Citizen 2.0 or Client 2.0: The Street-Level Bureaucrat and Engagement 2.0

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I started my government career as a street-level bureaucrat. In the summer of 1990, I was a paralegal intern for the Richmond, Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy. The Department of Public Advocacy was a public defender’s office that covered four counties. My job was to interview the clients arrested and jailed. I would spend the morning in the jail interviewing clients and the afternoons writing up reports and doing legal research. Even for a small college town we were busy. The average caseload for our attorneys was between 200 to 250 cases a year. This experience led to my lifelong interest in street-level bureaucracies (SLB).

What makes an SLB different from other government agencies is that SLBs have immediate and direct contact with the public while most employees in other agencies deal almost exclusively with other government employees. SLBs are where policy is realized and implemented. The bulk of government employment is street-level bureaucrats such as police officers, teachers, social workers, and so on. As Michael Lipsky observed these government employees are charged with implementing and administering an ever-increasing set of policies and laws to an ever-growing population while facing shrinking budgets and resources. It may not be as bad as being consigned to Hades and tasked with eternally rolling a boulder up a hill, but there are days that it is close.

Street-level bureaucrats (SLB) have devised several methods to cope with their job as Jeffrey Prottas details in his book PeopleProcessing. The SLB picks the rules they will follow because to follow every rule that comes down would immobilize the agency. The SLB trains the citizens it meets into becoming good clients who make life easier for the SLB by being compliant and not making extra work. The most significant advantage that the SLB has is their superior knowledge of the rules and processes through which the SLB can punish or reward clients by withholding or supplying information. Even though the SLB must exercise as little discretion as possible in fulfilling the agency’s objectives, they carve out a good deal of autonomy.

The studies that established the characteristics of the street-level bureaucrats (SLB) and their practices were done in the late 60s and throughout the 70s. You will see an occasional paper on SLBs but nothing yet as to the impact of social networking technologies and how they affect the work and practices of the SLB. Social networking has a profound effect on SLBs because it will destroy the information advantage SLBs have while better performance measurement tools will reduce the autonomy of SLBs.

Customer at a counter.

Let’s discuss performance management tools first. When dashboard cameras were installed in police cars the police officer’s actions in the field were now more easily observed and monitored by their managers back at the station. Dashboard cameras were first resisted by police officers, but then they realized this was objective proof of why they had to deal with someone the way they did, and now most police officers welcome the scrutiny. Another related technology, GPS “tattlers” that record the routes taken by public service workers is not so well accepted but has helped cut down on abuse by some workers.

But where the most profound impact of social networking technologies is in erasing the information advantage the street-level bureaucrat has over clients. Just think of how car buying, medicine, law, and so many other areas have been influenced when consumers can go to a website and research the history of a car, the symptoms of a disease, or create their own will with freely-available information and the advice of a community with similar experiences. There is a substantial market out there for the person who writes a Dummies guide to the local welfare office or releases an app to help a citizen negotiate the process of applying for aid. I remember how empowered I felt when I first gained online access to my bank account and could see the same information the bank clerk saw as we spoke on the phone. The SLBs will lose a great deal of discretion when faced with a group of empowered clients who know the process and their rights even better than the SLB.

But these same social networking technologies can benefit the SLB. A large part of the work is screening the client, which could be done through an automated process, thus freeing the SLB to deal with the exceptional cases (you can see this already in some jurisdictions). Another benefit is for SLBs to form online communities where they can receive guidance from their peers at their desks and while working with clients. The performance management tools will provide an objective view of the burdens SLBs work under and may discourage management from stopping producing so many rules and erasing existing rules. We will not know the full impact of social technologies on the street-level bureaucracies for several years as the innovations diffuse through the agencies, but I am hopeful the effect will create a better future for both Client 2.0 and SLB 2.0.


  • Lipsky, M. (1980). Street-level bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the individual in public services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Prottas, J.M. (1979). People-processing: The street-level bureaucrat in public service bureaucracies. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Defining Collaborgagement

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I coined the term collaborgagement while attending a conference on content strategy. At this conference, John Newton (Alfresco’s CTO) commented that the next generation of enterprise IT tools needs to serve the middle of the enterprise – the domain of the knowledge workers. These tools need to support collaboration, knowledge management, and just-in-time sharing of expertise. Even so, collaboration/knowledge management software doesn’t automatically empower knowledge workers. There must be more than just new tools.

Collaboration is important but it is not enough. What is needed is something that would continue the benefits of collaboration between the collaboration sessions. A way of engaging the person’s thoughts and focusing those thoughts on the collaboration work even when the person is working alone. A process I call collaborgagement. Not just a combination of collaboration and engagement but a synergistic process.

