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Innovate on Demand, Episode 15: From the Grassroots

In an ideal organization, innovation can grow from the grassroots. Any person, at any level of the hierarchy, can shape the future if their idea has potential. But is there room for meritocracy in a hierarchy? Learn from Ashley Evans, Analyst with the Digital Academy here at the School, about how she witnessed it first hand.

Duration: 22:25
Date: October 5, 2020

Transcript

Todd 
I'm Todd Lyons.

Natalie 
I'm Natalie Crandall.

Valeria 
I'm Valeria Sosa.

Ashley 
And I'm Ashley Evans.

Todd 
And this is the Innovate on Demand podcast.

In an ideal organization, innovation can grow from the grassroots. Any person, at any level of the hierarchy, has the potential to shape the future – if their idea has potential. But is there room for meritocracy in a hierarchy? Our guest this episode witnessed it first hand at the Canada School of Public Service's Digital Academy.

Natalie 
Good morning, Ashley.

Ashley 
How's everything going?

Valeria 
Good. How are you?

Ashley 
Fantastic.

Valeria 
So before we dive in, maybe you can just tell us a little bit about yourself.

Ashley 
Sure. Well, my name is Ashley Evans. I currently work for the Canada School of Public Service on the Digital Academy team. And so we are a new team. We've been around for about a year now and our goal is to build digital literacy across the public service. But in my current role, I'm co-leading the learning experience for one of our specialized programs called Premium, where we are teaching public servants about data, artificial intelligence, design, and development operations. And that is starting actually this week. So it's pretty nuts right now. It's really really fun.

Valeria 
Very exciting, very exciting. And I heard that there was possibly something very exciting also going on a couple years ago.

Ashley 
Yes, yes, a few years ago when I started my career in the public service as a Co-Op student. So maybe I'll back up a bit [and explain] how I got here initially. So I'm actually from Winnipeg. Go Jets go. Low key. Yeah.

Todd 
It's nice that the Jets actually exist again, because that was not true for a long time.

Ashley 
The city has changed so much over the past couple years just in terms of the energy and the vibe. But I left. I wanted to pursue my Master's Degree in Public Policy and Administration at Carleton. So I moved to Ottawa in the fall of ... I guess this was 2016.

Valeria 
I just want to say that I really love people from Winnipeg. And actually -- little bit of fact -- the reason I love these people so much is because of Nat's family. She's got a few family members from Winnipeg and they're lovely people.

Ashley 
Right. And we're probably neighbours. And so I started that in September 2016. And then I started my first Co-Op work term at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat at TBS, under the Office of the Chief Information Officer at OCIO. And from there I distinctly remember on my first day, it was myself and the other Co-Op students and it was all the management. And we were sitting around a table. There were brownies and chips. It was all very cute and they really wanted to welcome us. And so I remember at the time my director Chris Allison said, What do you want to get out of this experience? And I distinctly remember saying, give me challenges and give me opportunities and let me show you that I can thrive. And so it's really nice that they really, really welcomed us. And I really felt like I could  thrive in that kind of environment where I felt supported right from the get go, right from day one. And so a few weeks later, I got wind of something called Ideation, which was an initiative for new public servants in our organization and students to come up with new ideas, to conceptualize them, to prototype them, and to pitch them over a summer. So this initiative lasted from May to August. And so some fellow Co-Op students and I went to the first meeting. It seemed really interesting. We joined the GCconnex group. And then from there, I started thinking about, What's my idea? And so from there I'm still thinking about all the different learning opportunities and the different challenges I can take on. And so I went on GCconnex, I went on GCcollab, GCcampus, all the GCs. And then I noticed that there weren't too many learning opportunities around digital concepts, and particularly my academic studies. I was interested in digital policy and digital governance on the federal level, and I noticed, Okay, how are public servants gaining these skills? Not necessarily the policy aspect, but these hard technical skills, and I noticed that there were a lot of opportunities related to managers in the IT space, but otherwise, there wasn't that much available for someone like me. And so that's where I was being a little bit optimistic in that my initial idea was about programming and development boot camps for public servants. And so this could be mostly around something as simple as GCpedia wiki coding or HTML or CSS where you can tangibly make something and see it, like a GCpedia page, like a resume, something like that. And so I posted this idea on GCconnex, on our ideation group. And then that's where I met some folks online who are also interested in the idea, and some of my colleagues at OCIO. And so that's how we formed our ideation group. So it's a ragtag group of new public servants, of idealists, of optimists who really want to make this happen. So all ideation groups met every Wednesday afternoon to work on our idea, to network, to listen to special guests to talk about how maybe they have done a project like this in the past. So in August, that was our opportunity to really put everything together and pitch it to executives at OCIO, and so from there, we called it the Digital Academy.

