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How to Survive as an Executive, Season 1, Episode 4: Yes, You Can Change the System! Here's How, with David Conabree (TRN4-P04)


In this episode of the How to Survive as an Executive podcast, David Conabree offers his recommendations on how to simplify the red tape of government bureaucracy and better navigate the sometimes-rigid system to offer new ideas and solutions.

Duration: 00:12:47
Published: October 5, 2020
Type: Podcast

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How to Survive as an Executive, Season 1, Episode 4: Yes, You Can Change the System! Here's How, with David Conabree

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Transcript: How to Survive as an Executive, Season 1, Episode 4: Yes, You Can Change the System! Here's How, with David Conabree

David Conabree: It's going to be a different world for us in the public service. Now, more than ever, we are trying to figure out ways to stop the administration from becoming the point of what we do by focusing more on how to get to those end outcomes in the most efficient way possible. This is going to have huge advantages for us going forward.

Julie Blais Comeau: Like many public servants, you joined the public service of Canada to make a difference in the lives of Canadians. On the way to doing that, though, you found you had to navigate a rigid system. Being solution minded, you have suggestions for how to make things more efficient and maybe even challenge the status quo, so you can be a change agent.

Hello, this is Julie Blais Comeau. Welcome to How to Survive as an Executive. I'm pleased to welcome Mr. David Conabree, Director General, Employment Programs Directorate, Human Resources Branch, Canada Revenue Agency. He will share his thoughts on the different ways you can simplify the red tape of government bureaucracy.

Hello, David. Welcome to the studio at Asticou.

David Conabree: Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity to have this chat.

Julie Blais Comeau: So lovely to see you in person. So before we get started. Why don't you tell our listeners who you are?

David Conabree: I am the Director General of Employment Programs at CRA. So those are HR files like staffing, performance management, classification and the like.

Julie Blais Comeau: And you could be the poster child for the public service from growing up the ranks, because you started as a collections officer, didn't you?

David Conabree: I did come in as a collection officer on a term back in Calgary in 2000. I moved the family a bunch of times to chase opportunities, went to school at night and generally tried to get as much of a broad experience as I could. There have probably been about a dozen jobs between here and there spending time in programs, internal services, operations, headquarters, agency and a department.

Julie Blais Comeau: Today, this is what we want to teach. Actually, this is like a mini lesson on "Yes, you can change the system, here's how". So what is most challenging when you get that little niggle in you and you want to change bureaucracy from the inside?

David Conabree: It's important to realize that there are a number of cards that are automatically stacked against you in the system, by default. So if you do nothing, administrative burden will have a tendency to continuously build in reaction to problems. What I mean is, somebody makes a mistake on a form somewhere and then new fields are added in and there are new governance requirements for everybody.

Think of really big and complicated internal services processes, as fighting a sumo wrestler. They can fight you just by standing still.

Julie Blais Comeau: I'm sure that's sounding very, very familiar for our listeners, to our executives. Now, what do we have to consider ?

David Conabree: First, is it the right time to do this kind of work? I mean, it will never be the perfect time, but there are times when certain files are just not going to get traction, and that's just the reality.

David Conabree: Secondly, do you have support from the top? I work with Dan Couture, I'm not sure if you know him, but the man's a phenomenon of public service. He was 110 percent behind me and did everything he could to open every door and grease the wheels along the way. The need to do that goes beyond just the discussion with him. I did a tour and got to talk to all of his colleagues, the senior managers. We talked about what it was that they needed and what their reality was. And frankly, I did that to make sure that not only did I understand what their actual reality was, but also that they understood I had their best interests at heart. That tour made a big difference.

Julie Blais Comeau: Now, agility, reality, what are the ideal conditions? If you had to set it up, what would be best?

David Conabree: Beyond support from the top and timing, it's really all about people and getting people with a sense of mission. I see this as the "secret sauce" to any success I've had. You also have to give them the time and the resources to commensurate with the scale of the problem they are trying to solve. This is not something that people can do off the corner of their desks. You also have to put your people in direct contact with those people who will actually apply the solutions. We often just need to stop thinking that any small group of people, no matter how brilliant they may be in headquarters, can understand the day to day reality of a frontline worker in Saskatoon. Your people need to work with them as representatives of the group of people impacted by the changes. They need to feel the pain and the frustration with them. They need to go through the process together. This way they will get solutions that will actually likely stick when the spotlight moves on to other things.

Julie Blais Comeau: So the spotlight, the sumo wrestler, the secret sauce, how does one strategically approach this process?

David Conabree: My view is to be open, loud and honest. There's a lot of skepticism in the system about these sort of things, and for good reason. People can smell corporate B.S. You need to really listen to your clients. Then get back to those people with a summary of what you heard so that people know that you were listening and more importantly, that you actually understood what they said. I have a practice of broadly sharing what we call "What we heard". It is a report that spells out what is working and what is not based on what we were told, in very plain language. I find that the frankness and the transparency really resonates with people.

Julie Blais Comeau: So we're taking an empathetic perspective. Now, what would be step number one? Where do we start?

David Conabree: The first step was to salvage a set of really clear and plain language of guiding principles that people could apply when they looked at the work. With the agency's permission, I published these online. They ended up getting a surprising amount of interest. They're pinned to the top of my Twitter feed, if people want to see the full list. But to give you a sense of the way these are written and the clarity that I try and seek in these, I'm going to read you the first one.

Julie Blais Comeau: So how can they find you on Twitter?

David Conabree: @ Dave Conabree, just my name. I want you to start with the assumption that the user is already overly busy, tired and looking for simplicity. In short, empathy first. As an example, it's five thirty p.m. and a manager's spouse is calling to ask when she's going to be home. She has a bunch of deadlines due this week. Some key players are unexpectedly away, and then she needs to staff a job. This person is probably not reading your 21 page set of detailed step by step instructions.

