An elegant sense of bureaucracy and institutional power

John McPhee, who wrote much of his work from home, found returning to the New Yorker's offices a burden ...

After glancing through Bingham’s condensation, I called the office, asked if I could see Mr. Shawn, got on a train, and went to the city. Shawn was even smaller than I am, which is getting down there, but after going past his moats and entering his presence you were looking across a desk at an intimidating sovereign. Pathetically, I blurted out, “Mr. Bingham has removed eighty-five per cent of what I wrote?”
Shawn (incredulous, innocent, saucer-eyed): “He has?”
I responded affirmatively.
He said perhaps I should have a conversation with Mr. Bingham. He would arrange it. Mary Painter, his quiet Cerberus, would be in touch with me.

His quiet Ceberus ... often the most effective, and not necessarily the most aggressive, of assistants.

Digital Government: Lessons from the UK

"The Internet has changed everything. Digital is the technological enabler of this century. And, in any sector you care to name, it’s been the lifeblood of organisations that have embraced it, and a death sentence for those that haven’t. If you take away one thing today, please make it this: government is not immune to the seismic changes that digital technology has brought to bear. ...

Twenty five years into the era of digital transformation, the Internet has a 100% track record of success making industries simpler to users while forcing organisations to fundamentally change how they’re structured. These characteristics are not going away. Yet the effect on the civil service has been, until very recently, marginal."

... @MTBracken


On Open Data, the Domesday Book and public policy

Published on the Policy By The Numbers blog: As an open data and open government advocate, I get drawn into conversations with developers, dataset owners and bureaucrats about the difficulty in identifying, cleaning and then publishing datasets in the open. As a historian, I know that half the challenge in good economic history is identifying the appropriate data sources.

Nine hundred and twenty six years ago, William the Conqueror ordered a thorough survey of the property and economy of his recently acquired British Islands. Teams of commissioners visited 13,000 villages, towns and estates and interviewed up to 62,000 witnesses. Their work produced the data that has become known as the Domesday Book.

This data proved critical for developing strategy in the new Norman Court. Facing civil unrest and foreign invasion, the Court needed an accurate count of the financial and human capital available while evaluating their economic, political and military options.

Although there had been previous surveys, inquests and local roll-taking elsewhere in Europe, the Domesday Book looms as a landmark in data collection and analysis in the West. It provides a snapshot of the wealth, land holdings, animal population, household possessions and feudal relationships among the gentry and nobility in William’s kingdom. Really, it’s a record of how the 1% rolled a thousand years ago.

Collecting the data was not an easy process. In fact, the standards for data collection were constantly evolving as the survey was conducted; agricultural, economic and seigneurial data sources had not been combined before; the process of reviewing and correcting data was initially quite cumbersome; and the final product was still the product of a particularly focused and determined individual.

Today, technology has made the collection of social, economic and simply transactional data far simpler, but we haven’t really begun to systematically explore how these volumes of data can help governments and communities address their fundamental public policy challenges. Much of the initiative around open data has been the result of the energetic efforts of a small number of innovators and their supporters. Open data is still largely characterized by the small scale project with localized relevance.

Which makes the Open Domesday project a wonderful link between the past and present. Thanks to academics at the University of Hull and Anna Powell-Smith, an open data volunteer, the data from the Domesday Book has been translated for the technology age. Open Domesday lets the ordinary web surfer sort through this historic data by location, name or by reference to the book itself. The results are overlaid on contemporary maps of Great Britain. The ability to easily drill through centuries of history and reveal data about a community, a family or a region like this is stunning. Data collected ages ago continues to deliver results and insight.

The lasting impact of the Domesday book is often fresh in my mind when I think about the open data initiatives being launched around the world. The capacity to liberate and share data is only just beginning to affect our relationship with the government and with our communities. With every new collaboration, whether at a local level, with the World Bank, the United Nations or through the Open Government Partnership, we can imagine open data achieving scale and an impact similar to that of the Domesday Book in its time.



