Risk, Fear and Paranoia: Perspective, People!

Penny Sharpe MLC asked me to say something controversial at her NSW Sphere event back on 4 September. Here it is. The full video and transcript (below) of my somewhat rambling discussion of the challenges facing the Government 2.0 revolution.

Hi. I’m Stilgherrian, and I’m avoiding the whole projection thing today.

My presentation, the long name was “Risk, Fear and Paranoia: Perspective, People!”, and I just want to spend a few minutes throwing in some ideas which might trigger some discussion point around those, those words.

Now I’ve done a lot of things, including work for the ABC, worked in a government department, been a freelancer, work a lot with small business in their IT needs and getting on the Internet. And one of the things I’ve found in all of those environments is that I’ve had to tell people that change means that things will change. And that change means that things will be different at the end of that change.

And this is actually — I mean you laugh — but it’s actually like the core thing that people have a lot of trouble getting their heads around.

They really have to face up to the fact, and everyone has to face up to the fact, that once we go through and experience the changes that are being wrought by the digital networked society, some things that we used to have will no longer be there. Some job descriptions we used to have will no longer be there. Some institutions will be gone. They will be gone forever. And they’ll be replaced by newer, better things — and that’s a good thing.

But in the meantime, there’s going to be quite a bit of destruction and quite a bit of discomfort, and that’s why everyone has a natural fear of change. And that’s why this process of bootstrapping Government 2.0 — and I promise not to use that term again because it’s awful — is actually really difficult, because we are going to people in politics and in government and are asking them to actively engage in a process in which there is a chance that they will lose their job.

So how do you deal with that?

Here’s a few ideas, and these are kind of random.

A psychologist once told me that there’s three key pillars to mental health, and by the measure of these pillars I would say that our governments are currently paranoid psychotics. Here’s why.

These are the three pillars, and you have to take these on board to be a healthy human being, and I say as a healthy institution.

One, you can’t control everything. There are other actors in the world and they also get to control bits of the world. Plus there is Chaos, God, whatever you want to call it, which is completely beyond your control.

The second one is that you will make mistakes. I usually express that a little more forcefully. But you will screw up. You cannot be perfect. You have to face the fact that no matter how good you are, that some of the time you will fail.

And the third one is that in all of that process there will inevitably be people who don’t like you, for whatever reason. It’s their psychosis, perhaps, not yours. But all of these things will happen, and it’s not within your control.

Now if you are forever obsessing about these things, you will forever live in a paranoid psychotic state and will not ever get anything done. So you have to somehow take all that on board.

Now the gentlemen to my right know a bit more than me about formal risk management and things and actually assessing that, but I’ll pick up on that because there is a lot of fear within traditional public servants and governments and politicians about what’s going on here, and naturally so. We’re trying to get rid of them. So they will come up with “Oh, this could go wrong, that could go wrong.”

Nicholas Gruen who heads the federal Government 2.0 Taskforce has a response to that. It’s “So what?” So what if that goes wrong? Stop and think about it. What is the worst that could happen?

Someone doesn’t like you? Well, they don’t like you. Someone says something bad about you in the media? Well, you might have to issue a correcting statement or whatever. But you can’t stop that happening initially and it might not be your fault — particularly as the media, as we all know, loves to find mistakes, controversy, make governments look fools. That’s great. So just don’t talk to them. Just talk directly to the people through your own channels.

Now I just want to ask the room here today to put your hands up — now I’ll ask people on Twitter to do this as well, so this is “hands1”. Tweet “hands1” or put your hand up if you consider yourself a geek or others tell you that they consider that you’re a geek. Oh, no space, sorry, for the Twitter users. OK, that’s about half the room.

Keep your hands up and add to that if you consider yourself someone who’s an early adopter or in some other realm. OK, we’re seeing pretty much half the people.

So keep your hand up if you’ve at any point criticised either privately or publicly a politician or government for being stupid because they don’t get — I’m seeing even more hands go up now than those who admitted to geeks.

OK, you’re part of the problem. Because you are creating a combative attitude, which just from a normal human psychology point of view… A politician, if you start telling them they’re stupid they’re going to get their back up and they’re not going to pay you any attention. They’re going to think you’re a wanker. And by and large you probably are.

But this is the thing. There has to be… you know, these are the people who you want to work with. These are the people who can help you make change.

Now we heard before that there’s about 95% of the people in the room have Twitter accounts. This is perhaps not the best room to ask this is in, but how many of you have, for example, written a formal submission to the Government 2.0 Taskforce or an equivalent organisation? I’m seeing one, two, three, four, five… OK, that’s not bad, there’s about 12 or 15 hands there. But we’ve got, you know, well over a hundred people in the room, in and out. So that’s what it is.

The tools that we have now, that already have legal and political power, are the tools we have to first pick up, to then use those tools to create the next batch of tools and move on from there.

