People Screw Up, and That’s Okay

The Langevin Block, home to the Privy Council ...

Langevin Block

Dave Eaves wrote a great article that appeared in the Globe and Mail yesterday. Eaves is pretty much my hero, but I’m not quite as hopeful as he is, and it has nothing to do with the public service. Here’s an excerpt from his article:

“The Clerk of the Privy Council Office – the most senior public servant in Canada – logged on to GCPEDIA, created a page and asked public servants to talk to him directly about renewing the bureaucracy. Although a simple act, it has deep significance. In an organization that has struggled with renewing itself for the 21st century, GCPEDIA represents this single most ambitious experiment for rethinking how the public service conducts its business. Like the now famous Wikipedia, GCPEDIA is a wiki: a collection of pages that any public servant can create or edit. But rather than serve as an encyclopedia, it serves as a creative space, a place where public servants can collaborate, share their work openly with others across government and gather a diversity of perspectives on the challenges and programs they work on.”

That’s great. Seriously. It’s a great gesture. But that’s all it is. The Clerk of the PCO can only do so much. Public service renewal is a nice, soft, feel-good issue, but it will be a long time until we see meaty policy discussions in a wiki. Here’s the problem:

  1. Giving every federal public servant (or even many federal public servants) access to an internal wiki means that, no matter what, if a particular discussion gets important, it will be leaked. Don’t pretend it won’t get leaked, because it will. Always.
  2. If something gets leaked, and it is even slightly damaging to the public service or the government of the day, it will turn into a massive news story.
  3. If you work in the public service, doing something really great will get you a lovely certificate in a faux-wood frame, and doing something really bad will get you fired, or at least hauled up on the carpet.

So, what’s the incentive to participate in GCPEDIA? Consider a perfectly rational public servant. Their utility maximizing response is to do absolutely nothing; it makes sense to embrace the status quo. Best case scenario: plastic frame for a few weeks. Worst case scenario: plastic cups for the rest of your life.

How do we fix this? Simple, Joe Q. Public…shut up. Jane F. Memeberofparliament…shut up. Stop screaming when you hear a relatively minor story about something going wrong in the public service. I get that you’re angry. I get that you can score political points. But please, stop. You’re hurting the country. Good companies are successful because they can take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them. When Google launched their new Buzz product, they violated pretty much every customer’s privacy by publicizing their address books. The web flipped out for a couple weeks, Google fixed the problem, and we all moved on. Imagine if a privacy failure of this magnitude came from government. We would be hearing about it for years. I’m not saying we need to reduce accountability in government, but keep things in perspective and try to be pragmatic.

GCPEDIA is a great initiative, and something that could tap into the incredible knowledge and creativity of public servants. Unfortunately, it can’t be useful until the public accepts that mistakes will be made, bad ideas will be discussed (and leaked), and risks will be taken. We all say we want innovation in government, but it isn’t going to happen until we let them do it.

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