Principle 2: Seek Self Improvement

Continuing on my theme from the last post, the second principle is:

Know your own strengths and limitations and pursue self improvement – You can seek self improvement by discussion with experienced personnel, by reading regulations, and by being enthusiastic and striving to do the best you can.

This one is pretty interesting, especially in a time of fiscal constraint. Courses cost money. Too often we equate self-improvement with courses. We need to do this course at the CSPS, or attend that conference so that we can learn more. There is much more to learning and development — and very little of it actually needs to cost money.

Everyone has their obscure area of knowledge that they really enjoy (for some reason). Mine, odd as it is, generally involves machinery of government. I’m fascinated by it. How ideas move through our large system, and which players need to be involved at what point, is the source of endless wonder to me. But I learned very little about machinery from courses. I had someone ask me once if I could recommend a course to them on this type of material, but I didn’t really have one.

My obscure knowledge, though, doesn’t come from any type of special access. There are documents out there that we can use to educate ourselves, but they may be hidden in the heaps of information that we encounter every day. For example, here are some documents that have informed my thinking on government and policy:

These are just a few of the documents that I’ve found helpful. From official documents from Canadian government departments, to the musings of bureaucrats, to the think tanks. Taking the time to read and talk about these types of documents keeps us sharp — constantly questioning the sytsem and how it can be improved.

Not that I agree with all of them (in some cases, I think the premise of some of the recommendations are terrible), but they provide a useful challenge function for my own thinking on government and the policy development process.

What’s your reading list? What’s the most influential thing you’ve read that helped you to improve or build new skills?


Principle 1: Know Your Job (Or, what I learned in Cadets)

When I was younger, I was apart of the Canadian Cadet Organization. This organization has a variety of aims, including developing citizens. Many of the people I have worked with since then, and some of those I get along with best, are themselves former cadets. Even though we may not have known each other when we were part of the movement, there is a common experience that ties us all together.

The program has always had a big focus on the idea of leadership. Specifically, I will always remember being taught the 10 Principles of Leadership. Whenever there is a problem in an organization, a quick glance down the list of the 10 principles will likely assist you in finding the problem (and, hopefully, the solution). The first principle is stated as such:

Know your job – Know what you are talking about, learn and understand the principles and problems entailed in the work of your cadets so that you can be sure that they are doing their job properly.

This principle points not to only understanding your own job (and that doesn’t mean just looking at your work description), but also understanding the roles of your subordinates. Too often, we fail to appreciate what those around us actually do.

Additionally, it points to understanding the challenges of those around us. We often get caught up in our own set of challenges, while failing to realize the challenges that those around us are facing. As I’ve mentioned before, we need to work with each other in good faith in a trusting environment.

I think the biggest aspect of this principle that we often overlook is understanding where we fit into the whole system. The government is a massive machine, and often our work can feel futile and unfilling. We don’t know where or how we fit into the big scheme of things, and might find it difficult to articulate how the work we do ends up serving Canadians. Truly digging deeply, and seeking to understand what the role of our job is in the bigger picture (and the roles of others!) is crucial to being able to be motivated about our jobs.

This principle is probably more of a reminder to managers, new and old, to always be able to articulate what your organization does and how you contribute to your organization/department in a meaningful way. We have an obligation not just to understand our own role, but also to understand how the machine fits together — understanding what the other parts of this big machine actually do!

The underlying message is that we cannot put our heads in the sand. It’s easy to villify other parts of an organization if you do not understand what they do, or where they fit in to the grand scheme. If you appreciate how the machine fits together, not only do you better serve your larger organization, but in doing so you will likely appreciate where your own efforts contribute to the bigger picture.

Two Years on the Blog

I was looking through some old posts today, and noticed that two years today, I started blogging. Wow.

What has changed since then? Oh, so much. When I started writing, I would’ve been into my second job in Government. Since then I’ve seen another position and another department. The perspective gained over that time has had a big influence on how I write and how I look to engage with the broader public service community. There are certainly mixers (w2p) and events (policy ignite) that I made an effort to attend, and many people in those circles crossover. The conversations with people at those types of events inspire much of my writing.

