Accountable Anonymity in Achieving Collaboration: GitHub’s Promise? - Canadian Government Executive
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July 21, 2017

Accountable Anonymity in Achieving Collaboration: GitHub’s Promise?

The shutdown of key sites in mid-March 2017 shows the consequences and the urgency for public sector management to find the ways to draw on the knowledge of government employees from across the organization. It is a central challenge of our time, and GitHub’s model just might be the solution.

In March, the Canada Revenue Agency’s website was shut down by its staff following an attack on Statistics Canada’s site. The precautionary measure was triggered by the identification of potential vulnerabilities related to the use of an open source web development tool. StatsCan and CRA were apparently the only two federal systems that had not updated their software to address that vulnerability.

The CRA/SC crash points to a lack of knowledge sharing. While the fallout seems to have been contained, the episode illustrates the benefits and barriers of open knowledge sharing in a large organization, especially one with lots of privacy and secrecy concerns.

Collaboration in organizations rests on the premise that they would be much smarter if they were able to take advantage of all of the knowledge embedded in them. They would be much more effective at solving difficult problems if people collaborated without first worrying about who the org chart says they should collaborate with. Any organization that is effective at sharing knowledge and collaborating across bureaucratic boundaries is much more effective than the most efficiently coordinated organization. As Lew Platt, a former CEO of Hewlett Packard, is reported to have remarked: “If HP only knew what HP knows, we could be 3 times as profitable.”

The message has not been heard. Research has consistently shown over the years that a misalignment of incentives makes people hesitant when it comes to sharing knowledge proactively. This hesitancy is grounded in a number of rational calculations: it’s not my responsibility to manage someone else’s website; knowledge is power, and sharing it reduces mine; no one is going to thank me for doing so, and I may just get criticised for it; I may be judged negatively by my colleagues and superiors for being a know-it-all; I may be advising something that is technically incorrect or an improper interpretation; it’s just much easier not to say anything.

One of the central challenges in management is how to encourage people to share the knowledge they have that could be of benefit to the organization. Knowledge management systems (KMS) have largely failed because they require that employees take extra steps to put their knowledge — tacit, contextual knowledge, difficult to express in written form — into the system. Coupled with the difficulty in finding useful knowledge once it was stored in the KMS, these elaborate systems have become impressive artefacts with little usefulness for emergent problems.

But there is good news: open collaboration platforms have been very successful. Across the Government of Canada, the GCTools suite (GCpedia and GCconnex) are shining examples of the power of open collaboration. A recent study found that GCpedia has over 65,000 Government of Canada employees as registered users who have collectively made over 1.5 million page edits to the site’s more than 28,000 pages – content that has been viewed over 50 million times. GCpedia contains items such as evergreen briefing notes, procedural instructions, and workplace knowledge resources.

Can this success be harnessed for deeper collaboration? In wrestling with this general problem of incentives against collaboration and knowledge sharing, I began to explore the potential for anonymous knowledge sharing platforms as a way to overcome the organizational cultural forces. The best systems — those that balance the freedom of anonymity with the desire to promote useful contributions and to ultimately reward contributors — provide what I call “accountable anonymity.”

Accountable anonymity involves contributions that are anonymous at the point of entry, with a longer term accountability that ensures responsible speech and that good ideas are rewarded. As not-so-good ideas are overwritten in the writing and re-writing of online collaboration systems, these disappear into the ether with no ill effect rebounding on the contributor. And that great idea that leads to the policy success of the year? A robust system will allow for the person who contributed that idea to be rewarded for doing so.

By providing a cloak of anonymity, participants experience the psychological safety that is required for knowledge to emerge from anywhere in the organization. But the equally important half of this solution involves accountability — both is the sense of the participant being responsible for their contribution (thus curbing the worst excesses of anonymous comment systems), and that they are ultimately rewarded for contributions that lead to a positive outcome.

GitHub, a digital project hosting web service which is primarily used for software development, may offer a model worth emulating in government. It is the dominant code-hosting platform on the Internet, but it also represents a new approach to collaboration that might have profound effects in the public service. GitHub features sophisticated accountability traces that could have profound implications for performance management in knowledge organization such as government departments. If individual public servants were recognized for their contributions in collaborative efforts, and given greater freedom to contribute to organization-wide objectives, their incentives to contribute might increase.

