Q&A: Nicholas Charney on bureaucracy, technology and the future of government

14 June 2012 | Michele Bedford Thistle, Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

Nicholas Charney has been a journeyman public servant since 2007. He has worked both at the bottom and the top of hierarchical structures, on detailed policy analysis and on the coordination of ministerial briefing books and calendars. He currently provides advice to policy makers and senior executives on how to use new collaborative technologies to gain efficiencies, foster innovation, and improve engagement.

He has been sharing his thoughts on people, public policy, and technology at cpsrenewal.ca for the last five years, he curates gov + memes, and he is slowly writing a work of bureaucratic fiction. He holds an undergraduate degree in Political Science, International Relations, and Law from Carleton University and a Master’s degree in Conflict Studies from Saint Paul University.

Michele Bedford Thistle: I’d like to start by talking about some of the stuff you’ve been saying on your blog. Recently, you wrote about the fact that bureaucracies around the world continue to resist change and the people who have to work through that and see that lack of change.

You observed that such people are increasingly frustrated with “business as usual.” I work for a big company, so I can appreciate the frustration that bureaucracy can cause in a working environment, but I wonder—do you see any bright spots of change in that area?

Nicholas Charney: There are, although the challenge persists that the system is usually not designed with people at the centre, which is unfortunate. I completely understand that there is a set of rules in place to make sure that everything runs according to plan and that taxpayer’s money is well spent.

But at a certain point, you have to wonder whether the cost of enforcement is greater than the benefits that enforcement creates. I believe there’s a real reluctance to initiate that kind of a conversation with one’s fellow bureaucrats. Particularly as one gets further up the food chain, generally speaking, most people take the system as a given, as opposed to saying, “So what would happen if we could blue sky a new system and started from scratch?”

And to be honest, you’re starting to hear, I think, some inklings of that at some senior levels across government, at the federal level and otherwise.

Michele: Have you seen any examples where someone has been sufficiently aggressive, ambitious, or visionary to tackle this issue head on?

Nicholas: Yes; one good example is the work that’s been done in the City of Edmonton through their IT shop and through Chris Moore, their CIO there. They’re moving into a cloud environment, which probably provides a lot more effective way to supply their business with the tools it needs. It's in stark contrast compared to most Canadian government agencies, which often seem to be mired in legacy systems.

I don’t know what the numbers are in terms of cost savings, but I’m absolutely positive that the City of Edmonton wouldn’t make the move if it didn’t make sense for them financially, over the long haul, to switch to a cloud-based provider.

My hope is that shared services initiatives - like Shared Services Canada - can either find similar cost savings for government, or at least produce similar cost savings for the federal government.

Michele: I think moving to cloud offers a whole host of savings. Some are dramatic, early-on savings, such those from moving from a renewal-based model to a month-to-month cost, and others arise from the efficiencies that are gained when you move to cloud.

A lot of people in my generation are digital immigrants, which is to say that we had to learn to use technology as we learned our jobs. On the other hand, many younger people are more digital natives, and they don’t remember what it was like before there was an Internet or all kinds of enabling and social-connecting technologies.

Do you think that once our generation of digital immigrants starts to retire, the digital natives will take a more aggressive approach? Or do you think even that turnover won’t be enough to create change?

Nicholas: It’s probably not enough. I’m not trying to say that the old guard needs to retire; after all, I’m going to be the old guard soon enough. The technology is always going to change so fast that the people who have come through the system with the old technology will always be resistant to the new technology.

I wrote recently that the system can't actually provide me the work environment that I want and furnish me with the technologies that I think I need to do my job. And maybe it shouldn’t even try. Maybe a better goal is for it to try to catch up to the next generation that’s coming behind me. I have two children; they’re seven and four. My son’s first interaction with the Internet was at the age of two on an iPad. He’s going to have a fundamentally different understanding of how technology integrates with his life than I do, or than my parents do, or than people who are older than me in the workplace do. Maybe we need to simply decide that we can’t capture the current generation, but we need to build up the capacity to provide the tools to the next-generation workforce.

I have a friend – a fellow public servant by the name of Ryan Androsoff – who likes to point to children and Facebook, arguing that the difference in how technology is penetrating our lives is most apparent with the changes to how parents are now introducing their children to their friends via Facebook. Think about it, the first time you see a kid nowadays isn't at the hospital, it's when their parents post a picture of them to their wall. That’s a fundamentally different experience than whatever my parents did, which was probably invite people to the house or send out photographs by post.

