Tag Archives: public service

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?

My Unfinished Business Talk in Toronto

ocad logoI’m really pleased to share that I’ll be giving a talk at the Ontario College of Art & Design this January 14th, 2010. The talk is one I’ve been giving for government officials a fair bit of late – it is on how technology, open methodologies and social change are creating powerful pressures for reform within our government bureaucracies. The ideas in it also form the basis of a chapter I’ve written for the upcoming O’Reilly Media book on Open Government due out in January (in the US, assuming here in Canada too – more on this in a later post).

I completely thrilled to be giving a talk at OCAD and especially want to thank Michael Anton Dila for making this all happen. It was his idea, and he pushed me to make it happen. It is especially of Michael and OCAD since they have kept the talk free and open to the public.

The talk details are below and you can register here. More exciting has been the interest in the talk – I saw that 100 tickets disappeared in the first 4 hours yesterday – people care about government and policy!

We have much unfinished business with our government – look forward to digging into it.

ABOUT UNFINISHED BUSINESS

The Unfinished Lecture is a monthly event hosted by the Strategic Innovation Lab at OCAD and sponsored by Torch Partnership. Part of the Unfinished Business initiative, the lectures are intended to generate an open conversation about strategic innovation in the business and design of commercial enterprises and public organizations.

AFTER THE COLLAPSE: Technology, Open and the Future of Government

What do Facebook, 911 and NASA all have in common? They all offer us a window into how our industrial era government may be redesigned for the digital age. In this lecture David Eaves will look at how open methodologies, technology and social change is reshaping the way public service and policy development will be organized and delivered in the future: more distributed, adaptive and useful to an increasingly tech savvy public. Whether a interested designer, a disruptive programmer, a restless public servant or a curious citizen David will push your thinking on what the future has in store for the one institution we all rely on: Government.
As a closing remark, I’d also like to thank Health Canada & Samara, both of who asked me to put my thoughts on this subject together into a single talk.
Hope to see you in Toronto.

Open Data – USA vs. Canada

open-data-300x224When it comes to Open Data in Canada and the United States, things appear to be similar. Both countries have several municipalities with Open Data portals: Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and now New York City in the US, Vancouver and Nanaimo in Canada with Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa thinking about or initiating plans.

But the similarities end there. In particular there is a real, yawning gap at the federal level. America has data.gov but here in Canada there is no movement on the Open Data front. There are some open data sets, but nothing comprehensive, and nothing that follows is dedicated to following the three laws of open data. No data.gc.ca in the works. Not even a discussion. Why is that?

As esoteric as it may sound, I believe the root of the issues lies in the country’s differing political philosophies. Let me explain.

It is important to remember that the United States was founded on the notion of popular sovereignty. As such its sovereignty lies with the people, or as Wikipedia nicely puts it:

The American Revolution marked a departure in the concept of popular sovereignty as it had been discussed and employed in the European historical context. With their Revolution, Americans substituted the sovereignty in the person of the English king, George III, with a collective sovereign—composed of the people. Henceforth, American revolutionaries by and large agreed and were committed to the principle that governments were legitimate only if they rested on popular sovereignty – that is, the sovereignty of the people. (italics are mine)

Thus data created by the US government is, quite literally, the people’s data. Yes, nothing legally prevents the US government from charging for information and data but the country’s organizing philosophy empowers citizens to stand up and say – this is our data, we’d like it please. In the United States the burden is on the government to explain why it is withholding that which the people own (a tradition that admittedly is hardly perfect as anyone alive from the years 2000-2008 will attest to).  But don’t underestimate the power of this norm. Its manifestations are everywhere, such as in the legal requirement that any document created by the United States government be published in the public domain (e.g. it cannot have any copyright restrictions placed on it) or in America’s vastly superior Freedom of Information laws.

This is very different notion of sovereignty than exists in Canada. This country never deviated from the European context described above. Sovereignty in Canada does not lie with the people, indeed, it resides in King George the III’s descendant, the present day Queen of England. The government’s data isn’t your, mine, or “our” data. It’s hers. Which means it is at her discretion, or more specifically, the discretion of her government servants, to decide when and if it should be shared. This is the (radically different) context under which our government (both the political and public service), and its expectations around disclosure, have evolved. As an example, note that government documents in Canada are not public domain, they are published under a Crown Copyright that, while less restrictive than copyright, nonetheless constrains reuse (no satire allowed!) and is a constant reminder of the fact that Canadian citizens don’t own what their tax dollars create. The Queen does.

