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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

#NewWay2Govern: Tech, Refugees, OpenGov and Responsible Society

There is a lot to chew on in this article.  The quote above, though, gets right to the heart of the matter.

Government's standard operating procedures are falling out of sync with technological development.

Our Westminster model of Parliament pre-dates computers, tv, even cars.  It dates back to a time where government was the Monarch and their inner circle, or Privy Council.  Government reluctantly agreed to consult with wealthy landowners on matters of law and taxation, but generally did their own thing.  As it evolved, Parliament became a mechanism whereby every day people whose lives were impacted by government operations could have some skin in the game, by representation.

What other way was there for communities to voice there concerns to some far-off government?  You couldn't visit your MP's office, or tweet with a Minister, or pick up the phone and call someone.  The only way to have a regular airing of local concerns to government was through the one person who communities elected to be their voice in far-off Parliament. 

In this model, the public service was essentially the workforce of the crown.  Technically, they still are.  The public service answers to the crown, and the crown - government - is held accountable by Parliament.  Only since Magna Carta, we've gotten to a place where the largest political party in Parliament - the body meant to hold government to account - becomes government.  This gives the parties a lot of power over members of Parliament from their nomination all the way through who gets to have a seat at the cabinet table, plus what local projects get funded.

The public does't elect government - they elect Parliament.  The biggest party in Parliament forms government - which means that card-carrying partisans and back-room political decisions ultimately decide who leads government. Much of the function of Parliament under this scenario is to either prop up or shoot down the government of the day, which is a different function than truly holding government to account.  

The Public Service doesn't answer to Parliament - it answers to the crown.  The crown is represented by the Governor General, and the Ministers of the Crown, from the PM down, are all technically functionaries of the crown.  They're also creatures of their political party, with the agendas and mentality that goes along with that.

So what's really happening with this Open Gov stuff is that partisans are directing the public service to serve another master, the public, without embarrassing them as partisans.  Meanwhile, Opposition parties are looking for weak links in the government's - ie, Public Service's - armour through which to take shots at the political party in power.

Meanwhile, the culture of the electorate is still essentially based on the Westminster model, a reality which is reinforced by partisan messaging of "only we can make/keep Canada strong."  In this model, Civil Society is a passive player, a backseat driver at best in the functioning of government.

Which all made sense in the 1200s, because there was no other way the public could engage with government.

Yes, Canada's outdated privacy and FOI information acts are out of sync with modern technology. Almost everything about Canada's model of government and civil engagement is out of date.  

You don't change a system by targeting one component of that system; you can't fix wicked problems by picking low-hanging fruit.  Everything needs to change; public service culture, political culture, how the media covers and engages with politics, how the public sees its role in policy making, how partisans engage with each other and with everyone else.

Herein lies the real challenge; we have had great advances in technology that permit a change in the dynamics of engagement - cars, tv, telephones, the Internet, social media, etc.  The use of new tech is being encouraged, in some cases, but by top-down directive - an outdated model of engagement in itself.

You can't order someone to be open; you need to foster a culture that allows for open.  

That means adjustments inside government, within partisan politics and throughout civil society.  It's a big, big change.  Ultimately, what we're talking about is a complete reordering of the dynamic of governance and accountability.  

This is the right thing to do and the right time to do it.  Our current model of governance and implementation is woefully inadequate for the size and complexity of modern society. 

We're seeing this play out in real-time with the Syrian refugee crisis, which provides a great many lessons for anyone willing to pay attention.

Government-funded settlement agencies are being overwhelmed with more work than they were designed to cope with.  Modern tech and social media are finding these agencies fielding asks that have nothing to do with their core business, adding to the stress and time constraints to do the essential work they do.  And all of this is happening in a climate where funding taps are turning off and groups that could and should be collaborating are competing for the limited funding that's available.

Strategies are being planned after the fact, where there's time to strategize at all.  People are falling through the cracks, hard workers are being burned out as the work shifts from doing things well to putting out brushfires or playing defence.

Meanwhile, civil society has stepped up in ways that simply weren't possible before modern tech and all the tools of social media.  What's happening out there is nothing short of revolutionary - civic groups are proactively taking on the role of service provider in a way that used to be the exclusive property of government agencies or government-funded/supported charities and not-for-profits.  The work being done is amazing, but it's not coordinated, which means there is a lot of duplication, gaps and overlaps that could be avoided.  

