Monday, October 27, 2008

On the Use of Official Languages in Personal Initiatives

[Warning: This post is bound to strike a sensible cord with some of the readers. Read with caution.]

Over the weekend I sent a few emails to invite people to fill the surveys I am currently conducting on PS Renewal and management and leadership, as well as the poll I have on my blog (see right-hand-side of this page). Earlier today I received, privately by email, yet another criticism to the effect that neither surveys are available in French. The note was short enough to understand this was something the sender felt strongly about, and clearly didn’t appreciate that French-speaking people were once again being neglected.

Since I have received a few of these criticisms – and some on other topics as well (such as the guy who publicly asked on a discussion forum whether those initiatives would be “community-based”) – I felt I would take the time to respond and explain the situation with regards to my personal initiatives.

The first thing I need to make clear, is that none of my personal initiatives are part of my work. They are entirely volunteer. I don’t get any sort of compensation (monetary or otherwise) for what I do, such as:

While I do it for the benefit of my employer and its employees, it is in no way endorsed by the Public Service of Canada. Everything I do, every words I write, every email I reply to, happens off-hours.

Thus comes the second key point I must clarify: all these neat initiatives that I work on at night (often until the early hours of the morning) are quite time-consuming. For instance, “An Inconvenient Renewal” took well over 100 hours to write, edit, format and publish. Actually, one of my greatest regret is that I never actually counted all the hours I put in that paper, because it is likely well above that… and that’s excluding all the preceding research that went into it!

Another example: the web sites I created for “An Inconvenient Renewal”, the “Bottom-Up Renewal” group and the two surveys I am currently administering, involved about 100 hours just to develop. That excludes the queries and emails I get, and the odd maintenance task.

One more example: the postings on my blog are usually a little longer than the typical blog posting, and each easily require 2 to 4 hours of work, depending on the topic and the length. Again, this excludes any prior reading or research. For instance, I wrote Blogging @ between 9 PM and 1:00 AM in a hotel room in Quesnel, British-Columbia, after a ten hour day of “regular” work. I mention this because when I read the article the next morning, I was actually disappointed by its quality and felt it wasn’t up to the standard I usually hold for myself. I guess this is what you get when you hit the “publish” button at 1 AM!

So to tell you the truth, whenever I post an article that took me 4 hours to write, I hope that at least 50 people will take 5 minutes to read (totalizing just over 4 hours of reading) – simply to get the feeling that there is actually some form of communication happening and that I am not doing all of this for nothing.

Third, translation is hard work! I worked almost two years for the Translation Bureau; not only did it open my eyes to the work translators actually do, I now have the utmost respect for what they do. Good translation is a science and an art. Now that I can appreciate what translators do, I can say that while I can translate text, I am definitely not a translator! Based on the length of the text, I estimate an average professional translator would take about 10 hours to translate my article on Blogging @ Translation therefore comes with a price – a price I can’t afford given that I’m not making a penny from all this volunteer work. It is also a task I can’t commit myself to, because most of the time, I need to go do my “real job” the next morning…

Fourth, I need to come clean with the readers: if I don’t translate to French my initiatives / web sites / articles, it’s not because I completely lack the capacity. As you may have guessed by my name, I’m French: born and raise in the province of Québec (see, I even use a French keyboard and put the accent!), spent 26 years of my life in Montréal. Obviously, I can speak and write in French. Furthermore, I will acknowledge that I am sensible to the whole “official languages” issue.

In fact, I vividly remember being in a boardroom with 15 other French-speaking public servants and one English-speaking employee who claimed she didn’t understand a word of French. For the next two hours I experienced one of the most painful meeting I have ever been to: 15 francophones doing their best to express their ideas in English to the one person who couldn’t speak French, with the characteristic accent you can expect from a group of French Canadians (and I count myself in that group)! It was atrocious to listen to because some of the French employees were struggling to even put sentences together. But at least they were trying. All this to say that whenever I receive criticism with regards to my English-only postings, I understand where it comes from and what it is like to be part of the linguistic minority (believe it or not, francophones are also a minority in Vancouver!).

