Weekly Column: An Interview With a Canada@150 Participant

Friday, June 19, 2009
A couple of weeks ago the Canada@150 project had its Ideas Fair.

Interestingly, our blog as well as Etienne Laliberté’s An Inconvient Renewal site were mentioned during one of the conferences, and links were included in the published materials (PDF and web). After a quick email to the Canada@150 team, the links to these pages went live on the Policy Research Initiative (PRI) official government website.

Despite Mike and I being screened out of the Canada@150 project (no bitterness here), we managed to wrangle ourselves [CPSR] an interview with an anonymous participant [AP].

Warning! This interview is chocked full of successy-goodness.

[CPSR]: Thank you for agreeing to speak with us about the Canada@150 project. Can you tell us a bit about it before we start?

[AP]: Sure, Canada@150 is the brainchild of the Privy Council Office (PCO) and the Policy Research Initiative (PRI). It consisted of a team of 150 young public servants selected from more than 1,700 applicants. We were tasked with identifying and evaluating the most important challenges that Canada will face in 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

We were instructed to go beyond current research and develop our own policy responses to the challenges we identified. We were also asked to consider the implications of our findings for the Public Service as a whole and to develop strategies for keeping pace with change and meeting emerging challenges.

[CPSR]: Looking back, what did you think about the project?

[AP]: Overall, it was a very positive experience. The project brought together 150 people from across the country and overseas, with varied backgrounds, educations and job experiences. The task was extremely broad by any measure: the context of the project, the geographical challenges, the use of a new collaborative web suite (Clearspace, not currently in use anywhere else to my knowledge). Despite the size and scope of the project, its novelty, and the unique backgrounds of the participants, I left feeling proud of what the group had accomplished. In the end, I think it was a success: a success that speaks to the qualities of the participants, the organizers, and the technologies.

[CPSR]: How much support did you have from your manager?

[AP]: My manager and director were extremely supportive of my involvement in the process. They even championed some of the initiatives that came out of the Canada@150, particularly in the adoption of collaborative platforms for policy development.

[CPSR]: How much freedom did participants have to manoeuvre during the project?

[AP]: The latitude we were given by the organizing secretariat was impressive but somewhat daunting. We were provided a solid introduction to futures and systems analysis, and then asked to undertake a broad environmental scan. PRI basically said, “go out and find out what we, as a country, are going to face.” Obviously we came up with hundreds of potential issues facing the country. But over the next six months, we continually refined our analysis and narrowed the issues to what we considered to be most pressing. Ultimately, I think we developed a solid list and some great recommendations from across the spectrum of policy instruments. I won’t go into any specifics because people should really read the reports when they are released.

[CPSR]: Do you know when those reports are going to be available? I was hoping they would be available at the Ideas Fair.

[AP]: From what we have been told, they should be released in September 2009 and, from what I can tell, many of the initial recommendations have been warmly received by senior management.

[CPSR]: Did you get to meet any of the big guns in Canadian civics?

[AP]: Absolutely. Among others, we heard from the Honourable John Manley, Kevin Lynch, Margaret Bloodworth (former National Security Advisor), author Adam Kahane (Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking Listening, and Creating New Realities), and Prof. Peter Bishop (Associate Professor of Strategic Foresight and Coordinator of the graduate program in Futures Studies at the University of Houston). It was great to hear them speak about the relevance of public service and problem-solving in general.

[CPSR]: You mentioned a collaborative tool earlier, would you mind speaking a bit more about it?

[AP]: With the advent of Government 2.0 there has been a significant amount of interest in the tools we used to complete the project. Senior management has becoming increasingly interested in Web 2.0 applications. I found that, despite modest prior experience, the collaborative applications were invaluable to the process. The learning curve, both in terms of research/document production and social cues, was very quick. For the most part, we transitioned from non-users to users within six weeks and were full-fledged practitioners at the end of three months. We quickly realized that editing someone else’s work is not a personal affront, but something that aims to improve the result.

In fact, I have become somewhat of a spokesman for the Web 2.0 tools with senior management in my own department. My first hand experience using them in the Canada@150 project gives my advice more weight and my ideas more traction. The project allowed participants to demonstrate, in a tangible way, that the tools aren’t just fancy communication vehicles or social toys – instead they were the tools that enabled us to be productive and allowed us to tap into one another’s expertise more easily.

[CPSR]: I know you are expecting a question like this from me, but can you tell us a bit about the conversation around public service renewal that was taking place among the participants?

[AP]: Hah, yeah sure. We discussed pretty much what you would expect: flexible working relationships, career development opportunities, and fostering collaborative work environments, technologies, and relationships. There was an entire group that focused on that issue, so look for more details it in the report.

[CSPR]: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?

[AP]: The Canada@150 experience was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – the opportunity far outweighed any personal cost in terms of time or added work. When the project first started, I met a lot of people who I would have considered colleagues in a professional sense. Those colleagues have since become good friends; friends who I am happy to raise a glass with and reflect on the project with. Honestly, sharing their insight and experience will prove invaluable as I move through my career in public service, and for that I thank them.

With respect to the project, my hope is that some of the recommendations and approaches will earn their place as mainstays within the public service because there is value in having them there.

[CPSR]: Thank you so much, and I am looking forward to seeing those final reports.

[AP]: My pleasure.