The Bureaucracy Will Learn the Wrong Lesson – Why Government Digital is still so shitty in Canada

Disclaimer: I’m not sure why I feel the need to say this, but, obviously, the thoughts below are my own and not those of any current or past employer / department / team / loose affiliation of acquaintances / pets etc.

There’s a interesting article in the National Post about how shitty the state of the Canadian Government’s “Digital Transformation” actually is. You’re welcome to read it here. But the source material Paperweight: a cautionary tale of onerous oversight and a A bleak outlook for public sector tech are really the star of the show.

An article which consists of 50% quoted material. Journalism at it’s finest.

While I have many many thoughts on the matters they touch upon there having had a “insightful” experience joining the government for 18 months from the private sector, I really want to touch upon the root problem here.

The root problem is that instead of reading the article, thinking over the points and seeing if perhaps there is some improvements to be made. Most of the time will probably be spent asking the 2 staffers to join meetings about the perception this gave off. Probably a bunch of reprimands. Some vague references to how it could impact their careers.

There will be many very well meaning people there as well. Some will say that you need to improve things from inside. That these kinds of things hurt “Digital Transformation” efforts, etc. But most of it will be total BS.

1. An ill-equipped executive class
2. Agile words but not agile implementation
3. A pervasive lack of urgency

Sean Boots on the state of Digital Government

The current system thrives on this facade of optimism about how great things are. If you follow along on twitter 90% of the tweets are public servants padding themselves on the back while posting meaningless quotes about how “The Digital Transformation will be Agile” ( Anything related to Shared Services, the Digital Transformation Office or the Office of the CIO is always prime material).

The saddest thing to me about the article and the blog posts is not what they show and represent (I’d even go as far as to say that both those blog posts are not critical enough based on my experience). But rather what the reaction internally will be. There will be no reflection on how to improve, rather the focus will be how to cover their asses.

There will be no reflection on how to improve, rather the focus will be how to cover their asses.

Me, just now

Now, before you get all smug and point to others’ failures like I’m doing in this quickly written haphazard blogpost, I think it’s worth taking a step back and asking ourselves why that is. Why do bureaucrats feel they need to cover their asses? I think it’s partly because that’s what “we” (The general public) have forced them / trained them to do.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Walt Kelly

It’s similar to what’s broken about politics. Our expectations, our discourse, our media, our knee jerk reactions.

I wish I had a clear implementable solution for this, but the best I can come up with is the same answer as to most other problems. We need more compassion. We need more compassion for others in all situations, including bureaucrats who don’t have the skills, the knowledge, the training, the environment or the incentive structures to make tough decisions. The problem is, that doesn’t give us that quick hit of dopamine that writing a shitpost dunking on public servants does…. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a mirror I need to go take care of.

Here’s a follow up post: How to respond to criticism of Government’s Digital Transformation

Free Will – Same Mistakes

I remember thinking around 16-17 how I had all the information I needed for enlightenment. And in a sense I was right, I knew all of the things about self awareness, about consciousness, about our state of minds and probably also non duality((that might of been more like 18-19)) etc etc.

I also knew that it didn’t really matter that I had all this information. Life is not about collecting information. That’s really easy, especially now a days with Wikipedia the internet, etc etc. Life is the painful process of turning that information into knowledge and turning that knowledge into wisdom.

The thing is, that process is messy. You misinterpret information, you let cognitive biases get the better of you, you let more primitive feelings from your reptilian or mammalian brain influence your decisions etc.

All the while we have this sort of narrator, the one who thinks they are calling the shots, giving reasoning and “logic” for decisions while in fact, there is no one behind the curtain. And at first that’s depressing and leads to all sorts of bad reactions, and so most of the time we go with not talking about the lack of free will, that it’s dangerous to talk about it in those ways.

Now this is the part of the post where I tell you what part of the post this is supposed to be and what it is instead. But I think I’m going to end it with a song 🙂

I make the same mistakes
Feels like I never learn
Always give way too much
For little in return

I haven’t changed a bit
I’m still not over it
I make the same mistakes
I make the same mistakes
I never did grow up
Feels like I never will
My friends are all adults
I’m still a teenage girl

I haven’t changed a bit
I’m still not over it
I make the same mistakes
I make the same mistakes

My friends are all a drag
They think I’m such a flake
They want to go to bed
I want to stay up late
Walking the streets alone
Thinking of you ’til dawn
I make the same mistakes
I make the same mistakes

Do we really need 5 stars?

