Successful leaders never stop growing. They continually inform themselves about the emerging trends in innovative thinking and policy development. It can be tough to find the time and best methods to keep up, but a group of public servants in Regina has found a way. They are learning together, at a modest cost, and having fun at the same time.
In 2010, Winter Fedyk returned to Saskatchewan to work for the provincial government. She had spent a number of years with the federal government in Ottawa, where she had enjoyed belonging to a public policy book club. Winter decided to start one in Regina. She has made good friends, including Dan Perrins, the former Deputy Minister to the Premier and the Head of the Public Service along the way. He agreed to collaborate in establishing the book club.
Rod Windover recently spoke with Winter and Dan about their experiences.
Windover: How did you come up with the idea for a public policy book club?
Fedyk: After completing my MPA at Queen’s, I lived in Ottawa for eight years. A friend introduced me to the Administrator’s Colloquium. It’s a public policy book club with participants from across the federal government.
What motivated you to start the Regina club?
After moving home, I missed my Ottawa book club experience. I thought something similar in Regina could help build my professional network. I approached the Johnson-Shoyama School of Public Policy to gauge their interest in partnering to get one off the ground. I met Dan Perrins, the Head of Outreach and Training at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina and the University of Saskatchewan. Dan had been Deputy Minister to the Premier and the Head of the Public Service.
What was the early response to your idea?
It was very positive. Dan was a large part of this. His contribution was invaluable. He passed on information about the new club within his networks. As a result, we had about 20 public servants from all levels attend the inaugural meeting.
Perrins: When Winter walked through my door, Johnson-Shoyama was in its second year. We had begun a successful series of Armchair lectures, similar to those organized by the Canada School of Public Service in Ottawa. We realized that the book club could help foster a more interactive dialogue and ongoing engagement among public servants.
Were there challenges in getting started?
Fedyk: At first, I modelled the club after the Administrator’s Colloquium in Ottawa. This meant a sit-down supper and a host with expertise on the subject who led the discussion. It was a lot of work for one person. Over time, I simplified things. I no longer stress over whether a guest speaker is available.
How are the books chosen?
Fedyk: We select our books in chunks at a time; three for the Fall session, and three for the Spring session. This helps us plan ahead, but not so much that we’re missing the opportunity to insert a late-breaking title. Typically I’ll send an email to the group with a call for suggestions. I compile the list and send it out for people to vote on their top picks. It’s pretty challenging to whittle the possibilities down to six books per year.
Are there short and long term plans to cover varying themes?
Fedyk: We try to achieve a balance between different subject matters or policy areas. The two most important considerations are that the books are likely to generate good discussion, and that they raise issues which contribute to our professional and leadership development. Our selections can come from the themes du jour of the publishing world itself. For example, recently there have been a lot of great books about the link between behavioural psychology and policy (e.g., Nudge; Simpler; Thinking, Fast and Slow;Predictably Irrational). So we go with the intellectual flow a lot of the time. We’ve also discussed books with focused policy implications, such as Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life by James Daschuk.
How do current events play into your book selections?
Fedyk: To the extent possible, we time discussion of the books to other events so that they’re more relevant. For example, a few years ago we read a book from the How Ottawa Spends series. We scheduled the meeting around the release of the provincial budget. We were fortunate that this timing allowed Ralph Goodale, a Regina MP and former federal Finance minister, to be in town and join us for that discussion.
Is consideration given to subjects of varied scope, e.g., local, regional, national and international policy?
Perrins: Yes, we try to cover local, regional, national and international issues. The books are also a combination of: how to, public administration, policy analysis, history, and politics. Some I would have read, but others I wouldn’t have.
Fedyk: Over the years, I’ve found that the best policy books are applicable to our own local context no matter the original scope of the book. For example, one of our books on education policy was The Smartest Kids in the World and How they Got that Way. Even through it used international evidence and comparisons to argue its points; it was relevant for us here in Saskatchewan.
Who are the book club members?
Perrins: The composition of the group is diverse. Participants range from their 20s to late 50s and in one instance, late 60s (me). Their years of public service experience and career paths all vary. There are diverse academic and professional backgrounds. We have economists, social workers, engineers, MPAs, MBAs, environmental scientists and teachers. The common thread among all members is a genuine interest in being exposed to new ideas.
Fedyk: At any given meeting, we have 10-15 people show up. About half are die-hard regulars. The others come in and out depending on their workloads and interest in the subject. For the most part, participants are provincial public servants, with a few Crown corporation employees thrown into the mix. Recently some interns from Johnson-Shoyama joined us. I hope they keep coming back — they have a lot to add!