The fifth and final observation I want to make goes back to a fundamentally incomplete assumption we tend to make about the whole official languages debates and our so-called rights. Building on the fourth points I made so far, it is quite clear that:

  • Since my personal initiatives fully take place outside of my work and therefore I receive no kind of compensation for it;

  • My personal initiatives already require a pretty significant investment of time and energy without even considering translating anything;

  • Good translation is not only expensive and time-consuming, it is something better left to real professionals;

  • If I really wanted to, I could probably do some sort of translation of my texts to French, hence supporting a cause I believe in.

So all things considered – and assuming we recognize I have no obligation (legal or otherwise) to translate my initiatives in French – the last question to answer is one about rights. But whose rights exactly are we talking about? I mean: the rights of the readers to receive the texts in the language of their choice? Or the right of the author to express himself in the language of his choice?

You see, apart from the fact that the bulk of my audience speaks English (or is at least capable of reading and understanding it), I consciously choose to write in English for my own personal reasons. Put simply: I want to improve my English (if you have heard me talk in English, you would understand why!). It is part of the reason why at the age of 16 I decided to go do my college degree in an English institution. It is also part of the reason why I moved to British-Columbia. It is definitely part of the reason why I write all my drafts in English. It is also the reason why I do most of my speaking engagements in English even when the audience is bilingual. I want to improve, and the only way to do it is through practice.

One thing I have recently come to realize after reading the book “Leadership On the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading” by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky (which was recommended to me by my friend Anatole – thanks for the excellent reference!) is that the moment you assume some kind of leadership role, you expose yourself to criticism. Most of the time, that criticism will come from people who are not displaying any particular leadership on the issue at stakes. If they did, they would probably take a different approach to the matter. But I have yet to receive a criticism about the lack of French on my sites coming from someone who in the same breath offers me to translate my latest article…

As it turns out, some of my paper and articles have been translated:

  • On the Definition of Manager”, one of my first article, was translated after my boss of the time read it and thought it was worth sharing with the Managers’ Network of my then Department;

  • Similar story with the article “All We Are Saying Is Give PSEA A Chance”, which the communication branch of my former organization offered to translate;

  • My paper on “The Volunteer Nature of Communities of Practice” was translated after catching the attention of a Director working in organization development;

  • A number of documents I wrote on staffing were translated, most of the times after I sent them to people I shouldn’t have sent them to had I decided to follow the chain of command;

  • An Inconvenient Renewal” was translated after the President of the Canada Public Service Agency got a copy I had sent her by email;

  • Just a few days ago, someone at the Canada School of Public Service offered me to translate my presentation on “Bottom-Up Change” so I could do it in a French Armchair Discussion at the School.

A few important observations need to be made here:

  • In order to get any personal initiative translated, corporate support is essential – especially since I work in a “English” region (British-Columbia). Based on my track record, I have come to realize that more often than not, that corporate support will come from outside my own organization;

  • In order to get the attention of the right people who will see the value of translating a document, it is often necessary to bypass the chain of command, and either directly target key senior people or use your network of contact to get to them;

  • Getting something translated is only half the battle. Next you have to hope that someone, somewhere, will accept to take the risk to post something written outside of work and publish it on a government site where it will be accessible to public servants;

  • Finally, despite the best intentions to get as much material translated as possible, reality is that the appetite for French productions is somewhat limited…

During the summer I went to great length to create a web site for the French version of “An Inconvenient Renewal” (Un renouvellement qui dérange). This site alone probably required about 20 hours to develop. So after getting some criticism about the lack of French in my personal initiatives in the past few weeks, I decided to check just how many people had visited the site since its release on September 1, 2008. If I exclude myself and the few friends I asked to verify the site before the launch, exactly 10 people have visited the French site, spending an average of less than 5 minutes on the site. Only 10!!! (And a single one of those ten apparently read the whole paper.) Pretty disappointing if you ask me, especially if I compare it to the 200 visitors who have checked the English site. If the French-English ratio was 1:3 as it is in government, it wouldn't be too bad; but 1:20....?

