for those who would make a difference

Category: NickCharney

Thoughts on the Disruptive Web

I spoke to a group of civil servants this week as part of their development program’s lunchtime speaker series; the talk covered a lot of ground and I wanted to take the opportunity to share some of my key messages from the discussion.

The web is disruptive 

The internet has disrupted, is disrupting, or will disrupt every business model currently in use today. To think it hasn’t, isn’t or won’t disrupt the public sector is naive at best. Understanding the impacts of these changes is critical to understanding the role of the public service because context is key and the context is now constantly changing.

GCPEDIA is a microcosm of a larger problem

GCPEDIA is still the only open communications tool that holds that could help us mitigate our geographic, ministerial and hierarchical information challenges and yet we have tremendous difficulty integrating it into the fabric of our business. The fact that as an organization we have such difficulty understanding how to best lever a technology (wikis) that is (conceptually) almost 20 years old concerns me (see: Debunking the Myths of Working More Openly).

Continue Reading

The Rise and Fall of Public Sector Youth Groups

I’ve spent a lot of time around departmental youth groups since joining the public service; I’ve launched them, provided informal advice to chairs, and spoken at national conferences. My general observation is that public sector youth groups are forged out of a deep sense of frustration that plagues many new public servants. It is a frustration born out of over-promising during intake, under-delivering after the hire is made, and otherwise muddling through the logistical details of the on-boarding process (e.g. office space, ID badge, computer login credentials that often aren’t ready; managers with no time or materials to brief you with; and no clear articulation of duties in relation to mandate). Back in 2008, I interviewed a new hire who put it thusly:

“Despite coming in really pumped from the recruitment process, the first week on the job was very slow. My manager was away and the rest of the team generally kept to themselves. I spent the first week eating lunch alone.”

To be fair, I doubt everyone’s experience is terrible, however I would say that my own initial experience and many of the stories others have shared with me of theirs confirms the sentiment of the text cited above.

Continue Reading

On fearless advice and loyal implementation

I traveled across British Columbia last month, visiting a series of three Employment Insurance (EI) processing plants, to deliver talks about engagement and career development. I met a lot of dedicated public servants, made new friends, and learned more about front-line service delivery than many Ottawa-based policy wonks do this early in their career.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the sessions and the conversations that emerged at the three different sites and here is where my mind has settled …

Regardless of what you were hired to do – be it providing traditional policy advice in the National Capital Region, or “crushing” EI claims for Canadians in a processing plant in Kamloops – your role as a public servant is to deliver “fearless advice and loyal implementation”. What I’ve found is that there is a divide, real or imagined, between those of us in Ottawa who were hired to deliver “fearless advice” and those of us in the regions who are expected to “loyally implement”. This isn’t ubiquitous, but was my general impression. It is an impression that was hammered home when someone asked me why Ottawa couldn’t just fix the culture in the regional office, as if some sort of Deputy decree could change their specific working conditions. What struck me most about the comment wasn’t the idea that culture could somehow be made by decree, but rather the underlying sense of helplessness, as if culture couldn’t be affected by those who are actually mired in it.

I think the problem is that we have collectively misinterpreted the significance and underestimated the opportunities we have to effect our work culture and sub-cultures, regardless of where we work or what we work on. We mistakenly think of fearless advice as something that only the people at the very top of the organization do; something that is reserved for private meetings between Deputies and their Ministers. In fact, I think that speaking truth to power (fearless advice and loyal implementation) more often means pushing against the small “p” office politics and the small “c” culture of the bureaucracy. In other words, fearless advice isn’t reserved for ministerial briefings, but rather happens in the hallways, over cubicle walls, and in the lunch rooms among peers.

Think of it in terms of the long tail:

Let me end by saying this: regardless of where you work, or what your role is, your responsibility is to articulate an argument, back it up with the facts, infuse it with passion, and deliver it with non-partisan conviction, wherever you see the opportunity to do so.

Continue Reading

The Collaborator’s Dilemma

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about collaboration and Game Theory. More specifically I’ve been examining and re-examining the Prisoner’s Dilemma in hopes of learning more about how transparency affects collaboration, and I think I may be on to something.


Game theory attempts to mathematically capture behaviour in strategic situations (games). The prisoner’s dilemma is a fundamental problem in game theory and demonstrates why two people might not cooperate even if it is in their best interest to do so.

From Wikipedia:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

Continue Reading

Two and a Half Years Later and Still No IM

In August 2008 I had the opportunity to collaborate with a technical advisor in order to give input into an Information Management/Information Technology (IM/IT) environmental scan that is being done by my departmental IT services group. This was a difficult undertaking because we had to concretely qualify driving forces and challenges to IM/IT without over-generalizing the need for ‘web 2.0’ because, for some reason, web 2.0 has become slang for ‘put up a wiki and problem solved’. However the IM/IT challenges faced by Government are significantly larger than any wiki can solve. Also it is interesting to note that the Australian government is now the second largest user of Yammer with 110 specific networks operating.

Gen Y has grown alongside information technology. We remember when the web was entirely text based, what it was like to wait more than a few seconds to download a single still image, and a when ‘Google’ wasn’t a verb. We have seen the exponentially increasing rate at which information can be found, managed, packaged and shared. We have also seen the similar growth in the breadth and depth of the tools and services with which we manipulate this information. Ubiquitous access to information is now the norm.

Herein lies the problem: the IM/IT infrastructure of the workplace simply cannot satiate our technological desires customs. Outside of the workplace, we continue to live our entire lives being able to appropriate new technologies as they emerge. We organize our lives in such a way that technology blends seamlessly into it. Yet, at work we are asked forced to do things the way we used to do them 5 to 10 years ago.

