Collaboration eh? 

In honour of the FWD50 conference taking place in Ottawa this week, here is a post that seems relevant to the conference theme of “Use technology to make society better for all”.

It is a post about yesterday, today and tomorrow. There are quite a few words and no pictures.


Before the existence of writing, collaboration was strictly a face-to-face affair and probably centred around survival. About 5000 years ago writing came along, and information could now be preserved and shared independently of a human to remember it. For the next 45 centuries, written information was the domain of the elite.

When the printing press was invented, rooms full of scribes were gradually replaced with new technology — machines that could accurately reproduce information at an accelerated rate. Ideas could now spread further and faster than ever before. Collaboration over distance was possible although it took a long time. Information was very physical and real.

Around this time, Information geeks the world over began a quest for the ultimate classification system. Every great power had a great library.

More recently, the Cold War and quantum physics research produced the internet and the web. The “interweb” changed everything if you wanted it to. Information could be in more than one place at once, and it could literally travel at the speed of light. Physical artefacts became digital — making it at once more accessible and more vulnerable. Everything became miscellaneous. Digital networks evolved into complex adaptive systems, and Digimon appeared in popular culture.

The web was a new frontier, unregulated and exciting, a new crop of 20 something techno wizards rose in business fame. Apple was born. The Cluetrain Manifesto was written and there was a boom in tech stocks. At the end of the millennium, we panicked over a couple of missing digits (Y2K) and spent billions correcting the short-sightedness of the previous decades.

In the GC, Government On-Line occurred and the Funding Fairy provided the means for departments to put their information online. Canada became a world leader, but the paper-based mentality that prevailed caused many to completely miss the opportunity presented by hyperlinks and digital logic, instead “brochure-ware” prevailed.

At the top of the hype curve, the tech bubble goes pop and we are reminded that gravity works. After the crash, the Web was reborn as Web 2.0 with user-created content and social networking taking centre stage. The Long Tail made its appearance and command and control hierarchies began to sense a threat, while the educated masses saw an opportunity.

Government CIOs scrambled to keep the information plumbing from backing up while Amazon and Google raised the bar of citizen expectations for online service.

Tagging and folksonomies entered the vocabulary of information professionals, curating became something anyone could do. Librarians and archivists struggled to catalogue and preserve some of the exponential growth while the cognitive surplus emerged to build things like Wikipedia — making human knowledge more accessible than ever before. CIOs were either bewildered or excited at the possibilities.

GTEC played an important role by bringing together examples and people. It became an annual, milestone event. It was at GTEC 2007 that Ken Cochrane announced that the GC was going to build a “Collaborative Library” and it was at GTEC a year later that we launched GCPEDIA — bringing people and technology together.


GTEC is gone and FWD50 has taken its place as a gathering for technology hopefuls. The world is a scary place and we are not sure whom to trust.

High-speed wireless saturates the urban environment and ubiquitous network access is a reality. Digital natives experience continuous instant communication as part of everyday life while Government workplaces seem antiquated by comparison. The web and the collective forces that it enables are transforming all parts of connected society. Recorded information is produced at an accelerating rate.

Open source software matures and becomes a viable option for enterprise applications. Governments around the world join the Open Government Partnership, in Canada, the Federal Government publishes the Open Government Action plan.

Holistic User Centred Design begins to challenge solutions approaches to designing technology. Humanists and engineers are learning to work together.

The digital divide becomes a social issue, web accessibility becomes law and massive resources are assembled to ensure all GC organizations become compliant.

Bureaucracies built to manage people, work and information over the last couple of hundred years are beginning to show their age. New groups emerge in the evolutionary sea of information we know as the internet. Powerful forces compete to control the new territory — Anonymous becomes an entity.

The GC invests heavily in GCDOCS, SharePoint and other technologies designed to manage/control documents. The idea of knowledge as a product of interconnected networks and not just documents takes shape. Social innovation tools appear in pockets. GCpedia, GCconnex, GCcollab and other grassroots tools struggle for institutional support while gaining users. Something called the open accessible digital workplace is conceived.