Joining the Advisory Panel on Open Government

Yesterday, I had the privilege of participating in the first meeting of the Advisory Panel on Open Government, a group of industry, government, media and open policy experts interested in the application of open government, open information and open data principles by the Government of Canada. While the group is still coalescing, the general ambition is to provide some sober second thought and add critical insight to the open government plans being developed by the Government of Canada. The Panel is chaired by Tony Clement, the President of the Treasury Board, and includes a number of Canadian and international participants with extensive experience in open government and open data issues. I've taken the liberty of copying David Eave's list of participants and their related Twitter handles:

Bernard Courtois, Past President & CEO, Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC)

Robert Herjavec, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, The Herjavec Group

Alexander B. Howard, Government 2.0 Correspondent, O'Reilly Media

Thomas 'Tom' Jenkins, Head of the Canadian Digital Media Network and Executive Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer, OpenText Corporation

Vivek Kundra, Executive Vice President of Emerging Markets,

Herb Lainchbury, Chief Technology Officer, MD Databank Corp.

Colin McKay, Public Policy Manager (Canada), Google

Toby Mendel, Executive Director, Centre for Law and Democracy

Alex Miller, President and Founder, ESRI Canada

Marie-Lucie Morin, Executive Director for Canada, Ireland and the Caribbean, The World Bank

Dr. Rufus Pollock, Co-Founder and Director, Open Knowledge Foundation

Dr. Teresa Scassa, Vice-Dean of Research and Professor of Law, University of Ottawa

I expect to draw in the larger open government community - who are numerous, energetic and truly innovative - through discussion, invitation and maybe even some small sponsored events.


In the heart of darkness

Lately, I've been digging through books, articles and podcasts that examine the places, patterns and pulse of the neighbourhood, measuring the impact of architecture, street design, geography and the history of urban development upon social and economic behaviour. It's this dabbling that led me to open a speech last week with a discussion of the Cassini II expedition to map the interior of pre-revolutionary France. In short, one of Cassini's team disappeared after working his way into the heart of the Massif Central, a previously isolated and relatively unknown area of France.* I cast this incident as an example of how technological innovation can slam head on to social norms and steadfast traditions - notions of privacy included.

Turning back the clock back two or three hundred years, we begin to recognize that our traditional values, habits and practices were  formed as a reaction to contemporary geographic, political and technological pressures.

Even the simplest and most common of urban features -- the cemetery -- is sited because of economic and physical constraints:

" ... In glacial country, all you have to do is look for cemeteries if you want to find the moraine, Anita [Harris] said. "A moraine is poor farmland -- steep and hummocky, with erratics and boulders. Yet it's easy ground to dig in, and well drained. An outwash plain is boggy. There's a cemetery over near Utica Avenue that's in the outwash. Most people prefer moraine. I would say it's kind of distasteful to put your mother down into a swamp ..."("In Suspect Terrain", John McPhee)

At work, I find myself considering this handful of factors everyday, as we are buffetted by technological change and attempt to take measure of how society is reacting.

* as described in Graham Robb's "The Discovery of France."


When creatives work for good

What if pervasive media was used to amuse and intrigue you, rather than single you out as a unknowing target of advertising and persuasive messaging?

"... In contrast to a Minority Report future of aggressive messages competing for a conspicuously finite attention, these sketches show a landscape of ignorable surfaces capitalising on their context, timing and your history to quietly play and present in the corners of our lives ..." Media Surfaces: Incidental Media via Dentsu London and Berg.


Your luggage cart is deeply unimpressive

Design is becoming the differentiator in the highly competitive hotel market. That and giant fat-assed breakfast buffets. Really. I have never seen so many different ways of presenting carbohydrates in one place at one time. Make your own waffles. Morning Glory muffins. Chocolate chip bagels. Oatmeal cookies. Rolled Oats. Fruit Loops knock-off cereal. Oh, and free wifi.