GitHub is certainly not the only platform currently available for organizational collaboration. Prominent examples include wikis, Google Docs, and SharePoint. GitHub is also not the easiest system to use: it has a steep technical learning curve and interface limitations. In addition, its original purpose as a software collaboration site makes it difficult to edit text documents.

But what distinguishes GitHub are its built-in social networking functions, back-end data capture and on-board reporting. It functions on the principles of distributed version control and openness that opens a window to the underlying architecture and that rigorously documents every change that is made. Throughout the long process of policy formation, the initial idea that ultimately becomes a policy success stays connected to the original contributor.

Tanya Kelley (a post-doc at the University of Michigan) and I examined 46 Canadian public sector institutions with an organization-level GitHub account. We found 180 public sector employees in Canada with a personal GitHub account, and invited them to complete a survey about their experience and expertise in using it (and similar platforms). We also conducted interviews with five Government of Canada employees to explore perceptions and experiences on the questions of collaboration and innovation within government.

Our data reveals that there is limited GitHub adoption and activity to date in the Canadian public sector, in part because of the tool itself but also because of a lingering government-wide ambiguity about collaboration in practice. GitHub is still resisted by all but the most technically savvy. With a peculiar terminology and work model that presupposes a familiarity with command-line computer operations and the language of software coding, using GitHub presents many barriers to the novice user. But while it is tempting to dismiss GitHub as ill-suited as a collaboration tool to support document writing, reflections on its use to date do provide useful lessons for considering the state of collaboration in the Canadian public sector and some barriers that remain to be overcome.

Most of the accounts used by public servants are held by Government of Canada employees. Within this participant community, the distribution of contributions per user follows a classic long-tail distribution: a small number of contributors are responsible for most of the work, a larger number of contributors do very little, and many users contribute nothing. While this may seem ineffective from an organizational management perspective, the central argument about the power of the long tail in collaborative systems bears repeating: the value of small contributions from a large number of minor contributors is unattainable in traditional, closed systems, but is a key virtue of collaboration. Rather than lament that a large number of contributors are not deeply engaged, collaboration allows those contributors who might have otherwise been excluded to contribute as much or as little as they wish.

And that person who makes only one contribution and is never heard from again? They may just point out that website vulnerability early enough to save you from having to shut it down for a weekend. If every federal government employee were potentially aware that the StatsCan and CRA web sites had not updated their web servers to guard against the known vulnerability, would this problem have been revealed more quickly through a site like GitHub than it did through standard channels? Maybe not. But the centralized approach promoted by initiatives such as Shared Services Canada calls to mind Joy’s law of management: “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”

In our performance management cultures, there are the things we are supposed to do — and generally contributing to the shared knowledge of the organization is usually not on that list (or is not measured in any realistic way). And in our broader organizational cultures, there are unspoken strictures that discourage people from sticking their neck out. Add to this the phenomenon of organizational HiPPOs (the highest-paid person’s opinion) that tend to dominate conversations because of their position rather than the strength of their argument, and the causes of collaboration failure become clearer. The shutdown of key sites in mid-March 2017 shows the consequences and the urgency for public sector management to find the ways to draw on the knowledge of government employees from across the organization. It is a central challenge of our time, and GitHub’s model just might be the solution. It demonstrates what an accountable anonymity system might look like, one that recognizes contributors while still allowing them to stay in the shadow, content to simply share their strategic knowledge for the general good.

 

Justin Longo is an assistant professor in the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina where he holds the Cisco Research Chair in Digital Governance.

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The Liberal government’s first federal budget laid out $11.9 billion over five years for new infrastructure spending and the move was met with approval from some mayors of the country’s largest cities. Ottawa plans to spend $29.4 billion this year, $29 billion in 2017, $22.8 billion the following year and $17.7 billion in 2019-2020. The...
 
The Liberal government is expected to announce on Tuesday a new federal budget with a deficit in the area of about $30 billion. There’s been a lot of concern about that huge deficit but a number of economists calculate that Canada could actually absorb a much larger deficit and that it may not be even...
 