The second reason why open data has a harder time taking root in Canada is because of the structure of our government. In America, new projects are easier to kick start because the executive welds greater control over the public service. The Open Data initiative that started in Washington, D.C. spread quickly to the White House because its champion and mastermind, the District’s of Columbia’s CTO Vivek Kundra, was appointed Federal CIO by President Obama. Yes, Open Data tapped into an instinctual reflex to disclose that (I believe) is stronger down south than here, but it was executed because America’s executive branch is able to appoint officials much deeper into government (for those who care, in Canada Deputy Ministers are often appointed, but in the United States appointments go much deeper, down into the Assistant Deputy and even into the Director General level). Both systems have merits, and this is not a critic of Canada’s approach, simply an observation. However, it does mean that a new priority, like open data, can be acted upon quickly and decisively in the US. (For more on these difference I recommend reading John Ibbitson’s book Open & Shut).

These difference have several powerful implications for open data in Canada.

As a first principle, if Canadians care about open data we will need to begin fostering norms in our government, among ourselves, and in our politicians, that support the idea that what our government creates (especially in terms of research and data) is ours and that we should not only have unfettered access to it, but the right to analyze and repurpose it. The point here isn’t just that this is a right, but that open data enhances democracy, increases participation and civic engagement and strengthens our economy. Enhancing this norm is a significant national challenge, one that will take years to succeed. But instilling it into the culture of our public service, our civic discourse and our political process is essential. In the end, we have to ask ourselves – in a way our American counterparts aren’t likely to (but need to) – do we want an open country?

This means that secondly, Canadians are going to have to engage in a level of education of – particularly senior – public servants on open data that is much broader and more comprehensive than our American counterparts had to. In the US, an executive fiat and appointment has so far smoothed the implementation of open data solutions. That will likely not work here. We have many, many, many allies in the public service who believe in open data (and who understand it is integral to public service sector renewal). The key is to spread that knowledge and support upwards, to educate senior decision-makers, especially those at the DG, ADM and DM level to whom both the technology and concept is essentially foreign. It is critical that these decision-makers become comfortable with and understand the benefits of open data quickly. If not we are unlikely to keep pace with (or even follow) our American counterparts, something, I believe is essential for our government and economy.

Second, Canadians are going to have to mobilize to push for open data as a political issue. Even if senior public servants get comfortable with the idea, it is unlikely there will be action unless politicians understand that Canadians want both greater transparency and the opportunity to build new services and applications on government data.

(I’d also argue that another reason why Open Data has taken root in the US more quickly than here is the nature of its economy. As a country that thrives on services and high tech, open data is the basic ingredient that helps drive growth and innovation. Consequently, there is increasing corporate support for open data. Canada, in contrast, with its emphasis on natural resources, does not have a corporate culture that recognizes these benefits as readily.)

Emergent Systems in Government: Let's put the horse before the cart

Yesterday Paul McDowall, Knowledge Management Advisor at the Government’s School of the Public Service and chairperson of the Interdepartmental Knowledge Management Forum, wrote the following comment in response to a blog post from several months ago entitled “How GCPEDIA will save the public service.”

I’ve posted his comment – feel free to read it or skip it and go straight to my analysis below. In summary, what makes McDowall’s comments interesting isn’t just the argument (or its reactionary nature) but the underlying perspective/assumptions that drives it. It serves as a wonderful example of the tension between how the traditional hierarchical nature of the public service and some evolving emergent models that challenging this approach.

So first, McDowall:

Will GCPEDIA save the public service, or capture all the tacit knowledge that will walk out the door? No, of course not! To suggest otherwise is, frankly, naive hyperbole.

As great and as promising as GCPEDIA and other Web 2.0 tools are, tools will never save the public service. People are the public service and only people have the capacity to save the public service, and it will take a whole lot more to improve the weak areas of the public service than a tool. Things like leadership play a pretty important role in organizational effectiveness. There are many good Organizational Excellence models (I have researched this area) and they all include people and leadership as two elements, but funny enough, tools aren’t included. Why? Because it is not so much a tool issue as it is a craftsman issue.

With respect to your comment about tacit knowledge and social capital (not the same things by the way), I think it may be helfpul to brush up on what tacit knowledge is, and what Knowledge Management is.