In a strange way, it would be easier for me not to do anything: not to blog, not to write papers such as “An Inconvenient Renewal”, not to turn them into websites to make them more accessible, not to create a group for people to share what they are doing with regards to PS Renewal, not to administer surveys to get a sense of how well the public service is doing in terms of engaging employees in PS Renewal, or not to prepare my next “big” paper which I intend to make on management and leadership, etc. In fact, come to think of it, I’m responsible for own misery! ;-)

So now that I have spent the better part of the last three hours writing this article and finally reaching its end, I have to juggle with one existential question: given this posting is over 2000 words long, and given this could represent up to 9 hours of work for an average professional translator, should I translate it or not?

Here’s the compromise: I will take the offer of anyone who volunteers to do it for free, off-hours!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Values and Ethics in the Public Service of Canada: Tautology or Missed Opportunity?

“The most difficult challenges facing leaders present themselves as dilemmas, paradoxes or tensions. These tensions are usually people centred and involve contestation of values.”

- Patrick Duignan, “Leading in an age of paradox and dilemma

This constitutes the third posting I make on the topic of values and ethics in the federal public service.

In my first posting entitled simply “On Values and Ethics” published back in June, I made the following points:
  • What we call “values and ethics” in the federal public service currently boils down to wrongdoing. Drawing on my own experience, I argued that values and ethics investigations are more concerned with what may have been done wrong than what may have been done right. I stated that values and ethics will remain synonymous with wrongdoing unless champions of values and ethics are willing to equally consider “right-doing” and balance the equation.
  • Ethical dilemmas are matters of right vs. right, not right vs. wrong. Failing to consider right vs. right matters in values and ethics investigations, or worse, intentionally reducing them to matters of right vs. wrong, are a gross oversimplification of what should be recognized as complex conflicts between competing values.
  • I urged for a clear interpretation of the following statement taken from the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service: “In the Public Service, how ends are achieved should be as important as the achievements themselves.” I further suggested that if the means and the end are equally important, then the decision should not be guided by the means or the end themselves, but rather by their underlying values. This implies looking at the values the end supports and weighing them against the values the means call into question and let the values that have the highest priority guide the final decisions. I concluded by stating that most values and ethics advisors and senior leaders will likely be resistant to this approach and I explained why.
In a subsequent posting in September entitled “Blogging @”, I went a step further:
  • I attempted to show that when it comes to questions of values and ethics, it is just as easy for someone to prove that an employee did something wrong than prove that what he did was right.
  • Using my own involvement in PS Renewal as a case study, I demonstrated that my Department's expectations of what makes me a “good” employee given my official duties can somewhat be at odds with the Clerk's expectations of public servants with regards to PS Renewal, and pointed to the values and ethics implications.
  • I illustrated with some personal examples the sort of contradictory advice this might lead to when employees try to stay on the “safe side” of values and ethics.
If you haven't read these two postings, I recommend you do as I will try to avoid the duplication of arguments with this third installment. In this posting, I will expand on some of the ideas I introduced in my earlier postings, and I will further my critique of how values and ethics are currently being applied in the federal public service.

Before I proceed, it is worth clarifying where my interest in values and ethics comes from:
  • Although I am not an HR specialist in the formal sense of the word, much of my work is HR-related: staffing, recruitment, learning, training, change management, organization development, labour relations, conflict prevention, employees relations, people management, etc. By virtue of my responsibilities, I have been exposed to some fairly challenging situations where I felt I was facing an impossible dilemma, where no course of action was entirely right, nor entirely wrong. In these situations, I had to resort to my personal values and ethics in order to find a solution. I won't go into the specifics of the cases I had to deal with, but I will refer you to some fairly similar examples drawn from the world of education (see this document, pp. 10-11). You will see that the examples provided by the author are not unlike what public service managers and HR advisors have to deal with on a regular basis.
  • On a few occasions, I have sought formal advice from our departmental values and ethics advisors. In some other cases, I was asked to provide information in values and ethics investigations involving employees of my organization.
  • Finally, as you may know, I had the privilege of being investigated for allegedly breaching the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service.
As a result of all these experiences, I have noticed some trends in the way values and ethics are currently applied in the federal public service. That being said, I am not an expert on the topic, and I often find it difficult to put words on what I am observing. In such cases, it is not unusual for me to turn to unlikely sources of wisdom to make sense of the world around me. As it turned out, last week I found a great source of insight in an episode of the NBC hit series "The Office". Not surprisingly, the title of the episode was "Business Ethics". The scene that enlightened me involved Holly, the new HR advisor, who had to deliver a workshop on ethics, and the staff of Dunder-Mifflin:

Holly: Ok. [to everyone] Michael makes a really good point so, uh, let's just open this up a little bit. Say my name is Lauren and here I am shopping in a supermarket and I steal a pencil. That's not right.
Michael: [coughs to hide his words] Lauren, [coughs] enough with the pencils.
Holly: No, I have to go over pencils and office supplies. It's part of the ethics thing.
Oscar: That isn't ethics. Ethics is a real discussion of the competing conceptions of the good. This is just the corporate anti-shoplifting rules.
Andy: I'll drop an ethics bomb on you. Would you steal bread to feed your family? ... Boom!
Oscar: Exactly, Andy.
Andy: Yeah, I took intro to philosophy, twice. No big deal.

I found the scene insightful (and hilarious!) for a number of reasons expressed in Oscar’s definition of “ethics”:
  1. He correctly points out that wrongdoing – such as stealing office supplies - is not ethics.
  2. He invokes the need for a “real discussion”.
  3. He defines ethics as “competing conceptions of the good”.
Oscar's point is then illustrated with Andy’s “ethics bomb”, which he remembered from his “intro to philosophy” class. I found the scene brilliant as the goofy cast of characters were in fact putting the finger on what I feel is an important shortfall of values and ethics in the federal public service, which translates in an extremely narrow understanding and application of ethics. Hence, the title of this posting: “Values and Ethics in the Public Service of Canada: Tautology or Missed Opportunity?”.

The Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service begins with a definition of the role of the Public Service of Canada: “The role of the Public Service is to assist the Government of Canada to provide for peace, order and good government. The Constitution of Canada and the principles of responsible government provide the foundation for Public Service roles, responsibilities and values. The democratic mission of the Public Service is to assist Ministers, under law, to serve the public interest.

The statement couldn’t be clearer. The rest of the code expands on what it actually means to “assist Ministers, under law, and to serve the public interest”, in other words, how to be a “good” public servant. For this reason, I personally find the notion of values and ethics a little redundant or pointless, depending on how it is framed. It is redundant because the role of public service is clear enough and therefore an explanation of what it means to be a “good public” such as what we find in the Code is somewhat repetitive. It just sounds like it's re-stating the obvious (and already well defined) role of the public service. In other words, the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service seems like a tautology.

It is also pointless because when it comes to issues of values and ethics, the guidance we may need as public servants seldom involves cases where the right course of action is obvious, but rather cases where what seems like the better course of action is in conflict to various degrees with what should be expected of a “good” public servant.

In that sense, the current focus on wrongdoing in values and ethics investigations adds nothing to our understanding of values and ethics in the federal public service. Blatant examples of wrongdoing are self-evident. We don't need a Code of Values and Ethics to understand them; the Code merely provides a legal justification to deal appropriately with the wrongdoers. As Oscar from The Office pointed out earlier, stealing is not a matter of ethics.

Instead, ethics is about “competing conceptions of the good”. The Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service does describe many “conceptions of the good” that may be competing against each other in the work of public servants. In order to talk about ethics, we must first acknowledge that the action under scrutiny actually involves competing conceptions of the good – not simply wrongdoing. This is where things tend to go sideways.