If you look at most review online, be it Amazon or Google Apps they often look like this:

Lots of 5s and lots of 1s not much in between. So why even use 5 stars? Are there better ways?

While writing this, I was looking for a a picture of Amazon reviews to put here to further cement my argument, but it actually turned out to be way harder to find items with lots of 5 and lots of 1…. lots of people used 4….

I expected this blog post to be about how we should get rid of 5 stars and just do thumbs up thumbs down. I was going to use Netflix as an example of moving away from 5 stars, but turns out Netflix didn’t change their option to thumbs up and thumbs down because of this, just because it increased user votes:

So…. Not sure what the point of this blog post is anymore…. I guess 5 stars is useful in certain contexts, but you probably already knew that…

Maybe we should be more compassionate

At the end of April I posted on Facebook that I was worried we were losing compassion for folks during the pandemic. That people will need to allocate their risk budget and make tough decisions.

I feel like this has become more and more challenging. This isn’t to say there aren’t people who are doing really stupid stuff like going on a pub crawl after getting tested. But for most people, many of these decisions aren’t so easy. It seems some of the judgement is directed at people who are socioeconomically more vulnerable. Those who can’t take days off, who need to take public transit, who can’t get curb side pickup etc.

Some of it is also directed at people who we don’t understand, people who are afraid of the vaccines for example. While it’s easy to scoff and look down or to want to just say fuck it, I think we should try (as much as one can given everyone’s energy is quite depleted with everything going on) to be compassionate. To understand where it’s coming from. We might uncover something. We may not be able to convince them to change their minds, but maybe we can start by understanding.

“Compassion is the radicalism of our time.”

Dalai Lama

It’s easy (or easier at least) to point to others and to tell others to be more compassionate. Dealing with our own lack of compassion…. that’s always tougher. We always have reasons. They hurt us, they made bad decisions, they are unworthy of our compassion because of their privilege, wealth, status.

I’ve been trying recently to let go of some of that frustration and anger towards others who wronged me in the past.

One thing that’s helped is to detach the compassion from the “being right” part of it. They were perhaps hurtful, they were perhaps wrong, they are perhaps unaware of their incompetence, but none of those things mean they are not worthy of compassion.

To the contrary, it may mean they are even more worthy of compassion, for, like all of us, they are in pain. Be it pain from past events, circumstances, attachment, loss or even more common in pain from the existential need for “more” that it seems our genes has given our species. This insatiable appetite which makes every moment feel lacking if it’s not somehow “better” than the previous ones.

I don’t think I’ve succeeded yet…. And perhaps I never will…. But sometimes I catch myself, and I try to be more compassionate.

Linear Solutions to Exponential Problems

Humanity is facing many problems, immediately there’s COVID, longer (but not that long) term there’s Climate Change.

“Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.”

Probably not Einstein, but it sounds smarter if I say it’s Einstein

Ontario has decided to reopen, even if the projections are bad. It seems we keep closing and reopening and hoping that we can keep things under control. It’s easy to shit on the the people making these decisions, but regardless I plan on doing it here.

The challenge we have with COVID is the same as climate change. It’s that our linear thinking, that if we close down X or we lower Y doesn’t match up to the exponential world.

An easy way to visualize this is with regards to speed in relation to deaths in car accidents. Kinetic energy is equal to ½mv² with the v² being the important part here. So take a look at the chart below.

Basically, a small change in speed, causes a huge fucken change in probability of death. Now before you think this is just because of some correlation between humans dying and some magic speed. Spoiler it’s basically the same as just x²

By now you’ve probably surmised that COVID and climate change are exponential problems.

And while I’d love to try my best to surmise why humans are bad at it, many people have done it far better than I ever could.

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is the inability to understand the exponential function”

Al Bartlett

There’s a good video, it’s long and not the best produced one, but it’s by Al Barlett and he does a really good job of explaining why we’re fucked.

