Transcript: Innovate on Demand, Episode 6: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Public Service
Todd: I'm Todd Lyons.
I'm Natalie Crandall.
I'm Valeria Sosa.
Hero (Heather): And I'm Heather Laird.
And this is the Innovate On Demand podcast.
When you join the public service, it can be tempting to feel like the person that you were before, or the person you still are at home, is different from the person now employed by the government. Remembering that person, getting back in touch with them, and then connecting them with the other travellers inside and outside of the public service is the root of meaningful innovation.
Thank you, Heather, would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sure. I currently work at the Canada School of Public Service, and I'm super excited about that. It's a great place to work. I got there through a long story that started with hitchhiking to the Middle East. That's how I started on this journey.
That's very interesting. Do you feel like telling us that story?
Yeah. I know, right? Not where you were thinking I would start with in terms of the Canada School. I was hitchhiking to get different perspectives. That's why I left my community. And I had read Jack Kerouac's On the Road. I was like, I'm going to do that! I'm going to go on the road! I went places and learned about people that I would never have learned about if I had stayed home.
Were you working at the public service at the time?
I wasn't yet working at the public service. When I was in the Middle East, I got connected to some groups that were doing community organizing. Like under conflict, how do you give people the chance to shape their lives and shape their worlds? Like corrupt mayors. How do you get the garbage picked up, under the context of all the things you think about the Middle East in the news?
I was really inspired by that. Oh, right, it starts with your neighbour. It starts with getting to know someone you've never met, and working with them, and figuring out how to do that. Oh, we'd like a clean playground, and that person may or may not have killed my cousin. Where do we start?
From that work, it was like, okay, well, how do you do that? One of the things that stuck out from working in that context was the connection between lawyers and social workers. So you could start on the ground in neighbourhoods. But often, it stayed in neighbourhoods. It was the lawyers who had a big system perspective and were working at universities and working in governments and had that kind of big picture. But often, it meant they had no idea what was going on in the neighbourhoods.
The social workers provided that link where they had the context, and often they had some university education and had a sense of how to connect into the bigger picture. But they were right there. Okay cool, single mom, 12 kids, trying to get literate, wants the playground to be safe. They could bring those stories back into the bigger picture.
So I started figuring out, okay, how do we help those people get their work done? I ended up coming back to Canada and working in the non-profit sector. Okay, people organizing in neighbourhoods, how do they do it? They start non-profits. Okay, so how do we help those people get their work done?
Through that work, I ended up hearing about "the government."
People kind of talk about "the government." I was like, Why can't we do that? And people said, "The government." And you kind of say, Really? What's the government, then? What's that all about? So I got curious about breaking down that big, bad government, and what in social innovation terms people would call the "powerful stranger," this bucket you put some of your tricky problems into.
Government often stands for that hard thing you can't move. So I wanted to go inside. "Go inside," as people on the outside would say. Yeah. That's how I ended up working in the Government of Canada.
So how has your perspective on what that "government" is changed since you've been on the inside? Or has it?
She became a Trojan Horse.
Yeah right. I'm "one of us" now. It's neat. I wear 2 hats, as you can tell. I sometimes still take off my government hat, and I think I put my non-profit sector hat back on, or I put my community organizing hat back on. I still have a lot of beef with "the government." But I also am so—
She used air quotes.
I used air quotes. [laughs]
Yeah, but I'm also so delighted to find so many passionate and wonderful people doing amazing work in "the government." I used air quotes again.
It's such a complex field, and it's such a complex set of people doing wonderful things. It's a good reminder that in the same way that people can bash on business, there are good businesses, and bad businesses, and people trying to do all kinds of wonderful things through that sector. Government also has many good and bad things going on.
So yeah, it's changed, it's changed a lot. I'm appreciative of all of the quiet things that government is a part of. If I were to use the "big I" innovation word, I would say that it's really humbled me in remembering that no sector gets to claim that word. Anyone who's claiming the Innovation word, you've got to look with a side-eye and wonder why they're claiming that word. Because all innovation I think happens between the things that are named.
What do you mean? Can you expand on that?
I've never seen a successful case of innovation that people point to and say, This was an important moment of change or important lever in making a difference that happened cleanly in one organization or one sector. It's never this particular company or this particular department in the Government of Canada made this change. It's usually this person had drinks with that person, or that person happened to live in a neighbourhood with that person, or that person worked in one organization and then took their expertise to another organization.
One of my favourite examples of this is the Internet—a huge, messy, complicated story of government grants and people who started companies and then took their ideas to other companies. They started, and worked for the military, and made IT in their basement, and traded things online that they weren't allowed to trade at work, and all that kind of stuff. So it's the messy, it's the in-between spaces, I think, where innovation really happens.
