When I was hired into the federal government in 2003, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. The person who scheduled my interview described the job as “general office duties,” but the job turned out to be much more than that, eventually turning into a career.
My initial job was to do research for the Government of Canada’s Urban Aboriginal Strategy (UAS), which was an exciting pilot initiative that had just received funding. I later became involved in administering project funding, which meant I was fortunate to see the positive outcomes that government funding has in the community. I still remember touring many non-profit organizations in Winnipeg, hearing about the good work they do and the increased benefits that our often small amounts of funding would have.
It is with this experience that I entered my current role working on internal planning and reporting. While this new position removes me from directly working with the public, it allows me to concentrate on telling the story of government.
In the past, plans and reports prepared by government tended to focus on compliance, finances and activities; many still do. However, there is a shift taking place to talk more about the outcomes of government – not just how many projects were done or how much money was spent, but the outcomes achieved.
Granted, this is not an easy story to tell; there are many challenges. The public service is being asked to be more accountable, more transparent, more efficient, while dealing with often conflicting demands of having to meet more reporting requirements with fewer resources. Why, then, should we bother with trying to tell the story of what government does when our time and budgets are constrained?
Perhaps a better question to ask is what is the risk of not telling this story? If we, as public servants, are not able to clearly communicate to parliamentarians, the public and even each other the strategic direction we are taking, the work we are doing and the outcomes we are achieving, these groups will at best not understand the public service and at worst undervalue or even distrust the work we do.
Who should tell this story? Certainly public servants in my position, whose primary responsibility is planning and reporting, have an important contribution to make. But good plans and reports cannot be written without proper engagement. Every public servant has a role, whether it is the project officer who collects project outcomes, the finance officer who ensures the accuracy of data, or the executive who develops the outline for the story by charting the strategic direction. Essentially, every public servant is a contributing author.
How do we tell the story? This is the most difficult question to answer because there is no one right way. There are, I believe, some common principles of how to construct a good story, though. Before writing, determine who your audience is and their information needs. Some content will be different for an internal audience versus an external one. Make sure the story reflects the culture of the organization. If the work is technical and scientific, the story should reflect this.
In the same vein, the story should be based in reality; it’s a story, not a fairy tale. As much as possible, talk about mistakes, challenges and lessons learned and what is being done to respond to them. Finally, keep the story as short as possible. There is always plenty of “nice to know” information, but only include the “need to know” stuff.
While adopting such an approach may sound easy in theory, it is much more difficult in practice. There are a myriad of technological, political and resource challenges that constrain good storytelling, but these cannot stop us from trying. It is no longer good enough to just be financially accountable or to just talk about the activities the public service undertakes. People want to know how the public service is making a difference in their lives and it is up to all of us to tell them.
Rob McLeary works on planning, reporting and performance measurement at Western Economic Diversification Canada in Winnipeg and serves on several volunteer committees, including the Institute of Public Administration of Canada and the Manitoba Youth Network.