I am really excited today to be talking to Sophia Hoosein and Jessica McQueen, who are two people that I know and respect and who have agreed to come and talk to us about government organizations trying to make digital change. We're going to talk about power and how you get things done, and I'm just really excited.
Thanks to Sophia and Jessica for the open and honest conversation about the actual experience of working in government.
This is a show about the people that make digital government work. If you'd like to find out more, visit yellowpencil.com.
We're going to keep having conversations like this. If you've got ideas of guests we should speak to, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Government is about all of us. Let's keep making a better world. This has been the 311 podcast and I'm your host, Paul Bellows.
Sophia Hoosein: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sophiahoosein/
Jessica MacQueen: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jessicamacqueen/
Paul: [00:00:00] I am really excited today to be talking to Sophia Hoosein and Jessica McQueen, who are two people that I know and respect and who have agreed to, uh, come and talk to us a little bit about change in digital organizations, uh, in government organizations trying to make digital change, we're gonna talk about power and how you get things done, and I'm just really excited. So welcome to the 311 podcast, Sophia and Jessica, I'm wondering if you could introduce yourselves to the audience.
Sophia: Thank you for having us Paul. So hello, 311 listeners I'm Sophia Hoosein and I'm based in Edmonton, Alberta. So I currently work for the Canada Revenue Agency as a lead content strategist with the agency's digital design and production directorate. I joined this past November. And the directorate that I'm part of is responsible for supporting design and delivery of human-centered information services, and products that are clear, timely, and understandable to both the public and employees.
So here's me in a nutshell, [00:01:00] I am a longtime public servant. I worked for the government of Alberta for about 13 years prior to joining the CRA last fall. And in my time at GOA, I wore many different hats, from content designer and strategist to UX researcher and UX writer, product manager, even issues manager, to name a few, although unofficially under like very generalized titles, like senior business analyst.
And I also hold master's degrees in humanities, computing and library and information studies from the U of A, and I have a passion for creating human-centered and accessible products, services, and content that hopefully meets audience needs.
Paul: So like, you're the best person, with all the coolest skills.
Sophia: Well, I wasn't going to say it myself, but since you said it. No, I'm just kidding.
Paul: That's awesome. Say again, the name of the team that you're on right now? Cause I think that's cool.
Sophia: Uh, we are part of the agency's digital design and production directorate. [00:02:00]
Paul: "Digital design and production directorate". That's very federal government of Canada. But very cool.
Multiple speakers: Oh yes!
Paul: Awesome. A directorate. Perfect. Uh, Jessica, I want to hear your story too.
Jessica: Yeah, you know, uh, as you'll hear, probably through this conversation today, Sophia and I are quite the dynamic duo, and so we often do a little bit of Sophia will intro herself and then I'll do like, "and what she said," because I have a related trajectory. Um, so I also formerly worked for the government of Alberta. I was there about five years as the content strategist for the ministry of advanced education.
Um, but I kind of have a bit of a unique pathway getting into government because I did a master's degree in English literature at the University of Alberta, and there I studied ecological philosophy and environmental lit. So like how I got into content strategy is a bit of a winding road. Um, but for this conversation, I just wanted to highlight that my time in the U of [00:03:00] A's English department, is kind of where I, you know, opened my eyes to thinking critically about power and systems of oppression, which inevitably shapes my perception of the world. Um, but now like Sophia, uh, I am a lead content strategist for the Canada Revenue Agency. Same team. Literally, we have the same job. We're like, we're like a power couple in the CRA now, I guess.
Um, and so from my perspective, I'm really interested in helping improve the way that government designs and delivers content and services. For people. And I also care a lot about supporting the people who do that work in the public sector. And so that is how Sophia and I first came to be connected.
Sophia: It's funny that Jessica said we're a power couple because I often think of Jessica as my work wife.
Paul: It's a real thing. It's a real thing. We form relationships all over. Right? I love it. So, so tell me, cause I know, I know both of you from like, we all live in the same city of Edmonton at [00:04:00] this time. And I've met you both at all the amazing meetups and gov tech, community events you run, and are part of. How did the two of you meet?