So as a social innovator, what do you think are some of the obstacles and maybe some of the advantages to working within the public service?
That's a great question. I think it's sometimes harder to move in governments, because there's a really established way of doing things. And there's a really strong and often beautiful value set around keeping things the way they are and being in service to a set of rules. That can be really, really important for stability. We're smiling at each other.
But sometimes stability is the opposite of innovation. So if you can imagine—and this is a super geeky innovation thing that we could put a picture of in the podcast—but if you imagine the Ecocycle, which is actually one of the most useful tools that I've taken away from social innovation as a more formal field, there's this front loop where, if you imagine a forest, it starts with tiny little trees, and it gets bigger and bigger until you have mature trees. We can imagine that, okay, you water the trees, they get bigger. Awesome. We're doing great work! We're building a forest.
That's the kind of work that government is great at. Okay, we have a little program, how could it go all across Canada? We have something that works for this population. How could it work for that population? We tweak this, tweak that, make it a little better with incremental improvements.
But then there's this whole back loop where the forest burns. You have that horrible scary part where everything goes up in flames. Then you have ashes, and little trees grow out of the ashes. And species start to thrive.
That's equally important to forest health. The back loop—I know we're on the radio, so the visual maybe isn't helpful—it's an infinity loop. So there's a front loop, and then that back loop is equally important to how systems work.
In government, the front loop is really strong. So there's a forest to work with. There are resources. But sometimes we don't know how to burn.
This is one of my observations when people from the outside ask me, What's it like in "the government"? One of the things I say is that I expected it to be relatively stable, and pros and cons of that. There are resources to move, there's huge amounts of resources locked up in the Government of Canada, and many of them are being used for great things. And some things drive me crazy.
But I hadn't expected there to be such a continual—and I will say somewhat provocatively—useless churn. There's so much churn! Every re-org, every retitling, every shift of people—
We're all nodding vigorously.
Everyone's rolling their eyes and looking to the left and thinking of their horror stories. Everybody has been burned by these stories. It's because it's structural change and what in social innovation terms people would call looking at complicated problems and looking at complicated solutions, when actually we have complexity.
So the difference there would be we're looking at, Oh my goodness, this rocket failed to launch. Let's rewrite the manual. Let's reshift these parts of the machine. Again, reshifting people. Like in government, the machine is mostly people. So we're reshifting people, when actually the problem is more like raising a child. There's never going to be a manual that works.
Manuals can be helpful, but the complexity of that relationship is a feedback loop between you do something, your kid does something. Anyone who has a partner, anyone who is a child and has been raised by people can understand you're never going to have a book that says how to make my mom not be insane, or whatever. How to make my partner do what I want. Those things aren't real.
So I was surprised, surprised in government that there is so much churn. People hold it close to their hearts because they get burned and get passed to a new manager who has never read their resume and didn't ask them what they want to do. Now your job is to do this. And they say, But I didn't—that's not my passion. That's not my skill set. Who are you? It's hard. It's like being asked, Hey, this is your new family. It feels weird because it's not real. It's not based on a relationship. So I'd like to see that.
To bring it back to innovation, one of the things that I find amazing and sad about it and why I'm passionate to be at the Canada School working on making some of these things maybe a little bit different is that change, that bad change, the re-org style change, it actually makes people scared of good change.
When we're talking about growing plants or changing up our systems, people think, Oh, my God, I don't want another re-org. Don't get me another new manager with a job that isn't something that's going to actually work for me—instead of seeing change as something that can actually be really a positive.
People don't see change as often an enabler in government, where it's like, Actually, this is your chance to shine! That thing you've been doing off the side of your desk for 10 years! Now's your chance to try it! People think, Oh, my God, this is another re-org. I don't want innovation. So, I'm rambling a little bit but—
No, no, that's okay. It's interesting. It also made me think of one thing that struck me when I first came into the public sector. I felt—and what I'm about to throw out there is probably not feasible at all the way I'm saying it, but—it struck me that management and leadership and executives were promoted or elevated because they were subject matter experts. But the management function, the leadership function, the organizational function, all of that knowledge and expertise was just a fourth or fifth consideration. It always sat on the sidelines.
I don't necessarily think that's the case now. I think we are placing much more focus on it and its legitimate focus. I think there was a time where it was more like lip service and just having to go through the motions. But I think now there's actually a realization that there's value in those qualities. That's what helps change go smoothly and actually improve and make things better, as opposed to making things worse.
I personally feel like the direction is changing in that sense. But it definitely really struck me hard when I first came into the public sector. It was apparent within the first couple of months. It was surprising, really.
