The Seduction of the Startup

Last spring I co-founded a tech startup company called Beyond 2.0. Our mission: to build innovative products and services based on open data. Around the same time I was returning from language training to Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) where I was taking on a new challenge managing the team that runs the Government of Canada’s internal collaborative platforms, GCpedia and GCconnex. I was putting in long hours with my public service job, while my early mornings, late nights and weekends were filled with trying to get the start-up off the ground. This was never going to be a sustainable arrangement in the long run and I had given myself a year to pursue both paths and make a decision as to if I would stay in the public service or leave to run the startup full time.

As I was going through this journey something very interesting became apparent to me: most people in my life were rooting for me to leave government and take the startup path. Friends, family, and colleagues alike. Over the course of that year whenever I would go to social events, family get-togethers, or catch-ups with professional contacts, when I would tell them what I was doing with Beyond 2.0 their eyes would light up. They had a million ideas. They had people I needed to talk to. They would send me articles they clipped from newspapers or tell me about the latest episode of Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank I needed to watch. They were all rooting for me, and it was a great feeling.

Yet here is the rub: by any reasonable measure of contribution to the public good and society at large, my work as a public servant is at least an order of magnitude more important and impactful. My team and I are putting in place some of the infrastructure that will enable government to stay relevant and agile in a modern networked world. We are empowering public servants to find and connect with each other in ways they simply couldn’t do a few years ago. We’ve grown our internal collaboration ecosystem beyond just the early adopters and tech enthusiasts and now have tens of thousands of mainstream public servants logging on to these social networking and collaboration tools for the first time. These are big moves that will have impacts on the public service for years to come in ways we can’t even envision right now. For our work my team and I won the TBS Award of Merit last year. Yet for most people in my life, all they really wanted to know for the past year was what was happening with the startup and how soon I was going to leave government.

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”
Jeffrey Hammerbacher, data scientist and early Facebook employee

Recently I had the great pleasure of being back on the Harvard Kennedy School campus to take part in the IDEASpHERE conference. One of the sessions I attended was a discussion by my former thesis advisor Nicco Mele, whom I have known since my time at the Kennedy School and whose work I follow closely, and fellow communications and internet innovator Morra Aarons Mele who I had the great pleasure of meeting for the first time. During their panel about the “promise and peril of the internet” Morra started a great discussion about what she termed “entrepreneurship porn”, namely how the excessive value that our society is putting on startup culture is causing a serious brain drain for traditional institutions like government.

It clicked for me during her talk that I had been living this exact scenario for the past year. Moreover, I am not alone. In the four years since I moved back to Ottawa to join the federal public service I have met countless passionate, dedicated, innovative public servants who to their very core want to improve how government works and serve the public. Yet almost to a person, they are battling a constant crisis of faith in a public service career and considering if they can accomplish more or be more fulfilled working outside of “the system”. Much has been said about the challenges with government HR processes to recruit and retain talent, and those issues are still as valid as ever and need to be addressed. But what is now becoming clearer to me in a very personal way is that at the same time we also need to address the equally detrimental stigma that exists around working for government. The poisonous attitude that I hear from far too many, even from those in the public service itself, which says anyone who is good at what they do wouldn’t be working for government.

As the session with Morra and Nicco wrapped up, we started talking about where we go from here. One concrete idea was the notion of encouraging public sector entrepreneurship, specifically allowing startup-type organizations to be born, grow and, sometimes, fail inside of government itself. As a friend of mine later put it, creating (and in some cases preserving) enclaves of awesomeness. There are of course numerous other ideas and initiatives that need to be part of this conversation, but what I do know is that this is a conversation that we need to start having. I’m encouraged that the recent Destination 2020 report recognized this in the recommendation to shape the brand of the public service. This is critically important for anyone who cares about public policy, because the alternative is that we run the risk of losing a generation of our best and brightest public servants to the pursuit of building better click-bate.

In case you are wondering, I decided to stay.