hackers & bureaucrats, a beautiful coworking mash-up?

11 Nov

Deskmag recently posted a great article entitled 10 Things to tell the Government about Coworking .

“If you had half a day with your government’s department of economics, what would you say about coworking on a national level? Deskmag was recently given this opportunity by the City of Berlin. They asked us to provide a list of “ten things the government can do for coworking”. We threw the question open to the Coworking Europe conference participants during an open camp session. Here is a first summary of the recommendations that emerged. We are also open for more proposals.”

The session obviously provided a lot of solid feedback.

1. Easier access to empty spaces
2. Government officers give information sessions
3. Educate bureaucrats about coworking
4. Using the government network in order to promote coworking
5. Easier bureaucracy for independents
6. Supporting the start of smaller businesses by rewards or grants
7. Funding of education programs in universities
8. Educate would-be coworking space founders
9. Don’t fund single coworking spaces more than others

The 2nd point included a line about government employees being dispatched to coworking spaces “to work, either as paying members or as drop-in advisors giving information sessions.” I found this idea to have interesting potential given my background in the civil service. But experience has also shown that best way to increase public resources and support for one’s cause (say coworking) is to to answer the question: “What’s in it for them (the Government)?”

As a civil servant on leave, who is working with a group to develop a coworking space, the idea of merging those worlds had obvious appeal. But more importantly, I think it could have appeal to my bosses, and their bosses, and their bosses (the elected officials) and their bosses, (the citizens).

Could coworking be an effective weapon to reinvent government?

What are some of the potential benefits to government/government workers supporting coworking spaces?

Thinking about what problems are solved is key to understanding the benefits. “What are some of the ‘big problems’ facing government?” I am writing from a small province in Canada, but I suspect the problems are universal. If coworking isn’t part of the solution, then it won’t get on the radar.

Problems:

  • less resources/bigger, more complex problems: there is an imperative to do more with less
  • demographic crunch: aging population, aging civil service, need to find ways to engage, attract and inspire talented, younger workers.
  • rural/urban balance: there is a strong political push to decentralize government services, get workers out of the big cities and into rural/smaller centres as an economic development strategy\
  • burdens of an aging institution: we live in a connected, wiki, starfish, collaborative world. Fixed, old-school institutions are struggling for relevance and to adapt.

But despite all those challenges, governments still have the resources, critical mass and most importantly a mandate.

So what are the benefits to government?

Tool to accomplish Mission: Coworking can be a tactic to help support rural & youth employment, high tech start ups, rural economic development, downtown revitalization and many other high level policy objectives.

Shared Risk: It is not only effective, but as the movement has legs already. The risks to government are minimized (it is generally risk adverse). As there is already a lot of private capital, NGO energy and collective wisdom behind the movement, government $ at this time would be leveraged and could help push things over the top. Government wouldn’t be in the position of innovator, instigator or pioneer.

Cost Effective: Government workers having coworking memberships/hot desks could be a cost effective service delivery alternative to dedicated, permanent offices. Less money spent on overhead can equal more money for staff, programs or simply less overall costs. Government could still maintain dedicated offices, but offices could be hot desked or shared at the office as staff spend some time at the coworking space. It could also be a way to look at different ways to structure a workforce using freelancers, cloud workers and teams.

Connections outside government: One of the greatest design flaws in government is the tendency to exist in a bubble. Civil servants tend to engage mainly with other civil servant due to proximity. Government staff working out of coworking spaces would get the deliberate and incidental contact with entrepreneurs, NGOs, hackers, and freelancers. Conversations and stimulation would be different than in the government only office. There would also be opportunities for collaboration, outsourcing and identification of projects and cutting edge ideas. While there is much talk about government trying to go Gov 2.0, there would be inevitable benefits by hanging with people whose business is and have a strong comfort level with 2.0.   Policy, programs and resource development can all benefit from diverse perspectives, thinking and input.

Connection within government: A further design flaw in government is “silos”. Departments don’t communicate with other Departments. Branches don’t talk too other branches. It takes a deliberate effort to connect staff from different Ministries like Health, Economic Development and Environment. If staff from different departments hung out at coworking spaces, you would get cross pollination and discussion that wouldn’t occur with the fixed, separate offices.

Decentralization: There is always a pendulum dynamic in government to centralize/decentralize. Right now the dynamic is to decentralize. It is being driven by a number of factors, but namely as an economic development tactic for areas outside of the capital cities. Decentralization also has an impact for the workforce, enabling residency in lower cost of living areas or reduction of commuting. As opposed to the relocation of entire offices or Ministries, embracing a coworking based alternative could be a more widely dispersed and based on the location of workers. In an era of austerity, wage freezes, and claw backs, the opportunity to ditch the 1 hour commute and work closer to home could be a compelling benefit for staff. Decentralization and a leaner, more flexible government is critical for a future involving economic upheaval and energy transition.

Relevance & Rejuvenation: Whether you want to call it a refresh, Government 2.0, becoming a employer of choice or updating an old institution, an embrace of coworking could help government reinvent itself. It could play a role in attracting the best talent, engaging citizens, supporting social innovation and doing more with less. It is a scenario where existing budgets (rent, offices & overhead) are repurposed to not only house workers, but support a whole host of other mission goals. It could help develop and springboard the coworking movement.

From the perspective of the Coworking movement and spaces, civil servant memberships could be a more effective form of support than grants, subsidies or programs. As point 9 in the article stated, a worst case scenario is government supporting one space over an other. Picking winners and losers is not something government does well.  It screws with the marketplace and has many unintended consequences.  If the support comes in the form of increasing members, then it is based more on the business model, amenities, location and features of the space. Increasing regular, anchor members could improve profitability and space viability. A significant volume increase could lead to the expansion of the movement and spaces.

There are of course risks. What would be the effect on coworking space culture? It is a free radical, social innovation, change the world, freelancer domain. Are government workers a good fit? Would the strategy work only if a voluntary option for workers? Would there be culture shock/conflict? What if recentralization reemerged in 5 years, what would be the consequences?

Coworking is a powerful idea and movement. More positive attention and resources from existing government institutions can help it reach the next level. At the same time, opportunities and synergies abound for the coworking to help government function better, more efficient and be more connected. Win-win is always a great point from which to launch a dialogue.

thoughts?

If you are a space owner, would you want to have government members?

If you are a civil servant, is coworking appealing?

Are the cultures compatable?  Can hackers and bureaucrats be roomies?

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One Response to “hackers & bureaucrats, a beautiful coworking mash-up?”

  1. Kyle March 24, 2013 at 4:05 am #

    I really appreciate your understanding of the many challenges governmental institutions face in today’s world. I work on a corporate recruiting team in Washington, D.C. We partner with universities and I think coworking with them might be a fantastic approach to innovate and change our recruiting tactics with students.

    Thank you for this article!

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