The foundation of collaborgagement is the mental model. The mental model has been variously defined by different fields, but the consensus seems that mental models are “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action” (Wind and Crook, 2005). Individuals have mental models, but so do teams and departments. The purpose of the mental model is to make sense of various aspects of our lives including our work. Mental models take a great deal of effort to build, but the benefit is that once created, they reduce our thinking load.

For example, researchers have found that expert chess players think less than novice chess players because the expert chess player can focus on several pieces at once and perceive patterns of board arrangements. The novice chess player has to concentrate on separate pieces and build the pattern from the individual pieces. The expert chess player has a library of mental models they can consult that makes them better players because they can “lookup” the answer to a chess problem while a novice is still calculating the problem.

The same process can be seen in everyday life. Think of how you learned to drive. Remember all the steps you had to master to start the car, put it in drive, and begin your journey. Repetition and observation helped you build a mental model so that driving almost becomes an automatic process requiring little conscious thinking.

The challenge is that we rely on our mental models so much we strenuously resist changing or discarding our existing models. This goes for team mental models and individual mental models. But our changing world requires that we change our mental models, or they quickly lose their benefit and can even harm us in the new realities we face. We need a process of engaging people’s attention at the level of their mental models and then collaborate to help explore current mental models and modify or even replace these mental models on an individual and team level. This is the purpose of collaborgagement.

There are probably several methods for examining current mental models and altering them, but I like the process Wind and Crook (2005) outline in their book The Power of Impossible Thinking:

  • Understand the power and limits of mental models.
  • Test the relevance of your mental models against the changing environment, generate new models, and develop an integrated portfolio of models.
  • Overcome inhibitors to change by reshaping infrastructure and the thinking of others.
  • Transform your world by acting quickly upon the new models, continuously experimenting, and applying a process for assessing and strengthening your models. (p. xxiv)
Two people collaborating at a white board.

With Wind and Crook’s (2005) process in mind, this is how collaborgagement would work:

  • Before a team meeting, the individual members examine their existing mental models that relate to the topic of the meeting. The team member may want to blog, mind map, or similar tool to help him or her to surface the mental models and produce it in a tangible form.
  • During the team meeting, the individual members display their mental models. Then the team works together to surface the team mental models in a tangible form.
  • The team then examines the new reality of the topic and lists the characteristics. The goal of this phase is to come to a consensus about the new reality.
  • After a consensus has been reached, the team compares the current team mental model to the new reality. Does the team mental model need revising, or is an entirely new team mental model required? The team works to determine the revisions or constructs the new mental model.
  • After the team meeting, the individual members go on their own to reflect on the consensus about the new reality and how their current mental models compare to the new reality. The member then revises their existing mental models or constructs new mental models that reflect both the new reality and the team mental model.
  • What is significant about this process is that it engages people on a deeper level than what usually happens in change efforts. I have been to plenty of meetings where great ideas and energy has been generated, but it quickly dissipates once the meeting is over. For profound and sustainable change to happen, you must engage people at a fundamental level and produce collaboration that carries on ever after the meeting is over. Starting at the mental model level is the best way to create lasting transformative change.


Wind, Y., & Crook, C. (2005). The power of impossible thinking: Transform the business of your life and the life of your business. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing.

Failure Is an Option: The Way To High-Performance Innovation

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The three keys to innovation are to seek new ideas, test these ideas on a scale where failure is survivable, and continuously monitor these trials for feedback. The three keys come from Tim Hartford’s book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure. Hartford argues that the world is too complex for top-down “big project” innovation-based purely on expert judgment. The best path to innovation is to try a lot of ideas simultaneously (even if they contradict each other), build in robust feedback loops, and use the winning ideas to start a new round of trials.

Hartford’s three keys are not a new method of innovation; it is the oldest method of innovation around – evolution. Nature is continually creating variations of species and then selecting the species that best survive current conditions. Hartford applies that concept to organizations to see if a similar process works in determining what companies succeed and which close. The organizations that best survive a continually changing business environment combine incremental improvement along with the occasional long-shot idea to propel them into a better part of the business landscape ahead of their competitors

So, what does this have to do with government agencies? Hartford flatly states this innovation method will not work in government agencies because of several barriers. First, there is not enough time for political appointees to fully see these experiments before a new administration comes in office. Second, the process depends on many failures for innovation, but failure carries a high stigma in government. Third, it is difficult to demonstrate that a policy innovation had an effect due to the lack of robust feedback loops in government.

