December was the six month check-in for Blueprint 2020, the current vision-setting exercise for the Canadian public service. The Blueprint 2020 National Secretariat released their interim report, What We Heard, and the initiative was a common topic for CGE, op-eds and public speakers.
With mixed reviews. Former Parliamentary Budgetary Officer Kevin Page called Blueprint 2020 an “empty vessel,” which led to a response from the Clerk of the Privy Council, Wayne Wouters. The Clerk outlined the consultation effort to date, which included a public service-wide discussion on the GC-internal professional networking tool GCconnex, in-person town halls, and interim reports from each department.
All told, the Blueprint 2020 National Secretariat has put forth an amazing effort organizing and capturing conversations. Every comment gets read, catalogued, and summarized for the Clerk’s office. Likewise for the many interim reports.
But it hasn’t been easy to see that. Only 30.1 percent of respondents agreed that their “voice will make a difference” in Blueprint 2020 on CGE’s poll. It’s partially that the Blueprint 2020 team hasn’t given themselves enough credit for how much they’re listening, but there’s a more fundamental element missing: day-to-day, they’re only listening, which isn’t very engaging.
And it’s no one’s fault. Engagement is hard, and the deck is stacked against it.
Engagement is a conversation
Fourteen years ago the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto proclaimed that “markets are conversations.” So shall it be for governance.
The reason conversations are engaging is the constant feedback. It’s clear when input is meaningfully received. Every day people unconsciously pepper conversations with “Uh huh”, “Really”, or body language as indicators that they’re listening and understanding. Knowing that we’re connecting to a person is what keeps us engaged in conversations, just as seeing the connection between our work and our organization keeps us engaged in our jobs. And seeing the connection between our input and decisions is what keeps us engaged in consultations like Blueprint 2020.
Therein lies the goal for consultations: to ensure that the decision-making process is connected to the conversations taking place, and to find ways to prove it. The consultation equivalents of “Uh huh”:
• “Could you expand on that?”
• “That would be useful because…”
• “We can’t do that because…” (Even nil answers prove active listening, and give participants information for future contributions.)
But there are some major challenges. One is that we operate on communication cycles that are too slow for conversations. The other is that the people listening are not always the ones influencing the decisions, which makes providing answers like “we can do that” impossible. The answer is empowerment, but as Donald Savoie put it, “[The government of Canada has] never been able to square the circle of empowering public servants and making them accountable.”
Not just Blueprint 2020
This is bigger than Blueprint 2020. This is a canary in the coal mine, because the same limitations will apply externally in the coming era of citizen participation in governance.
Other countries are facing this learning curve as well. A post-mortem of the crowdsourced Red Tape Challenge in the U.K. concluded that the exercise failed at “escaping the constraints of the old world of consultation.” It was never a conversation; merely a one-way suggestion box that happened to be on an open platform.
Engagement is hard. And it’s going to be particularly hard for the Canadian public service. People have conversations with people, not organizations, and we have a historical underpinning of anonymity.
The 1996 Tait report on public service values and ethics referenced the concept of anonymity 38 times, highlighting how it supports speaking truth to power. But regardless of the merits of an anonymous public service, I think it’s simply an unrealistic assumption in the digital world. And perhaps more importantly, the ideas, concerns, and engagement levels of Canadians are vital for governance. Without talking to citizens, public servants will be missing much of the truth to speak in the first place.
I’m optimistic about Blueprint 2020 as a vision-setting exercise, and my understanding is that it’s going to become more two-way in the future – so I’m now optimistic about it as an engagement exercise, too. But for all of the team’s fantastic work, they’re restricted by longstanding parameters within our public service that create a gulf between those consulting and those making decisions. Which deprives conversations of their meaning, and engagement exercises of their possible power.
So how do we do citizen and employee engagement, given our parameters? What parameters need to break?