What should a public servant look like?
Remarks made to DPI-670 class at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in April 2019.
Thanks everyone for having me. It’s humbling to be in a room with all of you, as not only is this room filled with a collective insight and expertise that is awe-inspiring, but also because I see in front of me the people who are going to be responsible for transforming the public service into what we want it to be. That’s a gargantuan task, and I’m thankful to all of you for embarking on this journey.
I want to begin by acknowledging that I am here as a settler in Turtle Island, and specifically upon the traditional territories of the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples and current home to the Chippewas of the Thames and Oneida Nation of the Thames. This relationship to the land and those who were the custodians of the land before us is an important foundation to all the work I do.
I know you’ve all spent some time exploring the genesis of digital service units in government, and may have had a bit of the history of the Ontario Digital Service, but as a means of introduction to me, to what I’m going to speak about, and to what I think is one of the most important facets of digital transformation across public service writ large, I wanted to first tell you a little story.
Thirteen years ago, when I first joined the public service, I was having a conversation with a friend who was skeptical of my charting a career path in government. I had spent a little bit of time working at a startup, and some time working with a few international development organizations, and this friend told me that his vision of me didn’t fit the description of what he saw as a public servant.
Intrigued, I asked him what a public servant looked like to him. His description relied on stereotypes: he said public servants were people who liked to spend their days leisurely drinking coffee, wore fancy ties to make themselves look and feel important, and relied on a thesaurus in order to make whatever they wrote more complicated and obtuse than it really had to be.
I chuckled as he explained this to me: we were sitting at a coffee shop in the middle of the day, leisurely drinking coffee, and I was wearing a handmade bowtie and had just returned from the bookstore and was toting around a new dictionary, thesaurus, and a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing in my backpack. Despite his protestations, I was exactly what his vision of a public servant was, and I was excited to join the public service that next week to start my career in government.
Thirteen years later, and several stints inside and outside the public service later, here I am—still subsisting on coffee, still wearing fancy bowties, and still leaning on the copy of Strunk & White on my shelf whenever I write.
The question has stayed with me over those past thirteen years, though: what does a public servant look like? Perhaps more importantly, what should a public servant look like in a digital age?
I’m lucky to have a role in the Ontario Digital Service, and in the Ontario Public Service, that allows me to explore that question every single day. As part of my work in talent and employee experience, I get to play with ideas of what it means to think about government not as a bureaucracy, not as a system or organization, but of a amassment of people.
Over the years, working in digital government, I’ve often heard that the four levers of digital transformation are platforms, procurement, policy, and people. I tend to agree, in principle:
- Creating effective platforms, particularly when it comes to building the enabling technologies for better service delivery, is an important step in helping reshape the way government interacts with the people it serves;
- In order to be able to build those platforms, and to think about the way we work with other organizations in a more agile (small a) and inclusive way, we need to completely rethink our procurement models;
- Digital policy is something you probably all think about a ton, so I won’t go into it much but to say that issues around governance, standards, and legislation need to be addressed before any real kind of change can come to the way we work.
The fourth lever, people, is the one that often gets ignored because it’s a little more amorphous than the rest. It’s the lever that I find most fascinating, and it’s the one where I’d love to chat a bit about today because I don’t want you to forget about it as you continue in your careers in government.
When David asked me to speak, he specifically asked me to address the ideas of recruiting, and of scaling ideas across the public service. In my current role, both those things are inter-related, and specifically related to how we support people. I may not directly mention the words recruiting or scaling much from here on in, but there are two things to set the stage for this conversation:
- You can only recruit the right people into the public service if you have an understanding of what a “digital” public service should look like.
- Ideas can only scale in an organization where people feel like they have a voice, have power, and have the ability to be people—not just cogs in a machine, but people with autonomy and the ability to share.
If we want to talk about recruiting, and if we want to talk about the scaling of ideas, we need to talk about how we create a space in public service for people—not just policies and programs—to thrive.
I will preface this by saying that I don’t have any answers to any of the questions I will pose today. The idea of reforming the nature of the public service isn’t new, and there are people who work in the areas of human resources, management consulting, and organizational development, that have been doing this a lot longer than I have, and even they haven’t figured it out. I contend that there is no real answer to creating an adaptive public service that is prepared for the challenges of the digital age, but instead a series of explorations for us to do, experiments for us to try, in order to find a mix of interventions that help us build a community of people well equipped to serve people in the way they need and want to be served.
