• Opinion
  • February 4, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 1

Society is changing — government needs innovation to adapt

Opinion: Design networks can give different government departments a shared purpose

This piece was written by Aleeya Velji, a federal public servant working on systemic design and innovation in the government of Canada. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


My experience in government has spanned across municipal, provincial and now federal jurisdictions. It is obvious that the public sector across all levels has been experiencing an organisational identity shift — meaning that society is changing, and governments are beginning to see the need to adapt to hold their influence and place in Canadian society.

As the organisation is required to shift, the term “innovation” is seeping into policy and into everyday dialogue of public servants. Within government, there is policy in place to support innovation and a declaration that supports innovation across all provinces and territories in Canada.

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Yet,  policy alone is not enough. There are varied conceptualisations of what innovation means and how it is applied. There is a noticeable cognitive misunderstanding and a deep lack of the skillsets or competencies required for public servants to work in innovative ways.

In order to make innovation a part of the core business of any organisation, there is a requirement for platforms, business processes and practices that create space to build up the internal competencies and disciplined experiments that foster innovative practice.

Small pockets appear to be forming across various levels of government, with platforms such as GC_talent and GC_Collab, Alberta CoLab, Studio 44, SDXCoP, NuLab, and the Recover Project Edmonton popping up in recent years.

But as I take a deep dive into looking at innovation, I am finding that academic literature is more often than not critical of public sector innovation. I continue to ask why…

Why… because:

  • Bureaucratic structure creates processes that require public servants to obtain permission to do just about anything. This limits the ability to try.
  • Innovation is not a part of the core business.
  • Most innovations that do thrive tend to be situated within small groups of people who have great ideas, and who have figured out how to work around the system. This way of innovating has a high level of risk to individuals’ careers, and does not create institutional memory for sustainable and system-wide innovation.

Naturally, innovation in government is fragmented.

From the perspective of a federal public servant, when it comes to innovation, the federal government operates without a systems view; we often act like mini distributed organisations working on individual projects.

For example, I notice several teams working on digital change work. Digital change is promising for the future because it can support how Canadians engage and build trust with government. However, are all the groups working on digital operating with a shared purpose?

What if the concept of design networks was activated?

As described by Manzini (2015), Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation: A designing network refers to a group of people distributed over multiple connected teams and organisations from different parts of society who collectively address complex social issues.”

This model requires more than just collaboration; it needs a shared purpose. A designing network functions as groups of people designing and implementing initiatives to shift a complex system towards a shared purpose.

It is different from a “learning network” such as a community of practice, which is aimed at shared learning from one another but does not necessarily have a shared purpose.

@GC_talent, and the Recover project Edmonton are key examples of innovative projects that have worked like design networks. These projects have this ability to work inside and outside, leveraging what is around them. They see the power of integrating the capacities across sectors and across departments within governments to work together and solve complex challenges.

They show us there is power that generates from shared purpose across networks. This approach to problem-solving seeks to actively listen to others, acknowledge differences, find commonalities and design with the ability to integrate the distributed capacities of external organisations and the people in government around a shared purpose.

When it comes to innovation, the federal government is operating like mini distributed teams (or sectors) with some of the heaviest challenges in the areas of HR, procurement and the way in which grants and funding are distributed and managed.

What if we could consider thinking about a design network as a fundamental building block for our innovation future? Mobilising this could support how the organisation can re-imagine how the public sector looks at combating the siloed innovation pods within a connected network and the development of disciplined innovation platforms, business processes and practices.

How…?

We have some collaborative components that are coming together. The redesign within the School of Public Service has the potential to foster design networks. The leadership is open to ideas and is providing the space to rethink our collective future.

With this runway, there is a chance to scale up more collaborative ways of working that align people, practice and purpose for the public good. In order to actually do this, we as public servants have to humbly share our wisdom to break down the distributed silos, learn about each other, and share the successes and failures of working in new ways, so that we can improve as we go forward.

Additional actions:

  • Think with a growth mindset
  • Engage with the other
  • Act from a lens of social innovation
  • Recruit unconventional talent with unconventional recruitment platforms
  • Close generational gaps around digital change and leadership by considering reverse mentorship 

This article was originally published on Medium — Aleeya Velji

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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