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 we so incredibly important.
When I first joined the public service I was struck by how closed it was, the system has a hard time surfacing talent and ideas. Moreover, it is being constantly reinforced by a culture of playing your cards really close to your chest. After a year circling the drain in a closed system I decided to approach things from an ethos of open. But it wasn’t a fluke, I recall a conversation with a senior manager:
“Just because that’s how everyone else acts, doesn’t mean you have to do it too.”
It was such a simple statement, but made at an opportune time. It completely changed my perspective. Since then I’ve come to better understand some of the challenges facing the public sector: impending retirements, out migration of knowledge and expertise, budgetary constraints, and the lack of sustainable engagement. Through hard fought experience I’ve come to the realization that openness isn’t a panacea, but it is without question part of the answer. Often people just need to be told that change is in fact possible, I certainly did.
With this in mind, the single most important thing that people can start doing is narrating their work. So much of what we do as public servants gets locked away on proprietary drives, closed records and document management systems, or email. We need to start readily sharing not only the information we currently have on lockdown but also how we are making sense of that information, and how we are contextualizing it within our work.
Never before has technology allowed us to paint such a clear picture of what is informing decision-making, policy, and program delivery. Embracing a more open ethos and grabbing hold of enabling technology will do more for our public services than we could possibly imagine. It starts with a simple switch: connecting what we used to write in the margins of our paper based notebooks on the web.
This was the thinking behind the communal blog. We wanted to not only drive the message home but make participation as easy as possible. In addition to unleashing the blog, Walter purposefully walked participants through other low risk ways to be a part of the online conversation. We wanted to show them the path, and make it as easy as possible to walk down.
In the end, all we asked of participants was 100 words.
What we got was so much more
By about noon the traffic to the blog actually crashed the site. Participants weren’t scribbling way in their individual notebooks, they were creating one communal one online and in real time. Participants had taken the message to heart, they changed, connected and contributed both in the room and online, which tells me that the event was an incredible success.
Kudos to everyone who participated.
This is a creative way of getting event participants involved, Nick – like it…especially this notion of a common place where everyone is taking notes…Twitter seems to play that role nicely for the right audience, but it’s nice to have a blog where you can say a bit more. It would be cool to run an RSS feed of the hashtag into the blog, too….compile it all in one place.
What I liked most about this event, was to see lots of young people with a genuine interest in changing how government runs its affairs. Given the tremendous amount of voter apathy you see these days all across North America; it is good to see that young people have found a new catalyst in the form of the open government drive.
On the disappointment side, I felt that there was too much emphasis on open data and not enough on leadership. Good conversations about the need for cultural change or change agents, which is fantastic. How do we get there though?
The answer might be authentic leaders – real people who are not afraid to reveal their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Credibility is the foundation of leadership, and this I’m afraid, is a missing characteristic from many of those that expect us to follow them.
The impact of leadership on our lives is profound – at work, in our local communities, and of course, in politics. Being an authentic leader means being true to yourself and your values – not presenting a false corporate image or trying to emulate the leadership style or characteristics of others.
Right now I feel that the public sector has too many managers and not enough leaders. A topic for another time I guess.
Kudos to Nick for all the work he has done to make this event a success story!
@Andrew – It was a little risky (e.g. if they didn’t adopt) but we started with the WHY, then proceeded to HOW and finally WHAT. I was so pleased with the uptake! Agreed on the widget, it would have been nice to have it in the sidebar. What was impressive is that we were making adjustments on the fly to the wordpress build to help mitigate concerns and hiccups.
@Chris I agree that there was much discussion on open data; while I agree in principle it is not my functional area of expertise. I am far more interested in leadership and engagement within the public service. Thanks for the kind words, and we will keep transforming the public service one leader at a time. Cheers.
@Chris – You touch on my biggest fear with all of this – that it’s more about opening data and creating cool tech solutions vs. really being about people – people working better together and people helping/enabling citizens.
@Nick – Well worth the risk! Keep pushing the envelope!
Love this! Should be put on a Post-It note and stapled to the forehead of every agency manager. 🙂
“With this in mind, the single most important thing that people can start doing is narrating their work. So much of what we do as public servants gets locked away on proprietary drives, closed records and document management systems, or email. We need to start readily sharing not only the information we currently have on lockdown but also how we are making sense of that information, and how we are contextualizing it within our work.
Never before has technology allowed us to paint such a clear picture of what is informing decision-making, policy, and program delivery. Embracing a more open ethos and grabbing hold of enabling technology will do more for our public services than we could possibly imagine. It starts with a simple switch: connecting what we used to write in the margins of our paper based notebooks on the web.”
Thanks Bill. It was pretty cool to be able to deliver that message to a room of 200+ people.
@Andrew – I have a confession to make – I’m an IT guy (forgive me for I have sinned), but I share the same fear/concern with you in that far too often the emphasis in on the “cool” factor. An HR director once told me that “leadership can be a lonely place” and she was right. Leadership is associated with change, hence the loneliness factor.
@Nick – Amen! I got my team to read your blog & similar material and ponder on the concepts and issues. They are Millennials and I’m confident they will eventually make a difference in shaping the culture @ work. This is a grassroots movement and we need to get more conversations going.