Yeah, I think it's the relationships, and the people matter so much. One of the things I'm excited about is how do we keep the great things about the value set that the public service is built on—like transparency and fairness, and what's that word? When you're neutral? Apolitical.
Yeah, neutrality. Neutrality? Ugh!
What's that word for neutral? Neutrality! [laughs]
That's it! [laughs]
Thanks. I'll be here all day. [laughs]
So that value set and relationship-based, heart-based work.
I think sometimes when I have these conversations with colleagues in government, people get their backs up. They say, Oh, well, relationships. That's the old boys' club. That's why we set up this fairness and transparency stuff, because relationships are like grafting. People think of it as a bad thing—and it can be.
But no relationship is also a damaging and bad thing. We're humans, and if we ignore that—to our peril, I think. No one is actually objective, so we can't pretend that we are. So I'm curious about that. How do we get to a place in the public service where we have that fairness and we can come back to the hard work and the relationship work where you say, Okay, welcome to your new position! I read your resume. I want to look you in the eye and see how can we work together? How can we use your skills?
How can we do that not only in the public service, but with the other people in this country, people on this land that we need to work with? So if you're looking at a complex issue like parks, or health, or pick your field, almost all of the things that the government has to do are very complex.
Who's our ecosystem? Who are the people that are affected by this work? Who are other people that have a part of this puzzle, whether it's officially mandated to a province or whether it's a municipality with bylaws, or whether it's a company that is going to be impacted by this and has a role to play in shaping the picture? How do we work with all of those people in relationship?
And I think—I don't know who the quote is from—that a desk is a very dangerous place from which to view the world. I really deeply believe that that's true. So what I'm doing now, with Natalie [Crandall] and other folks at the CSPS is how do we open up doors? Whether it's literally hitchhiking or way less risky versions of that where you're walking into someone's world, how do we build up those connections and give us the tools of a relationship? How do we open it up so that we're working with the people? If we don't work with them, we're imposing on them.
That's where we get this idea of people on the outside, raging against "the government." Because if we're not out working with people, we're faceless folks in cubes, and I think that's where we have to get past this idea that the only way to be fair and do our work as civil servants is to be faceless bureaucrats in cubes. I think we're past that.
Have you read that book The Cube People written by an Ottawa public servant?
That's really great. I will read it!
Yeah, you should look it up. It's pretty good.
Just one more thing. As you were speaking, it reminded me I just read the story about one of the parks in northern Canada that worked with an Indigenous community and one of the elders there. It took them quite a few years to change the visitor experience for this national park—or provincial park. I'm sorry, I'm not quite sure which one it was.
Essentially, they asked the community and the Indigenous community what stories they felt were important to be shared, how they wanted individuals to experience the park. It turned into a welcome to my homeland experience, which was really cool. As you were speaking, it reminded me of that, because it shows a different way of working with people outside of your circle to create something completely new.
Yeah, totally. It just brings us abundance. So, I didn't actually answer what's wonderful about working in the government, other than being able to work with amazing, passionate, and talented people. It's there's so much abundance.
If you google the annual budget for the Government of Canada, it's like wow! In only monetary terms we have so much to work with that other sectors would in some ways—"kill for" seems very strong. It's a huge asset that we have to work with. So I'm excited about how we can unlock and match those assets with the abundance in other parts.
If people hear you say that, will they try and take it back? [laughs]
I think it's about an end to your story. What made me think of it was the same as your story.
The Government of Canada has assets in our knowledge, in our people, and in our resources. If we look to others and what abundance they have—like those stories, that perception of the land, that knowledge of the land—we get somewhere new by matching those assets, instead of hoarding our assets or thinking them as something that other people might take away. Or that people will see the Government of Canada as a person.
I get it. When I'm in my other circles, I have to remind people I'm not a money bag. I'm here as a public servant. That doesn't mean I get to give out money. That's not actually how it works.
I was with a group of wonderful "social innovators" in Alberta this week and—
Air quotes, again.
Air quotes again—and was talking about the idea of people exchange and the program that I'm working on. How might we create ethical, appropriate, meaningful pathways for engagement in and outside of the public service? So, inviting people in as teachers, sending folks from the public service on exchange to other organizations in a simple and fluid way.
Someone said, Oh yeah, I've worked for the government, and it was really hard. She told a story of working up in the North and seeing that kids weren't getting to school. The parenting cycle meant that, in her perspective, it would work better if school started at 11 am. That would unlock a number of the blocks of kids not actually getting there, not getting breakfast, and all this stuff. She remembered talking to civil servants at that time who said, But what will Ottawa think? That was her summary of what you call "the cube people."
