I came into the room this morning (Open Gov 2010 at UVic) to hear David Eaves relate how he is excited about web 2.0 and social media and how it will allow public servants work better together. Through a more open government, public servants will be better able to self organize and make things happen without needing permission of someone else.
I don’t doubt this is the case in David Hume’s Citizen Engagement group and other pockets of government, however that’s a tough row to hoe for most of the public service. Ok, to tell the truth, as a former government worker (for 4 years) my first reaction to that statement was “What planet is he on? This isn’t government right now, not in BC!”
I used to give mini-media relations seminars to front line government workers where the only thing I wanted them to remember was “NO SURPRISES,” meaning, everything anyone said in a public forum had to be told to the communications people first, so the Minister could be prepared. For every public meeting there is (depending on the deputy and the Minister involved) a small forest of trees cut down preparing approved messaging, briefing notes, information binders, etc.
So while it’s true that 21st century knowledge workers are also citizens, they indeed are butting up against 19th century government, as David mentioned. How are we going to fix it?
I was pleased David offered some answers: cheaper, better, faster and more efficient ways of doing things will be found no matter what – people disobeying their bosses or in resource-constrained environments will be forced to innovate using new social technologies.
During my time in government I saw many examples of conscientious government workers keeping in close contact with their diverse stakeholder groups, mainly by phone (because the best relationships are still formed in person after all), when preparing new regulations or contemplating new initiatives. They developed relationships of trust where they could share limited amounts of sensitive information and trust each other not to use it to embarrass the other. I was so impressed and inspired when I saw that happen.
I also saw the opposite: people so afraid of approaching constituent groups in person that they dug themselves and their minister an issue-laden hole so deep it nearly paralysed the process: all because they were afraid to share with stakeholders and citizens.
Chris Rasmussen alluded to this in his keynote later in the morning: that an environment of fear (of losing one’s job because of government cuts or restructuring) makes people quite conservative and protective of their turf.
I also saw decisions come seemingly ex nihilo from on high that front line workers could not explain to their stakeholders. It made them feel helpless and frustrated to be ordered to implement decisions no one asked for or requested, seemingly at the whim of their leadership.
How do we make innovation and openness happen every single day? It has a lot to do with leadership, and it comes from the top as well as the rank and file, and it starts also with elected officials and senior (Deputy and Assistant Deputy-level) bureaucrats embracing change, being more tolerant of failure and willing to give up control of the process to a certain extent.
I know I’m sounding a little pessimistic, and I don’t mean to. Today’s conference was certainly a bright light and possibly the start of real change.
But certainly, we as citizens must keep asking more of our leadership.