Transforming mindsets for driving public innovation in Canada

Since April, we’ve been working with a group of 18 public servants from across the Canadian federal government as part of our public innovation learning programme. Last week we wrapped up the programme with a final session in Ottawa, and here we take a brief look back at the last nine months.

Initiated by the Impact and Innovation Unit in the Privy Council Office, the Government of Canada Entrepreneurs (GCEs) have been given the mandate to challenge existing ways of working on persistent policy and structural challenges in Canada.

The goal of our partnership has been to support the GCEs to apply innovative ways of working and to challenge business-as-usual approaches to problem-solving. Exploring new ways of organising for and delivering on innovation efforts and contributing to a wider culture change within the Canadian government.

As two of the GCEs, Laura and Minh, explain, this has involved trying “to advance new approaches in the public service while transforming core systems, from grants and contributions to procurement, co-creation, and human resources”.

Developing an experimental mindset

This has meant developing a core experimental mindset where assumptions are challenged, problems are explored using a diverse set of methods, ideas are tested early to learn what works (and what doesn't). In combination with the strengthening of key skills and competencies, such a mindset can enable effective use of new tools, methods and approaches to public problem-solving.

However, there is no one formula for developing new mindsets and making innovation happen in government! No problem requires the same response and being entrepreneurial in government is more craft than method. So the GCEs have been “learning by doing”, testing out new ways of working and reflecting continuously on practice.

To do so, they’ve had to get hands-on using innovation approaches in their live projects and embrace a process of experimentation, iteration and possible failure.

"No problem requires the same response and being entrepreneurial in government is more craft than method."

As well as exploring and rehearsing new ways of working, the GCEs and the IIU have also been looking at new ways of building the conditions and authorising environments for how public servants of the future might work.

This involves the entire institution in a cultural change process, and there is no route map for how to do this. Here, there is perhaps no more obvious need for “learning by doing”.

Connecting with the community of practice

Throughout their journey, the cohort has been supported by the global and local States of Change faculty. Expertise from organisations like InWithForward on ethnography, MaRS Solutions Lab on systems change, and School of International Futures on foresight as well as experts like Marco Steinberg, Geoff Mulgan and Thomas Kalil on innovation management and policy entrepreneurship.

But, recognising that there is no one “best practice” to support initiatives on the leading edge of public innovation practice, these experts, as well as the GCEs and the IIU, have all co-created a shared learning environment.

Working out loud

This was also brought to life in our final session with the team last week, where the lessons from their learning journey was shared in an Open House event. In this event, the purpose was to “work out loud”, share experiences openly, and engage in dialogue about what practically will drive innovation in the Canadian government. We also created a publication to celebrate the GCEs’ achievements and tell some of the stories from the programme, which you can download here.

The partnership with the Canadian government has fitted with the ethics of the States of Change approach: working closely and learning with the global and local community of public innovation practitioners to create a learning collective of mutual inspiration, support and guidance to enable and support participants in their learning journey.

We look forward to seeing how the initiative progresses, and - given how much there is to learn from an initiative like this - we’ll be sharing more reflections from the journey soon.