New professionals across Canada are developing novel, more effective approaches to connect with each other within and across ministries by using online tools created specifically to enable them to instantaneously share information and experiences: a tweet with a link to a great article in the Globe & Mail or the Wall Street Journal, a post with a link to a timely research paper in Canadian Public Administration, or a case study from the school of public policy in Regina.
At a recent conference, delegates from Halifax and Winnipeg strike up a conversation and learn that they share the same field in different jurisdictions. They exchange cards, and soon one emails the other about an upcoming publication that might interest her. The recipient seizes the opportunity to write something from her ministry’s point of view, an article that not only enriches the policy debate but also increases interest in the topic and an improved profile for her ministry. Meanwhile, an international delegate applies the conference model, including diverse content, logistics and web presence, to her own organization in Africa.
Colleagues on a board of directors learn about a new project involving a Toronto member. They assess the proposal and add their own frank comments, suggesting new contacts and approaches based on their own experiences. For another board member’s project, an Ottawa colleague suggests a contact in communications who might be interested in lending a pro-bono hand. Another from Edmonton asks fellow board members about a specific HR issue she’s been grappling with. Another in Victoria suggests that one of his bilingual interns can help a colleague with a research project.
These are real-life examples from IPAC, where informal networks are helping public policy professionals make sense of complexity and shrink a world of data overload into salient intelligence they can actually use.
Joseph Nye, former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of The Future of Power, writes frequently about “soft power,” meaning the power of attraction and credibility to persuade people, meet objectives and influence outcomes. He decries the cutting of tools such as exchanges, contacts, broadcasting and assistance, which are supported through formal programs but nurtured through informal networks across government and civil society. Nye argues in “The War on Soft Power” (Foreign Policy, April) that the U.S. State Department’s budget cuts will hollow out America’s public diplomacy capacity.
It is a mistake to cut such “soft” programs, he writes, because they have “payoffs measured in decades, not months or years … [L]eadership in a global information age is less about being the king of the mountain issuing commands that cascade down a hierarchy than being the person in the center of a circle or network who attracts and persuades others to come help.”
Complex, horizontal policy challenges and what we call “wicked problems” aren’t limited to specific jurisdictions or time zones. Public servants close to the centre are well-positioned to engage their networks, to exchange ideas and theories, share war stories, and above all, learn and disseminate what’s new and what works.
Steven Johnson, in Where Good Ideas Come From, observes that innovations are born of the synergy of knowledge and proximity. Johnson writes that new ideas are often generated when people from different fields combine their ideas through “liquid networks.” Johnson cites the successes of Apps for America, Data.gov and Data.gov.uk, which are opening up government to both serve and involve citizens in new ways. The most innovative institutions will create the “informal hubs that allow different disciplines to borrow from one another.” These are “spaces that have long supported innovation,” the settings where ideas are free to move and connect in unexpected ways.
Specialized associations help sort through information and ideas: among them are APEX for senior executives, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Canadian Urban Institute for municipal leaders and staff, the Canadian International Council for people whose focus is on Canadian and international issues, and many more. But for a broad focus on government, public policy and good governance, the Institute of Public Administration of Canada continues to lead.
IPAC has promoted excellence in public administration since 1947, by supporting public servants and scholars across Canada in 17 regional groups. Building our network, IPAC convenes and connects people, stimulates debate and enriches the dialogue on public service excellence.
Wendy Feldman is the director of research for the Institute of Public Administration of Canada.