Sophia: So we met while we were both working at the Government of Alberta and we both saw a need to unite digital practitioners across the organization. So we met and then shortly after that, we launched an organizational digital community of practice, which was the first of its kind in the Government of Alberta.
And it provided a space for public servants who are typically mostly entrenched in traditional bureaucratic spaces, as opposed to those like modern digital government units who typically have way more freedom to innovate. Because we were interested in advancing human-centred digital capacity, to learn from peers, to discuss wins and obstacles, and to explore emergent trends in public digital transformation.
So the community of practice that we built, not only united digital practitioners within GOA, but it also [00:05:00] became a space for public servants across Edmonton, which as you know, has a very strong public sector between, you know, municipal, provincial and federal government offices, and many related public sector agencies.
So we brought together these digital practitioners because we wanted to establish a platform to facilitate the creation and the exchange of knowledge and teaching and best practices. As we all worked on solving design problems through human-centered approaches.
Paul: So basically you were both in the cafeteria eating alone and you noticed you were wearing the same indie band shirt and it was a band that primarily sang songs about human-centred design. Right?
Jessica: It was a lovely meeting in a local gem called Credo.
Paul: We all love Credo. We all love Credo, great coffee shop.
Paul: Independent coffee.
Jessica: We often describe it as like the meeting of two kindred spirits. And I think that's quite common for a lot of people who are trying to, you know, work differently in the public sector.
You know, you try to do your own thing in your own little corner of [00:06:00] bureaucracy for a while, you hit several walls and then you find someone and you hear, oh, you know, you should talk to so-and-so. I, you know, they've been saying some of the things that you've been saying, and it's like a light goes off when you finally connect. And you're like, "okay! I'm not alone!"
"They're weird like you, you should talk to them", right? Yeah.
Yeah. And on that note, um, so Sophia talked about the digital community of practice that we started with the Government of Alberta. The other sort of project that we worked on together while we were at the Government of Alberta was a research project actually. Um, we interviewed content practitioners across different levels of government in Canada. Um, and in different roles, whether more junior or more senior, because we were trying to get a sense of if that shared experience that we had trying to do content work in government was, uh, not unique to us.
So we did a research project. We asked folks, you know, what does it feel like to do content work in the public sector? [00:07:00] How was it maybe different than the private sector? What, what is it like to maybe be pushing to do things differently in a big bureaucracy? And then we gave a talk at last year's Design and Content conference. It was called "the Institutional Killjoy and the Transformation of Public Sector Content". I think it was a great talk. Um, mainly because we found so many themes and connections, across governments, and across cities, like people doing this work and feeling very similar challenges. So that was, I think, quite a light bulb project for us.
Paul: So here's a question based on that. Cause I love that. As you're going out, looking for people that have a shared perspective and set of values, what were some of the cues that you were onto somebody? What are some of the things you saw? And you're like, oh, I think they're one of us. I think, I think they have our whatever this is that makes us solve these [00:08:00] complex problems and try it.
Sophia: I feel like the first thing that comes to mind is like finding folks where it's like, the struggle is real. Like you're posting things on LinkedIn, and you might get a comment from someone or a like, and then you just kind of start chatting more with them. And they're very, they like understand and have the same struggles that you do when you're trying to advocate for human-centered content design and digital practices.
Jessica: You, you took the words right out of my mouth, Sophia. I think there's that like mutual shared understanding, almost like you've all been through some similar stuff. And so you lock eyes and you're like, yeah, I know, right? Um, but also Sophia to your point, I think any time we connect with folks and they instantly center the people we're creating for, so like putting the user at the center or the human at the center, instantly realize, okay, we're speaking the same language. We understand that we're trying to maybe design differently or design in a more like modern way, um, for citizens or staff. And that was sort of like the [00:09:00] connection point across practitioners.
Paul: Just a sense that a sense of people who believe that there's a problem and there's a solution that then you're aligned in what that solution might be. Um, yeah, I love that. So you've also both started in a provincial government, uh, organization, which is one culture, one institution, one sorta, set of strategies and types of service delivery, now you've moved to a federal department, the Canadian Revenue Agency, which is one of the big ones.