It is unquestionably true that the public service continues to face a potential impact from demographic changes that are both extremely significant and yet unquantified. It is also unquestionably true that most public service organizations haven’t truly understood or addressed these potential impacts, to say nothing of the potential of improving their effectiness right NOW from better Knowledge Management (productivity, innovation, etc).

These issues need to be addressed by public service leaders in an intelligent and thoughtful manner. Tools can and certainly should help but only when wielded by craftsmen and women. For too long vendors have made grandiose and unrealizable promises about their ‘solutions’. I thought we had learned our lessons from all that experience.
Let’s not get the cart before the horse, shall we?

Paul McDowall
Knowledge Management Advisor and chairperson of the Interdepartmental Knowledge Management Forum

McDowall’s main concern appears to be that GCPEDIA doesn’t have a clear purpose and, more importantly, doesn’t serve a specific leadership objective. (If you are wondering how I gleaned that from the above, well, I cheated, I called McDowall to ask him more about his comment since the nature of his concern wasn’t clear to me). For those used to an era where IT projects were planned out from the beginning, everything was figured out in advance, and the needs of the leadership were the paramount priority, GCPEDIA would be disconcerting. Indeed, the very idea of unleashing people willy-nilly on a system would be an anathema. In short, when McDowall says, don’t put the horse before the cart, what he’s saying is, “you’ve rolled out a tool, and you don’t even know what you are going to use it for!”

This would appear to be rational concern. Except, many of the rules that underlay this type of thinking are disappearing. Indeed, had this type of thinking been adhered to, the web would not have developed.

First, The economics have changed. There was a time when IT projects necessarily costed tens of millions of dollars.  But GCPEDIA was built on a (free) open source platform using a handful of internal FTEs (making McDowell’s comments about vendors even more confusing). Indeed GCPEDIA has cost the public service virtually nothing to create. One invests in planning so as to avoid expensive or ineffective deployments. But if the costs of deployment are virtually zero and failure really isn’t that traumatic then… why waste time and years planning? Release, test, and adapt (or kill the project).

Second, with projects like this become cheap to deploy another important shift takes place. Users – not their bosses or a distant IT overlord – decide a) if they want to participate and b) co-develop and decide what is useful. This has powerful implications. It means that you had better serve a real (not perceived or mandated) need, and that, if successful, you’d better be prepared to evolve quickly. This, interestingly, is how that usefully little tool called the World Wide Web evolved. Read the original proposal to create the World Wide Web. IT departments of the world didn’t all collectively and suddenly decide that people should be made to use the web. No! It grew organically responding to demand. In addition, there is very little in it that talks about how we use the web today, users of the web (us!) have helped it evolve so that it serves us more effectively.

This is probably the biggest disconnect between McDowell and myself. He believes GCPEDIA is problematic (or at least won’t do the things I think it will do) because it doesn’t serve the leadership. I think it will work because it does something much better, it serves actual users – public servants (and thus, contrary to his argument, is very much about people). This includes, critically, capturing tacit knowledge and converting it into formal – HTML encoded – knowledge that helps build social capital (I do, actually, know the difference between the two).

Indeed, the last thing we need is a more leadership oriented public service, what we need is an employee centric public service. One that enables those who are actually doing the work to communicate, collaborate and work, more effectively. In this regard, I think GCPEDIA is demonstrating that it is effective (although it is still is very early days) with logarithmic growth, 8000+ users and 200 more signing up every week (all with virtually no promotional budget). Clearly some public servants are finding it to be at worst interesting, and at best, deeply enabling.

Today: "right to know" panel for parliamentarians

Today from 10am-12am EST I’ll be a panelist for Conference for Parliamentarians: Transparency in the Digital Era a panel convened by the Office of the Information Commissioner as part of Right to Know Week. Apparently the Canadian School of Public Service will provide access to this conference as part of its Armchair Discussions (www.righttoknow.ca).

More on the panel:

This conference aims to engage Parliamentarians in a debate and reflection on the new paradigm that the digital world has introduced for the right to know. Greater transparency in the digital era requires more than sound information management and the use of state-of-the-art information technology. It calls for a fundamental change of attitudes from disclosing information on a need-to-know basis to managing information with the presumption of disclosure as the default mode. How can public institutions trigger and accelerate this change of attitudes for the benefit of Canadians?

For those who are interested you can see my slides (sans audio, I’m afraid) below.

