Unless you have been working in a silo, it is obvious to see that the policy environment is rapidly changing. Instead of dropping buzzwords and saying what is changing and why – which everyone has read before – a metaphor can easily show how we, as public servants, need to do things differently.
For a minute, let’s forget public servants across Canada are office workers, and imagine ourselves as explorers in early Renaissance Europe. The world is flat and the trade routes leading to Asia treacherous. Visionaries anticipate the needs of society, explore their options and, ignoring their critics, experiment, thus opening up new worlds and markets. Courage and willingness to take risks and to do things differently create a major paradigm shift in Europe. All the innovations that result are possible because decision makers had a long-term vision, but surprises also come along the way.
Explorers didn’t have crystal balls; they were unable to anticipate the implications – discovering a whole new continent, new people and new ways of doing things – of their actions.
Today the uncharted territory isn’t a new continent, but an imperative to include emerging and alternative voices, work in different ways and embrace technologies. Like the explorers of old, we need to anticipate needs, explore ideas and experiment with options.
Anticipate: There remains the need to deliver analysis, recommendations and services that are relevant, timely and that address emerging complex issues. Unlike explorers, we have an over-abundance of information and a plethora of voices eager to participate. But what are the issues that we face today? What are the issues we might face in 10-15 years and do these build on or contradict what we now know of the world? As public servants we must foresee plausible future scenarios to allow decision makers to anticipate and prepare for the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. We need to be bold and not just believe (or reiterate) that the world is flat.
Explore: The tension between modern challenges and old processes hamper new and emerging opportunities from being discovered. Moving beyond the closed system of government and allowing private and civic participation will enable a broader understanding of the issues and a collaborative exploration of potential results-based solutions. Playing with innovative ideas in imaginative ways and challenging the current dogma will help us navigate beyond traditional silos.
Experiment: There are many opinions on what technologies should be implemented and what ideas should be bridged. Foresight, Web 2.0 technology and the culture of social media, collaboration, co-creation, co-location and place-based approaches are some of the new catch-phrases, just like Spice Islands and passage to India were trendy terms in 1492. But these should not just be embraced because they are new and shiny – understanding the implications and the opportunities is important. Creating the space and allowing time to incubate innovative solutions, public servants can experiment and take calculated risks; we need to become the Renaissance leaders of our time.
Ideas and opportunities are only parts of the equation; implementation and delivery is just as important. Ensuring that the tools are appropriate is vital, including our assumptions and worldview. A culture shift is necessary, one that encourages and rewards creativity, embraces new ways of working and new partners. Pushing the boundaries of terra incognita will always be fraught with risks and unforeseen consequences, but the possibilities are vast and new paradigms possible.
Our new world is probably more complex than the XVth century (or the past century for that matter) and we still lack a reliable oracle to guide us through our decisions. Our sextant is now a computer; the stars, the Internet, but we still require visionaries who can see beyond the end of the world and tackle the risks. More than ever, we still require a champion to build networks that enable us to collaborate and co-create and move beyond traditional frontiers. Techniques and technologies exist that can plot us a fresh map, one that can help us properly define the challenges and explore the options – but as public servants, we need to be open to new ideas, seek to understand our changing environment and do things differently. We need to be explorers.
Policy Horizons Canada is a federal organization that attends to the specific knowledge needs of the deputy minister and policy community (www.horizons.gc.ca). Input was provided by Tabatha Soltay and Jean-Philippe Veilleux.