Even on approach, hotels signal their competitive positioning. Family-oriented, business practical, aspirational alternative, or ostentatiously ambitious. The most noticeable are the alternative brands. Modernist building design. Minimalist landscaping. Sans serif font on the signage and letterhead. Sectional furniture in the lobby. Men's style magazines on the coffee table. A business centre with a Mac.

If you're at all uncertain, just check the name etched in the glass over the polished aluminum handles. More often than not, it's a short given name, or a vague scientific allusion. ARc. Oxygen. Alt. George. Helix.

Despite all this effort, there is one common element fouling each and every lobby: the clunky brass luggage cart. No matter the target market, no matter the guest demo, a four post brass luggage cart can be found lurking around the corner, swivelling wheels never at the ready, dirty rubber bumpers marking every corner.

Really? In a world where Knoll, Herman Miller, Eames and Saarinen can each make a half decent office chair, why are we stuck with the same uninspired luggage cart?

Given a moment of introspection and another of inspiration, what could a hotel baggage cart offer?

  • graphic map of the facility to help with navigation
  • a handy place to put my room key/card while fumbling with the cart
  • a design agile enough to get through the door of the room
  • footprint versatile enough to accomodate big family suitcases as well as carry-ons
  • something that can get past a laundry cart in the hallway

Oh, and maybe a design aesthetic consistent with every other overly thought out element in the building?

I really wish people would just stop ordering right from the industrial supply catalogue.


Instigator, not an insurgent

Last week, David Eaves asked whether young public servants are having  to turn to insurgent tactics to build the workplace of the 21st century, largely because the bureaucracy is stultifyingly slow to make collaborative tools and work processes available to them. Can a large organization - at least one headquartered outside Silicon Valley - accomodate cultural change and an ongoing challenge to the organizational status-quo?

It appears that General Electric is taking steps in the right direction. In an article in this month's Harvard Business Review, and accompanying podcast, chief marketing officer Beth Comstock explains how the global conglomerate has identified four specific roles that marketers must assume if the organization is to continue to grow: instigator, innovator, integrator, and implementer.

"Marketing leaders need to think strategically and challenge the status quo, using their unique external vantage point to see what may not be apparent to others in the business. Sometimes this entails moving beyond preaching about marketing’s merits to imagining scenarios that business heads might face—perhaps marketing’s most important role. Leaders must be willing to push change."

An instigator is just that: a member of the team that pushes for strategic change, often to the discomfort of others.

Or, more simply:

Instigator: Incites a “better way” using a unique vantage point to see around corners (a GE Director, speaking at BMA Chicago)

In a comment to David's original post, Geordie Adams notes that

"I see them inside the public service regularly, wish I could say everyday. I just call them progressive though, not insurgents."

Let's remember that GE has identified FOUR roles as essential to the success of its unit, industry and global marketing efforts: instigator, innovator, integrator, and implementer .

I argue that we can identify colleagues in the public service (whether you self-identify as #w2p, #goc, #gov20 or whatever) whose behaviour echoes one or more of these roles. Some are good at selling ideas, others are good at developing new strategies, and others are very good at the not-so-simple job of execution.

Working as a team, public servants from a range of backgrounds and equipped with a variety of skillsets can get great work done.


Warhol's screen tests, with a touch of Cobain

An interesting juxtaposition at the Seattle Art Gallery last month: a Kurt Cobain retrospective presented in a gallery alongside a Warhol exhibition, including many of his screen tests. Two long rooms were flanked with neverending projections of these short films, each of which featured a common name like Edie Sedgwick, Lou Reed or Nico, or an otherwise unknown like Freddy Herko.

"Mary Woronov observed in Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory that the Screen Tests were like a psychological test: “You would see the person fighting with his image—trying to protect it. You can project your image for a few seconds, but after that it slips and your real self starts to show through. That’s why it was so great—you saw the person and the image.”(Bomb magazine)

For example, take a look at Lou Reed as a young man. With the advantage of hindsght, we know that quite a few hard years were ahead of Reed:

In 2009, I had the chance to watch one of the Marcel Duchamp tests as part of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. From what I remember of the accompanying narrative, this particular sitting was irritating to Warhol because Duchamp "broke the rules" - he consciously avoided the camera's gaze and repeatedly acknowledged other people outside the camera's frame. Which is what made it so engaging and amusing for me.