Values and ethics advisors, investigators, managers, and senior executives must recognize that the moment a matter is brought to their attention, it is very likely it will involve some kind of conflict with the role of public servants to assist ministers and/or serve the public interest. The conflict may fall in one of two categories:
a) the blatant case of wrongdoing; or,
b) the “Catch 22” type of situation where any course of action seems to fall in a “grey area”.

I don't work in Values and Ethics, but from the work I do on HR stuff, I would have to guess that 99% of the cases fall in the second category. I will also add that the 1% of cases blatant wrongdoing rarely (if ever) needs to go to values and ethics, precisely because it involves wrongdoing – and it's usually that obvious!

But when you have a situation that falls into the “grey area” – as I assume it is the case for most matters going to Values and Ethics – whoever simply concludes that there is a breach of the Code is not only failing to grasp the complexity of the dilemma at hands, he or she is also totally missing the point of values and ethics: to find the better course of action in a situation where it is not possible to uphold all the public service values at once.

The whole purpose of ethics is then to contrast the behaviours that are in line with what should be expected of a good public servant with those behaviours that are not, which can only be achieved by bringing values into the equation. Failure to do this means failure of the values and ethics process. This is the first major shortcoming of how values and ethics are currently applied in the federal public service. Instead, the exercise of contrasting the conflicting behaviours based on values (i.e. conceptions of the “good”) seems to cede to a bleak quest for wrongdoing. But simply nailing the employee for what he did wrong contributes to nothing, as it doesn't provide public servants any tool address the dilemma or make the better decision next time. The way I see it, it goes against the whole idea of having a Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service in the first place.

Next, contrasting the conflicting behaviours based on values (i.e. conceptions of the good) can only happen through a "real discussion", as Oscar explained. This appears to be the second major shortcoming of how values and ethics are currently applied in the federal public service. Again, I'm only talking from my personal experience, but when I was investigated for allegedly breaching the Code, I was never asked a single question, never had an opportunity to give my side of the story, never got a chance to explain what “values” guided my actions. In short, no discussion ever took place. Values were a non-issue; the investigation was not about ethics (competing conceptions of the good) but rather proving wrongdoing. Perhaps we need a structured process (such as this one) to force these “real discussions” to take place...

Despite the rhetoric to the effect that the Code of Values and Ethics is intended to provide ethical guidance, it seems to me that public servants, in fact, are not free to make ethical choices. Instead, the organization imposes its ethics on the employee. Not only is this approach disconnected from the reality of how public servant operate on a day-to-day basis, and not only does it provide a disincentive for public servants to exercise any kind of judgment in the course of their duties, it also suggests that ethics is in fact “a disguise for power”, as Gordon Lafer expressed in his article entitled “The Critical Failure of Workplace Ethics”.

So let's go back to the original question that served as a basis for this posting: “Values and Ethics in the Public Service of Canada: Tautology or Missed Opportunity?” In this posting, I have tried to articulate that:
  • The Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service describes in greater detail what we already know to be the role of the Public Service of Canada.
  • Wrongdoing is not “ethics”. Instead, ethics involves competing conceptions of the good. Failure to recognize these competing conceptions of the good therefore leads directly to a failure of the ethical process. If values and ethics investigations only seek to determine the existence of wrongdoing, there is no point in having a Code, other than using it as a legal basis for punishing the wrongdoer.
  • Ethics must involve a real discussion in order to fully understand the ethical choice made by the public servant. The absence of such a discussion is the equivalent of denying the public servant the freedom to make ethical choices based on the Code. This, in turn, defies the purpose of having a Values and Ethics Code for the Public Service.
As it stands right now, I would have to conclude that values and ethics in the federal public service are a missed opportunity more than a tautology. But with the right people and the right minds, it's still not too late to make the most of the opportunity. In a future posting, I intend to recommend some readings, models and frameworks that offer solutions to the current values and ethics dead-end.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

More Straight Talk

In my last posting I mentioned the importance (and emergence) of straight talk in the federal public service, such as Paquet and Hubbard do in "Cat's Eyes: Intelligent Work Versus Perverse Incentives - APEX Forum on Wicked Problems". Well, I have two more great reads to recommend.

