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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 4 February 2016

#NewWay2Govern: Tech, Refugees, OpenGov and Responsible Society

There is a lot to chew on in this article.  The quote above, though, gets right to the heart of the matter.

Government's standard operating procedures are falling out of sync with technological development.

Our Westminster model of Parliament pre-dates computers, tv, even cars.  It dates back to a time where government was the Monarch and their inner circle, or Privy Council.  Government reluctantly agreed to consult with wealthy landowners on matters of law and taxation, but generally did their own thing.  As it evolved, Parliament became a mechanism whereby every day people whose lives were impacted by government operations could have some skin in the game, by representation.

What other way was there for communities to voice there concerns to some far-off government?  You couldn't visit your MP's office, or tweet with a Minister, or pick up the phone and call someone.  The only way to have a regular airing of local concerns to government was through the one person who communities elected to be their voice in far-off Parliament. 

In this model, the public service was essentially the workforce of the crown.  Technically, they still are.  The public service answers to the crown, and the crown - government - is held accountable by Parliament.  Only since Magna Carta, we've gotten to a place where the largest political party in Parliament - the body meant to hold government to account - becomes government.  This gives the parties a lot of power over members of Parliament from their nomination all the way through who gets to have a seat at the cabinet table, plus what local projects get funded.

The public does't elect government - they elect Parliament.  The biggest party in Parliament forms government - which means that card-carrying partisans and back-room political decisions ultimately decide who leads government. Much of the function of Parliament under this scenario is to either prop up or shoot down the government of the day, which is a different function than truly holding government to account.  

The Public Service doesn't answer to Parliament - it answers to the crown.  The crown is represented by the Governor General, and the Ministers of the Crown, from the PM down, are all technically functionaries of the crown.  They're also creatures of their political party, with the agendas and mentality that goes along with that.

So what's really happening with this Open Gov stuff is that partisans are directing the public service to serve another master, the public, without embarrassing them as partisans.  Meanwhile, Opposition parties are looking for weak links in the government's - ie, Public Service's - armour through which to take shots at the political party in power.

Meanwhile, the culture of the electorate is still essentially based on the Westminster model, a reality which is reinforced by partisan messaging of "only we can make/keep Canada strong."  In this model, Civil Society is a passive player, a backseat driver at best in the functioning of government.

Which all made sense in the 1200s, because there was no other way the public could engage with government.

Yes, Canada's outdated privacy and FOI information acts are out of sync with modern technology. Almost everything about Canada's model of government and civil engagement is out of date.  

You don't change a system by targeting one component of that system; you can't fix wicked problems by picking low-hanging fruit.  Everything needs to change; public service culture, political culture, how the media covers and engages with politics, how the public sees its role in policy making, how partisans engage with each other and with everyone else.

Herein lies the real challenge; we have had great advances in technology that permit a change in the dynamics of engagement - cars, tv, telephones, the Internet, social media, etc.  The use of new tech is being encouraged, in some cases, but by top-down directive - an outdated model of engagement in itself.

You can't order someone to be open; you need to foster a culture that allows for open.  

That means adjustments inside government, within partisan politics and throughout civil society.  It's a big, big change.  Ultimately, what we're talking about is a complete reordering of the dynamic of governance and accountability.  

This is the right thing to do and the right time to do it.  Our current model of governance and implementation is woefully inadequate for the size and complexity of modern society. 

We're seeing this play out in real-time with the Syrian refugee crisis, which provides a great many lessons for anyone willing to pay attention.

Government-funded settlement agencies are being overwhelmed with more work than they were designed to cope with.  Modern tech and social media are finding these agencies fielding asks that have nothing to do with their core business, adding to the stress and time constraints to do the essential work they do.  And all of this is happening in a climate where funding taps are turning off and groups that could and should be collaborating are competing for the limited funding that's available.

Strategies are being planned after the fact, where there's time to strategize at all.  People are falling through the cracks, hard workers are being burned out as the work shifts from doing things well to putting out brushfires or playing defence.

Meanwhile, civil society has stepped up in ways that simply weren't possible before modern tech and all the tools of social media.  What's happening out there is nothing short of revolutionary - civic groups are proactively taking on the role of service provider in a way that used to be the exclusive property of government agencies or government-funded/supported charities and not-for-profits.  The work being done is amazing, but it's not coordinated, which means there is a lot of duplication, gaps and overlaps that could be avoided.  

The problem is that there's no real mechanism in place for this kind of coordination.  Government has struggled to coordinate activity between Ministries and various funded agencies, and really have no mandate to coordinate activity between civic groups and everyone else.  There are trust issues, especially when it comes down to government (partisan) holding to account service agencies (serving the public) who's funding relies on the Crown.

If culture change is the goal (and it should be, because without it nothing will change), how do we get there?  Whose culture needs to change, and what does responsibility and coordination look like in this space?

You don't generally hear design thinking, UX/UI or journey mapping as part of government's lexicon; that tend to be more the methodology of the social innovation space.

Which is exactly the point.

Public service culture needs to change, but that change needs to happen in conjunction with changes in political and civil society culture, as well as media engagement.  All this is happening in a messy world of falling revenues, reduced funding and the uncomfortable realization that there are a lot of skeletons in the closest that will come tumbling out when the door is opened.

How is this wicked problem to be tackled?  What provides enough of a common impetus for change that allows for the kind of uncomfortable conversations necessary?  What shared challenge/opportunity can be the stone in the soup that allows people who don't generally play nice to do so in a way that focuses on solutions rather than blame?

I used to think severe weather events were going to be the catalyst.  Now, it seems like something else is fitting that bill.

Either way, there are encouraging, iterative, still tentative and still small-scale things going on in the Zeitgeist that may be a model for how we can do all this stuff better, using modern tech and engagement frameworks but above all, putting individuals at the centre and making collective impact the goal.

Culture change facilitated by technology.  Open Government, Responsible society - a society consciously recognizing itself as such and collaborating to make the whole function to the maximum of its potential with an emphasis on empowering individual agency and engagement through equitable service, communication, trust.

Fun times indeed.

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