Category: Business Operations

Failing Forward

A recent article by Lee McCormack in the May 2010 issue of Government Executive Magazine discussed innovation in the context of the public sector (PS).  His key barriers to PS innovation – delivery pressures and administrative burdens, lack of resources, and low tolerance for risk – are not unfamiliar to anyone who has tried to transform or create an organization, product, or service.

What struck a chord as I read this article was the phrase “Fail Forward”.  Many practitioners, including myself, within the product or service innovation space will have used the term “fail fast” and/or “fail often” at some point in time to convey an approach to innovative work where an organization progresses initiatives at a pace that allows them to know quickly whether or not that initiative will fail so that investments are minimized.  But to Lee’s point, and to the chagrin of many within the PS who have attempted to do something with good intentions but who have failed, failure often presents negative and significant career ramifications for public servants which is one of the key reasons why the PS has had challenges innovating.  The notion of Failing Forward – accepting that sometimes innovation will fail and that it shouldn’t hamper an employee’s advancement – is critical.

As I thought about this further, I couldn’t help but equate this situation – the mandate to innovate and improve but the lack of a cushion to fail on – with the situation parents face almost every day.  With children, it is our job to facilitate our children’s development; their mental and physical growth.  If we define innovation as at-least incremental improvement to <something>, we are indeed the shepherds of our children’s innovation.  Their improvement at riding a bike, hitting a baseball, or playing piano is directly related to our practice as parents to ensure they know there is a cushion to fail on.  For mistakes made at riding a bike, hitting a baseball, or playing piano are good mistakes because they learn from them and get better because of it.  In fact, after guiding them through a few mistakes, we know they eventually won’t need us any more.  In an organizational context, this is a path to efficiencies and employee engagement.

Don't take the bike away if they fall a few times

We usually don’t take the bike away after a couple of falls.

A culture of risk intolerance can be such a disservice to an organization.  First,  it creates so much fear of failure that even the “right thing to do” is not done.  Second, when failure occurs and people are subject to negative consequences, the learning from the failure is lost and not applied to the next situation so organizational learning grinds to a halt.  While changing a culture built up over decades is a significant challenge, when approached one thought at a time it becomes more manageable.  So for PS executives and leaders, one thought exercise to engage in when facing decisions about how to deal with failures and learning in the context of an innovative/new work initiative is to picture a young child on a bike with training wheels and remember the approach you’d take to shepherding their improvement.

If I Could Be a Government Web Site Manager

By Denise Eisner

I work alongside some very dedicated, passionate web people in government. They want to have web sites that are usable, readable and of value to the audiences they’re intended to reach. For reasons both obvious to those in government and to anyone else who has tried to push new ideas in large organizations, there’s a set of what we euphemistically term “challenges” to achieving these goals.

But let’s say for a moment that said challenges were surmountable and the HIPPO (Highest Paid Person in the Office) was giving me carte blanche to run the web site per accepted best practices and the latest in research-driven design principles. Wow! Colour me happy!

Quick, before the HIPPO changes his/her mind, here’s my wish list:

  • Double the size of the web team – No site that is designed to reach audience segments as vast and varied as those served by government sites can be run with two people, neither of which have time to strategize, plan, write, edit, apply metatags, code, test, and perform quality control, all while responding to the latest request to convert a 200-page report to HTML. Scale the team to the size of the site really needed by users.
  • Let my team control the site design – Everyone has opinions but design by opinion war only leads to chaos and bad feeling. I’ll consult with stakeholders, sure. I’ll amass quality research to back up my ideas and proposals (web metrics, surveys, usability tests, etc.). But I’ll make all high-level design decisions regarding navigation, breadcrumbs and landing pages. And I’ll be able to defend those decisions with data.
  • Have dedicated IT resource(s) on the Web team – Rather than have the disconnect that can exist between varying business units, combine the various skill sets needed to have a strong web group capable of supporting high-quality content and web infrastructure.
  • Publish good content, not FAQs – I was recently inspired by R. Stephen Gracey’s post on how FAQS “seem to constitute a basic instruction manual or else call attention to selling features, making them only marginally useful to users with real questions.” I want good writers to develop quality, searchable content and an editor to oversee publishing standards.
  • Help me get the web strategy approved – I need senior support for defining why we need a web site and who we really serve (beyond the catch-all “all Canadians”). This will help me maintain a focused web operation that strategic, not reactionary, and supports our business priorities.
  • Approve a governance model for the web – In order to make informed, strategic decisions around the web, particularly for the aforementioned strategy, let’s implement the roles we defined for a web champion, working group, ad hoc teams and steering committee.
  • I’ll just do Web 2.0, now – Hey, I’ll start a blog! I found a SME who’s willing to share his/her expertise with a specific audience (teachers, businesspeople, scientists), so I added the blog to the site, moderated it myself, and can report the site activity to management. It involves extra work but as EPA web 2.0 guru Jeffrey Levy told me last year, you learn by doing. We’ll keep an eye on performance and keep tweaking it as needed.
  • Good measurement tools – You only can manage what you can measure. Let’s get the right tool and get a professional to configure it according to our performance indicators. I can help find efficiencies if I have good data to present to senior management.