Agile and Design Thinking is all the rage. Good ideas start to come back again.

Sometime after tomorrow

I originally wrote these words in 2012, it is kind of fun to reflect on the progress since then.

There is no Web 3.0, but something else emerges — a diverse, complex adaptive system, no, a network of complex adaptive systems. What seems to be emerging is a network dominated by motivations other than the public good. The government needs to step up.

Control of information becomes less important, the cultural default is to share knowledge. Government is a platform and publicly funded data is routinely visualized by an army of professional and amateur big data analysts. I see this happening, too fast for some, not fast enough for others.

In the GC, Shared Services Canada provides a reliable infrastructure, we share one email address across government, secure wireless is everywhere, non-government partners can easily and securely collaborate, the government cloud is a reality. Departmental CIOs become focused on transition and business improvement — information plumbing is rarely an issue. The government-wide technical architecture focuses on standards and interoperability, a diverse range of technologies and tools work together in relative harmony, vendors with “lock-in” strategies are shunned. Thrilled to see the idea of open standards and enterprise architecture come back, hopefully, they will stick this time.

GC Ideas is in constant use, the GC App Store is the first place departments look when they need software. Government developers routinely contribute to open source projects. The Open Knowledge policy is promulgated across governments around the world. The Marvelous Mistakes page on GCPEDIA competes with the Fabulous Failures page for most valuable lessons. Risk aversion all but disappears in an organizational culture that embraces experimentation and sharing lessons learned. Meh.

Tablet computers are everywhere, briefing binders disappear. The Golden Tablet program maintains a knowledge connection with departing employees. The GCTools suite is adequately funded. No Golden Tablets and the tools are frustrating to use, but big plans ahead.

Dreams of a digital nirvana don’t come true, but all is not lost. Networks of people who are comfortable connecting virtually emerge and disperse continuously. The definition of Public Service changes as the lines blur between indeterminate employees and partners. Agility is an operational requirement, and government organizations re-invent themselves. @fwd50 is a great example of this happening

Leadership learns to work with the nebulous “crowd.” Connections are made and governance structures adapt to include interfaces to the crowd. The management focus shifts from one of command and control towards engaging with self-identified stakeholders. Early steps being taken by some visionaries some of the time.

Serendipity becomes a business principle, the internet of things emerges, power shifts to those who control the algorithms but a balance is maintained by the digital collective. The Virtual Government Network is an international network 200,000 members strong where new and innovative methods are shared. The Virtual Government Network never became a reality but Apolitical did, the algorithm battles are just beginning. 

Public Servants feel more connected with each other, and with the public they serve.
Most certainly for some.

Global government becomes possible as a global consciousness emerges. The collective intelligence gets a handle on our wicked problems. Technology serves the three Ps of Planet, People and Profit.

Yes, life is good in my fantasy future. What does yours look like?

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Service & Program people can I buy you a coffee?

Teacup_clipartThis post is directed to those of you that identify as a service or program person working in government.

Not too long ago I moved from Open Government Engagement to take on the role of Lead for Learning in Policy Community Partnership Office.  PCPO defines its community as anyone in a value chain that stretches from research through to service delivery and evaluation.

I realized recently that my network of policy folks is healthy, but I am not sure who I know with a mature understanding of the service delivery and program side of things.

If you are one of those people I would like to buy you a coffee.

It can be real coffee or tea or a walk if you are in the vicinity of 90 Elgin. Alternatively, we can talk on the phone, have a WebEx or Zoom or Google Hangout meeting. Whatever works.

I would like to learn about how you view this thing called policy and what you think about the policy/program/service spectrum that is sometimes talked about. I would like to learn more about your world and what we need to learn together to make it better.

If you are interested please drop me a line at my GC email and we’ll set something up. I look forward to meeting you.




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GSRM for Digital Service Delivery?

Public Service Reference Model

Public Service Reference Model circa 2006 (original image by Neil Levette).

This is a quick post to share some work that was done by the Enterprise Architecture Division of the Chief Information Branch of the Government of Canada back in 2006. I became aware of it at a conference entitled Transforming Government – better outcomes for citizens, and in a way, it is directly responsible for my interest in working for the feds.