Although it seems small, I'm really interested in unlocking those moments saying, Actually great, let's pick up the phone and find out what Ottawa would think—because it's a person that you know—and be able to have that conversation about how we can start to tweak those things.
I'm excited about the fact that you're doing this kind of podcast, because innovation doesn't have to be something big and huge and grand. It actually starts with those little moments of answering that question, What does Ottawa think? What would it look like if we started this program 3 hours later? Is it written that we can't do that? Let's just try and see. What is the risk? And moving away from a frame of thinking that the only way to enact our role as civil servants is to follow the rules, and think more like what was the principle? Why did we set those rules in place? What's important about the program? How do we match the spirit of it?
Then how do we bring those assets of, Okay, this is what we're trying to do. These are why the rules are in place, to make sure that everyone gets to school, and say, Okay, well, if the goal is for everyone to get to school, does it matter if these kids start 3 hours later? And starting to unpack the context.
Heather, in the time that I've known you and worked with you, I see you consistently living that philosophy of "people first." So when I'm thinking about some of the things you said today, I feel like I'd like you to tell us a little bit about your project. Because I feel like that is one of the things that you are doing to bridge that gap between the outside and the inside. I thought it might be really interesting to hear a bit more about that.
Thanks, Nat. That's a very practical point. I appreciate it.
So the program that I'm working on right now is notionally called People Exchange. There are 2 parts. The part that I want to focus on here is called the Paper Plane Exchange.
The goal of the People Exchange is to harvest or gather insights from the world and bring those to bear on the public service.
You'll note that I didn't actually say the Government of Canada there, because I think the public service is much broader, and wherever we get great ideas applied for public service is a good thing.
The specifics of the program is to say, Instead of going to a conference, or instead of going to a classroom, what might it look like if we included experiential learning in our learning plans, in the discovery when we're doing program development, and whatever parts of our work we're talking about.
And to take that little moment—a day, 2 days, a week, 2 weeks, a month, 6 months, but even starting with something small, like a day or 2—to say, Okay, have you done a systems map? Who's in your system? Who are your stakeholders? Who are your clients? I don't love that term. But who are the people that you're serving? Do you know them? Do you know what their contexts are? Have you literally walked in their worlds, and if you haven't, if you've never been inside a municipal hall, if you've never filled out the paperwork you're asking someone else to fill out, this is your chance to go and do that.
The Paper Plane Exchange is a way to say, Let's get out and have that experiential learning in the simplest way possible. So a conference, often that takes an email to a manager, maybe 1 or 2 forms, hopefully no more than that. Let's make sure that experiential learning can be just as easy.
The Paper Plane Exchange is a way to do that. There are 4 steps: do some discovery and work, so understanding your system and yourself and some of your learning goals; get matched—that's where I'm here to help; go and have a wonderful exchange; and then the fourth is a little bit of aftercare and learning and sharing to make sure how does that change your work? What do your colleagues need to know? How would you like to bring that back to your home context? Yeah, happy to help.
That sounds pretty cool. Has it already started? Has it already launched?
It has indeed. It's launched. I have a number of folks I'm delighted to be working with in prototype. We have some folks that have gone on a Paper Plane Exchange.
Can you give me an example of one?
I'll give 2. One is an individual who came from a non-profit into a Government of Canada lab and participated in a 2-day lab process. That was a chance for him to see what folks in the Government of Canada were doing related to his work. It was a chance for that lab to bring in another perspective into their ecosystem work. They weren't only looking at civil servants, they also had the perspective of someone on the ground.
Another example would be a civil servant who wanted to learn more about network weaving and connecting people and stakeholder work—how do you connect the dots. I was able to pair him with a non-profit that specializes in that kind of work that happened to be in his hometown. He was able to build on that skill set and understand how that looked in another context and get mentorship in that area.
Very cool! I did not know about this. So thank you, Heather, very much. That was very interesting and a lovely chat. Any final thoughts on what we discussed and what you shared with us today?
Thank you both for having me. I guess the final thought if I had to wrap it up, What does hitchhiking have to do with the Government of Canada anyway? I think it would be that it's about getting out into the world and walking in someone else's shoes.
We can use all these fancy [terms]—innovation, social innovation, ecosystem map. You can put all the fancy words on it. But really, if you take a minute and close your eyes and say, Who is someone I haven't met? What's something that might make me a little uncomfortable? How can I step to the edge of my world and into someone else's? That, to me, is where innovation really starts, and I would encourage everyone listening to the show to take a minute to do that. And then let me know how it goes and see if I can help you through the Paper Plane Exchange.
I love this. I feel like it was Heather's guide. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Public Service.
Yes. I love that. That's amazing.
Thank you so much, Heather. It was a pleasure.
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.