Quite a wish list, but these approaches all point to effective site management.

A planning formula for senior managers in federal government

Based on his experience working with federal government clients, Systemscope Partner Stephen Karam of Systemscope’s Government Service Excellence practice has crafted several strategies for senior managers who are about to plan their business transformation projects for the following fiscal year. Colleague Denise Eisner chatted with Stephen about how these strategies support decision-making in a time of limited resources.

Government managers are heading into a key planning period. What should be top of mind when they sit down to chart out next fiscal year?

There are three key themes that management should focus on before initiating large business transformation projects: engagement, framing the problem, and defining specific tools as drivers of transformation.

Let’s first look at engagement. Many times, we have observed managers who have an idea and try to push it up the chain alone without engaging with their colleagues first. Frame your issue it so it engages your peers and their ADM or the DM. Tie yourself to a hot political item in the organization and demonstrate how your plan brings the greatest value internally and to your clients.

How should a manager start the planning process for a new project?

That question brings me to the second theme: not only framing your business problem in a way that engages executives and builds a peer community in support of your vision, but doing so in a way that can be measured.

Have you noticed that a lot of recent Treasury Board initiatives are internally focused? Examples include the upcoming Service Strategy, initially focused on internal service improvement, as well as efforts on improvement of Grants & Contributions (Gs&Cs), looking to reduce administration costs by 10%. I recommend that managers quantify their improvements in the same way. The more you can demonstrate what you want to achieve and how you plan to do it, you are better positioned to receive your ask.

In terms of framing projects, you also want to align with your organization’s Program Activity Architecture (PAA), the Management Accountability Framework (MAF), and the Federal Accountability Act. A common pitfall of a lot of initiatives is that they can articulate how external clients will benefit from transformation, but they do not specifically map outcomes to the machinery of government. When an executive has to prioritize within their portfolio of projects, you must make it easy for them to choose your initiative – both from the client perspective but also from the bureaucracy lens.

Is what you’re describing typically referred to as a business transformation project?

People want to label anything transformation. A common misconception is that business transformation is the same as service transformation. Business transformation is focused on an improved way of doing business and fulfilling strategic policy; it’s truly a change in business and culture. It’s not only a set of projects, but an ongoing program of change.

Executives have to be very clear about what they are trying to transform. How is the business going to be better? When talking to the ADM or DM, rather than touting a technological platform as being better, talk about how it can make the business run better – using measurable improvements to sell your case. Show how the proposed solution can reduce errors, improve throughput and by how much. Now you’re talking about performance metrics. Now you’re starting to align with MAF and PAA. Apply the transformation label only if it truly transforms or enables that process.

Many clients still tend to lead with technology when labeling a transformation project. Does this work?

The challenge is that tools are part of “engineering” a solution; effectively planning focuses on the architecture of an outcome. For example, GC organizations who are Microsoft-based are saying they will invest in MOSS as part of their evergreening process, yet they will label the project as a transformation initiative. It can be, only if the organization focuses on why, what and how it wants to transformation from the perspective of business, process and data/information. Only then can it be determined how to engineer a solution to support the transformation.

One of our clients has fully integrated their systems with MOSS so it is the interface where users have to log in to all their systems, acting as a Business Process Platform. In order to make this successful, the client did a lot of upfront work in the way of business, process and information architecture previous to MOSS being installed and configured. MOSS enabled but did not change the way they do their core business.

What supporting skill sets are needed to plan big projects effectively?