This is no longer really my space but chatting with some folks I realized that if you are involved in the current wave of digital service transformation you should at least be aware of it –  building on what came before, avoiding reinventing things, and all that.

The thing is called GSRM (Government Service Reference Model) and at it’simplest the idea is that all of Federal Government services can be distilled into one of 17 or so basic service types. For each service type, there can be a library of patterns covering variations. All services are described and architected using a common lexicon.

Now I don’t know about you, but the Enterprise Nerd in me gets pretty excited when I think about the implications of such a thing. Common service architecture would presumably enable better data management, security, evaluation and potentially even my current fantasy of intelligent policy that evolves based on data. Sorry, I digress.

To be clear, I had nothing to do with the development of any of this. I became involved with the GoC originally to try and sell the idea to departments and agencies because I wanted an efficient, responsive government. At the time there was a team of very smart people who are now mostly retired working on GSRM as part of a bigger project called BTEP (Business Transformation Enablement Program).  Unfortunately, in 2007-10, through a series of unfortunate events the Federal Government never really managed to adopt the standards. But others across Canada did, in fact, if your city offers 311 services it probably has its origins in the municipal version of this idea.

The upside of the failure to adopt the standard was that we pursued the idea of using a wiki for a collaborative architecture library which morphed into GCpedia which evolved into the GCTools and the first government-wide collaboration platform.

Ok, back to GSRM and the purpose of this post. I rummaged through my old files and put a few documents in this google drive.


The quick note will give you an overview while the service types document outlines the 17 service patterns. The other two folders contain some related material if you want to dig deeper, including a foray into applying GSRM to knowledge policy.

There is likely more documentation hiding somewhere on the internet. Let me know if you find any of this useful or if you already have something better.

Happy Transformations!






Posted in Gov 2.0, Open Government, Web 2.0 | Leave a comment

The Crowded Boardroom: When the long tail collides with hierarchy – a true story.

This not a random picture, it is how I envision the government. Each ship is a department or agency. The ships have commanders with considerable authority. Communication at a distance is very bad, (they did it with flags). Groups of ships are supposed to work together and sometimes they do so effectively, but collaboration is difficult with many strong egos and conflicting agendas. My hope is that we can use the current enthusiasm for all things digital, to get better at working together.

The goal of this post is to try and share some of the lessons from an extraordinary experience that I (and many of you) have been part of for more than a decade now. The experience was leading the collaborative tools team that created GCpedia and GCconnex across the Government of Canada (2007-2010).

My journey began with the 2000 tech bubble burst and the ride that preceded it ended. Looking for new consulting challenges I looked to government and found a world of opportunity for improvement.  Over the next few years, I undertook dozens of interesting projects in a variety of departments that eventually led to a three-year executive interchange appointment that changed my life, and I dare say, changed the Government of Canada.

When my interchange ended and I realized that this was a career highlight that would be difficult to surpass. So I wrote a paper about it.  The paper reflects on the origin story of what is certainly one of the most successful government collaboration platforms in existence. I started to update it, but other things keep getting in the way so I am sharing it again now in its original form.

In the paper, I look at how the project seemed to transcend cultural and institutional barriers to enterprise change in the context of Government.

Reading it today I am struck by a few things:

  • Navigating complexity is challenging, but applying the principles of complexity is useful in growing a complex adaptive system.
  • Introducing change to an organization requires a willingness to manage by exception —the long tail does not easily fit in a boardroom (page 19).
  • Stealth works. Formal approval mechanisms cannot be expected to understand and preemptively approve the specifics of innovation. A small group with sufficient “policy cover” but limited formal governance can do a lot for not very much money.
  • A senior central agency executive who is willing to risk manage can enable wide-spread innovation (we had one in 2007 with Ken Cochrane and we have another in 2018 with Alex Benay).
  • The Governance and Stakeholder model is something we should be looking at and talking about to deal with our shared accountability issue (see the governance description starting on page 12).
  • I am intrigued by the idea of viral horizontality (see Table 2, page 16).
  • The basic underlying assumptions of organizational culture are the hardest to change (page 18). These include things like:
    • Responsible autonomy is best
    • Deference to the most respected
    • Shared sense of purpose
    • Free information is powerful
    • Mistakes are learning opportunities
    • Beg forgiveness rather than ask permission
    • Working for Citizens, (it’s a way of life)
    • Challenge the rules
  • The factors that influence governance in table 2 are still true and worth looking at if you are into that sort of thing.
  • “Good enough for next to nothing” I like that line and think that projects that achieve this goal should be rewarded. And improved upon in the next iteration.
  • In a complex adaptive system, neither use nor content can be fully anticipated.
  • There are real implications for our policy planning and service design philosophies as we embrace an agile digital approach.

