Tag Archives: public service of canada

Public Service Renewal – If you're explaining, you're losing

Today and tomorrow the Deputy Ministers (DMs) of the Federal Public Service will gather to discuss the current state of affairs in Ottawa. In light of this event, I thought I would riff off my APEX speech and write the following post on public service sector renewal.

Towards the end of his famous lecture on Free Culture Lawrence Lessig quotes JC Watts, an African-American Republican Congressmen who once famously said that, in Washington: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

JC Watts could have easily been talking about Ottawa, and the problem of public service sector renewal. On this subject there has been a tremendous amount of explaining, exploring and diagnosing. And it has been going on for a long, long time. So much talk, and for so long, that I sometimes wonder if we’ve come to believe we can literally talk ourselves out of the problem. Sadly this is not the case. Our talking has not solved the problem. In fact, all it has done is repeatedly lift, and then burst, expectations.

At its core, I believe public service sector renewal isn’t that complicated. It’s about creating a better, more responsive and effective culture, a goal that, at its root, is a management problem. However, we can talk this problem until we are collectively blue in the face (and, yes, I’m aware of my own guilty contribution to this discussion) without getting anywhere. So let us instead ask a more basic question. Why has public service sector renewal not already happened? Is it structurally impossible? Or, are those at the apex unwilling or unable to prioritize it? In short, why, after all these years, are will still explaining and not doing?

The truth is that both structural and incentive factors are at work, feeding off one another and making change almost impossible.

At one end the problem lay the very role of the DM and the culture of the public service. As the Public Policy Forum’s recent report “Leadership in the Public Service of Canada” describes, DMs’ essentially have three roles: provide operational and policy advice to their Minister in support of their agenda; oversee program delivery and the management of their department; and help facilitate inter-departmental co-ordination. The problem however, is that for whatever reason Ottawa’s culture is firmly grounded in the notion that policy is the main game in town. Those who want to move ahead, who wish to rise to the rank of ADM or DM all know: do policy. Ask almost anyone, the public service rewards policy experience over operational experience virtually every time.

Which brings us to the other end of the of the problem – a lack of will to prioritize or address the problem. The public service’s culture has created a DM cadre who are more incented to, interested in, and focused on, providing ministers with policy advice than with addressing the operational and management issues of their ministries. This is not a critique of DMs – simply an observation that they are creatures of the culture that reared them. However, given these influences, why are we surprised to see that those leading the public service have so far proven unable to pull the leavers of management to shift the culture of these complex organizations? Is it any wonder that our efforts to date have been to think, intellectualize, or explain our way out of the problems renewal seeks to address? Or maybe it is the logical outcome for a group, who by their own admission (according to Public Policy Forum Leaders Survey), are strong on analytics, weak on management/decision making, and whose time is split between three highly demanding tasks.

The fact is most DMs manage incredibly large organizations that require full time dedicated managers. The notion that a DM should be advising a minister on a day to day or even weekly basis may have been rational back when ministries were composed of 200 people and the relevant information could conceivably flow through one person, but in today’s world it is preposterous. Many Ministries contain thousands of employees tackling an enormous array of subjects. In addition, thanks to modern technology, that information flows at an exponentially faster rate. It is foolish for a DM, or even a Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM), to believe they can advise a Minister on any of the relevant material. Somewhere in the organization, much further down the chain, is a policy wonk who can, and should, explain the issue just as well.

At the same time, the executive cadre of the public service, and public servants more generally, are desperate for better management. And yet, their model, the person from whom they are taking their queue from, is the DM. When a DM opts to sacrifice spending time on mentoring, professionally developing junior staffers, improving operations, and generally solving management problems, and instead focuses on a policy issue, they send a powerful message to everyone in the ministry: policy matters and management doesn’t. It’s a perverse message, and one that is killing the public service. Indeed, can you think of any other large organization in the world where the most senior executives are involved in producing the final product (in our case, a policy document)? Does the head of IBM design or even brainstorm new services? Does the the head of Blackberry think up new products? No, the heads of these organizations manage. Their job is to foster and create organizations that enable those beneath them to do their work – the real work – more effectively.

And this is what – at its core – public service sector renewal should be about, enabling public servants to do “the real work” of making policy and rolling out programs more effectively. However, until Deputy Ministers can fix their own role and acquire the tools to accomplish this end, we’ll be forever stuck explaining, and not doing, public service sector renewal.

Public Service Reform: The Myth of Failure

I’m getting ready to give my talk at the Public Service’s Executive Summit conference – a group that includes the CIO’s of all the federal ministries and other IT people engaged in service delivery. Although many of the themes will be reminiscent of the APEX talk I hope to blog on some of the newer themes later.

Leading up to the talk I’ve been reflecting on this notion of failure in the public service.

Frequently, when discussing the issue of public service sector reform, public officials seem to be of two minds. On the one hand I hear some advocates – let’s call them the entrepreneurs – argue that the public service needs to be more forgiving of risk and support innovation. Others – let’s call them the caretakers – regularly remind me of how government is different from the private sector. That unlike the private sector, which can take risks and fail, the government cannot. The consequence of the ‘caretakers’ predominance is everywhere: it explains why the government is slow to adopt new technologies and ideas, as it prefers to observe others figure them out and then move cautiously.
Myself, I’m a big supporter of the entrepreneurs – if you can’t fail then you can’t experiment, and while that means it’s hard to make things worse, it also makes it very, very difficult to make things better.