The problem is that there's no real mechanism in place for this kind of coordination.  Government has struggled to coordinate activity between Ministries and various funded agencies, and really have no mandate to coordinate activity between civic groups and everyone else.  There are trust issues, especially when it comes down to government (partisan) holding to account service agencies (serving the public) who's funding relies on the Crown.

If culture change is the goal (and it should be, because without it nothing will change), how do we get there?  Whose culture needs to change, and what does responsibility and coordination look like in this space?

You don't generally hear design thinking, UX/UI or journey mapping as part of government's lexicon; that tend to be more the methodology of the social innovation space.

Which is exactly the point.

Public service culture needs to change, but that change needs to happen in conjunction with changes in political and civil society culture, as well as media engagement.  All this is happening in a messy world of falling revenues, reduced funding and the uncomfortable realization that there are a lot of skeletons in the closest that will come tumbling out when the door is opened.

How is this wicked problem to be tackled?  What provides enough of a common impetus for change that allows for the kind of uncomfortable conversations necessary?  What shared challenge/opportunity can be the stone in the soup that allows people who don't generally play nice to do so in a way that focuses on solutions rather than blame?

I used to think severe weather events were going to be the catalyst.  Now, it seems like something else is fitting that bill.

Either way, there are encouraging, iterative, still tentative and still small-scale things going on in the Zeitgeist that may be a model for how we can do all this stuff better, using modern tech and engagement frameworks but above all, putting individuals at the centre and making collective impact the goal.

Culture change facilitated by technology.  Open Government, Responsible society - a society consciously recognizing itself as such and collaborating to make the whole function to the maximum of its potential with an emphasis on empowering individual agency and engagement through equitable service, communication, trust.

Fun times indeed.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Mental Health at the Centre

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I remember having a good chat about this with a certain Chief of Staff some years ago.

It's as true for health as it is for other sectors - like employment, immigration, justice.

We have no problem looking at every file through an economic lens, but for some reason we are challenged to put the human at the centre of the equation.  Which of course begs the question about how smart our priorities are, and how clever our engagement strategy is.

Unless we decide to let robots do everything (and that's a definite discussion point), people are still at the centre of economic everything, and are supposed to be the end-beneficiaries.  

To deny that basic reality is just plain crazy talk.

Brainstorming Vs Design Thinking:Solving the Right Problem

The first thing that came to mind while reading this article was that you truly can find studies to back anything. Of course, the way you frame the question matters quite a bit; the same data can prove exact opposite theses, based on how it is used.  

Data is neutral. People are not. They have biases, preferences, previous experiences to pull from, etc.  

I absolutely agree with the article in terms of coming up with ideas being a different thing than implementing ideas. Lots of people think it would be cool if X or Y without any intent to do anything to make X or Y happen. They throw the idea out into the ether and if it gets picked up so be it. Others will get excited and start, but move on to something else before getting started. Still others will pursue an idea without the right understanding of how to implement it, meaning it goes nowhere.  

As someone who spends a lot of time ideating and a decent amount of time creating, I totally get the concept of ideation in isolation. Sometimes you need space to play with an idea, flesh it out, do doodles and speak to the air in ways that is would be incomprehensible to anyone else. Sometimes, you need just one person as a sounding board.  

This is ideation as a selfish activity, with the goal being to make sense of one's own idea, not solicit ideas from others.  

Of course ideas don't come from the ether, nor to them spring fully-formed from the head of the innovator, like Athenea from Zeus' noggin. Everything comes from everything - the more exposure one has to ideas, images, past innovations, people, etc the more fodder they will have for ideation.  

All of this supposes that ideas are what matters. Or, to follow the article more closely, that ideas turned into action are what matters. Is this true?

This notion is based on a very Western, very Survival of the Fittest conceptualization that posits ideas or innovations as babies that their creator parents nurture. Whatever is the best idea will be adopted by the market and survive because it was the one best fitted to societal demand.  Ideas that aren't best-suited will die out.  

It's a very inwards-out process, this‎; it suggests a whole much of individuals throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.

Lots of things will sick that may be shiny and fun but actually aren't all that useful.  

Let's say the issue at hand was stopping diabetes type II, a preventable illness that takes a massive economic and social toll, especially on North American society. Is the best way to find solutions to diabetes Type II to get a bunch of people to sit by themselves and brainstorm?

That's not far from how the existing policy process works, with a bit of information -gathering done to provide substance for ideation.