Among the screen tests in Seattle is Freddy Herko's. An unfortunate story, Herko ended his life at a young age in quite a spectacular fashion shortly after the fim was shot. Herko was celebrated by his friends after his death, and was eulogized quite eloquently by Warhol (click through the link and read the entire page):

"... The people I loved were the ones like Freddy, the leftovers of show business, turned down at auditions all over town. They couldn't do something more than once, but their one time was better than anyone else's. They had star quality but no star ego - they didn't know how to push themselves. They were too gifted to lead "regular lives," but they were also too unsure of themselves to ever become real professionals." (Warhol & Hackett, cited at the exhibition)

As for Cobain: it's always interesting to view a retrospective of an artist whose work and identity has come to assume a large role in the development of one's own generation. (view a slideshow here) It seems we only appreciate the cultural impact of a once-familiar icon after time,  a certain amount of emotional detachment, and several galling instances of cultural apropriation.

Alice Wheeler's portrait of Cobain (copied in Seattle Weekly) echoed familiar Marilyn Monroe imagery, frequently referenced and featured as part of Warhol exhibitions. Somewhat unsettling were the several images of children, too young to actually remember the grunge days, sporting Nirvana and Cobain t shirts.

To tell the truth, I left the Cobain exhibition feeling like I hadn't appreciated the impact of the grunge movement more consci0usly at the time.


Cutting edge portable music design

New music format. Breakthroughs in portable music technology. A consumer products company effectively integrates technlogical innovation, industrial design and a novel user interface to break open a whole new market segment. Of course, I'm talking about 1974 and a portable 8-track player.

Panasonic's "Dynamite 8" 8-Track player was a choice piece of consumer electronics with unprecendented music portability and a clean and bright modern design. It's still sought after, the focus of bidding wars every time one appears on eBay.

Even better, the dealer prospectus promised a wide range of marketing support for this great new product: a big magazine buy (Seventeen, Hot Rod and other demographically appropriate pubs), four months' worth of TV buys in the fall schedule, a full package of TV, radio and print templates for dealers, and an EARTH SHATTERING COUNTER DISPLAY.

And it wasn't just 8-tracks - just look at the range of electronics Panasonic released as part of the same line: portable radios, phone handsets and alarm clocks.

But good design will only carry your product - and your company - so far. Especially if the underlying music format is inflexible. While the 8-Track format offered improved music portability, indexing and easy song selection, it still had its ass kicked by the cassette and the relatively messy but creatively inspired home mix tape.


70s Diet Advice for Kids

Undermine your children's self-confidence if you want them to lose weight, says "Diet and be Slim" an inset from a 70s-era News of the World edition.


Politics and donkeys in the public square

You know what political protest in North America is missing? A sense of humor and a sense of presentation. This from a Telegraph story on the not-so-leaning tower of Pisa:

"All six donkeys were impeccably behaved. They’d been ridden into Pisa’s main square, the Piazza dei Miracoli, last November by vexed vets from Pisa University and ceremoniously set down beneath its Leaning Tower. In protest at government cuts across Italian education, the profs duly gave an al fresco lecture on donkey anatomy to hundreds of bewildered tourists. Silvio Berlusconi’s photo appeared on many a banner, beside the words ‘The biggest ass of all’.


Cheetos in motion

In the June edition of Wired, we discover how Cheetos are made.

" ... the craggy bits are then spit out of the extruder, flying 3 feet at high velocity before hitting a safety cage and dropping onto a conveyor belt ..."

And THEN it's fried!


Audacity when it comes to institutions

Three qualities that can equally be applied by public servants driven to change their unit, their division, their branch or their department. While responsibility and accountability are still well represented by hierarchy and process, society is moving beyond a strict command-and-control structure.

Opportunity rarely presents itself to those who sit and wait. There has always been some measure of preparation, whether personal, professional or through organizational dexterity.

