The fate of anyone working to change something in how government works, or any larger organisation or system really, is that most often you’re not around to see the effects. Small course changes can take years to become noticeable shifts, and by that time no-one will remember where that started or who helped start it. So anytime you do get to see a glimpse of how something played out over a longer time frame is a rare gift and compliment. Yesterday I was moved when I was given such a glimpse by a civil servant publicly calling me out in a session that I attended.

A little over nine years ago (my notes tell me), I reached out to a provincial civil servant to tell them I thought it a disgrace how they were treated by their director and that in my view they’d done everything right. They had received a public data request on a (to this day) politically highly sensitive topic. The province not having the data, was the wrong ‘door’ for the request, so the civil servant did the right thing and connected the requester to the government entity that had the data that was requested. A director in the provincial organisation then reprimanded them for doing this, even though their actions were by the book. I had heard about this through my network and contacted the civil servant in question. To tell them they did what was proper, and show my support. They told me thank you and said they had briefly considered quitting, but wouldn’t and would continue to push open government data forward.

Yesterday I was in a session about the use of algorithms in public sector decision making led by that same civil servant. One of the cases they mentioned was how a city government had used an algorithm but then internally had come to the conclusion it was discriminatory, stopped its use and documented the entire process transparently to learn from it. Recently they got vilified in the press (only possible because of their own documentation and transparency), and caught flak. The leader of the session described how useful that well documented case actually was for the entire community of civil servants working on how to responsibly use algorithms in public service. Because of the issues it surfaced, the process it had followed etc. Another participant in the session was using the case as part of their PhD research into these topics.

Then the civil servant leading the session turned to me and said "Then I did what you did for me years ago. I reached out to those civil servants to show my support and tell them how valuable their work was for others and that they did the right thing. It always stayed with me that you contacted me to support me, how important that was for me, and now I paid it forward." When they said that I remembered it, but otherwise had forgotten it happened. It moved me to hear it, and it makes me grateful. Nine years ago I moved a small pebble in a river bed out of basic empathy, and yesterday I got to see how the river that is public sector culture and attitude w.r.t. openness runs a bit differently because of it. It’s a gem of a gift to hear what it meant for the civil servant involved.

Thank you W. for paying it forward. And for letting me know, it means a lot to me.

17 reactions on “Change By Paying Forwards Nine Years Later

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