The canada@150 initiative was an opportunity for early-career federal public servants to collaborate online to assess, analyze and build options to address major policy challenges facing Canada in the near future. We were given space to innovate and take risks, to try new ways of doing things and make mistakes. We applied analytical tools – scanning, foresight and scenario planning – to explore complex issues, unpack the second- and third-order effects and then develop potential solutions. Whether the issues we explored involved enabling green transportation, unlocking the potential of marginalized youth, leveraging our national competitive advantage, or reconciling national security and human rights, they all shared one commonality: they were wicked.
Wicked issues? What does that mean? It means that traditional solutions – divide and conquer, going it alone, or letting highly intelligent people tackle them in isolation – won’t work. You can never truly solve wicked issues; rather, you continuously manage them in a way that results in better, rather than worse, outcomes (not right or wrong). Many players are affected and implicated. And the trick in addressing them invariably revolves around how to get all these people to work together and build a shared understanding of the problems that lay before them.
One of the biggest challenges we identified in preventing these issues from being addressed effectively is the prevailing culture of the public service: a culture of hierarchy, risk aversion and lack of trust. We understand why this culture prevails; we remain accountable to Canadians and recognize that it maximizes our potential to avoid big mistakes. But along with those big mistakes are many groundbreaking opportunities that are also being passed by. Without a doubt changing this public service culture will be a challenge, but it is not impossible.
To get the process started we would like to present two simple means of helping ease the transition process:
- First, provide opportunities for experimentation and learning. The first step to moving away from risk aversion is creating spaces where public servants are encouraged to innovate, experiment, and even have permission to fail. Learning through failure breeds innovation. Public servants need to know that they have license to try out new ideas without fear of reprisal or even the sense of having to go against the grain. Trust public servants to honour guidelines that have been put in place and you will be pleasantly surprised with the innovative outcomes.
- Second, recognize and capitalize on the inter- and intra-personal skills required to bring and keep people together. If the secret to addressing complex issues is building shared understanding between multiple parties, then the ability to create social cohesion is an imperative skill-set. Logical thinking will always be an asset, but it is not enough. We need those who can build trust, facilitate consensus and act decisively. Recruit for these skills. Develop and grow them. And let them get to work addressing the complex issues of the day.
It will take true leadership to usher in a culture of change in the greater public sector, and not simply leadership from the top. Leadership at all levels in the public service will be required to create safe spaces for experimentation and to trust that collaborative processes will eventually lead to success. Trust is the foundation to conquering wicked issues collaboratively. We would like to challenge all public servants to do what you can to cultivate a public service that is well placed to address the wicked issues of the future. Rest assured, you have our permission to fail along the way.
This article was wiki-composed in 10 days by 10 canada@150 participants from seven federal departments in four regions. See http://bit.ly/canada150 for their research report.