Todd 
Thank you for not calling it the GC Academy because I'm really...

Ashley 
You're right!

Todd
Yeah.

Ashley 
You're welcome. You're welcome. And so from there, a lot of the executives said, Okay, well, programming that might be a little bit too much. Maybe make it more on the ground? And then I remember Alex Benet saying, Okay, so if this is free and if you can just do this volunteer run, if you're recognizing this gap, why isn't this already happening? Why aren't you already doing this? And so we took on that challenge. So we took on some of the advice and the other executives, and instead, we decided to host monthly webinars or workshops or events on digital concepts. And so we started with our first one in September on user centered design, followed by data analysis and Excel, on gamification, on social media analytics. And so we built a community on GCconnex. And that's where we did a lot of our communications and our outreach. And we were supported so so so so well by all of our managers and executives, because really, this was happening on the side of desk thing. We would spend maybe our Friday mornings or afternoons working together on this project, and we are so incredibly thankful for all the support that we received. And so it's worth mentioning that, I am the talking head right now, but this was a ridiculous collaborative effort. And so the folks I want to mention are Melissa Poon, Emily Johaniuk and Gabby Hubert who were -- we were the core ideation team there, but --

Natalie 
Sorry, can I interrupt ask quick question?

Ashley 
Of course. Interrupt anytime.

Natalie 
You were all four Co-Op students?

Ashley 
All four of us were women. All four of us were Co-Op students.

Natalie 
This is such an amazing and beautiful story. I love that we're having a conversation with a public servant who got such a fantastic start, who looks like [she] was on-boarded properly, felt welcomed and empowered to start. And I love what I'm seeing and what I'm hearing. We don't get this story a lot.

Ashley 
I am beyond thrilled and so I'm super happy to share it as well. And honestly, it only gets better. I don't know how. But  that is to say that there were some barriers as well because we were Co-Op students. Some folks are working part time, we still had our original work load. Sure, it was a side of desk thing, but it became an evening thing. So it was really hard to manage at times. And so from September to December when we had our first four months, it took a toll on us for sure. And so in January, when some of us went back to school, that's when things got a little bit more difficult for me, but that's when I was so so so supported by the community on GCconnex, because it's worth mentioning that when we did have these sessions, they were hosted by folks who are subject matter experts in these areas. It was not me, it was not Emily and Melissa, [or] Gabby. Maybe we would introduce the topic, give it a little bit more context, but it's ultimately the experts in the GC who want to share their skills and knowledge with the rest of the public service. So I can think of folks from DND, from Infrastructure, from TBS, really everywhere who would come out and support. So we're so so lucky for that kind of support.

Natalie 
So how do we go from this being an idea that the four of you are running to now we have [a] very serious Digital Academy [with a] fully staffed team, reporting to a DG. All sorts of amazing things happening around the Digital Academy. Picking up so much momentum and steam.

Ashley 
So that's a good point. So as we were developing these events, and we also created a space on GCwiki. We want to scale this. We're scaling it very slowly, given our limited capacity. We are also having conversations on the side with folks at OCIO, who are building something called the Digital Campus at the time, which was basically mimicking what we were doing as well, because we were inspired by everything going on in the Government Digital Service and the UK's public service around their digital learning space. And so I think that we wanted to build in that space already, but we just weren't there yet. And so when I came in in May, I was not necessarily aware of all these updates and changes and things like that. And so I thought, Okay, I was gung ho, let's do this. And so as we were developing these learning programs, I would be talking with these executives saying, Okay, we are going to do something like this, we're going to institutionalize and make it big, but in the meantime, keep doing what you're doing, because you are still filling this gap. So they still encouraged my team and I to continue working on this. So it's not like they were saying, Oh, we are going to create this initiative and it will overtake you. It was never that. It was we can work together on this.