Continue Reading

Think IDEO, but for government

This entry may be last before the new year, and to be honest, has been a long time coming. You see, I’ve got this thought in my head and it seems to have taken up residence. I’m not sure how much you know about me, or how much you care to know, but I’ve spent the last four years in the public sector. I could bore you with all of the details but let’s just say that I’ve experienced both the best and the worst this sector has to offer.

My initial experience was so abhorrent that I’ve made it my mission to try to make it better for others; I look to my father for inspiration and to my children for lessons in collaboration. I like to think that I have helped inspire public servants to be courageous, to rethink old mental models, and to alert them to the art of the possible.

I’ve met many great people, inspiring thinkers and doers, and for that I am incredibly fortunate. Many think I am living the dream, that I am one of the few who have come as close as you possibly can to an entrepreneur in the public sector. There was a time when I agreed with them, but that time has passed.

We are ready for so much more

I was on the bus on my way to work yesterday and overheard three public servants speaking. One of them was talking about her son who was working as a student two days a week for a federal agency. He was doing so well that they wanted to bridge him in full time, only he didn’t want that. In fact, “It is the last thing he wants, he is looking for something where he can be entrepreneurial.”

It’s not surprising, despite the best efforts of some of our best and brightest, even the most well-intentioned attempt at public sector innovation is suffocated by the traditionally bureaucratic: committees, policies, and briefing notes. Perhaps it’s time for a complete redesign.

Continue Reading

The Long Tail of Internal Communications

I assume you are already familiar with the long tail; if so proceed directly to flipping through my slides below, if not it might be worth reading the Wikipedia article, the book by Chris Anderson, or watching this video by Clay Shirky, as the long tail forms the basis of my entire line of reasoning below.

The Tail

The bulk of communication within the organization – perhaps its very life blood – is informal. If you look at the examples I’ve charted you begin to understand how the long tail grows as new communication tools emerge.

Continue Reading

Eat or Be Eaten

Earlier this year I happened upon a blog post from Geordie Adams via a tweet from Tim O’Reilly. In it Geordie explains what he thinks is the major issue facing social media enthusiasts in the public sector:

“Cultural change [is] the biggest impediment to a higher adoption rate of social media in the public sector… [it] gets mentioned, everyone agrees, and then conversation turns to a technical or implementation discussion. To not [dig into culture change] is robbing important momentum from public sector social media evolution.” – Geordie Adams, Publivate (full article)

Geordie’s right, I can’t even recall the amount of times I have heard variations of the phraseCulture eats strategy for breakfast”. Essentially, even the most well thought out strategic approaches are vulnerable to the workplace culture. It would seem that when social media meets the public sector it is culture, not content, that is king. Culture is eating breakfast in plenaries, in tweets and in blog posts on a daily basis all over the world. Initially I thought it was a great line, its retweetable, to the point, and when I hear it I implicitly understand the connotation.

Over my dead body

As catchy as it is, I would hate to see it on my tombstone. If we don’t do a better job tackling the problem we might as well give up, call the undertaker and order our tombstones with that very inscription. I can see mine already:

Here lies Nick
He went quick
always circled by a vulture
its name was culture

While Geordie’s list of cultural problems (failure, engagement, and transparency) is a good place to start , I prefer to start with what I think underlies all of them: complacency. It would seem that over the years many of us have earned the fat cat stereotype; even those who haven’t earned it directly are now guilty by association.

Continue Reading

Open Gov West Recap: Change, Connect, Contribute

This week I took some time off and headed out to Victoria British Columbia so I could be a part of Open Gov West BC.

It was an absolutely amazing experience

I had the privilege of sharing the opening keynote with friend Walter Schwabe. Walter and I have an excellent rapport and wanted to shake things up a little bit, we wanted to try something different, we wanted to inspire immediate action. We didn’t just sit at the front of the room and talk down to audience from the riser. We walked among the crowd, armed with microphones, iPads, and a surprise.

Under the cover of darkness a few nights before the conference we created a group blog and invited everyone in the room, and those watching remotely to engage right now by changing, connecting, and contributing. We drove the theme home by telling everyone why we thought these things were so incredibly important.

Continue Reading

Lessons in Collaboration

When we speak of collaboration we often talk about the benefits of serendipity or emerging leadership, but within the confines of the current public institution, complete with Ministerial accountability, perhaps we speak about it too much. My underlying worry is that proponents of collaboration do themselves a disservice by failing to engage in a debate around how to be directive within a collaborative effort, to demonstrate how exactly collaboration is different from the status quo, and what are the inherent benefits of this new approach. The conversation around collaboration to date is far too Utopian for my liking; it conjures 1960s imagery of peace and love. Collaboration, it would seem, is a real righteous groove, and those who oppose it are just squares in need of a good melvin.

This attitude makes me uneasy. I think it is problematic, and the reason I think we are stuck there is that we don’t know how to be directive within collaboration. We seem to think that collaboration is an open arrangement that, through a mystical and undefined process, reaches an outcome. What we are missing is discourse on how we move from open process to outcome. We need to unpack the elusive magic between the two. In order to do this, I want to first lay out a conceptual frameworks and then move to an example to illustrate my thinking.

The “Why”, “How”, and “What” of collaboration

“Leaders hold a position of power or authority. But those who lead inspire us. Whether they’re individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead, not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves. And it’s those who start with “why” that have the ability to inspire those around them or find others who inspire them.” – Simon Sinek, “How great leaders inspire action” TEDx Puget Sound (full video embedded below)

My view is that being directive within a collaboration largely means inspiring action:

One of the problems is that we tend to inverse Sinek’s golden circle (as explained by Sinek in the TEDx talk above), focusing too much on what it is that we do. How many of us would describe our work starting with why we have chosen to undertake it?

Continue Reading