Not that the problem of diabetes type II still persists. Note that it has been exacerbated by all kinds of implemented ideas - everything from fast food to TVs and cars and the modern work day have had an impact ‎on occurrence of diabetes type II.

Ideation is fun. Creation is fun. In the frame described here, though, it's an isolated act removed from context. 

Who's to say that the independent judge is best arbiter on what a good idea is? Lots of really smart and successful people have ideated and developed policy, programs, even polling that fails to achieve it's goals. Are all these ideas as good as they were sold to be? I'd argue not.  In fact, I'd say there are plenty of studies that say otherwise. In fact, I'd say that Western culture is steeped in the notion of the blind innovator pushing their idea forward to the greater detriment, because they were selfishly about the idea, not the context.

What if we reframe the outcome from being "come up with a good idea" to "addressing a problem?"

Design Thinking is a increasingly popular (not to be confused with good) process that looks to tackle solution-making from a different angle. Instead of focusing on innovators and ideas, it begins with people and their problems. The process here isn't about the lone innovator coming up with brilliant ideas, but a careful study of the context, culture and people involved in a problem set - lets say diabetes type II - and understanding the underlying patterns and behaviour. Once you know what the landscape looks like, it becomes a lot easier to identify a path to success.

Through this process, the more information you get, the more journey-mapping you do, the more robust your understanding of the landscape looks like. Also, since the idea isn't the fixation point, iteration is a lot easier. No one has to sell their pitch, because everyone is focused on the problem, not their ownership of the solution.

It might be the case that individuals are better at coming up with ideas and aggressive visionaries are better at turning their ideas into action, but the truth is that people exist in a social context and proper solutions aren't necessarily the same thing as individual wins.

When it comes to solutions, or even products, it's not the creator who matters most - it's the end user.

And the end user, almost invariably, is a crowd.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Reporting Change

- Warren Kinsella

Kinsella makes a valid point about the world we know.  News isn't just information - it's information that gets presented.  From Parliament down to service providers and over to everything from accountants to yoga instructors, we outsource the substance of our lives so that we can focus on more specific things more intently.

To a degree - and especially where it comes to big decisions and the news that informs them - we have given agency to others on our behalf.  

I've written at length about why this has been necessary; Parliament was created in an age cars and the internet, so we needed someone to carry collective voices to places of decision making.  Every day citizens didn't have the tools, or skills, or the time to do investigative journalism.  It was someone else's job, just as farming or keeping the trains running or the sidewalks paved was someone else's job.

There's a big change afoot, however, that is revisiting this dynamic.

It's early days, and the future is far from clear, but there's been a whiff of investigative reporting and real-world reportage happening out their in the social Zeitgeist.  Even when the media was shut out in Ferguson, we got real-time stories and images via social media.  At a recent Civic Tech TO, there's a project that essentially is doing what reporters do - it has recognized that some Orders in Council went missing and is exploring why, and developing mechanisms to flag future such absences for the general public.

Not to say that everyone in the general public will care, much less be interested in engaging directly, but that was the case before, too.

Beyond just reportage, we have civic groups popping up to do things like collect clothes for refugees, source and provide blankets for the homeless and even tackle wicked policy programs.  These aren't funded groups with defined roles, so their sustainability is in question, not do they have agency in that someone has given them permission to do what they're doing.

But it's all happening anyway.

The emerging picture isn't clear, but there are definitely big changes in our social dynamic under way.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Community, Refugees and the Future of Good Will

I don't know enough about Goodwill's situation to know exactly why they are in the position they are in.  What I do know is that across the board, there has been increased pressure on non-profit and charitable ventures to become financially self-sustaining on their own right - ie, to stop relying on handouts and spend more time and effort on revenue generation.

Which, really, defeats the purpose.  

Organizations like Goodwill tend to serve clientèle without the means to be self-sustaining on their own; if they were, they wouldn't need organizations like Goodwill, and there would be no need for organizations like Goodwill.

In the past, organizations like this would get lump sums to spend, and do drives, and the simple fact that they were community-benefit organizations was enough to justify the money they got.  As funding has gotten tight, however, more attention has been paid towards "impact investing" - ie, making sure that money that goes to organizations like Goodwill demonstrably make a difference.

There's also been a shift in focus from funding organizations to funding projects, and even narrower down to specific outcomes.  Funders want to see the needle move on specific KPI (key performance indicators), and they want to know in advance that they money they spend will deliver short-term ROI (return on investment).

