This opinion piece was written by Nick Scott, Executive Director of Open Government and Innovation for the Government of New Brunswick, Canada.
It also appears in our feed on government innovation.
Before becoming a public servant, having spent the previous five years working with government, studying the policy process and researching networked governance, open government and public innovation, I thought: “I know it’s going to be different and I’m ready.”
As the culture shock is subsiding (or in remission), I am taking the time to reflect on my first year as a public servant.
I am incredibly fortunate to work in the public service. There is no shortage of interesting work to do and there is a palpable hunger to try new things in government. I have heard the words “passion” and “hope” from public servants more in the last year than in all my years before. New Brunswick’s public servants are highly motivated and rolling up their sleeves to meet the demands of this century. Pat them on the back when you see them, okay?
Here are some of my key takeaways from the year:
Government has a lot of untapped potential. A lot of the skills, competencies and behaviours we need for innovation exist already in our government. Yet this potential remains largely invisible to our HR structures and management. Talent cloud is experimenting with an exciting model at the federal level that other governments can learn from. How might we uncover the innovation talent we already have and hold it up as a bright light to call in and motivate others throughout the institution?
Culture change is not an initiative. We need alignment from the executive level to the front lines in order to move from moments of innovation to a culture of innovation. That means identifying, connecting and mobilising innovators at all levels of the organisation and across governments. The Federal/Provincial/Territorial Clerks have been hosting an annual conference, and the Policy Community Conference is exploring how we might work as a One Team Gov. How might we build a network of innovators and catalyse executive champions within and between governments to accelerate learning and support new ways of working?
Many understand the need for change; few believe it is possible. The narrative around our work as public servants is frighteningly devoid of human agency. Our use of mechanical and market metaphors fails to adequately capture the nature of public service. It appears as though, at an individual and institutional level, we have a fixed mindset. The thing is we produce the culture we complain about every day. We have an individual and collective capacity to change. We challenge or maintain the status quo with each of our actions (or inactions) every day. What are the beacons that allow us to show, rather than tell, our colleagues that change is possible? How might we model future behaviours and ways of working to demonstrate what is possible?
Middle management: clay layer and innovation enabler. One might observe that even when the front lines are screaming for change and the leadership is signalling the need for change, things seem to stay the same. How is this possible? One explanation is that middle management acts as a clay layer preventing change from occurring — a buffer between the top and bottom levels of an organisation. How might we support middle management to become enablers of innovation, rather than a barrier to it?
IT security can be like overzealous bodyguards. The book The Mindful Way Through Anxiety opens with this passage that I believe is a good metaphor for the state of public IT security: “Fear and anxiety are like a pair of overzealous bodyguards. Instead of issuing sensible warnings about potential danger, they scream alarms or nag incessantly. Rather than providing security so that you are free to move through your daily life without constantly looking over your shoulder, they lock you in a room. Rather than bringing you peace of mind, they commandeer your attention until everything seems like a potential threat, making it hard to pursue what matters most to you. And once fear and anxiety take hold, it can be hard to loosen their grip”. Technology can improve productivity, connect government efforts closer to citizens, improve data collection, analysis and sharing and grow our networks. Access to the tools to do our jobs and collaborate with our external environment is greatly hindered by legacy security practices; by overzealous bodyguards. How might information and cybersecurity teams become enablers of our secure use of technology rather than barriers to it?
Rushing takes longer than you think. Go fever makes us susceptible to cognitive biases such as “hasty generalisation”, “rush-to-solve” and “over-confidence”. This leads to unintended consequences that need to be corrected downstream to great expense and effort. In this state, the rational option is to do things the way they’ve been done before, often maintaining undesirable aspects of the status quo. How might we create opportunities and space for collaborative problem framing and experimentation to mitigate institutional bias? Or, as Christian Bason asks: “How might we create a common political-administrative platform for long-term strategic innovation?”
Let’s be clear about what we mean by risk and failure. “Government is too risk averse” seems to be a catchphrase in the public sector. If you listen carefully to the context the word “risk” is used in, you will begin to notice it has different meanings. Often it is referring to personal risk-taking (such as risking your reputation, career progression, etc.). Other times, it is about risking spectacular public failures that damage trust or worse. How might we provide opportunities to learn about how to take risk and the space and resources to do so? How might we fail fast and small to accelerate our learning about what works and what does not?
Public service is a helping profession. My partner is a counselling therapist and her area of research is self-care for helping professionals. I learn a lot from her. I have seen and have experienced burn-out in non-profits and in government. In my opinion, the pressure, pace and structure of the public service run the greatest risk of burn out. Google’s HR research on psychological safety is particularly relevant to this. What can we learn from other helping professions to help us create healthier, more helpful organisations? How might we foster a culture of self-care and mutual support that gets the best out of our people?
My survival tips for new public servants are to:
1. Find your squad and get to work modelling the way.
2. Get out of the building, see what others are doing and get to know the needs of citizens.
3. Read lots to expand your sense of the possible and integrate theory with practice.
4. Get on Twitter, draw on a network and share often.
5. Ask lots of questions and capture what you learn: What’s your story? What keeps you up at night and what gets you out of bed in the morning? How can I help? How might we solve this? Why can’t I do that? Can I see the policy? What value does this process create and for whom?
This piece was originally published on Medium.
(Picture credit: Pixabay)