Jessica: It's a big one, yeah.
Paul: Yep. Uh, you know, highly regulated, highly scrutinized, um, you know, complex organization, but like an essential, essential service to how everything works. You know, how money comes in and goes out is, is, is pretty key. Um, And also, you know, one of the things is like at a policy level, you know, what you pay in tax is sort of one of those, you know, basic election kind of promises, you know, it's one of those things that everyone is held to. So, I'm curious [00:10:00] as you moved from one, tier of government to another, jurisdiction and a whole other tier of government.
What were the things that most surprised you moving to this new organization that were most different from where you came from?
Jessica: Oh, well, I got one right off the bat. I can tell you what I think may have sold us on making this jump. And I should clarify, we didn't move together. We moved at different times, but, but the reason we moved I think is shared and I'll, I'll let Sophia weigh in on that after.
Um, we had a former colleague who, or a friend and a peer who had worked in this area and she had sort of shined a light on what was happening at the CRA in relation to digital transformation and it really perked our ears because, um, over the last year and a half, two years, there's been quite an investment in digital capacity in the Canada Revenue Agency, to be honest, almost like unlike anything we had seen, you know, at the provincial level or even across the government of Canada. So what appealed to me [00:11:00] personally was to discover that Executive was kind of putting their money where their mouth was and investing in bringing in digital talent into this digital design and production directorate that we now sit in. So to me, being someone who sat in you know bureaucracy proper where it sometimes feels like an uphill battle to say, "Hey, we should be, you know, maybe modernizing the way we develop digital content," to suddenly discover that the executive is saying, "yep, we should do that, and we're going to pay for it". That was very appealing.
Paul: I can imagine people who want to do the right things in the right way. Who wouldn't want that?
Jessica: Yeah. And people have the power to make it happen.
Paul: You know, and I think it's, I mean, it's absolutely true, or in my opinion it's absolutely true, I should clarify because who knows what's absolutely true? But, um, you know, if you want strong digital teams, you need to give people autonomy, you need to enable them and you need to give them a peer group, who are competent and share common [00:12:00] values about how good work gets done. You know that it's not all that hard, but it's, it's rare. Isn't it?
Sophia: It is, and you also need to hire to the right skill set as well.
Paul: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, so you've talked a little bit about the team that you're on, who, who else is on the team and kind of what unique roles do you play on the team?
Sophia: So, well.
Jessica: I maybe. Oh, Go ahead, Sophia.
Paul: That will happen.
Because we're still just for the historical record, we're still in a pandemic. We're all still at home. We're all still doing this through a web meeting. And so, you know, interruptions happen.
Sophia: So we are on a strategy and engagement team, and we are both, as we mentioned, lead content strategists. And I believe that we are actually the first to have that. That title on that role in the agency. Um, so it's very new, um, in that respect. In relation to the agency. So. [00:13:00] I suppose that you know, the main parts of our work right now involves what the agencies referring to as community enablement. And this is about upskilling the content design capacity across the agency, um, building a content design community of practice, and then strengthening a content design center of expertise through training and learning. And then Jessica, did you want to delve into the more like content strategy? Part of the role?
Jessica: Yeah. And that might tie into the composition of the rest of our team. So as Sophia mentioned, we think we may be the first official lead content strategists.
Sort of in this team and, um, maybe even in the organization more broadly, And what's interesting is we are sort of at that stage where we're still helping to define the role of the content strategists in the organization. And the reason that is, is because this area that we sit within has a lot of different types of digital practitioners. So we [00:14:00] have a group of content designers. We have product managers, we have user researchers, we have interaction designers. We have like a full suite of digital design practitioners. Uh, and so for Sophia and I, we come from the Government of Alberta where, you know, you often have to wear many hats and bureaucracy proper and do a little bit of user research, a little bit of content design, a little bit of content strategy, et cetera, but here now we find ourselves in this, oh, I think it might be around like 90 person team, big, big, uh, directorate area now where we have very strong representation from multiple disciplines. So I think the question we're asking ourselves now is, if we find ourselves on a well, uh, uh, nicely kidded out team, what can this content strategist role actually become? Because I think in the past we would hold that role and try to wear 17 hats. But now if we can leverage [00:15:00] the skill sets and competencies of the people around us, in their specific disciplines, then what can the content strategist function actually become? So that's something we're exploring right now.
