Opinion
May 7, 2012

Putting wicked problems to bed

What keeps new public servants awake at night? The latent potential of the public service and the ways we could be working together to overcome wicked issues.

The challenges confronting the public service will be more complex and crosscutting than ever before. We lie awake hoping we haven’t missed something, that our solutions have captured all the intricacies and breadth of a problem.

We’ve talked about engaging others, but what does this mean? The Privy Council Office has recognized that something needs to change, but for many of us, progress seems confined to nomenclature. We need to build a culture with substance behind these platitudes. We need to find solutions for Canadians and for each other.

Never before have there been so many ways to do our work, and the untapped potential of these options keeps us awake at night. In co-creating this article, we have collaborated on a wiki to figure out what we wanted to share, isolating our most important ideas. We chose not dwell on problems, but instead present two simple solutions to help us overcome wicked issues.

The first is to encourage and enable staff to work collaboratively online. Behind this article is a group of people with diverse experience from departments across Canada who have discussed options, debated titles and edited each other’s work. We respect each person’s contribution and perceive comments as a way to improve our work, not as a criticism of it. We know that by working together we can come up with a better final product because the sum of the whole really is better than each of the parts. We know this because we have experienced it producing the canada@150 research paper. We can work at any hour and in any place. We do this willingly and it motivates us. We get excited and check in, rather than check out.

Why is this so powerful? Because it combines the three factors that motivate us all: autonomy, mastery and purpose. If you are skeptical, remind yourself that Linux, an open source software developed in collaboration by anonymous programmers, now powers 25 percent of corporate servers in Fortune 500 companies.

The second is to embrace the 80/20 rule: encourage staff to allocate 20 percent of their time to a personal practice that aligns with corporate priorities, increasing employee productivity and engagement in the workplace. There are many public servants who want to use their unique talents to contribute more, but due to operational requirements or group/level restrictions they cannot. Providing opportunities for all employees to use their “20 percent” on cross-governmental projects unlocks creative solutions at all levels, from interdepartmental to international.

Offering and receiving support from colleagues in other departments, agencies and regions allows us to tackle wicked issues more quickly and effectively. Companies like Google and Atlassian already use systems that allow their employees the time to work on ideas and projects that fall outside their normal job description with impressive results.

As canada@150 participants, we were fortunate enough to experience these new ways of working. We continue to support each other and join forces on crosscutting issues by picking up the phone, sending an email or throwing up a wiki and asking for help, regardless of department, group/level or area of expertise. We maintain this practice off the side of our desks to keep us inspired and to continue creating culture change by reaching out to other public servants through forums like Canadian Government Executive.

None of us “own” this article or these ideas. We are proud of our contributions and eager to work with all of our colleagues who feel compelled to improve the way we serve Canadians. If we lose sleep, it is wondering how long we may have to wait for public service leadership to implement these transformative changes that can help unleash our full potential. But what helps us sleep soundly is the knowledge that there are options to overcome wicked issues, that we have already seen pockets of innovation, and that a more collaborative and confident public service is within our reach.

 

This article was wiki-composed in three days by thirteen canada@150 participants from eleven federal departments in four regions. Please visit http://bit.ly/canada150 for the canada@150 research report.

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