Moreover, assuming Facebook is still around in ten years, when those same children come of age, they will have a digital profile that they inherit from their parents; a back-filled social media profile. That’s going to have some really interesting long-term effects on employability and what we think about when we do a background check on people, for example. The first 14 or 18 years of their lives were largely outside of their control, but it was narrated for them in an environment like Facebook.

Are you going to hold them accountable for something that their parents observed about them when they were 14 and deny them an opportunity later because of that? It’s really just an extension of the argument, “Well, it was in high school, and there’s a picture of me drinking on Facebook. Are you not going to hire me because of that?”

To bring it back to my main point, social norms and labour force expectations are changing so rapidly that we really need to skip a generation and go for the next generation of workforce.

Michele: There’s some hope, then, that with this next generation, there might be change. That’s the government workforce changing. In your TEDx Talk from a little while back, you used the words “crossing the chasm” in terms of how it engages with the citizens.

Will the citizens drive change, in terms of how they engage with the government, and force governments to adopt or employ technology in different ways?

Nicholas: A lot of that has to do with things that happen outside the bureaucracies themselves, in the realm of politics. One has to consider whether or not people are going to be interested in politics the way we’re doing it now, or if they have a different vision of politics.

I think most people’s ideas around civic engagement are focused outside of mainstream politics now, so you get into some fundamental questions of democracy, as far as what it looks like and whether it needs to change.

I’m quite cognizant of the fact that I advocate for things like open government because I see the benefits to the bureaucrats working inside of those systems. But at some point, the conceptual understanding of open government is going to butt heads with the political reality of what open government can and can’t be, from the political side of things.

I think that’s where bureaucrats are going to start to get into trouble. When do you start to draw all of these threads together? What happens when public servants have greater reach than ministers, at least online, or they’re being quoted in mainstream media outlets, with their names next to ministers, perhaps being perceived as undermining the authority of elected officials because of their subject matter expertise.

There’s a tremendous amount of new ground being covered here, and I think it’s really quite early to figure out what’s going to happen in this space. I think citizens will be the focus, but I’m not sure if government's approach can continue down the road of one size fits all policy and programming. Perhaps we need to be more open to rapid prototyping, limited deployment and highly customizable government. These are all things that help private sector firms thrive and be innovative. I suppose that leads us to the question: How can government effect change on a small scale? Does government even want to try and do that?

One of the issues is always scale. How do we scale up our successes? Its usually the focus in private business but good many thriving companies simply max out their effectiveness and never scale up. Think about extremely popular restaurants that only have one location, or end up cutting their second attempt short. Not everything can scale.

Government may be a similar entity; it may not actually be possible to scale because of the demography, geography, or some other blend of unique circumstances that define the policy environment.

You might need to develop something more nuanced for Eastern Canada, versus Western Canada, versus Central Canada, versus the North, or this stakeholder base versus that. I think the web provides some ability to customize and accommodate this sort of nuance. If we’re going to be serious about using the web, we need to be open to a higher level of customization for our public services because the web and niche experience and expectations go hand in hand.

Michele: Since you started CSP Renewal and your blog, you’ve remained a public servant, while being openly critical of the bureaucracy and some of the obstacles, whether they’re technical obstacles or organizational obstacles. How do you find the support for that inside of government?

Nicholas: It’s varied. I tend to be a fairly polarizing individual, but mostly by choice, to be quite honest. I think most organizations need someone who is willing to adopt a position that they may not necessarily believe in, but that creates room behind them for people to adopt positions that may be more logical or more compromised.

How do you stretch the mindset of an organization? You have a few people who go the distance, and then you have people who back fill the space between business as usual and the space that was just created. They fill it with tangibles that seem more attainable than what those on the edge of the organization argue for. I’m fully aware of the role that play, I purposely try to stretch the organization's imagination and hopefully help people line up in behind that.

I’ve tried to take great care in terms of not making direct policy statements. I tend to talk about organizational dynamics in large organizations, as opposed to government policy positions, because I have very little interest in the politics of it all.

