Imagine a Canadian government that shares best practices in service delivery. In November 2016, the Innovation Lab team at Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) created the first Service Research Conference (SRC) organized by the Canadian government. The event marked the beginning of a new approach to engaging and providing citizen-centric services to the Canadian public. Organizers discovered a completely unmet needs: to place to share openly new research findings and a mechanism to facilitate trans-departmental research innovation.
Dr. Urvashi Dhawan-Biswal, the Director of Innovation Lab and Service Research at ESDC, was the conference organizer. She said that “we initially conceived of SRC as a vehicle for inter-departmental sharing of experience in Spring of 2015. We anticipated a modest first event with 100 attendees and 10-12 presentations. When we put the call out, we received unprecedented interest with 240 registrants and 30 papers presented. It was like speed dating!”
The conference gave attendees an opportunity to understand “who is doing what”, offering them a new tool for “horizon thinking,” according to Dhawan-Biswal. The post-conference feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and has already given birth to the next Service Research Conference which is being planned for May 2018.
The conference and its purpose are directly aligned with the UN Public Service Forum’s call for a “global transformation of public administrators” to develop “a culture of innovation, supported by leadership of all levels.” Given the launch of both Canada’s Innovation Agenda and the ESDC’s Service Strategy in 2016, the Conference represents a first step toward a national yet collaborative approach to achieve public service excellence.
Conference organizers consider the event an effective means to strengthen government connection with academic researchers, for joint collaboration and for partnership development. The conference team organized a collaboration with OCAD University’s Strategic Foresight and Innovation program, which in turn provided a team of MDes (Master of Design) students to facilitate a workshop during the conference. The event had for objective to break down silos and facilitating inter-departmental knowledge-sharing, along with academics and private sector participants, through participatory engagement. The student team designed a participatory session to creatively capture in-situ practical knowledge and insight reflection during the research conference.
The World Café workshop method was adapted for the workshop because it offered an opportunity for attendees to generate new living networks of collaborative dialogue. It enabled participants to participate in focused conversations of their own interest. The workshop presented three strategic questions central to improving public sector service delivery:
- What evidence base is your organization using to design and improve service delivery?
- How might we leverage partnerships between public, academic, and private sector in order to improve service delivery for Canadians?
- What are the limits or risks with digital service delivery?
The World Café (WC) method is focused on “powerful questions” shared by all participants as meaningful drivers of conversation. WC demands a high level of participation and the experience can be immersive. It was designed to elicit an active creative and collaborative capacity from attendees, an expectation that goes against the typically passive mode of conference participation. To inspire a shift in conference engagement experience, the OCADU team designed a metaphorical experience of being a traveler on a world journey. The conceptual setting of the “World Café” was presented as a traveler’s experience, facilitated by travel artifacts such as boarding passes and itineraries for workshop participants to “travel” between destinations (tables) to cross-exchange dialogue insights. As the World Café method requires a participant at each table to serve as a host; here they were dubbed “captains” hosting their travelers at each table to share and collate conversations.
Open, respectful, and boundary-spanning dialogue was encouraged. So was creative expression of ideas on table “canvases” set up for individual and group sharing of ideas in text and visuals. Facilitators harvested and aggregated emerging ideas, themes, and key concepts with a live visual recording during the workshop. A summary mural was provided to be shared with conference attendees and as an artifact to inform ongoing research design opportunities at the completion of the event.
Many of the public servants in the workshop were surprised that they were encouraged to draw or creatively contribute to the table canvases. One was incredulous: “We can draw?” It is clear that although many government executives may have been exposed to the World Café method in Innovation Labs or facilitated workshops, this type of participatory creative dialogue is still seldom applied internally. It represents a useful opportunity to inspire innovative, open, and boundaryless conversation in public sector organizations.
A major purpose of the workshop was to enable real dialogue. The “World Traveler” Café facilitated peer sharing, listening, and cross-disciplinary responses to shared challenges. Participants were able to gain validation for contributions that might be taken forward into their organizations following the SRC. Notable workshop insights included proposals and themes relevant to cross-organizational collaboration, service design and delivery, and new skill development. Participants highlighted the importance of collaboration between the government and the private sector to join information, data, and skills for the creation of new knowledge towards improved public service delivery. New processes were proposed to better understand and articulate client needs. Participants proposed the value of adopting design and creative service research methods, such as user journey maps, design jams, and co-creation workshops.
Participants also identified the lack of connectivity, personalization, and security as potential risks and limitations to designing improved digital services. Trust and the need for a more flexible and adaptable medium for users were emphasized as key to developing more effective citizen-centric services. Overall, participant feedback after the workshop evidenced the powerful influence of open, innovative participatory methods that encouraged free-flow and exchange of ideas.
The workshop demonstrated a need for open dialogue and experience-sharing across silos. The boundaryless engagement offered by the Café workshop reveals myriad patterns around the citizen-centric design research experience. These experiences fall into a few archetypal categories such as opportunities, obstacles, losses to be avoided, persistent problems, and innovations to be explored. The outcomes themselves are very informative in setting the stage for ongoing content focus for organizers, and provide confidence to participants in understanding commonality of persistent cross-silo issues and opportunities.
The success of the SRC Café workshop suggests to department leaders that innovation and performance improvement are available within existing employees, but their knowledge and experience as resources for creative development must be leveraged. World Café and other participatory methods create the conditions to liberate existing organizational expertise and generate deeper insights when seeking comprehensive and creative solutions for citizen-centric services. Perhaps before teams of external expert consultants are hired, department leaders may start with facilitated design workshops to hear from and engage existing organizational expertise through collaborative and engaging exploratory design processes.
SRC has established the importance of creating a common ground for participatory dialogue between government departments, academics, and the private sector toward a long-term view of co-creating knowledge and experiences to transform service delivery for Canadians. The workshop held by the OCAD University SFI team was a complement to this approach, supporting a creative exchange and network-building of ideas to enhance service research.
The OCAD U team included Roberto Andrade, Pupul Bisht, Chris Chopik, Nannini Lee Balakrishnan, Tania de Gasperis, and Macy Siu, all Master of Design candidates in Strategic Foresight and Innovation at OCAD University, Toronto. Roberto Andrade is an innovation facilitator and strategic designer, with international experience in the fields of architecture, design, and innovation. Chris Chopik is a futurist, strategist, group facilitator, and expert speaker on climate adaptation, infrastructure resiliency, and energy alternatives. Macy Siu is a design researcher, strategist, and facilitator, formerly an intellectual property lawyer, and public servant at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office. All three are part of OCAD University’s Strategic Foresight and Innovation program.