His main focus is overpopulation, but the same applies to carbon emissions, either way, it’s pretty easy to see that population growth and it’s inability to keep going up will mean massive changes for how we live. We take for granted now that we can have children, as many as we want really, but that’s going to change, and it’s going to change faster than any of us will expect.

The same will happen with climate change and the same is happening with COVID. It’s nothing and then all at once.

At least from our limited linear ability to perceive the “nothing” that becomes this “all at once”

Angsty songs & maybe we should change schools as kids

There are many songs that just scream teenage angst, and I feel like Lazy Eye by Silver Sun Pickups is one of them. And I don’t mean angsty in a bad or derogatory way, just in a, this captures the feelings well. Even the music video feels like exactly what as a 15 year old you think 18 year olds do.

It often felt like during my school years I was just waiting for time to pass by. To finally finish school to go to the fun parts of life. It’s interesting in a way how we portray schools. I wanted to change schools and I think many people often are stuck in shitty situations at school. Bullying, boredom, bad teachers, etc etc. But the common answer is that you need to suffer thru it. I think it has a perverse effect later in life where people don’t leave bad jobs or bad relationships because well, all they know is that they need to suffer thru this.

In reality, if you’re in a bad situation like a bad job, a bad relationship, toxic friendships, etc. you should just leave it. You don’t need to stay and suffer. I worry we’re often teaching kids they need to suffer thru things. Oh sure there’s a certain amount of “grit” that you need. You shouldn’t just drop everything once you face a simple challenge, but it almost feels like it builds in learned hopelessness. Like the elephant that could rip out the stake holding him down but doesn’t because he “learned” that he was powerless at a young age.

In a way, right now feels like that. We’re helpless in that (most of us anyway) can’t impact COVID 19. We can’t work on vaccine distribution or fixing the clusterfuck that is federal and provincial co-operation((or lack thereof)). Sure we can do our part in staying on the couch. But it’s not the same.

And so in a way, the “learned helplessness” is not always a bad thing. If we reframe it as “acceptance”, well that changes everything doesn’t it? We need to accept the current circumstances and our ability (or lack thereof) to influence it.

So like most things:

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

Niels Bohr

In the meantime we can listen to angsty songs about waiting for the real world to begin (again):

[Verse 1]
I’ve been waiting
I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life
But it’s not quite right
And this ‘real’
It’s impossible if possible at whose blind word?
So clear but so unheard

[Verse 2]
I’ve been waiting
I’ve been waiting for this silence all night long
It’s just a matter of time
To appear sad
With the same ‘ol decent lazy eye fixed to rest on you
Aim free and so untrue

Everyone’s so intimately rearranged
Everyone’s so focused clearly with such shine
Everyone’s so intimately rearranged
Everyone’s so focused clearly with such shine

Locked and loaded
Still the same ol’ decent lazy eye straight through your gaze
That’s why I said I relate
I said we relate, it’s so fun to relate

It’s the room, the sun and the sky
The room, the sun and the sky

[Guitar Solo]

I’ve been waiting
I’ve been waiting for this moment…

The Illusion of Choice (in video games)

I remember playing the first Walking Dead game from TellTale games. I never liked zombie games, but it was incredible. Your choice really seemed to matter. The story itself was all changed by them. I think it’s only when playing the Wolf Among Us that cracks started to show. Maybe it’s because the story of the Walking Dead is so poignant and powerful (It’s one of the most moving in any video game ever), but at the time I didn’t see thru the illusion.

I just finished playing Life is Strange 2 (Life is Strange rivals the Walking Dead and I really recommend you play it) and the first episode felt too transparent. The impact of choices seemed to be non-existent. It felt too much like determinism.

Don’t get me wrong, I know the world itself is pretty deterministic(ish) so how can one expect free will in a game that’s inside a deterministic world, but it still just felt useless. All the choice, they wouldn’t really change the story, at least ot in any meaningful way.

Perhaps part of the problem is expectations. These games sell themselves as “Story Driven” and “Decisions matter” but really, it’s the same thing as most RPGs since forever ago. Ya you make some decisions, but you know when playing Mass Effect that you won’t end up on a remote island running a bar at the end. You’ll be saving the world galaxy one way or another.

Anyways, tl;dr play Walking dead and Life is Strange, they are good stories even if free will is an illusion, but other such games aren’t necessarily worth it.