One of the significant gaps in government now is the ability to effectively capture and translate business requirements into actual functional and system requirements that will enable programs’ business needs, both external and internal facing . There must be a group in the organization to bridge that gap. Some departments have a group in the CIO called portfolio management or a similar name. These teams are designed to enable their clients to fulfill business goals. But the missing ingredient is often solid business analysis skills. True business analysis is driven by a deep understanding of business outcomes. Building that business analysis capability represents a fundamental internal challenge that senior managers still need to address. While there has been advancement in this area by some departments, we are observing a critical lack of capacity and capability for these resources across organizations to keep up with the demand of the business.

When Social Media in Government Works…Or Not So Much

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is one of the U.S. government leaders in the creative use of social media tools to support its mission. Jeffrey Levy, EPA’s Director of Web Communications, has made it his mission to share his experiences, including successes, lessons learned, and barriers – both perceived and real. He did so again with more than 60 Canadian public service managers at the Systemscope Executive Breakfast at GTEC in October, 2009.

Denise Eisner of Systemscope’s Government Service Excellence practice sat down with Jeffrey after GTEC to discuss his experiences and impressions.

You met with several federal Canadian department representatives during your brief stay in Canada. What stood out for you in terms of the challenges faced by departments who are planning for or engaging in social media to reach their audiences?

The fact that we all face the same issues: serving our missions, being creative, yet exploring new tools while meeting good governance requirements like records management and accessibility.

Any surprises during those conversations?

I didn’t realize that everything the Canadian government does has to be done in both French and English.  I’m guessing that doesn’t merely double the difficulty, but more like squares it.

In your experience at the EPA, how has social media moved the agency’s agenda forward? How were these activities connected to your overall communications strategy?

So far, social media at EPA is mostly about communications and education.  As we consider our needs, we ask what social media tools would help and choose the ones that will help most and fit within our resources.  For example, last Earth Day, we wanted to deliver daily tips to people, so we used a mix of “traditional” tools like email distribution, social media like creating a podcast series that we put into iTunes and also put the tips into a widget people can put on their own site.

We’re also slowly starting to explore using social media for policy development.  For example, our enforcement office currently has a discussion forum running to hear people’s thoughts about setting enforcement priorities:.

And we have two efforts to build communities around managing watersheds and providing training about green jobs.  The idea is that by helping people do their environmental jobs better, we “produce” environmental protection, even when it’s not EPA staff doing the work.


Canadian departments and agencies have a number of requirements when communicating with the public, particularly in terms of our bilingual policies. Any thoughts on how to best meet these challenges when engaging in social media?

Start small.  That’s really the same advice I give everyone.  It’s very easy to jump into multiple projects and then discover it’s not quite as simple or quick as you thought.  So especially with the dual-language requirement, try things that lend themselves to being done simply.  For example, we put all of our news releases out via RSS on Twitter.  Since Canadian agencies are already publishing news releases in both languages, set up two Twitter accounts to promote them.

The same thing might go for a podcast series, where you record each one twice, but then there’s no ongoing resource use.

In contrast, running two Facebook fan pages really does at least double the complexity, because you have all the issues of encouraging engagement and then reacting, but now in two languages.


At the Systemscope executive breakfast at GTEC in October, you mentioned social media projects that didn’t always go as expected. Can you elaborate on one project and the lessons learned from that experience?


Pick 5 for the Environment is a project where we challenge people to commit to at least 5 of 10 environmental actions.  We went from concept to launch in 19 days.  It included a Facebook fan page and groups on both Flickr and YouTube.  Our hope was that it would take off in all three social media communities, without much input from us. We were wrong.  The fan page has actually gotten some attention, and we have nearly 1300 fans.  But the accompanying Facebook app hasn’t really taken off.  And the Flickr and YouTube groups haven’t generated much interest. So now we’re reassessing, thinking creatively about whether and how to use those outlets.  Most of our energy is going into thinking about how the people who signed up can generate excitement, share their stories, etc.


As part of our web maturity model, Systemscope focuses on helping clients examine roles and competencies that will support their web strategies. What is the skill set that government organizations need to acquire or build to be truly proficient at social media?

Great question.  Can you let me know the answer? 🙂  There really isn’t a single answer, but here are some of the skills I’m trying to build and encourage within my team: creativity, time management, writing, project management, analysis, and actually using social media tools.  That is, I believe that to use something like Facebook well, you need to use it yourself; reading about features and diving in yourself are two entirely different experiences.  I play Facebook games partly because they’re fun and partly to see what kinds of experiences they create, in hopes we can mimic that in what we offer.  The same thing goes with Twitter, Flickr, and any other site.

What do you like about Canada?