More importantly however, I find the latter statement interesting…  and also troublingly evasive and unrealistic.

It is true that many government services are essential – and the costs of a failure (however defined) can be high. But this is not true of all government services. All across government there is latitude for experimentation and new ideas – and indeed it takes place – but slowly.

More importantly however, the caretakers statement ignores reality. Government programs – like those of many organization – fail on a regular basis. Ask anyone whose worked in the public service, they’ll tell you of programs that never launched, got killed because they didn’t work, or that are continuing to operate and receive funding, but essentially don’t work (indeed, entire ministries come to mind…).

These can even include critical services. Aboriginal policy in Canada has been broadly “failing” for over two decades – and the consequences have been pretty atrocious. If one thought there was a zero risk threshold issue, I might have through this was it. While I believe that ‘caretakers’ are genuinely concerned that new technologies and approaches may increase the risk of failure there may be another, more troubling reason. ‘Caretakers’ may rightly fear that new technologies and structures because they create new types of failure. Failures that the bureaucracy is not practiced in the art of discretely hiding.

This is a powerful motivating factor. Failure, particularly failures that become public can at best cause Ministers great discomfort, discomfort they are likely to recreate for those who work for them. It’s an understandable and real concern. But in many instances the status quo of service and policy can also be dangerous. Experimentation – and as a result risk taking – is the only path I can see out.

Conservatives, Facebook and the Culture of Paranoia

So the Ontario and Federal Public service banned facebook because it thought it was eating into work time. Fair enough.

The Canadian Conservative Party however, has taken it a step further. Not only are they banning their staffers from accessing facebook from work, they are prohibiting them from possessing a facebook profile (even on their own time, accessed through their own computer). As this Calgary Herald editorial points out – this sort of restriction and censorship is reasonable:

“There seems to be a palpable fear that something which might embarrass a cabinet minister might find its way into a staff member’s profile and thus fall into the hands of some gleeful journalist. Just for the optics, it’s probably a good idea to try to prevent that from happening.”

I love that the Conservatives have so little trust in their staff they feel it necessary to prevent them from showing their faces or sharing their interests in a public space – even a virtual one.

Just ‘for optics’ maybe ministers and the party should control every aspect of their staffers lives? One wonders what other public spaces the Conservative party should ban their staffers from being seen in? Online dating must be no-no (too much like facebook). What about job searches – posting one’s resume and profile sounds pretty risky. But why stop online? What about parties and bars? Staffer could engage in some activity that might embarrass their minister in these public spaces too. Following this logic, maybe Harper should ban staffer from attending parties?

I love the paranoia of this Prime Minister’s Office.

Also, a H/T to Taylor Owen for drawing my attention to the Calgary Herald editorial.

Public Service Reform: Starting at the Apex

So I’ve just sent APEX a copy of my speech – I actually never write out my speeches so I literally had to go back through it in my head – anyway I will post here soon as well.

For me, one of my favourite parts revolved around the APEX logo (APEX is the organization that represents all the executives of the Canadian Federal Public Service). I asked the conference attendees to take off their name badges, look at them, and tell me what they saw. Most saw it right away. The Apex logo.

Symbols matter. So, when you look at this symbol what do you see?

After a day and a half of hearing speaker after speaker talk about creating a public service that was more open, more innovative and less hierarchical, I wanted to draw their attention to the symbol the Public Service Executives use to portray themselves to the world.

Could one imagine a symbol that conveys hierarchy, control, and dominance more effectively? (I love that it is not just a pyramid, but that its angled so you have to look up at it). “Were on top! Guess where you are?”

Do we want a different public service? It will take a lot of work and changing symbols won’t get us there. But it is a start.

At this point I like to briefly say thank you to Michel Smith for inviting me to talk – he invited me to come and speak and I thanked him by dismantling his organizations logo… he deserves better.

So, in that spirit, I’d like to propose an idea based on something the president of Scandinavian Airlines once talked about in an article he wrote (where, I don’t remember). After much reflection he flipped his organizational chart upside down so as to place him at the bottom, understanding that his role was to support everybody above him, so they could, in turn, support the front-line workers who actually touch the customers. Maybe we could flip the APEX logo on its head? Can we imagine a public service executive that thinks the same way?

Now, if only we could come up with a better acronym… Any suggestions? (Remember it has to work in French and English).

Spare a Public Service Story?

APEX, or the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada (phew! that was a mouthful) has asked me to speak at their 2007 Annual Symposium, which has been themed – Public Service Matters: Says Who? They’ve entitle my talk “Does the Public Service Matter to Generation Y?”

My work from last year has lead me to conclude that while it remains unclear if the Public Service has a hard time attracting recruits, it definitely has a hard time retaining people. For example, when the public service sent out a survey to new hires to assess job satisfaction, almost 10% of respondents had already departed. More importantly, there is clearly a generational divide… new hires under 30 say they are more likely to leave than those over 30 (37% vs 22%).One piece I intend to talk about is how Gen Yers do care about public service, they just don’t necessarily want to be part of the public service. A decision made easier given all the options they now have to directly engage on issues they care about.I’d love to hear from other Gen Yers out there both in and outside of the public service. If you are so inclined please send me your story about why you love working in the public service, or why you left/dislike it. Please feel free to post it, or if you’d prefer to, you can email me directly.[tags]APEX, Government, Bureaucracy[/tags]