Paul: So I want you to talk just for a minute because content strategy is one of these interesting areas of practice, where it can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some it's oh, I'm a copywriter. So I'm a content strategist for some it's like, well, I have formal interim information architect training, so I'm a content strategist.
But in reality, it's kind of both. And. Right? It's sort of this weird space of just you know, herding the content cats. Um, and thinking about structure and thinking about tone. So like in your role at CRA, like what is it today? And I'd love to hear from each of you, where do you think it's going? Like, what's your vision for where it could go and what could be possible?
Jessica: Well, I might start with how you described, you know, the challenge in defining content strategy because, oh my gosh, it is a challenge, you know, Sophia and I just came from con fab two weeks ago. And still even [00:16:00] amidst, like the people who call themselves content strategists, there is no agreement, unsurprisingly. I think because a it's a young discipline and B you get people who bring such a multiplicity of skillsets. Right? So like, I have an English background, Sophia has humanities, computing and library information studies. So one of the things that we've been talking with our senior leadership about is the fact that content strategists can bring different skill sets. So for me personally, I really love to dig into like enterprise content strategy and complex systems, how it all fits together.
That might speak to the fact that I studied ecological systems. And so, you know, I just love that stuff. Um, Sophia really tends to excel in like product content strategy. She has a lot of experience with that. But it's all content strategy. And then I think the question for our area is how does the content strategist role relate to the content designer role and, you know, in discourse amidst those two fields right now, I think one of the common things that I'm seeing emerging is that the content [00:17:00] strategist will often have that sort of like higher level oversight over how all the pieces fit together.
Whereas the content designer will often be designing content at that product level, but it's, I don't think there's a clear and fast delineation between the two practices. I know, Sophia, you've talked a lot about how there are no starts and stops between these different disciplines. It's really hard to like put a line in the sand.
Sophia: Yeah. So like governments overall, typically, you know, love their silos. And, and even though there's there's work moving forward now to try and break down those silos, I just. I feel like with these like modern digital practitioner roles that comprise like a product team. So like the product manager, the UX researcher, the content designer or the strategist. Um, we're all there to solve problems together and collaboratively. [00:18:00] So. They're just, I just don't feel like there's a clear start and stop point because content designers and strategists obviously have to straddle UX research in their work as well. Right?
And you can't have like the product without content. So. The designer has to work closely with the content person so that you're not just, designing an interface or what have you, that doesn't work for the content that needs to go in it to move the user through that, that system or that problem or that form so that they can achieve their goals.
Paul: I read a great article. I forget the author's name, but it was a former Apple designer who left the organization and wrote a just a great little article on what design was like at Apple. Which is one of the companies most iconically associated with great design. You know, at a consumer level, consumer product level.
Um, and he said, you know, like in all of Apple, this massive global company, that like there's fewer than 200 people have the title [00:19:00] designer. Apple does good design because everybody understands that design is their priority. You. Like every engineer, every product owner, they understand that design is important.
But then there are those people that are specialists in the practice of design and have the training and the expertise and the accountability for it. Um, but you know, it's, it really is like, I think part of the problem with content is, you know, everyone produces content. You know, like almost everyone produces content.
Um, so I'd be curious to hear, like, as you sort of think about like, in, especially at a systems level. You know, it's May and I just finished filing my taxes and I got a tax refund and it was great. There's a noticeable change in how CRA communicates digitally with people now, like a noticeable change. You know, the way I can get access to information and the timeliness and the quality of information, even in the written printed material I got.
It's better than it was. I feel like there's been a big change. And that's a system level change. So how has the organization started to influence that and what do you see as the future of this?
