Changing the way that government serves its citizens

Interviews with Roya Damabi, Government of Alberta, CoLab, and

Kate McIntosh, City of Edmonton, Director of Partnerships and Organizational Development

At both the provincial and municipal levels, governments in Alberta are changing the way they do business. As the external environment grows more complex, demand for government services is growing, and citizens are increasingly dissatisfied with the service they are receiving. Kate McIntosh explains: “We were struggling to meet the evolving needs of citizens. The answers and approaches we have used in the past are no longer sufficient because communities have grown and evolved. With these increasing demands and complexities, the necessity for partnerships is at an all-time high.”

In response, governments are changing the way they do business. The Alberta Government Colab is working to bring systems and design thinking into government. This lab has already tackled over 40 challenges and is already oversubscribed, demonstrating the demand. At Edmonton, McIntosh is trying to facilitate an evolution and change in the organization’s systems, processes, programs and services. A large piece of this work is supporting the evolution of the culture and leadership of civil servants who are passionate about serving the public and are being asked to change within systems that are not changing themselves. For example, she is using gallery walks that connect front line staff with management in a way that is sometimes totally new to those involved. For many, this kind of opportunity comes with huge excitement, but also a challenge, as it means changing fundamental patterns of work that have been in place for decades.

How are they achieving this kind of impact?

Engaging authentically with citizens: Traditional ways of engaging with citizens assumed that government needed to control the content of the conversation; but the Government of Alberta is reaching out to citizens to give them a real voice in policy-building. For example, the provincial government reached out to its citizens to create its Social Policy Framework, engaging 31,000 Albertans to set the future directions of social policy in the province ( 

Challenging the culture of government respectfully: McIntosh believes in the commitment of civil servants to serve the public and recognizes the need for evolution in the systems. “I love the passion that civil servants bring to the table. I see huge opportunity for how citizens and public servants work together in the future. Evolving government systems will foster the relationship in the face of oncoming change.” Encouraging civil servants to work differently is a delicate task. It can be an emotional experience, Kate is working to help civil servants see new potential in their civil service. 

Walking the line between change and continuity: Government organizations are often large and changing the entire culture at once is a daunting prospect. An alternative is to foster systems change approaches in a small subset of government and let the rest of the organization carry on as before, but Damabi believes this is a false dichotomy. The approach of the CoLab is to be collaborative and deliberately build capacity gradually throughout the government, acting as a safe space to encourage those with interest to pursue innovative ideas and gain skills. As Damabi puts it, “To me, a challenge in government is also how to work in those in-between spaces, avoiding the pendulum swing of oppositional choices.”

What are the key challenges to this type of work?

Continuity is always a challenge in government due to changing leadership. Evolving systems need long- term vision and consistent leadership support. At the provincial level, the social innovation endowment was unquestionably a huge spur for experimentation. Though work continues, the loss of this endowment due to the change in leadership has been a blow. Those leading innovation need to be firmly supported by leadership and to have champions willing to promote and defend their work at the highest level.

Moreover, changing a culture is not just a question of commitment, but of skills and capacities as well. Civil servants will need to build their ability to understand systems, work with partners and manage risk. While building these capacities is possible at the individual level, normalizing them across the whole organization is a monumental task that will require significant investment of resources. 

How does this create conditions for system change?

Creating a safe space for innovationExperiments need safe spaces, ‘niches’, where they can be tried in practice, refined, and allowed to fail if necessary. Through to CoLab, provincial civil servants have such a safe space where they can not only experiment, but also have the help of a team of systems thinkers and designers to help them succeed.

Vision-building: By engaging authentically with citizens, government is helping Albertans to build visions of the kind of society, and the kind of government that they want. The social policy framework lays out a vision for the province and efforts to work with citizens on policy development continue. By sharing and spreading this vision the government ensures that the citizens will come to support them in creating systems change. 

Partnerships that endure: One of the benefits of collaboration is that successful collaborations endure even when the projects that led to the initial partnerships fail. Often, shadow networks of partners, working together around shared values and ideas, can sustain the process of systems change during periods when there is little impetus to change in the broader system. If change at the government level is to become realized at the broadest level, partnerships will be the building blocks that make it happen.