• Opinion
  • July 10, 2019
  • 11 minutes
  • 2

Exploring peer learning: New public servant exchange program

Opinion: Helping public servants step away from the desk and into the world

This article was written by Heather Laird, Systems Entrepreneur for the Government of Canada currently on assignment at the Canada School of Public Service. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Canada School of Public Service. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed. 


What happens after you finish reading articles like this one, but before you win major acclaim for transforming your public service?

It’s a safe bet that many Apolitical readers share an assumption: that we can improve public service by learning across borders. Unfortunately, confirmation bias and a slew of other human tendencies work against us when we select ideas that can change our worlds for the better.

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Can we increase the odds that civil servants gather relevant insights from the world and translate them into results? We know reading articles isn’t the whole answer. Can learning supports help public sector innovation? Could we start with budget-friendly interventions that punch above their weight? 

I think the answer to that can be yes, yes and yes. 

The People Exchange team is exploring an approach we call Paper Plane Exchange as a way to equip civil servants with three key assets: competencies to undertake innovation, resources to work with, and concrete results. 

Walking the walk on “innovation”

A plethora of esteemed organisations have identified innovation capacities as essential to the future of work, for example OECD, World Economic Forum, Deloitte and Singularity University

In simpler terms, public servants need to behave differently, and use different resources, if we want to make meaningful change. 

The Paper Plane Exchange aims to break down this feat into manageable steps. It is intended to give civil servants the chance to go outside of their organisations for light-touch exchanges of 2-30 days, designed to tackle their toughest challenges. In the Discovery Phase, in addition to interviews and studies of existing exchange programs, over 10 Paper Plane exchanges were initiated, with fail points teaching us as much as successes. In the next phase, 60 participants chosen by Core Partners could receive full wrap around supports based on the Discovery Phase research and testing. 

Participants would return to work with stronger competencies (like curiosity, insurgency, empathy, and bravery) that help shed old behaviours and grow new ones. They should also gain new resources (like relationships, perspectives, and experiential knowledge) that increase the odds of changing our ways. (For another perspective on this, see also COI’s study of public sector innovation.)

The Paper Plane Exchange is designed for civil servants who might not identify as “change makers,” “innovators,” “intrapreneurs” etc. It’s aligned with Canada’s Beyond2020 efforts to create an agile, equipped, inclusive public service.  

With minimal paperwork, a series of Do-It-Yourself tools, and options for wrap-around support, the Paper Plane Exchange is designed to be intentionally accessible to individuals in many roles, as well as executives who are able to sponsor a cohort of staff.

The Paper Plane Exchange’s four step process — Discovery, Matching, Exchange, and Aftercare — are intended to help participants identify and practice core competencies for getting transformative results in government. 

A Paper Plane Exchange 

Imagine Yael, a composite based on the participants in the programme: she is frustrated that the non-profits funded by her department never seem to report properly. What does she need to learn or change? 

Yael’s best impact may go well beyond reporting, but that’s her starting point. With the Paper Plane Exchange, Yael starts with a Discovery phase. She builds a profile of her behaviours (her innovation competencies), and her team context. She learns about cognitive bias, states and tests some of her assumptions, and sets intentions for learning and impact based on what she finds. 

Rewarding people to follow structures and rules doesn’t prepare them to create new structures and new rules 

Then, with the Paper Plane Exchange toolkit, she designs a way to step outside her office and examine the role she plays in a bigger system. She tailors it for her context, to meet her goals for learning and impact. In Step 2, Matching, Paper Plane Exchange team members are on hand to help her find an exchange host, define value for them, and manage expectations. 

In Step 3, Exchange, experiential learning is the key. Yael might spend a few days onsite with a nonprofit. She might have coffee with the Director, fill out her own forms from her client’s perspective, shadow one of the nonprofit’s interns to understand how they fill it out, have lunch with the team, and if she builds trust well, join some team meetings, hallway chats, or interactions with the people that nonprofit serves. 

The Paper Plane Exchange team provides preparation and real-time support for crucial conversations while Yael is on exchange. In Step 4, Aftercare, Yael has support to distill insights from her time away, reassess her competencies and learning goals, and – most importantly — get results by changing her role, attitude or work based on her exchange experience.

Leveraging power 

Experience in the world beyond government offices, past where government’s long-standing assumptions shape the environment, is key. 

Yael already knows what her organisation’s forms request, but does she know how they look on a different browser? Does she know which data the nonprofit can ethically collect from the people they — and her government — serve? 

Does she realise that many nonprofit executives have dozens of different funders with separate reporting requirements, and that some incorrect reporting might be an essential efficiency? After an Exchange that highlights her own assumptions, strengthens her innovation competencies, and gives her new relationships and perspectives, Yael has much better awareness to make meaningful change in her work.  

Some might say that such complex, unstructured personal interactions create a conflict of interest. However, ethical, relationship-based work is key to open government and leveraging new power structures

Step away from the desk and into the world

Others might say that courses, conferences, and consultations about innovation and the future of work are enough. 

However, standard education methods and settings can reinforce the behaviours that civil servants need to change. Rewarding people to drive vehicles doesn’t prepare them to invent vehicles. Rewarding people to follow structures and rules doesn’t prepare them to create new structures and new rules. 

Let the challenge then stand: what happens between some exposure to new ideas, and translating them into results? Can experiential learning help us get to impact? 

The Paper Plane Exchange may be part of the answer. In its first year of prototyping, the team is gathering, creating and testing a wide variety of tools to leverage experiential learning in the civil service. 

These include self-assessment tools, coaching methods, email automation, and more. 

Insights from the world can be applied to get results in the public service. Stepping out from behind a desk, and into the world, is how it starts. 

Thank you to the learning partners of the Paper Plane Exchange, which include ABSI Connect,  Apolitical, and the Pathfinder Projects at the Canada School of Public Service that are focused on learning and talent enablement. 

The People Exchange team is interested in learning from others around the world who want to use experiential learning and exchange to get results in government. 

If you are interested in learning more about the Paper Plane Exchange, or becoming a partner for 2019-2020, please feel free to reach out. — Heather Laird

This article has been updated after publication to more accurately reflect the results of the program.

(Photo credit: Unsplash, People Exchange)

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