Three truths to help you change the culture of the Public Service

This is one of two posts for the GTEC 2013 blog series where we are exploring what it means to be an Agile, Open, Collaborative and Mobile Government. My focus will be on the Cultural, Organizational and Policy Infrastructure that provides the foundation. This is a great time to be discussing these topics as the Clerk has recently announced the Blueprint 2020 initiative with a call to action for all Public Servants to participate in shaping the vision for the Public Service of the future.

Recently I was deep into an analysis of how Governments could realize the potential of collaboration and social technologies. As I was mulling over how to synthesise all of the data into a sound bite that could be easily consumed by a busy executive, I was also thinking about how it connected with what I had learned from working in advertising and teaching consumer behaviour. In a rare moment of clarity while waiting for a red light I scribbled down three truths that seem to me to be both obvious and profound.

1. Sharing is good

Sharing is the activity that fuels successful collaboration, knowledge management and communication, which in turn are fundamental to a “capable and high performing” organization. By sharing we become authentic to those around us, sharing preserves hard earned knowledge and makes us more productive, telling stories makes us real, and helps to build the common purpose which is so important to successful change.

Most of the major research firms agree that the biggest challenge organizations face in implementation of social technologies within the enterprise is creating a culture that supports information sharing. Having been involved with over a dozen enterprise collaboration efforts I can say that my personal experience supports those findings. Culture as the saying goes eats strategy for breakfast, apparently it also eats technology.

Right now, in the Public Service many people don’t share because they are afraid of making a Career Limiting Move (CLM), while others, (kudos if you are one), consider sharing part of their responsibility. Unfortunately too many seem to equate sharing with a CLM, and ultimately we need to institutionalize ways of rewarding sharing and punishing information hoarding. That kind of change will probably take decades, so maybe in the meantime maybe there is a need for some responsible anonymous input to Blueprint 2020? What do you say, should we throw a Blueprint 2020 Chatham House Party…err… Workshop?

2. Ego gets in the way

By ego I mean an unhealthy focus on self, we have all come across individuals that try and withhold information and manipulate those around them for personal gain or promotion. When combined with a lack of emotional intelligence I believe this is one of the most destructive forces in the public service today. We need to get our self-worth from something other than the size of our empire, we need to get emotional and career points for collaborating. We need to recognize the common purpose, (serving Canadians anyone?) as more important than our personal gain. Not only is the, “I only do what it good for me” attitude, bad for the organization, its beginning to look like it may be bad for your career as well.

I have worked on enough horizontal files to have come across this issue more than once. No matter how you structure a collaboration the people involved can always sabotage it. While researching the horizontal governance issue a few years ago I came across an Auditor General’s report examining the lack of progress on the climate change file. Without much reading between the lines it was obvious that the real problem was that the primary departments involved could not find a way to collaborate. Now I am not pointing fingers at the senior ranks, you see this kind of behaviour at all levels. I suppose we should not be surprised, given the competitive individualistic socialization most of us have grown up with, but human’s greatest capacity is to learn, and we can learn to work together and set aside personal differences if we set aside our ego once in a while in favour of the common goal.

3. You can’t communicate too much

“You can’t communicate too much”. I posted this comment on twitter during one of the conferences I attended recently and it quickly became one of the most re-tweeted updates, so it seems the sentiment hit a nerve.

Back in my advertising days we used to spend a lot of money on media buys and printing, and one of the worst things that could happen was for a print run or advertisement be published with a mistake. When it did happen it was an expensive and embarrassing lesson. After the first time we began to repeat instructions, in different languages if necessary, we would draw pictures, leave notes on the artwork, call the publisher, even attend press runs to make sure all was understood. Later in my career I worked with a Product Line Manager at a major telecom who told we that for an idea to get traction you had to say the same thing over and over again in as many different ways as you could think of —you can’t communicate too much.

In today’s information intense and dynamic workplace trying to get the attention of the information inundated executive ranks will take more than a little repetition. Going the other way, management can’t communicate too much with staff, especially during times of change. The mushroom school of management (keep them in the dark, and feed them sh*t), simply has no place in an agile and high performing organization.

In dynamic times, perfection is the enemy of communication, waiting for a complete and crafted message simply leads to speculation and fear, while communicating often and openly, even admitting you don’t know everything, leads to trust and understanding. Having a clear and common purpose is more important than knowing the details of how you are going to get there.


Changing the culture of something as big as the Public Service is a daunting task, I applaud the sentiment behind Blueprint 2020 and encourage everyone to get involved. But it is also important to remember that an organization is people, and an organization’s people are who make the culture. The three lessons that I have shared can and should be applied from the top down, but more importantly they can be applied by individuals regardless of rank, when you think about that, it this means you have the power to change culture.

A final note:

I am writing this on Father’s day, 2013 and as it happens this date is also the anniversary of my father’s passing at the age of 89. A child of the depression and a jet setter of the 60’s he lived his life with an ethos of “doing the best you can, with what you have”. In these uncertain times it is easy to blame others for inaction, but I say, do what you can, with what you have.

What do you say?

Image Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Triskele-Symbol-spiral-five-thirds-turns.png

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