Twitter, of course, has been invaluable. In bouncing around ideas and getting feedback from others on what is going on in and around government.

I think my biggest query, though, is why there is a lack of government bloggers. It looks to be the same group blogging now that have in the past. The group of active bloggers seems to be less than 5 people. I wonder what has caused this? Is it the platform? Is it fear of reprisal?

While we’ve seen the community on Twitter grow (and I think that’s awesome), blogging is an important way for messages to get out. If you miss a conversation on twitter, it can be difficult to catch up. Documenting our experiences for others to read (who may not be engaging on Twitter, or who are looking to go back and see what has been said in the past) becomes a crucial part of our function as people who are trying to change the Public Service.

It’s our responsibility, after all.

Collaborative Efforts as Heart Surgery

Policy Horizons Canada recently released the latest edition of their newsletter, including a great article by the one and only Blaise Hebert, with support from Tabatha, Steffen, and Greg. The article explains the idea that tools are only one part of the collaborative effort — you also need a dedicated community and some sort of plan that includes deliverables/content. Simply using a “build it and they will come” method doesn’t work. People need to be dedicating their efforts towards something, and see that others are doing the same.

I like the title of the article, and want to build a bit more on it. The article’s sub-title is:

Giving a monkey a scalpel doesn’t make him a surgeon

Let’s take that and expand, shall we?

If we look at collaborative efforts as surgery, the example that Blaise and Co. use makes a lot of sense:

  • A community – team members; You need a lot of different skill sets in surgery — not just the surgeon, but nurses, other physicians with certain specializations, medical technicians, etc, all work together for the ultimate outcome.

The talk of lurkers/contributors/core users is interesting. If we stick with this example of heart surgery, all those groups are essential. Even if you’re not involved directly in the surgery, there are medical students who will watch/learn from the experience (lurkers), those who are contributing, but may not have their hands on the heart, and then those who are actually performing the core of the surgery. All groups benefit, and hopefully pass on their knowledge.

  • A place where content can be accessed and built upon – the platform; You need an operating room with the right equipment that all the people in the community can figure out how to use. 

This also means knowing who is in your community. There are different techniques to accomplish the same goals. Knowing your audience, and knowing the platform that the community will be able to access together is crucial for the success of the surgery.

  • Work-related activities to produce content – the heartbeat. You need the patient — the actual thing that the community/platform are being used to work towards.

Of course, you also need a patient, or you’re just a team sitting around. Your community needs something to work on.

With all that said, I think this model misses the crucial fourth step: Post-Operative Care

In any surgery, your care doesn’t end once the surgery is completed and you sew the patient back up. There is post-op care, with some of the same community members (and new ones! You may not need a physiotherapist during the surgery, but they may be crucial to post-op care) who make sure that the surgery itself wasn’t just isolated — there may be exercises to do afterwards, to make sure the person recovers and can continue to live and work in our society.

In many cases, we’re seeing ideas through to the surgery phase. Products are delivered, and people quickly wash their hands of the project (although they may talk about how great the process was). But if there’s no hand off, and nothing happens with the deliverable, then how much was it worth?

Collaborative efforts are excellent, but the crucial last step of ensuring that the project is cared for, and will be able to walk and run later on, needs to be better looked at by those involved in projects. If a new team needs to be formed for that stage of the game (bringing in new expertise), then the surgical team needs to advise on that and start putting together a team that can develop a good post-op plan.

Who would’ve thought we could learn so much from science? 😉

Capability Based Planning

When we look at the Public Service writ large, it sometimes appears as though we lack an overall vision. I’ve talked in the last few weeks about Values and Ethics — and certainly these provide a good base of our fundamental values — but we seem to lack a clear and concise vision for the Public Service and what we ought to look like in the future.

