Demographics pose pressing dilemma: Renew or reinvent

I recently attended a meeting of four graduate students and four executives from a provincial Crown corporation. The topic was e-government and how Web 2.0 can improve customer and employee engagement and thus improve performance. The discussion was lively.

Students left impressed with the executives’ knowledge and usage of such terms as wikis, RSS feeds, and other buzzwords of the day; the managers, in turn, appreciated the insight and enthusiasm of the students, eagerly awaiting their analysis and eventual recommendations.

Such is the ideal scenario of e-government and public sector renewal – senior managers open to change, willing to listen, and prepared to empower younger workers within their organizations to lead renewal efforts aimed at the nexus between digital and organizational innovation. Such is a key to both government relevance and renewal in the coming decade.

Conversely, a more ominous scenario may be taking shape, one driven by widening concerns about a massive exodus of the senior management cadre across the federal and most provincial governments. Such departures, according to some, can only mean a critical loss of talent, knowledge and organizational memory at a time when the public sector confronts increasingly complex and managerial challenges.

Governments are thus beginning to at least consider the prospect of incentive packages for people to stay (a dramatic reversal of the mid-1990s program review era). New mechanisms, such as external audit committees (called for by the Federal Accountability Act) will also provide venues for many retired senior officials to exercise influence. It’s also not completely unthinkable that many government executives may choose to stay longer as mandatory retirement becomes more the exception than the norm.

Accordingly, the stock of human capital in government may not be so perilous after all, but would such developments be entirely positive? A cost of maintaining today’s workforce may be reduced opportunities for younger workers to both advance themselves and collectively redefine the ethos of the public sector workplace.

Web 2.0 is a mystery for most senior officials in government today, a necessary evil for a smaller group of architects responsible for e-government generally and service delivery especially. No doubt, there are even a few techno-champions in the midst of this latter segment, social innovators determined to swim upstream since the public sector mindset toward embracing new technologies is mainly incremental: study, pilot and carefully roll out modest changes while doing what one can to minimize risk.

Although there are good reasons to emphasize stability and caution in a public sector realm involving partisan politics and critically important services and programs, the dilemma faced by governments is how to balance such continuity with an intensifying need for more radical innovation.

Web 2.0 personifies the latter, and especially the spreading culture of personalization, instant communication and speed. Witness Robert Reich’s new book entitled Supercapitalism, or Michael Hirschorn’s observation in a recent issue of The Atlantic that his six-year-old son cannot understand why a song heard on the radio cannot be instantly replayed.

No matter really, since, as Hirschorn reports, the explosive growth of Apple’s iTunes system has traditional recording companies reeling – a profound re-ordering of the entire music industry now underway. Traditional radio may survive, but it will have fewer listeners and more competitors and perhaps more innovative offerings as a result.

Governments are facing the same pressures to find new ways to deliver services and engage citizens, especially younger segments of the population who risk having no enduring social contract with their democratic institutions. For the public service, the decline of the traditional workplace compact of anonymity, job security and deference to hierarchy is no less revolutionary.

What comes next cannot be decided solely nor even primarily by the present cadre of leaders. Strategies to keep the most experienced workers around that much longer may well accentuate a preference for incrementalism – in turn, a recipe for the brightest of today’s youth to be under-utilized and disgruntled public servants at best or individuals who shun public service altogether.

Middle managers matter here. If you occupy such a post and are hiring a summer intern, consider carefully the tasks assigned as well as the mutual opportunities for learning. The relationship between student and immediate supervisor is often a powerful determinant of not only whether or not the prospective public servant seriously entertains this career choice, but also what they have to say about their job on their blog.

Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University. Contact him at [email protected].

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