This paper examines the cultural and internal governance implications of the introduction of a horizontally enabling Web 2.0 technology (open source MediaWiki) in a large enterprise (the Public Service of Canada), in the period 2007-2010. It was written and presented as part of the World Social Science Forum Conference in Montreal, October 2013.

The paper was later published in the scholarly journal Optimum Online Vol 43, No4, Dec. 2013 (registration required).

I would be delighted to hear your thoughts.

More articles and stuff.

Posted in Collaboration, Culture, Leadership, Positive Change, Presentation | Leave a comment

It’s time to explain the cow…

It’s about listening

At the beginning of this year, I was deep into engagement around creating Canada’s next plan for open government.

As part of this process, I was promoting events on the twitter and one of my tweets caught the attention of someone up the chain. Apparently, there was some concern that I insulting people in Cattle country, as we had recently returned from workshops in Regina and Edmonton.  I don’t know the details or the thinking behind it,  all of this happened above my pay grade and my management had the good sense not to bring it to me at the time. I only heard about it because apparently, it came up in one of Alex Benay’s regular “Ask Me Anything” events and someone related it to me.   I believe this is the tweet in question.

Cow Tweet

I view engagement as an exercise in institutional listening and the cow is an important part of that. Those of you that have been to one of my workshops have probably met Moo the interrupting cow. Moo is a facilitation device that introduces some humour to help participants be heard. I use it, along with some dog slides to set the stage for group discussion.

It goes something like this.  I would like to introduce you to Moo, the interpreting cow. Moo is the result of a knock, knock joke my kids told me years ago…sometimes a participant knows the joke which begins to engage folks. Anyway, the deal with Moo is that when you are in working in a group and someone is dominating the conversation, you can toss the cow (metaphorically) at the person to let them know it is time to let others talk.  I sometimes will give the cow to one of my colleagues to toss at me if I run over.

I am writing about this because this incident reminds me of our tendency in the public service to try and eliminate risk in everything we do. Unfortunately, this also sucks the fun out of everything we do.  AND FUN IS IMPORTANT!  Especially if you are trying to come up with creative solutions to challenging problems.

Pretty sure there is some research on this and, certainly in my experience as a facilitator and teacher I have learned that if you can make an exercise fun, you will generally get better results.  Others seem to agree, at GovMaker 2017, Hillary from Ontario expressed interest so I sent her one of my backup cows as a gift because I know they are working hard at listening as well.

But the most important thing about the cow is that it is part of a process that leads to results like this: I felt heard - nice work!

I have done a lot of engagement work over the years and this is the desired result. I am also pretty sure that if more Canadians felt this way about their interactions with government things wouldn’t be so scary for our democracy these days.

What do you think?

p.s. If you like the story about the cow and listening you may also be interested in learning about the ducks and enterprise alignment. 

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The Chatham House Party report

Some blurry people celebrating Canada.
I was reminded this morning of Blueprint 2020 and the Chatham House party that we organized back in 2013. Reviewing the blog posts from back in the day, I notice that it looks like I never wrote the follow up bit, so here it is, five years later…

20 plus folks got together for dinner and facilitated idea generation and dialogue. Several very talented people volunteered to help make the experience  extremely awesome.

We did Lego serious play and World Cafe. We drew on tabletops and constructed 3d models of abstract social concepts. We took visual notes and created a report.