While the title of this blog is “Public Service of the Future”, I spend most of my posts talking about the here and now. I try to look at what we are experiencing in today’s climate, with very little thought given towards the future of the Public Service. There are definitely challenges in today’s climate that require analysis, but how we address those challenges doesn’t matter too much unless they encourage us to head towards a particular vision.

The report I quoted in last week’s post had something neat in one of its Annexes. It had different visions/images of the Public Service:

1. The Regulating PS, seen as looking after the neutral and impartial implementation of government regulations

2. The Paternalistic PS, seen as safeguarding traditional rights and values, both moral and professional.

3. The Negotiating PS, seen as mediating, negotiating and reconciling among competing interest groups.

4. The Competitive PS, seen as a competitive business. It acts to promote productivity, foster prosperity and ensure financial integrity.

5. The Service-oriented PS, seen as a service station or supermarket, offering products and services that citizens demand.

6. The Developmental PS, seen as developing, implementing and supporting frameworks for maximum self-governing and self-reliance.

7. The Compassionate PS, seen as evolving and refining mechanisms for collecting and redistributing wealth and other resources to ensure a uniform standard of living.

8. The Minimalist PS, seen as maintaining the bare minimum of legal frameworks to keep society functioning.

9. The Future-oriented PS, a facilitator, an assistant, a facilitator that helps citizens and society move toward a desirable future.

10. The PS as Control, an instrument of controlling all resources, energy and funds, and of using or confiscating them for the benefit of the government when commanded.

Of course, the ideal Public Service (in my mind) is adaptable, and likely draws from each of these images at various points in time, depending on a whole range of factors.

The Canadian Forces currently engages in an activity called Capability Based Planning (CBP), which aims to predict what is required to meet the future challenges that the CF will face. This is a tough exercise, that requires a lot of deep analysis as to the current capabilities, deficiencies, and an honest discussion of what may be needed as the world continues to evolve.

I’d be fascinated to see a similar process take place with the Public Service of Canada. While we talk about departmental development/vision, we often neglect the view of the whole of the Public Service. What challenges will be faced by government institutions over the next 10 years? What sort of Public Servants will be required to address these challenges? How can we start developing people now to meet those future challenges?

Too often we get stuck in the here and now. What is needed is some serious leadership and forward thinking on the deeper institution of the Public Service. Within CBP, there are three key phases:

  1. Capability Analysis — Determine required capabilities to meet government policy (or, in this case, challenges). These capabilities are then prioritized, based on frequency and impact.
  2. Capability Assessment — Looking at the overall institution, priorities are recommended to senior management. Recommendations include investments (where we need resources), divestments (where we can remove resources from), and sustainment.
  3. Capability Integration — Actually looking at the viability of the plan and figuring out how to get there (resourcing, etc).
Step 2 is the challenging step (although one that I imagine many departments are undergoing now, with the Strategic and Operating Review). Again, while I applaud that departments are having these conversations within their own borders, it is essential that we start thinking broader. We already know that the policy challenges we face now, and will continue to face in the future, require a multi-disciplinary approach. If we neglect thinking about what sort of Public Service we need to face those challenges, we fail in our duties as Public Servants.
A tough challenge, and one that requires some serious discussions at a variety of levels in government. I wonder, though, if a Capability Based Planning exercise were to take place, what type of Public Service (out of the 10 images made above) would come out on top as the vision we should shoot for.

Plus ça change — Risk Management 10 years later

I was excited when I saw the following tweet this morning come up on my feed:

@marknca: “Risk, Innovation and Values – Examining the Tensions”

I was even more excited when I clicked on the link and discovered it to be on the Treasury Board Secretariat website! What a pertinent issue – certainly, in today’s climate of fiscal restraint, strategic reviews, and the expansion of the technology we have available to service our citizens, such a report provides a useful understanding of the issues that the public service is facing.

Then you look at the date of the report: 15 April 1999. More than a decade ago.

There have been lots of victories in the last decade for how the public service provides services to Canadians. In some ways we’ve become more responsive and better able to adapt to the ongoing and evolving issues that we face as a society. However, there are some salient points in the report that we have not addressed. Going back to the core of the issues that we face, from a risk and innovation perspective, is a useful exercise to inform how we may want to face future issues.