Of course, that's what's on paper.  In the real world, people remain people and connections, marketing and hustle matter more than direct results.  A well-written report carefully promoted through a targeted outreach/media campaign can nurture the impression that magic has been worked, when in reality, the truth is more like a bit of water has been shovelled from here to there.

It all paints an interesting picture.  

True, the previous model of community good tended to take a white saviour complex approach, providing stuff for marginalized communities in perpetuity, without a real concrete plan of how forced obsolescence (by empowering communities to be self-sustaining on their own).  Partially, this stemmed from a belief that "they" would always be dependent.  The nature of the model encourages this approach to a large degree from the service employee side - if you get into a service agency, you can have a stable career doing for others what they can't do for themselves, 

Now, as the wells of funding are drying up, organizations that theoretically want the same outcomes - support for the communities they serve - are competing for funding and often spending a lot of capital and energy on positioning themselves for success more than the end-user.  You might thing, from a free-market perspective, that this is a good thing; services compete for resources and the best provider wins, meaning the best service gets offered.

This isn't a systematic thing, though, and not enough attention is being given to the big picture.

When small, disorganized not-for-profits compete for funding or apply for whatever funding they can get, they stray from their original mandates.  Or, they fold, and the people they serve are left without the service they once relied upon.  Meanwhile, the successful ones get more money and perhaps expand their offerings in specific, fund-getting ways, but too many services and people fall through the cracks.

And since no one is looking for cracks to fill when they're focused on low-hanging fruit, the structural challenges only come to light when they come to light in big ways - like the Danzig shooting, for instance.

There are a series of emerging structural issues that are being ignored by many, because no one is thinking systematically.  Objectivism is creeping into the system, and the consequences of this narrow frame of thinking are becoming clear.

That's the negative.  It's not all negative, though.

Truth be told, a lot of service providers haven't been as efficient as they could be - not with their internal management, not with their outcomes.  There is an absolute and dire need for public good service providers to be more strategic, more organized and more creative - and to work harder at putting themselves out of work by fostering sustainable communities.

It'll never happen - there will always be the need for charitable, community-good support - but we can definitely do better than we have been doing.

This is where social innovation, community benefit planning and incredible pop-up initiatives like The Clothing Drive come in.  What we've seen emerge in Canada as a response to the Syrian refugee crisis has been amazing - self-organizing groups are creating (and often re-creating) cool initiatives that at their best fill gaps and create wholly new models of support.  

Free retail stores for refugees?  Professional qualification assistance for transitioning new Canadians to be economic contributors in their fields?  Building bridges between existent communities and new neighbours through art and music?  It's incredible.  Best of all, a lot of it is being organized independent of older models and the challenges they face, meaning that these new groups are creating new models that are more reflective of the world at this moment in time, not 50 or 60 years ago.

Not all of these initiatives will stick, nor should they - but as some of them build partnerships with the private sector and start cooperating with government, I feel like we're witnessing the emergence of a new public good sector that will work in an entirely different way than the old one.  

Imagine corporations giving a bit of space for community benefit, and getting tax write-offs for it.  Or employees being given hours of paid work to volunteer for organizations like this, or offering professional services like management or legal aid or media/marketing.  The groups themselves can keep their overhead low and spend more time focused on the service they provide rather than keeping themselves afloat.

There's structural change afoot - it will be painful for some, and there will be structural challenges with some serious repercussions, but there are promising new ideas and models emerging that might just readjust the system to tackle some of these structural/cultural flaws in the long run.

Interesting times, indeed...

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Perchance to Dream...

MacNaughton is an old-school Liberal, well-respected within backroom circles.  He's pretty tight with Trudeau's Chief of Staff, too.

As is his wife, Leslie Noble.  It might seem funny, but while I learned a good deal about how the system functions (and doesn't function) from David, Leslie was far more of a mentor - I learned a good deal about how to work the system from her.

One's tight with the Liberals.  The other is tight with the Conservatives.  Both know how to speak to elites on either side of the spectrum.  And both are tight with key folk in the PMO.

Think about the back-channel potentials in this for a second.  Think about the influence the PMO theoretically could have for nudging domestic partisans and for building bridges or at least framing issues in a positive way south of the border.

Then, throw Open Government into the mix.  The people behind that on both sides of the border are collegial, too.

Interest dynamic, is all.  And one worth paying attention to.