Julie Blais Comeau: Absolutely not!

David Conabree: No matter how pretty you make them. The problem is that it takes 21 pages to describe your process.

Julie Blais Comeau: So now we've got that empathetic lens and maybe even that lens is like a microscope, with a very, very big view. We're trying to understand. But sometimes, even with all of our best efforts, what if, what if it doesn't work out as planned?

David Conabree: Oh, that's nearly guaranteed. These things will never work out exactly as planned. Why? That's why they often are not tackled.

Julie Blais Comeau: Phew, thank goodness ... I'm sure that a lot of executives are breathing a sigh of relief because even for you, who's done this before, you know and are reassuring them that it will happen. So everybody can relax. Let's keep going.

David Conabree: Absolutely. Be honest about that from the start. These things are so big and complicated, there's a reason why they don't tackle them. They're really hard. There are 400 hands in that pie. Things will go wrong. Misunderstandings will happen. Do your best with regular communications and I mean all of the time. Build up those personal relationships that you can lean on when things go left. Make sure that people know that you've got their backs. It's the persistence that'll get you there.

Julie Blais Comeau: What was your most daring disruption? Where did you get your courage? What was the most daring change? Everybody is now with you, listening, so that they can get ready to change the system too.

David Conabree: I think probably the most daring is the one from my most recent years. We decided that it was time to rewrite the entire staffing system for the CRA. We have our own staffing authorities and we decided that we were going to use them to review everything we do in partnership with thousands of people across the frontlines of the organization to find a better way of doing business rather than in small focus groups. Nothing was off the table. And I had Lisa Lafosse and David Lemieux, two absolutely amazing public service leaders in my area, who are dead set on making a difference on this. We put together a team of some of the most inspiring and mission oriented H.R. people we could find. We put them together with some really engaged representatives from every branch and region and both of the unions. We sent them out across the country. Go talk to people, hear them. We also had people whose job it was to pick apart every related rule and process, working with legal and other experts to figure out what things were based on. They looked at things like legislation and what were just customs that had evolved over time and that maybe we could change. We did it all in the open with national e-mails about exactly what we were doing. We had sessions across the country, in addition to an online platform, along with open access to all of our corporate documents and plans. We documented what we heard and then we put it out to over 4000 people, warts and all.

Julie Blais Comeau: Wow! That's a lot of people.

David Conabree: It was. And I mean, frankly, it took a about a year of work by these incredible people. By the end of it, we ended up with over 50 changes. Some of it to do right away, some to pilot and some things that needed more research. But it included things like eliminating processes that have been around for almost two decades and freeing up managers for lots of administrative tasks, so they could spend more time on their core reasons for being there. We slashed thousands of transactions and eliminated tons of handoffs. We were in the pilot phase for some of the new processes when COVID hit.

Julie Blais Comeau: So all of that had been done and then COVID, the lockdown.

David Conabree: Absolutely. It threw the brakes on a ton of things. In the initial processes we had some that we were averaging less than 90 days for something that used to take five to six months. We had some processes that were less than 40 days. But when COVID hit, everything just about came to a grinding halt. Then we reoriented to figure ourselves out in a fully virtual world, which is the new challenge that we have ongoing now.

Julie Blais Comeau: Congratulations! That is quite an accomplishment. Now, how do you feel? What do you miss most now that you've come all that way, out of lockdown and into the reality that is setting in?

David Conabree: It's been an incredible feeling, frankly. In internal services, it's often really hard to see the direct impact that we have on the lives of Canadians. We're back office geeks. But giving back valuable time to employees and managers across the entire system and making the agency more agile is an incredibly visible impact that we had. This honestly feels incredible. And it's just a start.

Julie Blais Comeau: So would you say that the pandemic, the lockdown, the conditions, contributed to the success of the project or encouraged the people to take that risk?

David Conabree: I think what it did is it helped to reinforce a lot of the points that we were trying to bring out of people in terms of why are we doing X, Y, Z? For example, physically signing a document, sending around a docket. They are common tasks, until you really got the challenge of literally sorting out rule by rule and asking the questions. Why exactly does it have to be done that way? Why can't I send an email to cover that off? Until you go through that process, you just continue doing it. Then you find yourself in this process, the one we are in right now, in COVID. We are kind of entirely separate, for the most part. And now, those pieces are things that form the basis of what we are going to do next. That's fantastic. That part is fantastic. COVID itself has been hard on a ton of people. It's going to be a different world for us in the public service. Now, more than ever, we are trying to figure out ways to stop the administration from becoming the point of what we do by focusing more on how to get to those end outcomes in the most efficient way possible. This is going to have huge advantages for us going forward.

Julie Blais Comeau: Yes. And I would also say that the fact that people were able to pivot and to do it with agility is going to contribute to their confidence to be able to do it again and again, now that they have had that success to build on.

Well, David Conabree this has been a privilege and I certainly encourage our listeners to reach out to you. They can reach out to you on Twitter. And, of course, they can look you up on the public service directory to find you if they have any questions on changing the system and doing it the way that you did it successfully. Thank you very much.

David Conabree: Thank you for having me.

Julie Blais Comeau: We hope that you're leaving us today feeling a little bit more empowered or at the very least that you're better equipped to ask questions and to share ideas. By following Mr. Conabree's advice, you can be that change agent.

We invite you to continue this conversation within your network by sharing the podcast.

Do you know an executive who would be a good guest?  Or better yet, would you like to participate? Contact us.

Dare to make a difference. It's in your hands.


Guest: David Conabree, Director General, Employment Programs Directorate, Human Resources Branch, Canada Revenue Agency

Host: Julie Blais Comeau, Learning Advisor, Canada School of Public Service

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