What can an ed techie learn from the US civil service?

I recently read Getting things done in large organisations by Thomas Kalil (profession: “expert” according to Google). Kalil worked for the Clinton and Obama administrations on science and technology policy. This is his attempt to share what worked for him. I was interested because 12 – nearly 13 – years in at Bristol and I’m still learning how to get things done. From what I understand of their structure and rate-of-change, civil service and universities are at least in some ways similar.

The paper is aimed at “policy entrepreneurs”: people who generate or spot new ideas, then evaluate and (if appropriate) help make them happen. I grew up in the 80’s and the word entrepreneur brings to mind Rodney from Only Fools and Horses … I can’t imagine wanting to apply the term to myself. But the principle certainly applies within my role, and indeed many professional roles.

Kalil starts by giving a bit of a career history, which is probably only relevant if you would like to become a policy advisor. This is the first 6 pages. The remaining 10 pages are pretty solidly filled with good advice. Here are some of the things most directly applicable to my role in digital education….

“Influence without authority as a job description” – this resonates, working in an organisation that is still often operating on goodwill and people’s desire to cooperate

Thought experiment: What if you had 15 minutes with the president (in my case the VC), and if he liked your idea he would be willing to call anyone to make it happen. Kalil developed this as a way of making people think seriously about what they would change, and who would be in a position to do it. Follow up questions:

  • Would the people called be willing & able to do it?
  • Is there anything we could change (for them or about the proposal) to make them more willing or more able?
  • What existing forums / mechanisms are there that could carry this forward? (This also relates to the paper from a previous reading group on evidence and the question: would the initiative continue if we walked away?)

There’s something empowering about having an answer to this prepared. I don’t, but I will.

How does your remit fit into the bigger picture? Related to the thought experiment above is the importance of keeping aware of – and actively looking for – areas where digital education can further the broader aims of the university.

Partnership working (working collaboratively) works best when you have good relationships. Both sides need to:

  • Understand each other’s priorities
  • Trust each other to follow-through
  • Feel able to disagree and raise concerns

Relationships need to be a two-way street, not just one side dictating. It’s also important to understand the internal politics and personalities you are working with. Clearly the bulk of this is good advice for all relationships, professional and personal.

Have an agenda. In my experience teams do tend to do this but, for personal job satisfaction at the very least, having a personal agenda makes some sense. Kalil has some good questions to ask on this (go read them) but key for me is: why do I believe this is the right thing to do and that it will work? Also, recognise that you won’t know the answers without listening to (and asking interesting questions of) other people.

Make it easy for other people to help you. The example Kalil gives is: if you want someone to send an email, write it for them. Closely related to this is his advice for making follow-up more likely to happen: ask people if they think they can complete their assignment; document and follow up commitments; have deadlines, even if they’re artificial; if someone isn’t following up, try to find out why.

Understand what tools are available to you. What are the things you / your team / the organisation can do to affect change?

Be open to ideas from a range of sources. Engage with people from outside of your own contexts. Adapt and imitate what works elsewhere.

Plan for a change in administration (surprisingly applicable in universities, this one).

And some don’ts:

  • Don’t try to do too many things at once
  • Don’t act of the urgent and forget the important
  • Don’t spend too much time on reports
  • Don’t let things drag on indefinitely
  • Don’t surprise people, they don’t like it

Nothing earth-shattering perhaps but good solid advice, much of which it’s worth being reminded of. I’d recommend it.

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