Filmmakers in the U.S. and Canada have released documentaries about the creative side projects of government workers. Center for Public Administrators and the ASPA National Capital Area Chapter, held a private screening of both films, and discussion with the U.S. filmmaker and stars, on May 15.
The American production is Creative Feds, which features two government workers who are musicians on the side. It shows each performing with their bands at festivals, dances, and in one case a National Public Radio show, demonstrating that these side projects are not mere hobbies, but serious commitments that have met with some success. (Screenings of Creative Feds are listed at http://creativefeds.com/screenings/ )
Jennifer Cutting in Creative Feds
The Canadian production is a web series entitled The Secret Lives of Public Servants. Three episodes have been released so far, featuring government workers who on the side are an artist, a comic book creator and a cosplayer. All the episodes touch on the tension between the workers’ creative side projects and the conformity expected in their government jobs. This is particularly the case for the artist, Marc Adornato, whose art is explicitly political and triggered a police investigation of one of his public performance projects. (The police report concluded that performance art is not a crime.) The episodes are available at http://amenjafri.com/2017/11/19/the-secret-lives-of-public-servants/
Marc Adornato in The Secret Lives of Public Servants
The filmmakers for both of these projects said part of their motivation was to show the public that government employees are full human beings, rather than the stereotype of faceless bureaucrats. But there is a more important message for public sector workers ourselves. We do not need to wait until we can afford to leave secure government jobs before seriously pursuing our ambitions, whether they are artistic careers like the people portrayed in these documentaries or any other aspirations. A government job puts some constraints on our side projects, in terms of time, conformity and otherwise, but the documentaries show that we can work around those constraints.
The first is case reports, as are published in medical journals. A case report is a description by a practitioner of a situation she encountered, what she did about it, and the results. These differ from the case studies used in public administration teaching and scholarship. Case studies focus on how the case illuminates a technique being taught or a theory being considered, but one value of case reports is presenting specifics that do not fit any existing framework. For example, AIDS research started with a case report of an inexplicable case of Kaposi’s sarcoma. Another difference is that case studies are typically by a researcher who was not involved in the events, while a case report is by a practitioner who handled the case.
The second type of non-research literature is open source work products. The original definition of open source was disclosing the human-readable “source code” of a computer program. But open source has evolved to mean any type of work product that is shared publicly so that anybody can contribute improvements to it. The work products that public administrators could make available for open source collaboration include procedures, position descriptions for personnel, statements of work for contracting, and other artifacts we produce and use in our practice.
Center for Public Administrators participated in the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s “Stories in Innovation” event on June 24, 2016, with our presentation on Annotated Work Instructions. The presentation showed how a public administrator can build an efficient process for her work, and convince others to comply with that process, even when the procedures promulgated by agency officials are vague, contradictory or non-existent. The deck is at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0fUKRnu1oAhUTM0TFVSZDZvMWc/view?usp=sharing
Most practitioners never attend any of the public administration academic conferences, but it could be well worth your time. And if you attend, it makes sense to give a presentation. My new working paper advises why to present, and how to do it successfully.
Here are some excerpts:
Presenting at a conference is evidence of your expertise. This is especially useful if your job does not provide much opportunity for accomplishments that are recognized outside your organization.
Many people practicing public administration were educated in a different field, so a conference can be an introduction to the public administration professional community..[T]he people you meet…tend to be the most innovative practitioners, the best prospects for collaboration within and outside your job, and the most willing to share information.
A practitioner can present her own experience with techniques she has applied or cases she has participated in. A frank presentation of what she tried, what worked, what failed and what she observed can show other practitioners what they want to copy or avoid, and can show academics a specific instance of phenomena they might want to study more generally…Your new information does not need to be broad in scope to be valid and valuable.
[A]fter your proposal is accepted and your panel is scheduled, you should do outreach to encourage people attending the conference to come to your panel. If you know anybody who will be at the conference, then contact them personally to invite them to attend your panel. If somebody on another panel is speaking on a topic related to yours, then contact them to say you are looking forward to attending their panel and suggest that they attend yours.
I also give examples of presentations by practitioners at the 2015 Northeast Conference on Public Administration (NECoPA), which I helped organize.
Civic hackers are changing government, applying do-it-yourself, do-it-together and open source to create what government hierarchies won’t. Some civic hackers are public administrators; many are software developers, journalists, community organizers, lawyers, etc. This column will report on civic hacking in the national capital area, to show how we can each be more than our place in an organization chart.
This edition looks at DC Hack and Tell, a monthly “show and tell for hackers”. At each meeting, seven to ten people present their projects. The rules are “no startup pitches, no dull work projects, no deckware”. The “no deckware” part is key. It means don’t present a deck of slides that just proposes doing something; present something you have created, even if it is incomplete or semi-functional. Many of the projects are software or digital hardware, others are unrelated to computers. There’s a lot to interest a public administrator, even if your technical skills are minimal or way out of date (like mine).
Some of the hacks are innovative ways to deliver a public service. For example, Steve Trickey’s presentation on Hacking Kids’ Brains showed an approach used by a nonprofit he works with; teaching a programming language designed for children’s characteristics (poor typing, attraction to games and stories, etc.). They encourage the students to remix existing code rather than starting from scratch, which is in line with modern software development practices. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1Ca0TZji4Z7m-FioD-T-bNPYUMfCpHte2GCEVPp5T17Q/edit#slide=id.geda2b2d86_0_11
Other hacks show analytic techniques most of us aren’t familiar with. For example, Ben Klemens presented his income tax preparation program. https://github.com/b-k/py1040 At first glance it’s just a free, less comprehensive substitute for TurboTax. But what is fascinating for a public administrator is how Klemens created it; translating the complex set of administrative and legal requirements represented in IRS forms into a dependency tree and a “directed acyclic graph”. Translating the requirements to this form not only enables computing the tax amount for an individual, but also facilitates more complex analyses such as how a particular change in requirements would affect the aggregate tax on a diverse group of taxpayers. This is a potentially powerful approach to analyzing administrative systems that most public administrators have never thought about.
DC Hack and Tell meets one evening a month, usually at the WeWork co-working space in Chinatown. It’s free and there are sometimes refreshments. Information and sign-up are at http://www.meetup.com/DC-Hack-and-Tell/