Jessica: Well, that's really interesting. I'm so glad you've noticed an [00:20:00] improvement. I can't say it's because of either of us, cause we're too new, but I'm so glad that the CRA is moving in the right direction. What's really interesting is, you know, my perception coming into this organization, I've only been here about four months, is that there's definitely a higher profile for content design and best practices around how to design good digital content. So I think that awareness is being elevated across the agency. But, you know, to go back to a question you asked earlier about where you see our roles going. I think right now the big question is how do you align content across channels? So something that we're trying to think through right now is how we move into that. Like omni-channel content strategy space, because the CRA puts out content on so many different channels.
We've been given a range of numbers between like 500 and over a thousand people who are identified as authors or people who produce content across CRA. And so as a content strategist, when you're thinking about how to [00:21:00] establish standards, how to make sure that there's consistency across channels, how to educate and inform practitioners on, you know, guidelines that we may have developed or evolved.
How do you do that for such a huge organization? I think that's going to be. Probably the biggest challenges of our role here at CRA.
Paul: They often see that, there's that that falsehood anyone can write. You know, anyone could write. Like, no, no, no. Anyone can type. Almost I should say. Almost anyone can type. Um, but not everyone can write. It's a very different activity. You know. It's interesting.
Sophia: Yeah, there was, I just like posted something on LinkedIn. I think it came out of the Ontario digital service. I may be incorrect, but, um, But one of the comments that someone made in the article was that writing doesn't have a gate keeping function like, um, coding or, you know, a programming language or something like that.
So therefore [00:22:00] it's accessible to everyone and everyone thinks they can do it and perhaps they can do it, but can they do it well? Can they design their content in a way that is most effective for the people who need to consume it? That's a different story. Of course.
Paul: Absolutely. So I mentioned that I'd seen a noticeable change and you totally missed your opportunity to take full credit for it. But, uh, at least you're both clearly honest people. But, um, there is a change that's happening, you know, I think like we have things in Canada, like the Canadian digital service that sort of been, you know, like, uh, advocating for change and in demonstrating change. Uh, we see a sort of starting to roll out into the ministries and the, and the departments. Um, but how do you, I want to talk just a little bit about how this actually occurs, you know. People need to make decisions. People need to change attitudes. People need to understand things they didn't understand before about how this work gets done. And a lot of it, isn't what I would say, intuitive. You know? Like sort of traditional business logic about how things happen and how you get things done in government. Digital [00:23:00] is different in ways that I haven't fully been able to define, you know.
It does require people working across silos. It requires collaboration. It requires iterative things. It's not like, we'll plan it, we'll build it, we'll release it. We'll tender it through, you know, Merck's and then the lowest bidder will ship it to us. It's different, you know?
Um, So, how do you think. Like you've, you've entered in a point in time. Are you able to trace back, you know, based on the time you've been there and see like what might've happened to create this change, where was there like a shift in trajectory?
Sophia: COVID. No just, um, we, we do hear that COVID was not just for CRA. For many governments across the board, COVID was this, um, this opportunity to start working in a more collaborative and iterative way. Because it was a situation of urgency where the public needed information and they needed it like now.
[00:24:00] Um, and so it really forced that dynamic of bringing everyone in the room who needed to be there. To work on content or a product or what have you, and get it out there instead of the usual handoff process. Right. Like, there was just no time for that in the case of COVID. And so I think the pandemic actually presented an opportunity uh, for, for digital government to progress.
Jessica: I love that. I love that you surface that Sophia and you're totally right. That's something I think we were even hearing when we were doing that research project last year, talking to people, it was sort of right when COVID started to hit and people were sort of shocked saying, "it's weird. This is a horrible situation, but I can't believe the it's affording me to work differently." The one thing I wanted to add to that, um, in terms of, you know, that question you asked about, you know, what's the shift that's been happening to enable CRA to work differently. A narrative that we've been [00:25:00] slowly learning about in the CRA is how the executive sort of where we sit is really trying to elevate recognition that the web is a service channel. And it sounds like being able to successfully make that case at the executive level is sort of what put the wheels in motion or the gears in motion to, I don't know, maybe put the same amount of rigor and resources into creating digital content in a way that I think the agency hadn't done before. So it sort of shifted the prioritization.