Think outside of the box sign.

Hartford’s opinion about government innovation is way overstated. There have been numerous government projects that have been extremely innovative: the Hoover Dam, rural electrification, the Interstate Highway System, the Moon landings, the Space Shuttle, the Internet, and so on. When you examine how these agencies developed these projects, you do see these agencies tried many ideas and learned from these trials. NASA has a fantastic knowledge management culture, and DARPA’s successful record of innovation is built on the concept of trying many long-shot ideas at once.

What holds the government back from being even more innovative is the stigma of failure. Many agency cultures are too cautious because of the constant external scrutiny and the internal cultural practices of not sticking your neck out and just waiting out the latest change effort. Often, this caution is well-warranted. Many people depend on government agencies, and thus agencies cannot fail in their primary mission of delivering Social Security checks, defending the nation, or enforcing laws and regulations

But failure to innovate will also lead to mission failure for agencies. In the sixth chapter, Hartford describes how the 2008 economic meltdown was inevitable, given the tight coupling of economic institutions and the failure of the government to prevent financial organizations from becoming too entangled. He argues that in any complex system, accidents will typically occur and that often our failure-prevention efforts will only increase the probability of failure. What is needed are the twin strategies of placing buffers between parts of the system and setting up feedback loops to warn us of emerging failure events.

The government must continually innovate so it can continuously deliver on its mission. This means that the culture must change so the agencies accept the small failures that teach to avoid the massive failures that cripple the agency and harm the people it serves. Whether we call it “experimentation,” “pilot tests,” or some other euphemism, the better the government is at innovation, the better it can serve its citizens.

Decision Intelligence Plus Knowledge Management Plus Foresight

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Just started reading Link: How Decision Intelligence Connects Data, Actions, and Outcomes for a Better World. Great read and I encourage you to read more about the emerging field of decision intelligence.

Woman surrounded by flying books.

As I am reading the book, I’m taking notes that will eventually turn into a model of combining knowledge management and foresight with decision intelligence. There are some powerful parallels here. And decision intelligence seems fit for knowledge automation.

How to Fail at Developing Training Courses and Products

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I’m reading the second edition of Marty Cagan’s Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love. In chapter six, Cagan describes what he believes are the root causes of failed product efforts. As I read the chapter, I could see parallels to bad training programs and courses. Let’s work through the list:

Ideas – Ideas can come from internal stakeholders or executives. Sometimes, ideas come from customers. Wherever ideas come from, there usually is not a strategic vision or mission that can help determine which ideas to implement. Even if there is a strategic vision/mission, many organizations lack a way to assess the best ideas to pursue.

“Biz Case” – But, let’s say there is a way to determine objectively the best ideas to pursue. The idea is suggested, and then the management wants to see a business case. The purpose of the business case is to determine how much the design will cost and how much money the idea will make. The problem is that it is too early to decide on the costs or revenues. Other than past performance from similar courses or programs, there is no data to justify the projections of the business case.

Roadmap – After an optimistic business case, marketing and sales hurry into listing features to attract customers. Cagan writes that in the Roadmap Phase there are two inconvenient truths. The first truth is that half of the ideas will not work. The second truth is that it takes several iterations for many of the features to work.

Requirements – The Roadmap features drive the requirements, and this is when the instructional design team is brought in. Design decisions that should have been made by the instructional design team at the beginning of the process are instead made halfway through the process when the major feature decisions and business requirements have been made.

Design, Build, and Test – Assumptions made in the business case and the Roadmap have come back to haunt the team. Customer feedback is giving mixed signals and the instructional design team is most likely fighting with the marketing team. I can tell you from experience that clashes between the marketing team and the instructional design team are brutal and counterproductive.

Deploy – Now is the time to deploy the training program and/or course(s). As a usual practice, the evaluations are added on at the last minute and without much thought. Typically, Kirkpatrick Levels One and Two which measure if the learner like the training and if the learner believed they had learned anything. If you are lucky, there may be an attempt at a Kirkpatrick Level Three which is often a survey of the learner’s supervisor to see if the learner’s behavior has changed.

SAM Model

The above is why I moved from the standard Instructional System Design (ISD) to the Successive Approximation Method (SAM). Like agile project management, SAM uses iterations to prototype the programs and courses. Each iteration is checked against customer demands and refined as the instructional design team gathers feedback. Having built courses using traditional ISD, I much prefer SAM. I believe that you will too once you have created a training program or course that meets the needs of your learners.

Project Management, Strategic Communication, and Training Author and Consultant

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