What I want is a very efficient, streamlined system that leverages technology to the best of its ability, to serve citizens, but for whatever elected government happens to be in power at the time. I don’t have an interest one way or another which one that necessarily is, but I do think the citizen taxpayer deserves the best possible service for the least possible cost.

Michele: That’s awesome and well articulated. If you’re going to drive that kind of change and be that kind of lead, you do have to be out in front, and you have to be consistent in holding that ground, because that’s what lets the other people come in and follow.

Nicholas: It also alleviates some of the risk for other people. They can point to me and say, “Well, look how crazy that guy is. What I’m proposing looks far more principled and realistic than what this guy’s saying over here.”

Michele: There’s a pretty old TED Talk I saw a couple weeks ago, which I think is called “One Lone Nut.” It’s about how to build followers, and the importance of doing so.

You’ve also talked about how people who interact with government—such as businesses and non-profits applying for grants—often have to hire people to navigate the bureaucracy and how the grant often isn’t worth the cost of obtaining it. Talk a little about what you envision as a solution.

Nicholas: The technology’s all there, and I think it’s time that we look at how we can use it to fix some of the challenges. If government is, in fact, looking for large-scale savings, then perhaps this is a way to help achieve those types of things, looking at how we administer the grant process in Canada.

For example, a 2006 blue-ribbon panel on the reformation of grants and contributions made a whole slew of recommendations. One of the recommendations from the report was to move the entire grant process to a single online window; our neighbors to the south have already done it. Every federal grant in the United States is available through Grants.gov.

We should also adopt some of the successes from commercial businesses like Amazon. If I have a persistent online identity as an applicant, it makes sense that the government should say, “If you’re interested in this grant, you might also be interested in these others.” Likewise, people who have spoken to this government agent would probably like to speak to this other one about a similar grant.

Again, the technology all exists, that’s really the easy part. The challenge is trying to figure out what’s feasible within the policy framework that we have around grants and contributions. I think we, collectively, need to devote a bit more time to rethinking some of these areas – perhaps from that blue-sky perspective we spoke of earlier.

If you can get leadership interested in the idea, then we can figure out how to make it all actually happen on the ground, which is the real hard work. The easy part is to write a blog post about how we can change, how we can leverage the technology, so that’s what I do. [laughs].

The real hard part is figuring out how to move it through the system, get all the requisite approvals, and actually make sustainable and systematic changes.

Michele: Clearly, the technology exists, and in fact, we happen to have customers all over the world, including in Canada, who have found ways to streamline the grants and contributions process, using commercial off the shelf software.

At the same time, there are still a lot of people working in isolation to figure out how to manage their particular grant and their particular permit, and there often doesn’t seem to be a sense of community around those efforts.

One simple but powerful capability you have mentioned is for the data from previous outcomes to be available at the time and place you were applying for new funds. If the government was going to foster that persistent identity to say, “Hey, here’s another grant that might be of interest,” then using open data to identify how previous decisions had been made might be part of the same effort. What sort of obstacles do you see to that?

Nicholas: Since 2005, the federal government has proactively disclosed every grant it awards over $25,000, so there’s a ton of data about who’s getting grant money in this country and who’s not, and what it’s being used for.

There are about six different pieces of information that are recorded and proactively disclosed for each grant that the government of Canada provides. However, each one of those grants—and we’re talking about $35 to $40 billion per year in total—has its own web page on a government website, so there is no single, unified data set that anyone can search through for grants.

The grants actually use a type of indexing that’s similar to a tagging system, so each one is labelled with categories such as economic development, infrastructure, or arts and culture. But again, despite the fact that it is uniformly presented, its so fragmented that you can’t look through and see what it’s actually being spent on, where it’s being spent geographically, and so on.

If one were to pull all that data together, it could provide valuable fodder for analysis, from a wide variety of perspectives. Journalists would have a keen interest, I’m sure, and I think government agents would actually have the biggest interest in it, to analyze how consistently the money was being distributed.

I put in some corner of the desk time with a couple of other public servants and we managed to pull together a complete dataset from one department; and subsequently took it to a hackathon where we derived longitude and latitude so it could be mapped. When we were finished I took the liberty of submitting it to the Open Government consultation. Hopefully it gets looked at.

Michele: That approach to technology clearly seeks benefit to the citizen, both by helping people accomplish their goals and by using tax payer’s dollars efficiently.