Our three top items were:

  1. Decision making pushed down to the lowest possible level
  2. TBS policy that mandates openness and knowledge sharing
  3. Creation of a pervasive Work Market

Here is the final report that we submitted to the Secretariat. CHP2020_Aug_28_2013_Final_Report

What you think, do any of these ideas still resonate?  Have we made progress?

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Becoming a free agent

After more than three years with the Open Government team, the time has come to try out a new path. 
Recently I was accepted into the Free Agent program in the Government of Canada. This program is intended to help government  deliver on priorities with an agile approach to putting top talent to work on short term (6-18 month) projects.

You can find out more about the program and details on acquiring Free Agents by visiting the GCcollab group

There are  lots of good reasons to join the Free Agent program and in my case it appears to be one of the few ways someone in my circumstance can build a rewarding career in the Government of Canada.

I am excited about the prospects of working on new and important projects, while at the same time I am sad to be leaving Open Government. I have very much enjoyed listening to Canadians and I love the team and their mandate.

My personal mission has been to try and figure out how something as amorphous as “government” can effectively listen to its clients, citizens, stakeholders etc. I have learned a lot, and before I go I will do my best to share that learning.

Who is this Free Agent?

I am a storyteller, analyst, project leader, facilitator, teacher, and decision maker.  My focus is on collaboration for improving process and achieving better outcomes. Here are some sources that will show you some of who I am and what I have done.

At this point it looks like I might have my first assignment lined up, decision to be made by the end of this week (May 25th, 2018). That said, if you have a project you would like to discuss please get in touch.

Thanks and all the best,




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So today I put my best friend down

And I hope someone will do the same for me.

This is probably the hardest thing I have done, and that includes taking my mother off of life support. Tomorrow at 3:00 an animal doctor and her assistant will come to our house and gently put our, my beloved friend of 15 years to sleep. It is the right thing to do, no doubt, he has a cancerous lesions on his arm and he is really old for a Golden Retriever.

I always knew this would be hard, in fact I dreamed of it many times. My parents are both dead, so I have some experience with family members departing, but this is different.  This is a dog. A creature that cannot speak in a language we can easily understand yet that speaks clearly in a language we did not know we knew.

Saul has taught me many things, like patience and the acknowledgment that there are important things I cannot see or smell. That there is a connection to the natural world that is obvious to some, but very elusive to others (humans for instance).  That you can tell most of what you need to know with a couple of good sniffs of another’s butt.

I don’t want to overplay this, after all I am talking about a dog, but at the same time there was a whole lot of unexpected learning that I experienced in the 15 years I have known this animal. He has been aloof yet loving, judging yet inclusive, independent yet dependent, beautiful yet…always beautiful.  One of the great joys of my life has been taking Saul and Otis for walks and seeing the expressions of other humans as we approach..literally it is like taking beauty for a walk.  And yet the beauty does not know it is.

There is a language that dogs, and probably other animals speak that is not spoken yet is terribly obvious when you are the victim. There is no doubt when he looks at you that you have been missed, or that it is time for a walk or ITS 3:00 P M AND WHERE IS LUNCH?

There is a certain purity to taking your dog to the park and letting them be a dog. Even it it means they come home wet and stinky. Inconvenience yes. But also priceless. It has something to do with the look in their eyes and the connection with reality (aka mud).

I am very much not religious, but I am spiritual and I remember reading somewhere that pets can help you connect with the other, the greater. whatever that may be. This Saul has shown me and I know now it to be true.

There is no tragedy here, just the circle of life. It is hard for those of us that continue but perhaps not so much for him that is old in dog years.


So the pain and remorse I feel are real. I did not cry so much when my parents died. They lived a good life and went on their own terms, mostly. But this is different. This is a being that has been dependent since the beginning, yet independent. Someone, something that has helped me deal with loss and disappointment for a decade and a half, yet at the same time he has had a good life, swimming in the ocean and the Rideau and the St Lawrence – they have webbed feet for a reason you know:)

In conclusion, I am grateful for the time I could share with Saul, I cannot express the appreciation for what i have learned and felt from him. Those of you that have pets, I am sure you can relate.

