In December 2008, the BC Public Service launched Spark, an internal website for constructive collaboration within the organization. Created by employees, for employees, the online space promotes modernization and service transformation, fosters innovation and removes barriers to collaboration. The site encourages the active and open exchange of ideas across the entire public service, regardless of position, classification, job title or duties. Backed by a commitment to implement the best ideas put forth, the electronic forum is the next step in the transformation of the organizational culture within the public service.
The road to innovation began in 2006 with the first edition of Being the Best, the organization’s corporate human resource plan. Jessica McDonald, Deputy Minister to the Premier, has guided the organization in identifying the key to becoming an innovative workplace. “Ideas and innovation need to be championed from the top-down, the bottom-up, horizontally and vertically across the public service,” says McDonald. “Executives need to support this kind of shift, but ultimately innovation is not executive-led, it is actually led by the organization.”
Spark was developed as a fundamental part of the province’s change management plan, ensuring that modern tools and technologies are introduced into the workplace, and used to share ideas. Those ideas are an integral part of building the identity of the BC Public Service as an employer. The corporate brand, “Where ideas work,” demonstrates the push toward shaping a workplace where employee ideas are encouraged, valued and acted upon.
“We’re trying to shift our mindset to a place where each one of us is taking responsibility for making the BC Public Service a place where ideas actually do work,” McDonald notes. “That will lead us to be a much more collaborative organization, which in many ways challenges the traditional culture of government.”
Spark is a blend of traditional and Web 2.0 design principles and, like all collaborative social media, its usefulness depends upon the content generated by its users. Since its inception, Spark has demonstrated success as a space where employees can submit ideas and enhance and refine those posted by others. By first creating a user profile, employees are able to post ideas, and comment and vote on others’ contributions. If employees see an idea they can act on, they are encouraged to do so, while ideas with policy and budgetary implications are identified for consideration in a number of ways.
All ideas submitted on Spark are prioritized and deliberated by a dedicated Spark team. Although the research, development and implementation of program-specific ideas may be led by particular ministries, all other ideas are managed by the Spark team – an idea receiving over 100 votes prompts a review by the Spark team for feasibility and subsequent action. Ultimately, the goal is to work in partnership to realize as many ideas as possible, review key program areas across government, reduce duplication and overlap, and make recommendations to better improve productivity and service delivery.
To date, ideas posted to Spark include a range of public policy improvements, suggestions for expanding online citizen self-service opportunities, and operational improvements like establishing an internal talent bank to reduce the need for external contractors. The diversity of ideas demonstrates the ability of employees to get engaged and mobilize their innovative skills in pursuit of creative change.
Since its December launch, Spark has continued to grow as a network for open dialogue and diversity of content. Visits to the site have increased on a monthly basis and, as of April 2009, Spark had nearly 3300 registered users and over 680 ideas posted. In addition, comments on the site have increased by 50 percent and the number of votes has grown by 61 percent since the start of the year. Traffic to supplementary features of the site, such as the monthly Hot Topic, has also been high. Another resource to prompt discussion, the Spark Blog, saw a 67 percent increase in views from February to March alone.
According to author and consultant Anthony Williams, “governments around the world are looking for new ways to ignite innovation. The new fiscal and demographic realities are such that many governments will have to do more with less, both today and in the future.
“Simply put, the public service needs to work smarter and faster. Making appropriate investments in technology can help bring a new ethos of innovation and collaboration to life in government. Projects like B.C.’s Spark are an important step towards this goal.”
In support of Spark’s goals, and to facilitate the greater cultural shift toward innovation within the BC Public Service, the Future of Work Initiative was created as part of the Workforce Planning and Leadership Secretariat. Kim Henderson, head of the secretariat, has assembled a team dedicated to building a culture of innovation and collaboration to ensure that it supports initiatives across government to develop as a highly flexible and efficient organization.
“The Future of Work Initiative has the potential to radically transform the public service by changing not only our operational approach but by also ensuring that the technological infrastructure is in place to support the significant attitudinal and behavioural shifts that we seek,” Henderson observes. She notes that the key to pursuing and advancing innovation is to have a supportive executive coupled with an engaged and connected workforce, resulting in an environment where ideas constantly flow through all levels of the organization.
“We knew from the research we were doing that most of the best ideas come from the frontlines – those directly involved in service delivery or working through processes,” she says. “We also knew that employees often felt that good ideas got stopped moving up through the hierarchy of the organization.”
So the BC Public Service adapted a model similar to consumer-focused sites by Dell and Starbucks, applying Web 2.0 technology to the concept of a free exchange of ideas.
“It was a fantastic creative team of employees we put together that came up with Spark and I’m really proud of what we accomplished,” says Henderson. “Now we need to make sure that the ideas on Spark move to implementation so that we make a valuable contribution to improving our work environment and the services we deliver.”
Indeed, Spark signals a substantial stride for the BC Public Service, supporting collaboration rather than competition, and integration rather than division. It is a creative tool that promotes a flexible and adaptive infrastructure within the public service and allows for efficient information sharing.
“Spark was designed to give BC Public Service employees a direct voice in shaping the future of the public service – whether it’s our HR strategy, how we modernize government operations, or even government policy itself,” says McDonald. “The goal is to provide a forum for employee-driven dialogue that moves beyond the traditional rigid government hierarchy in favour of a more pure and genuine culture of collaboration.”
Karoline Piercy is a writer/researcher with the Public Service Initiative in the Deputy Minister’s Office of British Columbia.
Spark in Action
In early 2009, there were several employee ideas posted to Spark regarding the potential for implementing a reduced workweek to reduce carbon emissions and costs.
That concept was considered by a committee of senior executives, and a proposal for a temporary reduced workweek was put back to employees for discussion on Spark and the BC Public Service employee intranet. Employees were invited to r