Innovations
May 7, 2012

Letter to a new public servant: Your imagination, innovation and irreverence are required

My friend,

You’ve made a good choice. If you’re in the public sector right now, you’re at the centre of the action. The next few years are going to be exciting and challenging times. Canadians are right to be worried. We’re facing the worst economic crisis since the Depression and we know that our environment is in poor repair. Today, after the long sleep of our public imagination, Canadians are once again waking up to the need for good government. For a generation that grew up skeptical of their parents’ claims that government was the problem, these next few years will be an opportunity to rebuild confidence and forge a new bond between citizens and their governments.

But still we know the odds are long. Trust and confidence in public institutions is down. Voter turnout has reached historic lows and Canadians seem to be turning away from all the traditional forms of political engagement. People are cold to partisanship and, in a hyper-connected society, political parties have lost much of their original social logic.

We get it wrong, however, when we confuse the symptom with the source and think that any of this signals apathy or disinterest. Today, citizens are more capable, not less, and it should be no surprise that many aspects of our system of government have begun to chafe. We need the courage to confront this and the imagination to find new and more meaningful ways to work with citizens, to bring them to the table, to tap the interest and capacity of all Canadians to play a fuller role in public affairs.

So here’s a counterpoint to conventional wisdom: people want a say, but they’re also willing to serve. The problem isn’t that we ask too much, but too little. I believe that if we want people to vote, we need to begin by giving them a stake in their society through new forms of public service.

Recent U.S. studies have linked compulsory forms of public service, such as jury duty, with the uptake of more active forms of citizenship. What this suggests is a very plausible correlation between the experience of public service and the assumption of public duties, like voting and volunteerism.

Many countries are already at work. They’re building new democratic mechanisms to channel the appetite and interest of their increasingly sophisticated publics. Brazil is renown for its experiments with workplace democracy, but also for its ambitious experiments with participatory budgeting. The British government has studied these experiments and is rolling out their own model of participatory budgeting in local authorities across the U.K. Denmark has invested over many years to formalize public engagement processes that inform the development of new public policy.

Canada is a frontrunner too. The significance of the Citizens’ Assemblies on Electoral Reform in British Columbia and Ontario have been largely overlooked but they provide us with an important new mechanism for dealing with intractable public issues. The use of civic lotteries to randomly select citizen-representatives, the development of balanced learning curricula, and facilitated dialogues that strive to achieve alignment among competing views are the basis for a new generation of public processes that will supplement and add a new dimension to your future work as legislators and policy advisors.

And these are only early days. I believe the next set of truly disruptive democratic innovations will emerge from the work now underway among the non-treaty First Nations of B.C. The implications of the Haida-Taku and Sparrow Decisions, which established the Duty to Consult and the Honour of the Crown, are each immense. Over time, they will re-describe the relationship between citizens and the state, and the consequences for all Canadians will be profound.

You and I came of age in the era of the democratic deficit: an era of concentrated power, and diminished civic and parliamentary relevance. Now we need to focus on the how the provision of public services and the work of government can yield a democratic dividend, maximizing the democratic fitness of all citizens to enjoy and exercise greater agency and influence.

Of course, we’ve come this far and I haven’t yet mentioned the web. Collaborative Web 2.0 technologies are already reshaping how public value is created and how public services are delivered. Undoubtedly they’re changing the way politics gets done.

These new technologies are extraordinarily powerful. I recently sat on a panel that awarded the IPAC/Deloitte Prize for Public Sector Leadership to a group that is using a wiki to transform knowledge management at the Ministry of Natural Resources. And my company is bringing the new U.K. documentary Us Now, which is about mass collaboration, government, and the Internet, to audiences of public servants across Canada in February.

Clearly, I believe in this stuff – just as I think it’s ridiculous that the Ontario Public Service banned Facebook. But many Web 2.0 proponents equate an open source ethos with democracy, which likely overstates the case. In fact, rather than democratic, I think its more accurate to describe most open source communities as intensely meritocratic. This is what Linus Torvald, the founder of Linux, meant when he said, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs [or programming errors] are shallow.” The difficulty is that most of our truly perplexing political questions aren’t errors at all – they’re debates. They can’t be solved with optimized, technically elegant solutions.

Ranking, sorting and open source systems are powerful, but it’s a mistake to believe that by aggregating votes they distil democracy to its essence. Democracy isn’t synonymous with simply involving more people, or infinite polls. Open, populist and meritocratic systems for harnessing more ideas from more people should well serve the interests of a democratic society, but I think there’s a hazard when the three ideas – democracy, populism and meritocracy – become confused.

If better technological platforms do anything, they underscore the need for investing in traditional, real-world infrastructure as well: this is the platform of tables and chairs and the simple democratic competence that makes government a site for drawing together citizens with different views but common goals.

The American pollster Daniel Yanklovich has it right when he says we need to move beyond public opinion and instead create the conditions for public judgment. This means challenging public assumptions and opinions, exposing people to new ideas and the experiences of others while creating the space for citizens to reach shared conclusions that are seen as legitimate by the wider public.

Make no mistake: we’re talking about a tall order. But the good news is you’re not alone – you’re about to have more company. Keep an eye on enrolment in MPA and MPP programs over the next two years. Right now the most fashionable degree you can have in Canada isn’t a Harvard MBA, but a Harvard MPA from the Kennedy School. That’s a big shift and we can see Canadian universities rolling out new programs and schools to meet this demand. Just as management consulting was to the ‘90s and finance was to the first decade of the 21st century, a lot of top talent is now looking at the public sector.

Lastly, it helps to take the long view: two hundred years ago we defined democracy very differently and I’m pretty sure that two hundred years from now, we’ll look back either amused or aghast at how muddle-headed we were. All systems evolve, but political systems – and governments – evolve more slowly than most.

This is a good thing. Societies need political stability so they can function. But it also means that in Canada we can afford to be a bit more imaginative and perhaps even irreverent about our existing political institutions. They can take it, and it would be a horrible thi

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