Natural beauty and friendly people.  I’ve had the great fortune of visiting Banff, Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, and now I’ve had the pleasure of exploring at least a little bit of Ottawa.

Web Usability as Part of Your Public Opinion Research Planning

By Denise Eisner

As government departments and agencies ramp up efforts to measure their websites’ performance, they increasingly look to usability testing as one of several tools available to gauge user acceptance and satisfaction and make site improvements. A new set of guidelines by Treasury Board in effect as of June 9, 2009 however demands a new approach in planning usability tests by defining this research approach as public opinion research (POR).

“Quality of service/customer satisfaction studies” is defined in the TBS procedures as POR. What does this mean for Comms and IT teams planning usability testing in the near term or next fiscal year?

If your usability testing is planned before fiscal year end, the procedures stipulate that approval comes from the minister or equivalent role per the Financial Administration Act. Given the challenges in bringing such a request to that level in time to conduct testing by March 31, the risk to web projects is high.

The good news is that web teams have time to prepare their annual POR plan for next fiscal year. Find a management champion to support the project, then get together a small group of stakeholders from the appropriate teams to build a proposal. Present your approach to management for consideration and approval according to your organization’s planning timelines.

How to prepare your usability plan for next fiscal

After you have thoroughly digested the TBS procedures, build a solid case for your future usability testing by including these components in your proposal:

  • Project Background – tie the methodology to your business and site goals per your Report on Plans and Priorities, other departmental/agency planning documents and the website strategy
  • Information Needs – define specifically the goals of the research
  • Partnerships – specify any extra-departmental partners and explain the nature of these partnerships
  • Rational and Intended Use of Research – How the research will support department or government priorities, benefit Canadians, and is prescribed by legislative, policy, evaluation or litigation requirement. Also specify the privacy risks of collecting information, if appropriate.
  • Target Populations – description of the participant demographics
  • Methodology and Scope – method for collecting data with detail on any personal information to be collected
  • Deliverables – nature of research outputs, i.e. format
  • Anticipated Timeline – when the research will be conducted and the deliverables completed
  • Budget – costs for contracted services, etcs.
  • Project Authority – name and title

Ideally, your proposal will reference a completed Annual Research Plan which is associated to an overall performance measurement framework approved by senior management. In the absence of those key guidance documents, strengthen your proposed approach by tying your usability testing goals to future development of these web channel components.

GTEC 2009 – Smarter, Faster, Cheaper, Easier to Use… and Policy-Compliant: ACOA’s SharePoint-based Business Process Platform (BPP)

[Le français suit]

On the one hand, there is the pressure on the GC to improve service delivery to clients and stakeholders while respecting new policies and directives including project management (PM), information management (IM) and record keeping (RK). On the other hand, the current environment of Strategic Review, the focus on accountability and economic restraint are setting the expectation on departments and agencies to do more with less.

Is this more than departments and agencies can hope to manage?

Have no fear. There are working business solutions within the GC that demonstrate that this balance is achievable. The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), which manages $250M annually in grants and contributions, is leveraging existing commercially available solutions and government investments in Web 2.0 and enabling tools to improve the way it serves its clients, manages its business, and complies with new GC policies and directives. According to executives and managers, the ACOA Business Process Platform has significantly improved their working experience and their ability to serve clients, while respecting organizational obligations under the MAF and PAA.

Ron Surette – DG, Service Transformation, ACOA and Stephen Karam – Systemscope’s Lead for Government Service Excellence discussed:

  • How the BPP has significantly reduced program implementation time to days instead of months;
  • How ACOA engaged its business community to transform its data, content and process architecture prior to applying any IM/IT enablers; and
  • How the BPP effectively weaves Web 2.0 into the everyday work environment for managers and executives.

Download the presentation: Smarter, Faster, Cheaper, Easier to Use… and Policy-Compliant: ACOA’s SharePoint-based Business Process Platform


Plus intelligent, plus rapide, moins cher, plus convivial… et conforme aux politiques : l’APÉCA adopte une plateforme de processus opérationnel (PPO) s’appuyant sur SharePoint

D’un côté, le gouvernement du Canada est sous pression afin d’améliorer la prestation de services à sa clientèle et autres intervenants, tout en respectant de nouvelles politiques et directives en matière de gestion de projet (GP), de gestion de l’information (GI) et de tenue de documents (TD). De l’autre, le climat d’examen stratégique et l’attention portée à l’obligation de rendre compte et des contraintes économiques créent des attentes auprès des ministères et des organismes de réaliser plus, avec moins de ressources.