In the end, though, every successful person has been audacious enough to demand attention, push an idea and argue for support.

"I'm never overwhelmed by state power, " he says. "I lean on innovation, self-confidence and audacity when it comes to institutions."

- José María Cruz Novillo, Spanish designer, quoted in a recent edition of Monocle magazine.


Let government screw up

*addendum: This post, while it references one particular example published in the blogosphere today, was prompted by a number of examples - on blogs, in person and on twitter - where people inside and outside government have rushed to comment and judgement on social media work implemented by government agencies. It's a product of the rush to #fail - something of a new generation of "first!" in the comment field. I didn't try to write it as a critique of that one particular post - which had a lot of spot-on observations. A more transparent government. A more responsive bureaucracy. A more accessible public service. Those are the hopes and goals of Canadians no matter where they fall among a particular demographic or geographic segment. Whether they're open data advocates, engagement gurus, social media consultants or simply public servants pushing for change as quickly as possible.

I would argue that governments across Canada are committing the time, money and staff to make these changes. We're seeing new tools, new data streams, expanded outreach activities, even contests as government organizations assess which tools and strategies would work best for them.

I have the opportunity to speak to groups across government about the benefits, challenges and potential costs of social media. In the face of institutional anxiety, I've argued that social media is a positive environment that encourages experimentation. In fact, online users are willing to accept mis-steps and stumbles from government organizati0ns simply because it demonstrates initiative and ambition, if not expertise.

This seems to calm nerves among more traditional bureaucrats, who have been trained through repetition and repercussion to mitigate risk - especially the possibility of public embarrassment.

Which is why I find it upsetting - yes, upsetting - to watch when people in the "social media community" decide that there's no better way to greet a new social media initiative than a detailed critique of its failings, distributed as quickly and widely as possible in the name of "creating a conversation."

Senior civil servants, you see, are not comfortable with the rough and tumble dialectic that frames the development of most innovative projects in the online world. While they're trying to adapt as quickly as possible, they still rely on the advice of their functional experts to plan and launch new projects.

Blunt criticism of a project, when published or re-tweeted widely, then has to be interpreted/deciphered for these senior civil servants by the very same  technical and "social media" experts. This can become  a Sisyphean challenge: spend months building internal agreement for a project, then days defending it from criticism leveled by your erstwhile allies.

For the individual or team who spent a lot of time convincing a senior public servant to launch a groundbreaking personal web site incorporating relatively new communications channels (the public service still has fax machines), it must be frustrating to be criticized for:

  • using brown in your design;
  • poor photo montage skills*
  • a lack of "engagement"

Let's keep this in perspective: the Clerk of the Privy Council is the head of the public service of Canada. It is a job that requires the greatest networking, engagement and communication skills of any in the public service, but these skills are largely targeted at ensuring the dozens of Deputy Ministers are implementing the government's agenda, on an hour-by-hour, day-by-day, basis.

If you want to argue that we need a central online gathering point for public service renewal efforts, I would agree with you. That responsibility, though, has been delegated to a committee of Deputy Ministers and the Chief Human Resources Officer. There have been cross-Government experiments and pilot projects, like GCPedia and GCConnex. Dozens of departments are lurking behind the firewall with blogs, wikis, podcasts and videos. Some are even resorting to relatively sophisticated Sharepoint installs.

There is one consistent quality sought from every Clerk: the ability to delegate power. Depending upon our ambition and our inspiration, we all would like some piece of this delegated power. Members of the #W2P community would like to see a delegation (network access, software, smart phones, time for side of the table projects) that would allow them to launch and implement innovative new projects quickly and collaboratively.

Before these powers and resources can be delegated on more than a short-term basis, there must be awareness and engagement among senior leaders at the ADM and DM level. That will begin to build buzz-word worthy activities into the long-term business processes at the Branch and Department-level. We're beginning to see that.

The fact that the Clerk is even experimenting with these tools is a tremendous step forward.

So get off his back and let the man (and the team behind the curtain) tweak their experiment.