A leader’s credibility begins with personal success. It ends with helping others achieve personal success. – John Maxwell In 1966, U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy made an influential visit to South Africa. He offered words of hope to opponents of apartheid in his famous “Ripple of Hope” speech at the University of Cape Town: Related posts: Knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing...
 
Monday was the final day for Canadians to donate money to overseas relief efforts for Syrian refugees in order for the funds to be matched by the federal government. But the money donated by Canadians fell short of the maximum $100 million which the government promised to match. Related posts: Does Canada need a bigger deficit? Yes, according to economists Mandatory insurance for federally regulated railways raised to $1-B Salvaging Shared Services Canada...
 
Huawei is bringing back to Canada and expanding its information communication technology-focused student exchange program. Seeds for the Future will once more provide 20 third-year engineering students from Canada, the opportunity to visit Beijing and work in the communication technology provider’s headquarters in Shenzhen, China. This is only the second year of the program in Canada. Huawei Canada is now receiving...
 
Many women entrepreneurs in Canada struggle to access capital, technology, networks and training. Cisco Canada has launched a program called the Cisco Women Entrepreneur’s Circle which aims to bridge this gap. Cisco is working with Women of Influence , a community dedicated to the advancing women professionals; Completely Managed , a managed services provider; the Business Development Bank of Canada ; and Communitech , and industry-led innovation centre based in...
 
Written by Tim Wacker Almost a quarter century ago, when most municipalities were rummaging through file cabinets and sifting through folders for specific documents, and the internet was still in the future (to say nothing of “cloud computing”), the District of Mission in British Columbia became an early adopter of an electronic document management system...
 
Written by  Brady G. Wilson You may not realize it, but your organization is home to an incredibly powerful operating system (O/S). Think outside the realm of technology. What has the potential to engage and energize your employees, bring teams closer together, and create a high-performing workforce? It’s conversation. Conversation is the common denominator behind...
 
Continuous, life-long learning is the future of the public service. Building the capacity of our workforce to meet new expectations and new ways of doing business is key to public service renewal. Large scale organizational learning efforts must be supported to make the leap from current to future state. Related posts: The benefits of an executive coach Coach or mentor: Which one do you need? Professional development for the CIO...
 
Mega-ConnEX is an annual speed networking event organized by the Health Canada Young Professionals Network which connects young professionals and public sector senior executives. This event, loosely modelled on the ‘speed dating’ process, allows participants to network with senior executives in rapid succession. Related posts: The benefits of an executive coach Coach or mentor: Which one do you need? Survey: Professional development...
 
Canada’s contribution to development and humanitarian assistance is recognized around the world. Its official development aid is $5 billion annually. Related posts: The policy analyst's political world The art of the possible: Open government Engaging for new relationships with Indigenous peoples...
 
Deliberations and negotiations in the United Nations are intensifying on what the successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals should be as the MDG end date – 2015 – approaches. There is broad consensus that the post-2015 framework should include goals, targets and indicators, as is the case with the MDGs. Related posts: Millennium Development Goals: A sprint to 2015 and the way forward Post-2015 MDG framework: The world we want...
 
The UN consultations on the post-2015 development framework are focused on what the UN Millennium campaign aptly calls, “The World We Want.” What do we want to achieve in a generation? What do we want to achieve in our lifetime? Related posts: Millennium Development Goals: A sprint to 2015 and the way forward Canada post-2015: Confronting our own development challenges...
 
At the turn of the millennium, the international community made a major commitment to address pressing development challenges and combat poverty. The United Nations (UN) Summit in 2000 saw leaders from 189 nations endorse the Millennium Declaration, which led to the establishment of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Related posts: Canada post-2015: Confronting our own development challenges Canadian Governments Lagging in Online Service Delivery Canada adopts U.N. declaration of rights of Indigenous peoples...
 
Budgets are statements of political will and power. They are performance agreements that give expression to government’s priorities and expected outcomes....
 
Decades of reform in developing countries point to four enduring dilemmas: Reforms focus on changing rules and behaviour by design rather than on changing practices during implementation;… Related posts: From past to future: Contrasting perspectives on public sector management...
 
The Lough Erne Accountability Report states that the G8 has played a constructive role in promoting better governance in the developing world. It cites the G8’s 70 percent funding of the Africa Peer Review Mechanism to promote democratic processes, citizen rights, and the rule of law. Related posts: Spanning boundaries … Globalization...
 