Paul: That's very cool. Um, I will agree just in my experience, you know, the pandemic created a crisis. And a crisis, changes our context. It creates new opportunities for thinking about things in different ways.
And not everything has been good. Many things have been not good and certain people have really suffered, but I think at an organizational level, Um, big organizations, you know, once you're under threat, you're allowed to think in ways you weren't allowed to [00:26:00] think before culturally. You know, new things become possible, especially for leadership. Bad things are gonna happen if we don't act, you know, in normal times, not acting, meh, but now, real crisis has to be averted. So. Yeah. I like seeing that, that people really took advantage of that. Now, you talked about, sort of senior leaders and executives being willing to entertain new possibilities a little bit. And that is, that is true, but you're not always in that situation. You're not always, I hate to say fortunate enough to be experiencing a crisis. Um, That's not, we don't want to benefit from these, these things, but, you know, they can create benefit, but, you know.
Sophia: I get what you're saying. It's almost like you're more, not always fortunate enough to work in, for example, one of those digital government units that has the freedom to innovate and work iteratively and, and fail forward and, and, you know, do all the things that you need to do to get the best product out to the people you're serving. [00:27:00]
Paul: Absolutely. So how do you work in normal times? And in normal context, how do you get things done?
Sophia: In normal times and in bureaucracy proper where we both were situated before moving to CRA, uh, it was all about the small wins. Change happens in those smaller, very low-risk pieces, as opposed to like huge fast disruption. And this is especially true in bureaucracy proper where it's not set up to work in those modern iterative ways. So you just have to kind of like work within the existing structure. And then, you know, there's also the factor of bureaucratic processes and government deals with major complexity and checks and balances and like policy and legal and legislation and communications.
And all of that can slow things down. How do you also work within those structures. And then, you know, you're getting back to like failure. [00:28:00] Failure is often political. And change. Risks failure and failure is often political. And if you have a problem with a private product or service, you can contact that company directly, but if you have a problem with a public service, Your MLA or your MP is getting a call, right? So, um, it was interesting. We, we both recently attended a, um, CRA innovation conference and there were guests from the Canadian digital service. And one of the speakers, I believe his name was Manu Kabahizi uh, I am so sorry if I have butchered your name, Manu. Um, he said, "failures rather than becoming learning experiences become political events." That's so true of the public sector.
Paul: It would be like if you ran a private corporation and the complaint department was only the CEO's inbox.
You know, how dysfunctional and organization would that become? You know, everything would be a crisis. And then, because [00:29:00] everything's a crisis, nothing would become a crisis. Nothing would ever happen. You know that that's, that's actually really fascinating. I like that view of it.
Jessica: But, you know, Paul, to your question of like, how do you do the work or how do you advocate for change within bureaucracy, proper given all of the constraints that Sophia has outlined. I think that's where, you know, a lot of our research went in that, in that project that we did, it was trying to understand, you know, how do you do this work of advocating to develop content differently or to put the user at the center or to bypass, you know, very archaic processes that really way content development down. Um, when you don't sort of like work in a place where you have the official mandate to innovate and, you know, work differently. We heard from a lot of people that some of the strategies they implement are often around things like communities of practice. So at the grassroots level, who can you find who has that same sort of [00:30:00] like public sector experience of, you know, wading in the waters and I'm trying to make things work better. So one of the strategies we heard from almost everybody was having a community of practice or those allies at the grassroots level, so that you can sustain momentum, despite how achingly slow public sector work can be. That was sort of like a survival tactic that we heard from a lot of people. And I think this idea of like working. Around systems of constraint or working under the radar a little bit to do the right thing. I can remember in, in a former role having to do user research on the sly and then demonstrate why that was so crucial because we had decision makers who were like, "oh, I don't know. User research. That seems a bit risky." But we had to show the story of, well, it's also risky if you don't understand the needs of your users. So it's trying to be a little bit, you know, like clever and resourceful and scrappy to, [00:31:00] to do the right thing.
