how the Colvin testimony suggests the public service has become compromised in a critical way. Specifically, it suggests that increasingly, public servants are being forced to shape facts and the truth to fit a narrative already constructed by our government. It’s a dangerous path down which president Bush took the American public administration with disastrous results. Here, with out traditions of a greater separation between the political and the bureaucratic, the outcome could be even worse.

Anyway, you read it here on the Globe site. I’ll cross post it tomorrow.

Which government embraces Facebook? (hint: it's not ours)

A few weeks ago Dave D. kindly sent me this article out of England about how junior public servants are teaching their senior colleagues how to use facebook.

And just in case you think this is an ad hoc thing…

Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson yesterday said Whitehall mandarins had been given new guidelines ‘to encourage civil servants to take the first steps to engage with online social networks’.

I wonder if any Public Servant or Conservative Cabinet minister would be willing to share the same idea with our PM… likely not.

Oh, to live in a country with an open government

So the British Government doesn’t just release masses of data so the people can mash it up – they are now offering a prize to the best mash-up. Sadly, our (Canadian) government couldn’t be more secretive with it’s data.

Government EntropySure there are some low hanging fruit that I (with the help of my trusted colleague Jeremy V) was able to get and use to create this mash up of the location of government offices. Sadly, their ain’t much (that is publicly available!) to mash it up against…

Ah, the things the public would do with the data it is supposed to own and have access to, if only its government would let it…

Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like we’re uninspired, secretative and falling further, and further, behind.

The Open Source Public Service

Consider these to quotes side by side:


“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.)


“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)”

Public Service Recruitment

My friend Mike Morgan published a web-exclusive op-ed in yesterday’s Globe entitled “Attracting talent: How to make the civil service a sexy thing.”

The idea of having government pay for university tuition in exchange for a term of service is worth exploring. Interestingly it isn’t just the military that uses this model. Numerous elite consulting firms – such as McKinsey – often offer to pay the tuition of employees graduate school work in exchange for a period of service. If the employee elects to leave before the term of service is up then they take on a portion of the tuition. The model is not perfectly analogous since this is for graduate and not undergraduate work, but there are companies out there doing something similar.

One thing is for certain however, the government needs a scalable program that is front, as opposed to backend loaded. At the moment the “reward” for being in government comes after 20 plus years of service when you start gathering your pension. I know of few 20 year-olds who are thinking 25 years down the line, or who want a single employer for their entire life. Knowing that your entitlement is 25 years out isn’t as strong an incentive these days. Mike’s idea flips this, creating an immediate and tangible incentive – a university education – that can be leveraged for other opportunities across one’s career, not just at its end.

Most importantly, it is scalable. It addresses a system wide demand for talent, not just demand at the elite level, which is the focus of the Recruitment of Policy Leaders and Accelerated Economist Training Program target. We are not going to solve the recruitment problem by attracting 50 RPLers and 14 AETPers every year.

Special shout out to Jascha J. who caught a typo in this post. People regularly email me when the notice something is amiss – I’m deeply grateful to everyone for that.

Public Service Sector Renewal and Gen Y: Don’t be efficient

Perhaps the biggest problem for Public Sector Renewal is the enourmous expectation problem created by the internet.

Many of today’s Gen Yers have access to a dizzying array of free online tools. Tools this online generations has grown up and used to organize and make more efficient their personal lives.


These range from the banal, such as Facebook (connect and find people), Evite and Socialzr (organize and send invites to parties), or Google Docs (manage version control and share essays across platforms) to the more sophisticated, such as Basecamp (manage school projects), del.icio.us (share research with friends), WordPress (share your thoughts) or TikiWiki (enable collaboration).

It isn’t hard to imagine how these tools can be used professionally. I’ve talked about the potential for a facebook-like application, but software similar to Evite and socialzr can help set up meetings, google docs and wiki’s can facilitate collaborative policy development, and basecamp is as effective at managing professional projects as it is school projects. A work blog can keep your colleagues up to date on your research and thinking as effectively as your personal blog keeps your friends up to date on your comings and goings.

And remember – these tools are not only free but people like using them.

However, as generation Y enters the work force – and, in particular the public service – it is confronted with a nasty reality. Their managers, Director Generals, ADMs and DMs aren’t familiar with these software programs and don’t grasp the full potential of the internet. More importantly, in the public service’s risk averse culture doing something new and different is frequently perceived as dangerous. And so, our intrepid new hires are literally being told – don’t be efficient.

This is remarkable. For perhaps the first time in the history of work a generation is finding that the tools they use to organize life at home allows them to be more productive than the tools they can use to organize life at work.

Take for example my friend who wanted to use survey monkey to send out a questionnaire asking 10 public servants across their department about potential dates and times when they would be free to meet.  The survey took 5 seconds to complete and would quickly identify the optimal date for such a meeting. However, her manager let her know very quickly that this was unacceptable. It was more important that each person be emailed – or better, called – individually, a process that gobbled up hours if not days. Time after time I hear stories of young people who, after doing what they do at home, quickly feel the full weight of the department descending on their cubicle. I won’t even mention an acquaintance who related a story of trying to set up a wiki (not even on accessible to the public!).

The larger point here is that it’s going to be hard to retain people when they feel like they have to work with two hands tied behind their back (because of the nature of the job public servants already work with one hand behind their back). Today’s best and brightest want the freedom to work quickly and efficiently – and why not? – this is what ambitious go getters do. Those that notice that their work lags too far behind what they can do on their own will find greener pastures to accomplish their aims.

Don’t believe me? Forget all the applications I mentioned above. Think about something as simple as Google. This simple application has created the expectation among Gen Yers (and even Xers and boomers) that information should be accessible and easily found. When was the last time you could easily find what you were looking for on a government webpage?

Public Service Sector Renewal’s biggest challenge is fighting the freedom that the internet is giving people. The freedom to accomplish tasks faster, to work more quickly and to be more effective – the only rub, is no one can control what anyone is doing because you can’t keep track of it all. There is simply too much going on. So, in short, in order to meet the expectations created by the internet the public service may have to learn to trust its employees.

Can it do this?

I don’t know.