The first is the work of one of my good friend, Deepa. She is the author of the Pacific Federal Council's "Public Service Renewal in BC: Current State and Recommendations" (available to federal public servants only). Whenever I read a document, I like to highlight the parts that resonate with me. In this case, I ran out of highlighter! The report offers a very objective and thorough look at the issues facing the federal public service in BC.

The second reading I would like to recommend is a report from Health Canada entitled "Multigenerational Workplaces Forum: The Future of the Public Service", available on the National Managers' Community website. I wish I could have attended this forum, which featured an A-class "brochette" of presenters and speakers, and the methodology used to survey the participants offers a very interesting perspective of the diversity of point of views we can find in our workplaces. This is another good excellent example of a report painting an unbiased picture of our federal public service. I have had the chance to collaborate with some of the organizers of this forum on an other event, and I can tell you that they really take to heart the value of "straight talk" and having meaningful conversations.

Once again, please take a moment to express yourself through the my poll and surveys:
  1. The one-question poll on the right-hand side of my blog: 25 people have responded to the survey so far, but surely more people than this have access to my blog!
  2. The survey on PS Renewal and Web 2.0: 37 responses so far, and I am aiming to get at least one response from each and every department and agency in the federal public service by the time I compile the results - so please forward the link to friends and colleagues!
  3. The survey on management leadership: this one I can't wait to analyze, but in order to do so I need to have a good size sample of responses - so please come and share your thoughts.
  4. And of course, there is the Bottom-Up Renewal group. Please forward to your bosses, colleagues and friends!

I am heading to Guelph to deliver a speech on "Bottom-Up Change" to a group of middle managers and take part in a panel on change management. Talk to you soon!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Straight Talk

When I first released “An Inconvenient Renewal”, most initial reactions from readers were fairly strong. Some experienced it as a form of “catharsis” (!), others couldn’t believe my audacity to publish “such heretical ideas about the public service”.

Fortunately, some people also saw in the paper an opportunity to make it the starting point to a meaningful discussion with their staff and colleagues. One such person was a Regional Director General in the Pacific region who, 24 hours after receiving the paper, forwarded it to ALL his staff with the following note:

Good Day All, I'm forwarding this paper, "An Inconvenient Renewal" to you, not to incite dissention, but to provoke further thought and discussion on our work environments and your ability to influence positive change, regardless of your function within our organization. I hope, should you read this, you'll consider our [business plan] and think about how the two dove tail. […] I look forward to hearing your thoughts and invite you to share and explore options within your respective offices.”

Needless to say, I was impressed! And much to my delight, his memo to staff paved the way for other RDGs who followed in his footsteps.

I have since observed a trend in a number of public service-related publications: straight talk. Aside from being characterized by honesty and truth-telling, you can often recognize straight talk by its candidness and refreshing style.

As it turns out, I just finished reading one of the best piece of work I have seen in a long time: "Cat's Eyes: Intelligent Work Versus Perverse Incentives - APEX Forum on Wicked Problems" (registration to Optimum Online is free; you just need to provide your email address). The paper, written by Ruth Hubbard and Gilles Paquet, “is a report on sixteen sessions of discussion with a few dozen federal government executives on eight different difficult topics that, by their very nature, seem to require the development of something akin to cat’s eyes. These sessions took place in the fall of 2007 and the winter of 2008, under the auspices of the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada (APEX).

While the first part is filled with interesting observations about the so-called “perverse incentives”, it is really the second part of the article (“A personal distillation of what we learned”) that resonated with me the most. Indeed it provides an amazingly honest, uncensored, yet respectful, analysis of the culture of the public service executive cadre. I can’t recommend it enough! This is definitely a must-read for any public service executive willing to take a good look into the mirror.


Speaking of straight talk, I also want to hear from you! I have a few polls and surveys currently running:

You may also discuss your own PS Renewal initiatives on the Bottom-Up Renewal group. (So far participation is next to non-existent, despite many requests for such a tool. If you can help me understand why, please drop me a line!)

Please forward to your bosses, colleagues and friends!