Now another thing is that there’s traditionally two kinds of work, process work and project work, and government and public service by and large has been process work.

The difference between these two?

Process work chugs along. At the end of a unit of work, the universe is pretty much the same as it was as when you started. You’ve done your process thing, that payroll’s been done, everyone’s paid, and you go around the cycle.

With project work, at the end of the project something’s different. It’s a limited period, you’ve changed something, you’ve built something — but whatever it is, the world is different and the project team finishes and you all get paid and go away.

I would like to suggest that we are now moving into a world where those two things merge. That the rate of change is such that we no longer have these separate categories, that we are in a continual state of projectness. I won’t coin some sort of stupid word to describe that, but I think it does mean that getting used to the idea of continual change is something we’ll have to accept. And then we’ll have to take that on board and and not go back to that paranoid state of fearing the change.

Now, managing continual change. The Internet and IT industries do this all the time, and I’m going to jump around here and talk about a few things.

There’s the buzzwords of “Fail fast and fail cheap”.

OK, you’re going to fail, I’ve said that, well, some of the time you will fail. So make sure that you identify that as quickly as possible. It’s much better to fail after four weeks having spent $10,000 than to string it out for six months and $100,000 when it’s still going to fail.

There’s something in there about making sure everyone leaves their egos at home, and about making sure that no-one will be punished for acknowledging that there’s a failure. And here’s a really hard thing, because if you’re the one who puts your hand up and says, “Hey, this is failing”, you know, you’re suddenly not a team player or whatever.

These are the kind of attitudes within organisations that have to change. Now I don’t know how you do that, but there are organisational psychologists who do.

I reckon what you do is you do things… look, lots of little things. How about to spread the risk, instead of having one big centrally-planned model for how to deliver some particular health service in a community, you just let those communities decide how they’re going to do it, being able to ask the central office for advice, and you let them evolve and let them talk to each other and let them communicate to each other — and then they can work out amongst themselves which works better.

There’s no reason why all of those little community offices run by the Department of Health need to have the Department of Health’s IT department deal with their computers. If it’s just to a standard, and you write down the standard that comes, perhaps, centrally about how secure it has to be, then you just let any local business bid for that work.

[Audience member: “Hear hear.”]

Thank you.

I heard at another forum — gee, one of the several I’ve been at so I can’t say which one it was — one of the big problems for getting small business in, though, is the overhead of doing a government tender is just too, too hard. There does need to be a simpler way of having small businesses do stuff.

And let’s remember, the median business in Australia is a sole trader with a part-time bookkeeper. So in a technology field that means a person who might have an assistant or a trainee. You know, a typical, a median small business is a plumber with an apprentice. And that’s the kind of… that’s where innovation can happen because you spread the risk amongst a lot of little individuals.

China over the years has been opening up its economy to Western investment in a lot of ways, but certainly in big industries like coal, petroleum, other mining industry, auto manufacturing and so on. Now they have a model for doing this.

It’s that China is so big you might have thousands of coal mines. So they’ll initially pick eight or ten, and give them each a different model for how they have to work with their local community, how they have to do their documentation, how their tax regime works, and then they see which ones work best. Then they pick that model, try another few variations and roll it out to fifty. And then only at the end of that process do they decide, “We will now open up their entire coal mining industry to Western investment. We’ve trialled it first.”

Again, it’s about doing things in small, easy stages.

But there always seems to be a natural tendency for governments to want to pull it all in and want to make a big thing and wrap it up in a fancy report with a big bow and have the Minister launch it. I think that’s not the way to do it because that then associates the Minister with it, and the Minister will quite naturally not want to be associated with anything that has the slightest change of anything going wrong.

On that, though, there needs to be some media education happening here. Why does the media get such an easy run when something is really just a mistake? We all know the techniques — or at least government media departments should know the techniques — for how to stake out that little post in the sand and say, “No, this is what we’re on about”, to frame the message.

Now after the 1960s in America, when the liberal side of politics made all of its advances through the 60s, the conservatives went into retreat and thought about this for a very long time and created the Neocon movement. Now whatever you may or may not think about the Neocon movement, they were incredibly successful at creating a long-term strategy for regaining power by re-framing the message with powerful frames that were difficult to attack. And the result was that they ended up in power from Reagan through to Bush the Second and were very, very difficult to knock off and only were knocked off by someone who came in again with a completely new set of very, very powerfully-framed ways of looking at the world.

I just throw that in there as a long-term project. This is a long-term project. That’s why we don’t need to be distracted by whatever the fad of the day is, and we’ve heard some of that already about using tools for purpose not fads for the moment. And I probably should drop in words like “open standards” and “extensible standards” and blah blah blah and all that — but that’s all of the geek stuff. This really isn’t about technology. It’s about new ways of people working together with the technology.