While there can be no singular solution for good governance, building common strategies that can be locally adapted is important in achieving development outcomes....
 
it’s not the most original saying...
 
With the demographics of an aging workforce and a significant number of pending executive retirements facing most organizations, are governments prepared to manage the transition and invest in the right type of leadership development?...
 
Shakespeare’s “dark comedy,” Measure for Measure, deals with the issues of mercy, justice and truth....
 
Reform is almost always about developing the capacity of government to manage, deliver and renew public services. The capacity deficit is pronounced in developing countries, where basic services are just beyond reach....
 
CGE Vol.13 No.3 March 2007 Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine is promoting a vision for eliminating poverty i...
 
CGE Vol. 14 No.5 May 2008 Before dawn on Monday, 18 February 2008, just as an international conference was about to commence on the We...
 
CGE Vol. 14 No.4 April 2008 “What is a Foreign Service for? Where should it focus its energies?” Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked las...
 
CGE Vol.14 No.3 March 2008 Most observers expect more than 40 percent of the executive cadre of the public service to retire in th...
 
CGE Vol.14 No.3 March 2008 The Commonwealth Secretariat convened the first Commonwealth forum of ministers responsible for public...
 
If you want to understand someone else’s position, walk a mile in their shoes, so the saying goes. To better prepare its future leaders, the Alberta public service has put that chestnut to the test. In 2005, Alberta c...
 
What makes a perfect mentor? Is it age and seniority? Perhaps it is years of education and experience?...
 
Often, decisions about how to recruit are made based on habit – doing what the organization has always done without much consideration of unique job requirements or labor market conditions....
 
It has been said that if everything is important, nothing is important. As a leader, what are the two or three things that are most important to you? What are your passions? What legacy do you wish to leave?...
 
The Mosaic Index, by Professor Richard Florida, which measures the percentage of population who are immigrants, indicates that Canada outperforms the United States, just as Ontario outperforms its peer jurisdictions on diversity. Canada has 20 percent imm...
 
Government policy agendas have long been fraught with complexity....
 
Looking at all the engineering diagrams overlaid on maps on the wall at the band office, I see a hand-drawn picture of a berm, a smiling moose cartoon on the pipeline, and an arrow beside it. "What does that represent?" I asked the engineeri...
 
Gérés efficacement, les conflits peuvent favoriser la résolution conjointe des problèmes, améliorer la communication, rehausser le moral et accroître la connecti...
 
Popular wisdom holds that the public service will need to recruit a large number of young professionals, mostly recent grads, to replace soon-to-retire baby boomers. Of course, there is nothing wrong with following an unoriginal renewal strategy, as lo...
 
CGE Vol.14 No.2 February 2008 As I mentioned previously, one cannot underestimate the importance of educating program executives,...
 
CGE Vol.13 No.9 November 2007 What is the toughest job in government? Try head of the public service in Iraq – mediating between three factions with t...
 
CGE Vol.13 No.9 November 2007 Growth can mean opportunity. Significant increases in population can lead to a stronger workforce, a...
 
The subtitle of this report, prepared by the U.S. National Governors Association (NGA) Centre for Best Practices, is called “Using Arts and Culture to Stimulate State Economic Development.” The report puts to bed the argument that arts are...
 
We can learn from archetypes. They can help us lead, if they are clear and practical enough...
 
Improving leadership development is widely recognized by HR leaders and senior managers as a key priority for any high performing, modern organization....
 
Natural Resources Canada is accustomed to nurturing, protecting and growing Canada’s most precious resources. Now it is also able to nurture and grow its young policymakers....
 
In an increasingly competitive and complex global marketplace, both employers and employees who display creativity, knowledge and imagination are at a premium....
 
The transition from the private sector into an executive role in the federal public service is not easy....
 
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We are excited to share with you the May/June issue of Canadian Government Executive. In this issue, we have an interview with Patrick Borbey, President of the Public Service Commission of Canada. Other stories in this issue: Innovations in Public Engagement Being Canadian: Quebec’s Dialogue with the Rest of Canada Engaging on Engagement From Policy...