Natalie 
Absolutely. So what do you do, specifically at the Digital Academy now? And that's why I feel like there's still another story to unpack in there. Maybe that's another day on how you ended up on the team.

Ashley 
Yeah, that's a good question. But I guess, to fill the gap in between when we wanted to scale the Digital Academy like the grassroots version, we created something called the Square which is a future is on GC club wiki where we hosted, basically like learning playlists. So if you want to learn about, say data, we would have a list of resources that you could read, watch or listen to, to learn a little bit more about data or data analysis. And so that's what we did in the interim. But then I think some folks at the School and I also got wind of this as well and thought, this is something that we can integrate in Digital Academy and Digital Academy proper. And so then I also got wind of Digital Academy proper in the during the summer. And so that's when I was asked, okay, if you're doing this on the side of your desk, do you want to do this for a living? Do you want to do this full time? And I which case it was an absolute no brainer, if this is what I love and what I'm passionate about? Why not get paid to do it during working hours. That's a dream. And so from there, I started on the Digital Academy team in November, where I have been on the policy and partnerships team. Basically what that means is just communicating our story with folks in the GC, with subject matter experts, because really, we are all -- there's so many of us in this learning space already. Why don't we just work together to create fantastic programs? So we are not starting from scratch by any means. We are not developing this content. Why don't we just work together? And so that was my role for the first few months. And from there, it's been all hands on deck, really, putting our learning programs together. So right now, when I say co-leading the learning experience that's very jargon-y. I understand that that might not make sense. But really what that means is that we are coordinating with subject matter experts across the GC to put curriculums together in data, in artificial intelligence, and design and development operations.

Valeria 
Our team is actually working with your team.

Ashley 
Of course, yeah. No surprise there. Yeah. So it's a giant collaborative effort. And so right now, this is our second time doing this. This is Premium Cohort Two right now. And so we're trying something new and that a lot of the content and a lot of our learning will be delivered virtually. Yeah. And so we have learners from across Canada and it's going to be really, really exciting.

Valeria 
Take a pause for a second.

NARRATOR 
Approximately 10 hours later.

Valeria 
So, we took a little pause there. And we were discussing about working off the side of your desk. And I was asking our lovely guest, just about the amount of time that was spent working on the side of the desk to develop this great idea. And imagine a world where you did not have these four wonderfully dedicated, hard working students who put the time in to create what they created. And the reason I bring that up is because in the innovation space, this is a conversation that keeps coming up all the time. Departments want innovation and they want people to rethink how they're doing things. But people feel like they're always forced to do it off the side of their desk and are never given the time or the space to be able to dedicate appropriately to actually make things better and try and innovate. Anyways, I just want to ask you about your thoughts about that experience and about everything I just said.

Ashley 
Yeah, thank you. So I would say during ideation, during May to August, we did have that time built in during the summer, we had our Wednesday afternoons to come together to work together in the same space and it went really well. But come September when ideation was over, and we did not have that space built in, that's when things got a little bit more challenging for us, and it was hard to coordinate, it was hard to collaborate. It just became a lot more time consuming outside of work. And although I often did try to carve out my Friday mornings and afternoons, it just doesn't happen that way. You get busy with work. You get swamped and then you end up having to work on the evenings. And it really took a toll on me for those first couple months. And then come January, it became a much, much more collaborative effort with more people coming in. And so it was ultimately, we started with those four core ladies, but then from there, we needed more hands on deck. And then that's when I also asked for support from my manager. And I told her flat out that I really really enjoyed doing this project. And she was very cognizant of that and really encouraged me to try to fit everything in work hours. So, sure it was very difficult, but ultimately, I just needed to be very open about my passions and how to communicate that and so, and that was Annik Carriere and Joy Moskovic at the time who were very, very, very supportive. So --

Natalie 
I've worked with both and Annik and Joy before.

Todd 
Love you, Joy. Love you, Joy.

Ashley 
Oh my gosh. Yes, I'm their biggest fan. My God.

Valeria 
That's great. And Nat you were mentioning something about their comms campaign.