Now it will, along the way, as I say, put people out of work. There will be people who need to adapt and to develop new ways of doing things. There will be people who will be unable to do that.

Now one simple answer is to sack them. That probably won’t work, initially, because there will be a body of knowledge there and that will run into resistance. And again, the way to counter that is through absolute transparency of process at every stage.

I had the very great pleasure of working with a man called Adam Salzer off and on over the years. He’s now a Director of PricewaterhouseCoopers in Hong Kong.

He used to have his own business where he would go into China and, say, a Western investor had taken over the coal mine and the coal mine had 20,000 staff, a bad safety record, endemic corruption, run-down equipment and the new company wished to cut that down to a more focussed workforce of 6,000 people, with a better safety record, get rid of the corrupt people — and yet at the same time working with the local communities so that people who were out of work were suitably re-trained etc.

They would put together and work that plan in a totally transparent way in 13 weeks by making absolutely every step of the process involve everyone in the place, so everyone was informed, and the same process applied to everyone.

There are people out there who know how to do massive transformation, they just don’t seemt to be working as much in government at the moment.

I sometimes wonder why that is, and then I look at the kind of salaries offered for government positions. And the government will currently attract risk-averse people because, say, a systems administrator in a government department might get — I haven’t seen the latest numbers — but say $60,000 per annum on a secure-ish job but in the private sector they might get $100,000 per annum on a less-secure job. And so you’re automatically filtering risk-averse people into government and the creative risk-takers out of government.

That somehow needs to be addressed. And I don’t know how you do it and I dont think, though, you do it necessarily with money because if you talk to any of those creative risk-takers by and large they love the money that the private sector gives them but that’s not really what they enjoy. They enjoy having access to the latest tools, or they enjoy their 20% of their time at Google being able to work on their own projects or whatever it might be, and maybe that needs to come in.

Now I’ve roamed all over the place there, and my notes are kind of like this random scribble of topics so that’s hardly surprising. I’ll finish on two quick points.

One is that the captain of a ship does not stand there going, “Oh my God, we’re going up, we’re going up! No, no, no, we’re going down, down, down! No! Up, up, up, up, waves! No!” No. No matter how rough the waves, their eyes are fixed on the horizon, and they’re standing steadily moving towards that. And even if a really big wave comes, they’re comfortable in the direction they’re heading.

Somehow we have to create that kind of vision, or learn how to live in an environment where it’s choppy seas and we’re really not sure, but are at least comfortable with our ship and our crew and our own sense of whatever it is that keeps us stable and not be paranoid psychotics.

Um, and the other… no. How about I leave it at that and just say whatever we’re going here now is a long-term plan and it really goes to the heart of what actually government means and does. But we need to take on that long-term challenge and accept the crazy ride confidently. Thank you.

6 Replies to “Risk, Fear and Paranoia: Perspective, People!”

  1. A great post about what is at the heart of our collective challenge, Stilgherrian. I know this well:

    “…I’ve had to tell people that change means that things will change. And that change means that things will be different at the end of that change…but it’s actually like the core thing that people have a lot of trouble getting their heads around.”

    I particularly like your ‘three pillars’!

  2. @Darcy Moore: Thanks. This was a mostly improvised speech, bouncing off a page of scribbled notes — though the ideas had been gurgling around for some time — so it’s not particularly well structured. I’ll post a picture of that page some time! I plan to re-edit it into a more coherent form.

    I can’t lay claim to the Three Pillars, but if I find where they first originated I’ll post the reference.

  3. An interesting battle may loom when the status quo defenders circle their collective wagons.

    “there is a lot of fear within traditional public servants and governments and
    politicians about what’s going on here, and naturally so. We’re trying to get rid of
    them. So they will come up with “Oh, this could go wrong, that could go wrong.”

    The “Yeah buts” won’t go quietly, so indeed lets hang on for the crazy ride, confidently. Pescian elements of Liquid learning within your vision. I like it.

  4. I’m with Tony on this, having experienced first hand, totally unacceptable power playing and personal political posturing when I worked in the APS.

    I called them then and I will again, if need be. It won’t change overnight but it will happen, I am so not afraid of crash a burn when I believe in a cause.


    with a glass of champagne and a dash of chambord (love black raspberries) http://www.chambordonline.com/Age.aspx?ReturnUrl=%2fDefault.aspx

  5. Someone has criticised me for saying that I’d not use the term “government 2.0” again after that first instance, but I then use it twice later in the speech. Given that I was in both instances referring specifically to the Government 2.0 Taskforce, and that’s the name of that body, I don’t think that counts.

    Unless I say “The Taskforce That Dare Not Speak Its Name”? No, that’d be something else…

    @Rae: Cheers. I don’t think I’ve ever had chambord without it being in a more complex cocktail. I shall have to explore.

Comments are closed.