What are the meetings like?
Fedyk: We meet monthly on Monday nights in a private room at a local restaurant. This allows people to order whatever they wish from the menu. I try to be strict about starting and finishing on time and staying on topic. Many members arrive early for social, catch-up time.
Perrins: The book club provides a safe environment where everyone can feel comfortable sharing their views. There’s a real sense of what’s said in the room, stays in the room. This dynamic allows people to bring their own ideas forward and challenge one another’s thinking in a healthy way. The vigorous interplay leads to fascinating discussions.
Fedyk: It’s enlightening to listen to seasoned public servants talk about how they addressed some of the very issues which we’re facing today. This typically results in observations how changes in the socio-economic landscape, or advances in technology might lead to different outcomes.
Perrins: There have been occasions when a senior leader, widely respected within his or her policy sphere, has been surprised at the collective view of younger members. They gained an insightful glimpse into the values and priorities of the next generation of policy makers. These incidents reinforce the reality that we all have something to learn from each other, no matter if we’ve been public servants for two years or twenty-five.
Who leads the discussions?
Fedyk: I often kick off meetings with a few comments about the book, but there is no formal mediation role. We’ve been together for long enough now that discussions are mainly organic. Otherwise, the person who originally suggested the title takes ownership of leading the conversation.
Perrins: One aspect of meetings can be tricky. We value participation by senior officials. Their experience and insight is precious. Yet, we are mindful that the best form of interaction takes place when they let their hair down and participate as equals. So the emphasis on hierarchy is dialed back to the greatest degree possible.
What kind of feedback do you hear from members? Do members participate out of professional necessity, or more because of personal interest?
Fedyk: I would guess that most people are there for a combination of leisure and the pursuit of personal and professional growth. I know that some members are attracted by the “night out” quality of our meetings. After all, the restaurant where we meet specializes in importing beer from around the world! There is a real mentorship vibe to the group as well that keeps people coming back.
Perrins: Participants tell me that beyond learning about issues raised in our books; they have expanded their leadership competencies. Among them are enhanced public speaking skills and an improved ability to engage with others in a professional manner when dealing with contradictory opinions.
What has been your number one take-away from the experience?
Fedyk: Hands down, it’s been the people. At first, being part of the book club was a way to expand my professional network. This has paid off. Tapping into the collective wisdom of such a thoughtful, engaged group has been equally profitable. It’s provided a bird’s-eye view of government that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. As time passes, I also find it rewarding that some of these professional contacts have become close friends. That’s probably been the biggest bonus.
What advice would you give to someone who wished to start their own public policy book club?
- Start small: Find people who you think might be interested and approach them. When you have two people, you have yourself a book club. You can grow from there.
- Tap into existing networks: Once you have a core of people you can count on; seek the support of influential champions to help spread the word. The Johnson-Shoyama School of Public Policy was a great resource for us in the beginning, as was the Saskatchewan chapter of the Institute for Public Administration of Canada (IPAC).
- Leave the textbooks in the classroom: When it comes to choosing books, go for ones with wider appeal, and make sure to give everyone the chance to provide input into the selection of the books. They’ll be more likely to show up for meetings that way!
- Broaden your horizons: Don’t limit your book choices, or membership invitations, to only those within your area of expertise. Innovation in public policy requires a wide perspective. One of the biggest benefits of the book club has been that it encourages reading books you might not otherwise have come across and discussing their merits among people of varying backgrounds.
What does the future hold for the club?
Fedyk: Great things, not just for our club, but also for the people who belong to it. Going forward, we hope to recruit a few new participants from local federal government departments and the City of Regina. At the book club, as in life, it’s important to have different viewpoints around the table to keep us relevant and sharp. It will be exciting to follow the career paths of our members. There’s amazing leadership potential in the group. The tradition of learning in a social setting will fuel the growth of our individual competencies. A shared interest in staying abreast of trends in public policy bodes well for the promise of our contribution to public service for today, and tomorrow.
Follow the Regina Public Policy Book Club at: https://policybookclub.wordpress.com
Rod Windover is an author, teacher and consultant specializing in the public sector role surrounding major events.
Winter Fedyk is the Director of Executive Education, Executive Council for the Government of Saskatchewan. In Ottawa, she worked for the federal government at Privy Council Office, Finance, Treasury Board Secretariat and Foreign Affairs.
Dan Perrins is the Executive-in-residence at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. He concluded his career with the Government of Saskatchewan as Deputy Minister to the Premier and the Head of the Public Service.