Les ministères et les organismes peuvent-ils vraiment gérer tout ça?

N’ayez crainte. Il existe des solutions fonctionnelles au sein du GC qui démontrent que cet équilibre est atteignable. L’Agence de promotion économique du Canada atlantique (APÉCA), qui gère plus de 250 millions de dollars par année en subventions et en contributions, a tiré parti de ses solutions commerciales existantes et des investissements gouvernementaux dans le Web 2.0 pour créer des outils qui améliorent la manière dont ils servent leur clientèle, gèrent leurs affaires et qui permettent de se conformer aux nouvelles politiques et directives du GC. Selon les cadres supérieurs et les directeurs, la PPO de l’APÉCA a amélioré de façon significative leur expérience de travail et leurs capacités à servir leurs clients, tout en respectant les obligations organisationnelles du CRG et de l’AAP.

Ron Surette, DG, Transformation des Services, APÉCA, et Stephen Karam, directeur de l’excellence du service gouvernemental de Systemscope ont discutés:

  • L’impact positif sur le temps de la mise en œuvre de programmes grâce à la PPO – passé à quelques jours, par rapport à des mois;
  • La consultation de la communauté d’affaires de l’APÉCA pour faciliter la transformation de ses données, de son contenu et de l’architecture de processus avant la mise en place d’outils de GI/TI; et
  • La manière dont la PPO tisse efficacement le Web 2.0 dans l’environnement de travail quotidien des directeurs et des cadres supérieurs.

Accédez la présentation: Plus intelligent, plus rapide, moins cher, plus convivial… et conforme aux politiques : l’APÉCA adopte une plateforme de processus opérationnel (PPO) s’appuyant sur SharePoint


How Is Your Website Performing? Ten Reasons for a Web Performance Measurement Framework

Originally posted August 28, 2009, on the GTEC Blog.

By Denise Eisner

A performance measurement framework created specifically for your website shifts the focus from simply reporting last month’s site traffic, to obtaining actionable insights that can help you make informed decisions. Not convinced? Consider ten reasons that make the case for adding a framework to your web strategy.

1. Define what success for your organization looks like – You may know why you need a website, but do you understand if it’s delivering results? You can only manage what you can measure.

2. Align your site with organizational objectives – Your Program Activity Architecture spells out the strategic objectives and associated activities for your department or agency. Determine how your current Web presence can support those objectives, and then frame any future content, information architecture or technological changes in terms of how they support your organization’s goals.

3. Identify the ROT and get rid of it – Measurement of site performance includes casting a bright light on underperforming content, or “Redundant, Outdated and Trivial” pages. This content is best archived in accordance with your IM policies, or backed up to portable media.

4. Monitor campaign effectiveness – For high-profile, public outreach programs, having an established method for monitoring traffic to special landing pages via site, e-mail or printed links will tell you if the chosen messages are working, or not.

5. Validate previous site design choices – Web metrics highlight which links on the home page or key landing pages received the most traffic. If traffic is flowing to your most important content and users aren’t abandoning your site, then the existing design is helping to meet both your goals and, hopefully, theirs!

6. Inform future redesigns – If you are contemplating a significant change to the site architecture, your measurement tools will help focus the design direction on research-based patterns of behaviour and further define user tasks and goals.

7. Identify performance benchmarks – If the core site functionality involves a particular online service, then comparing performance against successful organizations with similar mandates offers further insight into how your site measures up against industry leaders.

8. Define key performance indicators (KPIs) – Ideally, KPIs are directly relevant to a business outcome (e.g., increasing the number of people who complete transactions on the web), or user outcome (e.g., successfully finding a specific piece of information).

9. Maintain evidence of key decisions – A framework document captures the decisions the management team has adopted, providing sustainability of the measurement program.

10. Adopt a research-driven approach to the web – Basing decisions on a continual analysis of evolving business outcomes, web statistical trends and regular user feedback affords management the ability to stay strategic and avoid tactical approaches to the Web.

Denise Eisner works within the Government Service Excellence practice at Systemscope. Want to discuss performance measurement? Email her at eisner[at]!

GTEC 2009

Systemscope returned to GTEC October 6, 2009 with a full day of open sessions focused on top-of-mind issues for public sector leaders: making appropriate and effective use of emerging technologies to support employee collaboration, citizen engagement, and government transparency; improving information management maturity in an enterprise setting; and delivering results in a time of unprecedented challenge and transition for the public sector.