First, a quick rumination on human resources: they are integral to the operation of government, but they are not in the business of creating this community of public servants who are able to thrive in a digital era. By its nature, the structure of human resources is to see humans as resources: to work on behalf of the organization to manage resources that are leveraged for the good of the organization. The idea of focusing on employees as people—individual, empowered, and intrinsically autonomous—instead of resources is not the job of HR, but instead of public service leaders; specifically, the middle layer of management who are directly responsible for the growth of the people, not the resources, who work with them.
Second, a quick rumination on the idea of the faceless bureaucracy. The inherent nature of the way we’ve structured our governments (especially in the Westminster system that we have here in Canada) is that our elected officials not only speak on behalf of the public, but speak to the public. The public service is there to give best advice and to deliver service; the face of government is still the elected official. As many of you have noticed from what you’ve seen online, particularly in the arena of digital government, is that these days, it’s not surprising to hear public servants talk about their work loudly, in public spaces like Twitter and other online communities. Whether or not that is a good or bad development is not something I’m going to really dive into today, but it is something we need to keep in mind; this behaviour, and this desire to speak about expertise and work, will inform the kind of work we need to do in order to attract and retain talent in the public service.
As you can see, I like ruminating.
One of the first questions I get asked when I tell people I work on digital talent and transformation in public service these days is, “what kind of skills do I need to have to get a government job?”
I’m sure, over the past few months, you’ve talked a lot about digital competencies and skills—from service design to user research to coding to data governance, the current gaps in expertise and knowledge across government are huge—so I won’t jump into those today. What I want to do is set the stage for the qualities we should be looking for in all public servants, principles of ways of working that help set the stage for every single government worker to thrive in a digital era, even if they don’t work on digital.
Three years ago, I canvassed a few dozen leaders from private sector organizations and asked them what they liked to see in digital leaders. From there, I consolidated their answers and applied a public sector lens to them, and developed a set of principles that I think can apply to every public servant. These aren’t all encompassing or comprehensive, but I think they are a good foundation to what we should be looking for in our public service in a digital era:
- Obsess about the user. Make every decision with the end-user, the person who will use your product or service, in mind. Demand that of your team.
- Be agile and iterate. Get feedback on, and make changes at, every step of the process. Change and update based on ongoing feedback and user research. (Note: this does not mean a wholesale adoption of Agile methodology. The lowercase a is intentional here.)
- Work out loud. Encourage your team to communicate process to coworkers, to clients, and to partners throughout the work, not just when there is something to announce.
- Use the data. Rely on measurable evidence to inform your decision-making, and hold your team to the same standard. Make sure all decisions have mechanisms for measurement.
- Be prepared to fail. Failure is inherent to risk-taking — as long as the failure is small, iterative, and drives to a better user experience.
- Challenge everything. Ask questions, and don’t assume things need to be done in a certain way because they always have been. Many implicit “rules” are actually customs; let your team challenge those customs.
- Embrace the chaos. Your team will have different optimal methods of work, when it comes to time, place, environment, tools, and process. Encourage them to work in their best way, as long as the work (and team dynamics) isn’t compromised.
- Be unreasonably aspirational. We’ll talk a little bit more about this one later.
One of the things I missed here is to have a better understanding of risk. Public servants are inherently poor judges of true risk. We hear all the time that “we don’t want to end up on the front cover of the local newspaper” as if that was a real risk. Yes, it’s a political risk, and we have to prepare for that, but it’s not real risk. If we work out loud effectively, the local newspaper won’t want to put your small failures on the front page of the paper; they will know that it’s part of the cycle of iteration and building better policy and services. Real risk is under-serving the public; real risk is when, because of the decisions we make, someone’s life is made worse. Once we’re able to reframe what real risk is, we’re able to serve the public better.
Of course, it’s one thing to say we want to recruit people who obsess about the user, who can be agile and iterate, who are comfortable working out loud, who know how to use the data, who are prepared to fail, who challenge everything, who embrace the chaos, who have an understanding of true risk, and who are unreasonably aspirational. It’s a whole other thing to provide an environment where those kinds of people thrive, and where these behaviours become de rigeur and commonplace.
This is where good management comes in.
We can’t depend on HR to create these environments because it is not their job, but mostly because of the way we’ve set up HR systematically makes it so that their lens has to be organization-first, rather than people-first. The people that we empower to be people-first are our managers, and this is where the public service is failing the most.
Right now, managers manage work, rather than people. In most parts of public service, management is part of a career trajectory, rather than a distinct skill. We use the carrot of management to incentivize people to work harder and to reward those who have put in the time. The honest truth is that instead of turning experts into managers, we should let experts remain experts, and hire people who are good at managing people actually manage people.