Even as he leaves this world I think he  asks a question that we all struggle to answer.
What does it mean to be?

What do you think?

Saul RIP May 8, 2018

p.s. I have human friends of course, but as much as I love hem, they have not taught me as much as  this creature from another species.

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Perennially broken but OK for now?

Two golden retrievers looking hopefully at you.

About that thing you promised…

As some of you know I share my current life with a couple of beautiful animals. The Golden Retrievers Otis and Saul.  They consume a fair amount of food and about a decade ago I purchased a large plastic bin to store bags of the stuff.

This bin stands a couple of feet tall and provides for a large bag of dog food food to be contained within and accessed via a hinged lid. The hinge on the lid is typical of many plastic containers and consists of a series of interlocking plastic teeth. The design seems reasonable but in practice it is less than satisfactory. The lid regularly disconnects from the bin resulting in a minor but consistent irritation.

Every time I feed the two beauties, I open the lid wondering if it will fall off, resulting in a swear as I have to stop what I am doing and refit the lid. As I said, this is a relatively minor irritation in the grand scheme of things,  and definitely a first world problem.

This happened to me a few minutes ago. It has probably happened a thousand times before, but for some reason tonight I realized that the faulty, but still more or less functional bin was a metaphor for many systems we use within government.  If you are a public servant, or a citizen interacting with government, you can probably think of an example. Imagine something that more or less does the job, but in an irritating way.

It might be document management, enterprise travel, procurement or HR related system. You know what I mean, a tool that more or less works, most of the time but occasionally for no apparent reason fails utterly.

In isolation the problems hardly seem worth fixing, after all good enough it. But taken together these continuous and ongoing irritations amount to employee harassment. The complete and utter lack of empathy and respect for our time is demeaning, intimidating and occasionally a cause for personal humiliation and embarrassment.

Ok so I am taking the definition of harassment a little out of context, but the erosion of our mental health is real. #Justsaying



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The sausage and the salad

Over the last few years I have been trying to understand how open government can save democracy and help us deal with the big challenges in society today. Recently I have turned my attention to the policy making process as a big part of what government does.

Policy, according to Wikipedia is “a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes”.  Government does a lot of policy.  It creates laws, regulations and a whole series of policy instruments.  You could argue that government really only exists to create policy, and implement policy via services.  So policy is important.

Traditional government policy is like making sausage

Wikipedia 1200px-Kielbasa7.jpg
Various types of government policy produced in the traditional way.

To make sausage you grind up some meat, add some spices and maybe some filler. You stuff it in a tube of something using a special machine and package it up for cooking and consumption.  Once the sausage is made, it is pretty much impossible to change the recipe.

To make policy we grind up some knowledge, add some words and maybe some regulation. We get it approved by the department, the cabinet or the legislature in a process that takes years. Once approved, it is pretty difficult to change. Lessons from implementation are frequently lost as the policy does not get renewed for years.

The thing about sausage is that even though it might taste good, you never really know what goes into it.  Also too much of it is probably not good for your health.

Open policy making is like making a salad

Modern open policy produced with collective input and open to iterative improvement.

On the other hand, let’s think of a salad. Not only is it more colorful and diverse, you can instantly see all the ingredients. You can tell by looking at it whether it is fresh or not. Salads are versatile and easily changed. In fact, if you really want to you can still toss in some tasty sausage at the last minute.

Open policy making lets you know what went into the creation of government direction, you can easily see and examine the ingredients in the end product. In open policy making you can even offer up your own ingredients.  And salads are generally good for your health.

The world is changing and we need to adapt

We have spent centuries in government perfecting a convoluted sausage policy making process that depends heavily on expert advice and a bureaucratic understanding of the

Declining meat consumption in Canada as a metaphor for the changing policy landscape and rising demand for open policy making. 

public good.    But the world is changing. Meat consumption has been declining for decades and for government to stay relevant it must adapt.

I think we need more salads in our policy diet, what do you think?

Links and credits:

Posted in Culture, Open Government, Positive Change | 1 Comment