You can change culture now: 3 essential truths for public service leaders

stick man on stairs squareThe Canadian federal public service has been trying to change its culture for a few years with initiatives like Blueprint 2020 and the Innovation Hubs. Now we have a new federal leadership that wants to adopt a new and more collaborative approach to governing. One might wonder what is keeping us from our goal…

I am not a millennial, but I am a pretty hip, late baby boomer who has been part of the interweb since close to the beginning. My career has been a little eclectic and I have had the opportunity to observe and participate in a wide range of transformational activities. I am telling you this, because it is that experience that has provided the fodder for the observations that follow.

A few years ago I was deep into an analysis of how governments could realize the potential of collaboration and social technologies. As I was mulling over how to synthesise all of the data into a sound bite that could be easily consumed by a busy executive, I was also thinking about how it connected with what I had learned from working in advertising and teaching consumer behaviour. In a rare moment of clarity while waiting for a red light I scribbled down three truths that seem to me to be both obvious and profound.

1. Sharing is good

Sharing is the activity that fuels successful collaboration, knowledge management and communication, which in turn are fundamental to a “capable and high performing” organization. By sharing we become authentic to those around us, sharing preserves hard earned knowledge and makes us more productive, telling stories makes us real, and helps to build the common purpose which is so important to successful change.

Most of the major research firms agree that the biggest challenge organizations face in implementation of social technologies within the enterprise is creating a culture that supports information sharing. Having been involved with over a dozen enterprise collaboration efforts I can say that my personal experience supports those findings. Culture, as the saying goes eats strategy for breakfast, apparently it also eats technology, and probably has a taste for deliverology as well.

Many people don’t share because they are afraid of making a Career Limiting Move (CLM), while others, (kudos if you are one), consider sharing part of their responsibility. Unfortunately too many seem to equate sharing with a CLM, and ultimately we need to institutionalize ways of rewarding sharing and punishing information hoarding. Maybe we can make sharing part of management accountability accords, it is pretty easy to count contributions to sharing platforms like GCpedia and GCconnex…

2. Ego gets in the way

By ego I mean an unhealthy focus on self. We have all come across individuals that try and withhold information, and manipulate those around them for personal gain or promotion. When combined with a lack of emotional intelligence I believe this is one of the most destructive forces in the public service today. We need to get our self-worth from something other than the size of our empire, we need to get emotional and career points for collaborating. We need to recognize the common purpose, (serving Canadians anyone?), as more important than our personal gain. Not only is the, “I only do what is good for me” attitude, bad for the organization, its beginning to look like it may be bad for your career as well.

I have worked on enough horizontal files to have come across this issue more than once. No matter how you structure a collaboration, the people involved can always sabotage it. While researching the horizontal governance issue sometime in the early 2000’s, I came across an Auditor General’s report examining the lack of progress on the climate change file. Without much reading between the lines it was obvious that the real problem was that the primary departments involved could not find a way to collaborate, mostly because the Deputy Ministers did not like each other. Now I am not pointing fingers at the senior ranks, you see this kind of behaviour at all levels. I suppose we should not be surprised, given the competitive, individualistic socialization most of us have grown up with. But humanity’s greatest capacity is to learn, and I like to think that we can learn to work together despite personal differences—if we set aside our ego once in awhile in favour of the common goal.

3. You can’t communicate too much

“You can’t communicate too much”,  I posted this comment on twitter during  a conference  once and it quickly became one of the most re-tweeted updates, so it seems the sentiment hit a nerve.

Back in my advertising days we used to spend a lot of money on media buys and printing, and one of the worst things that could happen was for a print run or advertisement be published with a mistake. When it did happen it was an expensive and embarrassing lesson. After the first time we began to repeat instructions, in different languages if necessary, we would draw pictures, leave notes on the artwork, call the publisher, even attend press runs to make sure all was understood. Later in my career I worked with a Product Line Manager at a major telecom who told me that for an idea to get traction you had to say the same thing over and over again in as many different ways as you could think of —when you are sick of saying the same thing, it’s time to say it again— you can’t communicate too much.

In today’s information intense and dynamic workplace, trying to get the attention of information inundated executive ranks will take more than a little repetition. Going the other way, management can’t communicate too much with staff, especially during times of change. The mushroom school of management (keep them in the dark, and feed them sh*t), simply has no place in an agile and high performing organization— you can’t communicate too much.

In dynamic times, perfection is the enemy of communication, waiting for a complete and crafted message simply leads to speculation and fear, while communicating often and openly, even admitting you don’t know everything, leads to trust and understanding. Having a clear and common purpose is more important than knowing the details of how you are going to get there— you can’t communicate too much.


Changing the culture of something as big as the public service is a daunting task, sometimes compared to turning a supertanker. But the public service is not a ship, it is an organization made up of people, and it’s people who make the culture. The three truths that I have shared can and should be applied from the top down, but more importantly they can be applied by individuals regardless of rank, when you think about that, it means you have the power to change culture.

What are you going to do with that power?

Image Source:

Editorial Note:

This post is adapted from one of two posts that was written for a GTEC 2013 blog series exploring what it means to be an Agile, Open, Collaborative and Mobile Government. The original post was entitled “Three truths to help you change the culture of the Public Service.” My focus in the series was on the Cultural, Organizational and Policy Infrastructure that provides the foundation for public service culture.


About Thom Kearney

Change agent, teacher, arts, science, open government, father, mentor, storyteller, husband, dog owner,collaborator, not necessarily in that order.
This entry was posted in Collaboration, Culture, Gov 2.0, Leadership, Learning, Marketing & Communication, Positive Change, Rant. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.