Talk a little bit about what the future might look like, in two different scenarios. The first scenario is that government fails to embrace technology as the citizens and government workforce become more digitally literate. The second scenario is that government seizes the opportunity to employ technology to its fullest.

Nicholas: The first thing to consider is that governments are already taking advantage of some of the technologies that are out there, but the landscape is incredibly varied. That varied landscape, together with a connected workforce, creates a lot of management challenges.

For example, government workers are able to compare their toolset to those of their colleagues and also find out the degree to which different organizations block or throttle their internet access at their workstation. This will inevitably lead to envy and frustration and even the gravitation of talent towards more open departments and agencies. That said, I'm holding out hope for standardized toolsets and access across the board.

Additionally, I think public-sector organizations also need to be looking at “bring-your-own-device” environments, and there are many providers that can help with that. A lot of private-sector organizations, especially the smaller ones, have been operating in some degree of a “bring-your-own-device” modality for a long time now, and I think you’re going to see that trend continue.

Michele: Do you have any advice for vendors such as Microsoft, in terms of meaningful ways to engage with the public sector, particularly as those organizations face the challenges around making a great environment for their workforce and also making a great experience for their citizens? Do you have any advice for us on how to proactively engage with the public sector?

Nicholas: From a product point of view, you should focus on the user experience as much as possible. The bread and butter of most technology now has to do with how slick and easy it is to use.

From the general perspective of engagement with the government, I don’t know anything about the procurement side of the house, but everyone I’ve spoken to says that the procurement vehicles are really difficult to navigate. They’re not always in the best interest of the parties involved. Again, I don’t know what work is going on in that area, but my general advice is to try to help the government fix procurement.

That is, if the government is willing and, or, able to take help in that area. To be honest, I don’t even know how that would be perceived as a business relationship for you or for any other company that would come in and say, “Hey, we want to help you try and fix procurement.” It seems kind of odd that a company would do that, and I think the government might react negatively or at least cautiously so as to keep everything on the up and up. Still, everyone seems to agree that it’s a huge barrier to getting things done in government.

If you look at how fast the technology is changing, you need to be able to procure things quickly, especially if things don’t cost a whole lot of money.

Michele: That’s not a uniquely Canadian challenge, of course. Do you have any other topics that you want to talk about today, or things that you’re fired up about or that you’ve been pondering?

Nicholas: The thing that’s been top of mind right now is the variance between the toolsets of departments, especially because I just recently switched departments again. I’ve become a bit of a nomad, in six or eight different offices in five years, working for four different departments and probably eight different roles.

I’ve generally made those transitions for positive reasons, but its been eye opening. The technological and cultural landscape of government is rife with peaks and valleys. I understand first hand just how frustrating it can be to move from technological extreme to the other.

We also tend to avoid a conversation about how employees actually communicate in the workplace, pretending that there communication is restricted to government issue communications channels when the fact is that most public servants tend to communicate in a weird blend of ways. They use the telephone, they email each other on their work email, but they also exchange email via their personal accounts. They’re texting each other. They’re pinning each other. They’re Facebooking one another, sending direct messages on Twitter, etc.

To think that they don’t connect and talk about all the issues that are bothering the heck out of them in the workplace is kind of naïve. My thinking is that if we could simply eliminate the differences between organizational toolsets, you may just start to find people are less focused on trying to get better toolsets in the office and more focused on doing the work. That is of course, provided the solution isn't adopting the lowest common denominator.

At the end of the day, that’s what you want, isn't it? People coming into the building to do the work, without banging their heads against the wall because they can’t have access to half the Internet, or they don’t have a good email client, or they can’t just simply hop on their work email from home.

Michele: Well, thank you very much for taking the time to talk today. Your work making life better for both public workers and citizens is commendable, and it’s also instructive.

Nicholas: Thank you.

Have a comment or opinion on this post? Let me know @Microsoft_Gov. Have a question for the author? Please e-mail us at ongovernment@microsoft.com.

Michele Bedford Thistle
Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

About the Author

Michele Bedford Thistle | Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

Michele is focused on sharing stories from government customers creating real impact for citizens, employees, economies, and students. She joined the worldwide team from Microsoft Canada, where she was also marketing lead for several technology start-ups.