Fundamentally, when we talk about barriers to innovation, we end up talking about public service values. The report notes that:

“The assumption of a large and diverse public service that can be managed by a single set of values and rules is similarly outdated, especially in connection with innovation and risk-taking.”

So, let’s go look at the current Code of Values and Ethics:

“Public servants shall endeavour to ensure the proper, effective and efficient use of public money.”

“Public servants should constantly renew their commitment to serve Canadians by continually improving the quality of service, by adapting to changing needs through innovation, and by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of government programs and services offered in both official languages.”

The value of innovation is included there, but the Code is relatively silent on how risks should be taken. How should public servants assess if risk is appropriate? And if there is no framework for making that assessment, are we surprised that there aren’t people out there trying to push forth new ideas?

When the Code of Values and Ethics is updated, hopefully part of this will be addressed. It’s well and good for something to state that innovation is good and to set the expectation that public servants will engage in innovative practices to better serve Canadians. However, there also needs to be leadership from the top on pushing forth new ideas and innovations that will have an impact on how the public is served.

So over the last 10 years, have our values (in terms of how we act, not what’s written) been able to adapt to better serve Canadians in terms of innovation in Government? Are we any better able to assess risk in order to apply new and creative solutions to evolving issues? I’m not convinced we have.

I like the report. It provides insight into bureaucratic culture and how risk taking is viewed within the public service. What frightens me is that this report could’ve easily been submitted a week ago, rather than a decade ago.

Internal Trust

I was struck by Nick’s most recent post on the idea of trust in our organizations and how there seems to be an inherent lack of trust. People perform certain actions to cover their own behinds, in the event that you fail to perform the task to which you have agreed. I’ve touched on the idea before, stating that we need to generally assume good faith in our interactions with each other. Nick hits the nail on the head when he says:

We need to build trust with other people. Trust is like the secret sauce and it is what is lacking in our organizations like nothing else. No one trusts anyone.

I agree that it’s a major issue, and certainly is crucial to getting stuff done in any organization (government or not). However, just like I talked about earlier about how government departments are complex adaptive systems, relationships are equally (if not more) complex. We should start working with each other under the assumption of good faith, but what’s the appropriate follow-up if that faith is broken? Too often, we go the wrong way and start to trust no one.

What we do need to explore, though, is how we handle the rebuilding of trust between people. Certainly, we’ve all been in situations (professionally and/or personally) where someone has broken our trust. Maybe it was intentional, but more than likely it was not. The issue is that if it’s intentional, at least the other party knew what they were doing (and so understand the concept of trust). If someone unintentionally breaks your trust, that has implications for what they can be trusted with in the future. If a colleague forgets to do something that has implications for my ability to carry out my job, I’m unlikely to rely on them in the future (which has implications for sharing information, etc).

So, how do we go about rebuilding trust? Often times, there is the temptation to either:

  • Simply not rely on the person at all in the future; or,
  • Assume that time will just fix things, and you’ll be able to trust the person again (without ever talking to them about what went wrong).

Almost in no cases do people actually talk about what happened, or how someone’s oversight broke your trust in them. Maybe that person failing to do their task, or provide you with needed information, prevented you from doing your job (which, in turn, has a large impact on your own relationships with your other colleagues).

They can be tough conversations. People get offended, and discussing whether or not you trust someone (with that person) can often come across as offensive and/or rude — we all like to believe that we can be trusted, and so to have someone tell you that you are not trusted is awkward at the best of times, and can lead to considerable damage to a relationship at the worst of times. We are not automatons on our professional lives — having these conversations is not ever easy.

But without those tough conversations, we end up hoping that situations will magically resolve. In our organizations, especially in government where we work largely in a knowledge economy where we need to share information and trust our colleagues more than ever, we need to make sure that not only do we start from a positions of assuming trust, but that we also have the courage to address our professional relationships if that trust is broken.