In most parts of the public service, a manager is given a set of files—usually part of a portfolio held by their director—and then assigns work to staff to complete those files. This means that while we ostensibly ask managers to take care of people, we’re really asking them to be extensions of human resources: they are managing the resources devoted to a file. Managing resources is the job of HR, but yet we’ve pushed it off to the managers and taken the actual job of managing people off their plate.
What could this look like? We don’t have it perfect in the ODS, but here’s what we’re trying: allowing our managers (we call them chapter leads) to worry about people, and not about the work. Everyone is organized into functional groups not based on the file or portfolio of work, but instead based on their skills and functional expertise. (We call those groups, chapters.) To do the work, our central business unit decides what functional expertise we need on the team to do the work—a mix of designers, technologists, policy makers, researchers, etc.—and multi-disciplinary teams are assembled. People are “deployed” onto projects from their chapters. Each deployment has the autonomy to self-organize, and figure out how they will work together to accomplish their tasks.
If the chapter leads, then, aren’t managing files and portfolios, what do they do? They are responsible for the growth, development, and support of each of their staff. They create the environment where staff can thrive, which is also an environment that attracts new talent, and helps ideas grow into things to try and then can be scaled across an organization. If a chapter is, as I like to call it, the “spiritual” home of the employee, the chapter lead is guru that creates a space for that spirit to be nurtured.
If we want to have public servants who obsess about the user, who can be agile and iterate, who are comfortable working out loud, who know how to use the data, who are prepared to fail, who challenge everything, who embrace the chaos, who have an understanding of true risk, and who are unreasonably aspirational, we have to hire people to manage them and create the right conditions and environments for those kinds of behavior to exist.
What does that environment look like? I like to sum it up in five easy words. If you take their initials, you can call it the TAEEA approach, but that just shows that I’m horrible at creating acronyms and branding isn’t quite my cup of tea.
If we’re building a public service for a digital era, we need our managers to create a TAEEA environment.
T is for trust, and it’s the letter that’s the most foundational to this approach. Most of the public service groups I’ve worked with or alongside over the past two decades have shown me that one thing we don’t do well in public service is to trust the people around us. Our management approach relies on visible markers of work: when you come into the office and when you leave, how many comments you made on a document, how many hands you shook. There is reticence to give someone a desired outcome—or even output—and tell them, “I trust you to get this done, and I’ll get out of your way until you need me.”
Of course, some of this comes from the fact that most of our management doesn’t get to hire their own staff members, but instead inherit them. Trust is hard to build when you’re not in control over whom you have to trust. But that’s where a good manager really shines: to be able to expose their vulnerability and tell someone they don’t know, “we may not know each other well, but by nature of you being in this role, I trust you to excel. And I’ll be here to help you excel and deliver where you need my help.”
If we want to recruit good talent, and if we want our current talent to be comfortable trying new things and sharing their approaches across the public service, it has to be obvious that the work environment is built on a foundation of trust.
The first A is for autonomy, and this one is immediately self-evident. People should be able to work in the way that works best for them and their team. There are, of course, certain areas where the work style must be prescribed: front-line service delivery is one example of this. But even there, allowing project teams to come together and decide, together, where, when, and how they will work—and then giving them the tools they need to work in that way—will greatly increase their ability to get the work done. If we’ve built a trusting environment, then giving people autonomy is a natural next step.
I’m reminded of my postman when I lived in Arlington. All the postal delivery people had strict routes to follow, and were not allowed to deviate from the routes. A few months after I met him, he told me that they got a new manager that allowed them to create their own driving routes, as long as all the delivery spots were hit in the time allotted. The rationale was that since the drivers were on the road every single day, they knew the traffic patterns best. They were given some room to test and play and find the route that was best for them. My postman told me that being able to change his route helped him finish his deliveries 40 minutes faster than the previous pre-defined route. Most importantly, it gave him agency and autonomy, and he started taking more interest in the work and how it was done. The autonomy gave him investment in the work, and as such, it made the work more attractive and enjoyable.
If we’re recruiting a new generation of public servants, making public service attractive and enjoyable is an important thing we can do, and autonomy is a huge part of making that happen.
The next two letters, the Es, are related: they stand for equity, and ethics. We talk a lot about diversity in public service, and how everyone is proud to have built a diverse workforce. We talk much less about equity, and that might be because it is elusive. There’s a progression I think about when it comes to equity, and it looks like this: diversity and representation is the table stakes to begin a conversation about equity. From there, we can think about inclusion, where the everyone feels not only welcome, but valued for who they are. Most often, we stop there, but that’s not enough.