*Don't get me started on photos and graphic design. For the longest time, many departments had in-house photo, film, editing and production teams capable of producing clear, consistent and first rate multi-media materials. Through attrition and cost-cutting in the 1980s and 1990s, this capacity was slowly eliminated. (If you're one of the few departments that still has this capacity, why don't you share it with the rest of us??) Today, graphic design and pre-production layout is either contracted out, or given to someone with consumer editing software installed on their desktop. (Or someone with a Mac at home).


Shop fronts and door frames

I'm still ripping voraciously through the social, economic and psychological links between a temporary but personal location and more historically resonant locales. I figure I've got an interesting paper developing, somewhere among the many other ideas bouncing around in my head.

"... Economics is revealed in shop fronts and history in door frames ..." David Byrne - Bicycle Diaries

There are two factors that have kept me away from the blog, one leading from the other:

- Over the past six to nine months, I've made a conscious attempt to concentrate on the materials and topics more relevant to my everyday work. That's things like social and legal concepts of privacy,the collection and use of data points and personal information, how information is integrated into advertising and marketing campaigns, and how to use social media effectively as a corporate tool in a government environment.

- I've been using Twitter a lot more.

I'll be returning here more frequently (hell, it can't be LESS frequent), but the subjects covered may be evolving.

If I was a personal branding consultant, I might call the process a "repositioning of my brand and an expansion of my niche of expertise."

But I'm not.

Thank God.


Location - tell me my current obsession

Lately, I've been zoning in on books that discuss location - whether through wayfinding, past experience in urban and wild settings, the development of innate navigational skills, or novel treatements of life in particular locations. Here's a sampling from my recent bookshelf: Where am I? - Colin Ellard

" ... Two things seem to be universal in wayfaring cultures like the Inuit and the Australian Aborigines. One of them is that they've honed this exquisite eye for detail that we don't have. The other thing that these cultures do is use narrative and story. The best example of all is these song lines in Aborigines - what they're doing is they are making an explicit connection between their creation, the creation of everything, and the shape and size of the landscape. They're using song lines as a kind of navigational aid, but at the same time there's this spiritual connection to place ..." (Globe and Mail)

Retrofitting Suburbia - Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson

" ... But we found, over and over in interviews, people being really sad when their mall had died. "I had my prom in that mall," they'd say. They attribute the mall with a lot of bonding, a lot of time growing up—they really loved their malls. When it died, the first reaction was: Let's find a developer to fix our mall. Most people didn't want a downtown-type structure, they just wanted their mall back. It takes a paradigm shift, like the example of Belmar (see pictures at right).

Belmar was built five miles outside of Denver, and originally had no desire to be urban at all. But by the time the mall died, the surrounding suburban community of Lakewood, Colo., had become the fourth-largest municipality in the state. They had put in a library and a city hall, but it was set up like a strip mall. They eventually found a developer for the property who said "I won't redevelop the mall, but I'll give you a town center." It took a while, but they bought in, completel ..." (Popular Mechanics)

Stripmalling - Jon Paul Fiorentino

" ... Jonny lives and works in a strip mall in Suburban Winnipeg. For some people, this would be exciting and fulfilling enough ..."

Personal Space: the behavioral basis of design - Robert Sommer

Before "getting up in your grill," there was "personal space." This is the original work, which drawn from initial insight found at a psychiatric hospital in Saskatchewan.

Hollywood in the Neighborhood - Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley, ed

How Hollywood and the new breed of popular entertainment - movies - arrived in the heartland, and the effect this had on the community.


Failed in the most beautiful way

“They were decent,” he said. “They were strong. And they failed in the most beautiful way you can imagine.”

- Reinhold Messner, the famed mountain climber, praising the members of a doomed 1953 trek to climb K-2.

Charles S. Houston, one of the members of that expedition, passed away this week. (NY Times)


Mmmm .... hamhocks

hamhocks Maybe I've been eating a little too much southern food lately. I could swear this bill board for Labatt's Blue said 'hamhocks.'