How to Engage Citizens on a Municipal Website…

Sometimes, it’s nice to be small, the City of Nanaimo has been pushing the envelop on open data and open government for a number of years now.

Recently, I was directed to their new Council Agendas and Minutes webpage. I recommend you check it out.

Here’s why.

At first blush the site seems normal. There is the standard video of the council meeting (queue cheesy local cable access public service announcement), but them meeting minutes underneath are actually broken down by the second and by clicking on them you can jump straight to that moment in the meeting.

As anyone who’s ever attended a City Council meeting (or the legislature, or parliament) knows, the 80/20 rule is basically always in effect. About 80% of the time the proceedings are either dead boring and about 20% (often much less) of the time the proceedings are exciting, or more importantly, pertinent to you. One challenge with getting citizens engaged on the local level is that they often encounter a noise to signal problem. The ratio of “noise” (issues a given citizen doesn’t care about) drowns out the “signal” (the relatively fewer issues they do care about).

The City of Nanaimo’s website helps address this problem. It enables citizens to find what matters to them without having to watch or scroll through a long and dry council meeting. Better still, they are given a number of options by which to share that relevant moment with friends, neighbours, allies or colleagues via twitter, facebook, delicious or any other number of social media tools.

One might be wondering: can my city afford such a wizbang setup?

Excellent question.

Given Nanaimo’s modest size (it has 78,692 citizens) suggests they have a modest IT budget. So I asked Chris McLuckie, a City of Nanaimo public servant who worked on the project. He informed me that the system was built in-house by him and another city staff member, it uses off-the-shelf hardware and software and so cost under $2000 and it took 2 week to code up.

2 weeks?

No million dollar contract? No 8 month timeline? No expensive new software?

No. Instead, if you’re smart, you might find a couple of local creative citizen-hackers to put something together in no time at all.

You know what’s more, because Chris and the City of Nanaimo want to help more cities learn how to think like the web, I bet if the IT director from any city (or legislative body) asked nicely, they would just give them the code.

So how Open is your city? And if not, do they have $2000 lying around to change that?

The Rat Pack of Public Service Sector Renewal

As many of you know I spend a lot of time thinking about public service sector renewal – that’s a wonkish term for renewing the public service. I do it because I think the public service is one of the most important institutions in the country since it affects everything we do, pretty much every day.

Over the past few years I’ve met more and more people who are equally passionate about this issue. Some I’ve met in person, others I’ve just chatted with by email. But, over the last 4 years I’ve watched a small group of bloggers – a rat pack of public service sector renewal – emerge. We’re scattered across the country and have come to from different angles but we all care about how our government is, how it should be, and how we can get to from the first place to the latter.

This is no easy task. I’m outside of government so it’s easier for me to speak truth to power. That’s why I’m so impressed with the other rat packers, in pursuit of making government better some have put their jobs on the line from time to time. I’d encourage you to go check our their blogs and give them a read.

The CPSR rat pack:

Me: as my readers know, my own thinking on public service sector renewal tends to focus on public policy development, and how it is going to be impacted by demographic change, technology, social media, networks and emergent systems.

Nick Charney’s blog CPSRenewal is one of the best blogs on public service sector renewal out there. Nick often does a weekly roundup of CPSR articles and blog posts, interviews with public servants and generally shares his thoughts.

Etienne Laliberte is one of the bravest public servants I know. A couple of years ago he wrote “An Inconvenient Renewal” in which shared his thoughts on renewal. Most important, his is probably the only document I’ve seen that treats renewal as a management problem, not a policy problem (something I’ve discussed in the past and intend to talk about again shortly). You can catch him at his blog as well.

A couple of other people I think of as being part of the Rat Pack include Peter Cowan – an OpenEverything alumnus – whose part of a team doing very interesting work with social media tools at Natural Resources Canada.

Thomas Kearney, who doesn’t blog, but is amazing nonetheless, has been a big part of the work behind GCPEDIA.

There’s Laura Wesley’s who’s got a great blog over at Results for Canadians: Measuring Success in Government. Nice to have someone concerned with how we measure success!

And finally there is the outspoken Douglas Bastien at Government of Canada 2.0, ready to tell it as it is and take no prisoners.

I know there are more people than just those I’ve mentioned, but these are the group I know and who’ve always been kind about letting an semi-outsider like me in. If you care about Canadian public service sector renewal (twitter hashtag #cpsr) then I hop you’ll add their RSS feeds to your reader.