Once people feel included and valued, there needs to be community. We build upon diversity to get inclusion, but we build upon inclusion to get belonging. The future of public service is dependent on our management creating spaces where people feel like they belong: that idea of community is what draws people interested in social change into social innovation or into activism. It’s also what should draw people into public service, one of the biggest levers of social change.
Equity comes when that sense of belonging collides with power. If we infuse our communities with the power to make decisions, and we have true belonging in that community, then our work becomes more equitable—and also more effective. That’s an environment where ideas percolate, grow, expand, and eventually scale. When there is equitable—not equal, mind you, but equitable, which takes into account the structural and systemic barriers in which we operate—access to having voice, but also to having the power to act on that voice, good ideas thrive, and good people stay.
I do want to introduce the idea of decolonization into the discussion at this point here, and not say too much because I’m not an expert in this matter but it’s something that each and every one of us needs to keep top of mind as we do our work. The truth is that our work in public service inherently perpetuates a colonial system: the structures of government that we have now are borne of colonization. It may be impossible to dismantle the whole system, but grappling with the reality that the structure in which we work is inherently colonial can help us figure out how to better understand how we can work towards decolonization. (I encourage you to read Alexander Dirksen’s “Decolonizing Digital Spaces” for a better exploration of this topic.)
The talk of decolonization is actually a great segue to the next E: ethics. Here’s something I was told earlier in my career: “Sameer, nobody wants to have an in-depth discussion about the Kant’s moral philosophy and the categorical imperative with you over lunch, so stick to sports.” Here’s something I learned quickly: having those kinds of conversations (well, perhaps not necessarily about Kant, but you know what I mean) is integral to the wellbeing of a team, and of a workplace.
The benefits of having an ethical workplace are obvious: people want to work in a place where they are treated fairly, and believe the work they do will have a positive and meaningful impact on others. The less obvious benefits come not from just having an ethical workplace, but one where ethics are discussed, debated, deliberated, and reflected upon. Creating space for discussions about how we treat each other, how we treat others, and how we treat ourselves, creates space for even more important discussions—conversations around restorative justice, about downstream impact, about distributed power—that helps people understand that the work they do is intrinsically tied to others, and to a whole structural system constructed on assumptions that we need to question and challenge regularly.
We can not create real and meaningful change if we do not embrace the vulnerability that comes from engaging in this conversations. For those of you interested in public service transformation, making space for ethics will be at the core of your work, and all work in creating change that you will do in your career.
Which leads me to the final letter, another A. This time, the meaning is much less esoteric than those that came before: it stands for aspiration. If we want to have aspirational—unreasonably so—employees, we need to have an aspirational organization.
If we have a public service that does what it has always done, and doesn’t explicitly articulate its bigger aspirations, we will never hire people who are aspirational, and we will never encourage current public servants to develop that aspirational mindset as well.
We all need something to strive for: even when we are excellent at what we do, we need to set a goal to be better, in some way. That aspiration provides forward motion, and public service equipped for a digital era needs to use that forward motion to consistently challenge itself to react, foresee, and adapt to changing public needs.
Which brings me right back to our original thesis: if we want to have public servants who obsess about the user, who can be agile and iterate, who are comfortable working out loud, who know how to use the data, who are prepared to fail, who challenge everything, who embrace the chaos, who have an understanding of risk, and who are unreasonably aspirational, we create the right conditions and environments for those kinds of behaviors to exist. That environment is one of trust, of autonomy, of equity, of ethics, and of aspiration—and it is one that can only be uniquely created by those we choose to lead, and to manage, nurture, support, and care for people.
How do we do this? That’s the big question, and a hard one. It’s the reason that among the four Ps—platforms, procurement, policy, and people—it’s the last one to be looked at, and the one that is most often ignored. And one that will most likely continue to be ignored, much to the peril of the success of digital transformation efforts around the world.
There are, of course, people all over the world working on this. Some of that thought is happening in public service, some of it is happening in academic centres like this one, and some of it is happening in civil society. I have some ideas, but really, nobody has all the answers. I’d love to hear from you—not just on whether or not everything I’ve talked about today resonates and rings true, but if it does, where do we go from here?
After all, as I said right off the bat, it is humbling to be in this room. Not only is this room filled with a collective insight and expertise that is awe-inspiring, but also because I see in front of me the people who are going to be responsible for transforming the public service into what we want it to be. That’s a gargantuan task, and I’m thankful to all of you for embarking on this journey.
- Building A Dynamic Future
- Making Digital Happen
- Leadership in a digital age
- Why Bureaucrats Don’t Seem to Care
- Do Bureaucrats Care?
- The living and the dead
- Restorative Technological Practices
- Decolonizing digital spaces