Natalie 
I was telling Ashley, I remember all of this happening. But I didn't know the story that you're telling us today. I find it really empowering. I don't know if you guys can hear the smile on my face as I'm talking. But honest to goodness this is -- I hear so many stories about public servants who have a difficult start -- for whom onboarding doesn't go well. And, and despite the side of work thing, which is a huge problem in government everywhere, we can tackle [it] in a different topic. I really love your story. Ashley, I love knowing that there are these four women, these four students, behind some of this and that you really had an opportunity to have an impact and have influence on something as big and as powerful of an initiative as the Digital Academy that's gotten some serious funding from Treasury Board, from the School, and a bunch of other departments who are partnering. And that and I just think this is one of my favorite stories to tell on this on this episode, actually. I think it's wonderful. Thank you very much for that.

Ashley 
No, thank you so much. Honestly, I couldn't have imagined this. I feel like the stereotype for young people coming into the public service is not this, and that I am very much this weird outlier, but I don't want that to be the case.

Natalie 
I agree. Let's think about, so what would you say? If you could summarize in just a few little points, what are some of the things that you brought to the situation that other young people joining the public service could really think about and allow them to have an opportunity to swing their start of their career the way that you've swung yours?

Ashley 
I guess from the get go, I came in with a learning mindset. So, I was there -- as a public servant -- I was there at TBS, I want to support my file. However, as a student, I'm also there to learn absolutely everything under the sun and really take advantage of all of those learning opportunities. Whether that be something that you find on GCconnex, GCcollab or GCcampus. It's also a matter of leveraging all the networks in your organization whether that be something like I think TBS has Renaissance or any kind of networking events for communities of practice. It's really getting involved and just putting yourself out there. Yeah, I found that was very tough initially just being vulnerable as a new public servant. As a young woman, it was definitely challenging and very humbling. But really, it's so important to put yourself out there. But I would also say it's so important to communicate your passions with your manager, and with your Director, [and] with your team lead. Because if they are any good, they will look out for you -- like-minded. And so I have to be very open with them about -- I love working on the Digital Academy. Let me carve out that space. And at times they did but it was mostly me being a bit of a keener beaver and working overtime. And if I really love something, I don't consider it work. And I honestly did not consider the Digital Academy work. Sure it was a lot of time and effort. But do I regret it in the slightest? I lost a bit of sleep,  but I got it done. And for me, it's recognizing that I was filling that gap in the public service. And I was actually making a difference and I'd get emails and messages from public servants saying that was a really good session, I'm already looking into more resources to learn a little bit more about user centered design, and it's reading those kinds of messages that really hit home and encouraged me to keep going. Yeah, so I'm just so so, so thankful.

Valeria 
And let me ask you, so where are your other three teammates now?

Ashley 
Right. Melissa Poon is a GC entrepreneur. Emily Johaniuk is doing her master's degree in environment and climate change. And Gabby Hubert is a software developer and she's now in the private sector. Yeah, so we've all gone in our unique ways. Yeah, that's really interesting.

Natalie 
That's fantastic. Thinking back on the on the comms campaign, I really am realizing I probably know more than just what I saw on Twitter, because I do remember hearing about this from at least one of my Free Agent colleagues.

Ashley 
Right. And so those  Free  Agent colleagues are likely, Jeff Outram and Pierre-Luc Pilon and they were huge, huge supporters during the development of the Square -- the space on GCcollab wiki.

Natalie 
So I guess you've talked about working for Chris Allison a few times, I noticed you seem to be following him these days.

Ashley 
Right. And so I'm still currently working for Chris Allison. And I am so happy to be working under him. And I really do look up to him as a public servant, and he was a giant supporter of the Digital Academy since its early days, so I'm very thankful for that.

Todd 
All right!

Natalie 
Thank you very much, Ashley.

Todd 
Thanks, Ashley.

Valeria 
Thanks, Ashley.

Ashley 
Thank you so much.

Todd 
You've been listening to Innovate On Demand, brought to you by the Canada School of Public Service. Our music is by grapes. I'm Todd Lyons, Producer of this series. Thank you for listening.

Credits

Todd Lyons
Producer
Canada School of Public Service

Natalie Crandall
Project Lead, Human Resources Business Intelligence
Canada School of Public Service

Valeria Sosa
Project Manager, Engagement and Outreach
Natural Resources Canada

Ashley Evans
Analyst, Digital Academy
Canada School of Public Service

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