Week 70— Summer Heat

Risk and Reward in the Public Service

It’s now the middle of summer. Ottawa has been in the midst of a heat wave for what seems like months. With the humidity, average daily temperatures are raising above 40C. I have a great gazebo in the backyard which would be a great office for the day but our backyard faces south. What that means is that for the majority of the day the sun is shining brightly into the backyard and the gazebo. As a result, it’s impossible to work in the gazebo in the heat of the afternoon sun!

There was an interesting tweet this week about the risk aversion of the public service. Mainly that risk aversion in the public service is a myth in the sense that it is often cited as a reason that innovation struggles in the public service but there exist few if any concrete examples of it.

I shared an example from my own experiences as a public servant where a risky project using unconventional methods succeeded well beyond any expectations. Without going into too many details, the project was a runaway success but it circumvented or ignored many of the governance, process and rule structures in place without straying into illegal or unethical areas. For example, we didn’t gather business requirements, we didn’t go through the IT project approval process and we didn’t draw our funding from the IT project budget (instead using a discretionary budget).

At the end of the project, we held a lessons learned process where we discussed what happened during the project and what we might do differently if we did another project like it again. During the course of the exercise, one senior bureaucrat said “It was great this project succeeded but I never want to do a project like this again.” Curious, I probed further and the bureaucrat said, “The project worked this time but what happens when it doesn’t work? It’ll be your head on the chopping block.” Understanding when a point has been made, the conversation on lessons learned carried on. However, this point would not leave my head and so I decided to pull this senior bureaucrat aside after the lessons learned meeting had ended. The senior bureaucrat provided additional detail on this very interesting comment saying, “If I follow process and the project fails then I have cover. I can say I followed process, I did everything right. If I don’t follow process and the project fails then I don’t have cover. Of course it didn’t succeed, you didn’t follow process. If only you followed process, then this project would have succeeded”.

This was eyeopening. It suggested that the results of a project were less importance than adherence to a process. In fact, the process was being used as a “shield”, as a way of shielding someone from personal accountability because if something failed, it was the result of the process. I followed process and failed was better than I succeeded and didn’t follow process because of the off chance that you don’t succeed when not following process.

Now what is interesting is the fall out to this project. There were positives. We got an email from the DM thanking us for our work. We got an Award of Excellence. However, at the working level there remained skepticism and in some cases hostility. To a degree, I think circumventing governance and process was frowned upon and regardless of the result the system was not happy.

So what does this example tell us about risk aversion in the public service? It does exist. Is it measurable and tangible? Probably not. It leaves me with an interesting perspective on the role of governance and process in the public service. Do governance and process add value in a public sector setting? Even with this experience, I think they do. Where I think the system is broken is the downstream impacts of governance and process. They get in the way of the team to get shit done. We spend a lot of time keeping the system happy and not enough doing actual work. As with many things in life, the right balance is found somewhere in the middle. Enough governance and process to make sure we are responsibility spending taxpayer funds but enough cover and/or shit umbrellas so the core team isn’t distracted by the noise.

AI Demonstrator Projects (Regulatory Metadata, Regulatory Evaluation Platform, Rules as Code and Machine Readable Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement)

Regulatory Metadata: No updates to provide on this project.

Regulatory Evaluation Platform: We have scoped out a future phase of work. We are now awaiting more information on what it is going to take to accomplish our ambitious scope focused on measuring how outdated regulations are and how similar regulations across jurisdictions are. We are also starting to think of other ways of tackling advanced regulatory analysis beyond the Regulatory Evaluation Platform as results/data from the Regulatory Metadata project become available.

Rules as Code: After a good meeting with our partner, we are now ready to carry on with planning for this project. It seems the process to make the new rule will start later than we were hoping but the important part is that we are moving forward with drafting as part of a Rules as Code process.

Machine Readable Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement: After a series of meetings with the technical team supporting a broader project related to this project, we have come to some conclusions on a better way to accomplish the objectives of this project. We have reached out to some potential collaborators in the academic world and hopefully will have a revised plan in the coming weeks.

As you may notice, I am posting bi-weekly. During the summer, I am taking the odd Friday off here and there plus I’m finding it increasingly difficult to post once a week. So moving forward, my bare minimum is once every two weeks with once a week when something inspires me to write or I have major updates to share.



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Scott McNaughton

Scott McNaughton


Working on public sector innovation one problem at a time. Found biking and hiking on weekends. Father of young baby… what is sleep?