Paul: You got to hack the system a little bit. And you kind of find ways to work around. One of my little sayings that I say to people, you know, I've learned nothing good from success. Everything valuable I've learned has been from failure in business and in projects and in my work. Like I only learn from failure. Really. If I'm being honest, I think that's true. But I love that you sort of said like in government failure equals political problem. Not, learning. It's hard to bridge that. I love the idea that government started to create these teams and their sort of like, like work safety and psychological safety and collaboration. So that we can find ways to make the small failures that would lead us to long-term success. Because it's the same way that it works in private sector, who's supposed to be the smarter, more agile, more, you know, all those myths of business is smarter than government, which aren't really true. They're just different contexts. But. Like, how do you look at failure from where you are right now? What does failure mean for your team and how you work day to day? [00:32:00]
Sophia: Ho boy. It's like the first question is like, well, first of all, who gets to fail without consequence?
Paul: Oh, good one. Yeah. Yeah. Who does get to feel without consequences? I would love to hear your answer. Are you allowed to be on the record with that?
Sophia: Yeah, so, okay. The ability to iterate and learn from failure. So when we think about like working in these modern digital ways, that ability and that opportunity to fail and learn from it is not equally distributed among public servants. Um, and so without permission to fail is not equitable.
So, um, On April 8th. Both of us attended event that the Center for Public Impact put on and it was called, Who Gets To Learn From Failure In The Public Sector. And the like, the little description was "the opportunity to learn from failure is not equally distributed across race, genders, classes, and geography."
And so Victoria [00:33:00] Woodwards, who's the mayor of Tacoma, Washington. Uh, says. "I'm realistic in understanding that the standards for me as an African-American woman are different. My white colleagues at lower positions have different expectations and permissions around failure than I do, even in the position of mayor."
And then interestingly, another speaker at that same event, his name is Mitch Weiss. He said, "when we think about the idea of who gets to fail around race, gender lines, et cetera, there's not a big body of research on that in the public sector." But, um, I can just tell you from my own experiences, a racialized woman, like, I, I don't feel that I have, especially when I was working in, you know, bureaucracy proper, I didn't feel as much leeway to fail and learn from that failure as, as perhaps, the digital government units. I didn't perhaps feel the freedom to fail. Um, Without consequence, [00:34:00] by virtue of a) my positioning within bureaucracy proper and b) my intersectional identity.
Paul: We often talked about diversity inclusion as this, this, moral good. But I mean, it just holds back better ideas. It holds back performance. It holds back clarity. It holds back everything when certain groups do not have the same privilege to communicate, to ideate and to fail. That is so important. The consequences for you are greater. Your willingness to take risks, therefore drop if you're a normal human in the species, because none of us likes pain. Really. Um, few of us do, I should say. Someone must. Um, but. Yeah. Yeah, it's just, he's just such a performance inhibitor, you know? It's a, it's an outcomes inhibitor. Just hurts us all.
Jessica: But, you know, it's also interesting, one of the points on which Sophia and I sort of connected around was that we would go to all of these events together. [00:35:00] And I kid you not at a certain point, we really should have started taking bets. At the end of any presentation where there were public sector digital practitioner someone was going to put their hands up to ask, "how do I get executive buy-in?" That was the question, honestly, without fail at every event we would ever go to. And so, you know, we started talking about this more and more. And I think what we landed on is that, that, that question. Always comes from people who do not have positional authority, right. Because the question is about power and influence. It's like, how do I navigate these power dynamics within the bureaucracy that I'm in? How do I get the people at the top to buy into my idea?
And so I think something that we've been thinking about for a long time is how having some sort of an intersectional understanding of the power dynamics at play in any workplace, informs how you answer that question. Because [00:36:00] what we started to notice over time was the answers wouldn't necessarily be satisfactory to the person who asked the question. So let's say, you know, if I ask the question and the person who answers, experiences a whole lot more authority than me, for instance, maybe it's a white man with a really nice job title. His advice on how you get executive buy-in, I might not be able to apply it in the same way. And I know Sophia has a really good articulation of her own experience with that challenge.
Sophia: Yeah. I, you know, I once asked the question of like, how do you get that executive buy-in? And essentially it was the subtext of that was how do you navigate these organizational power structures? And.
Um, someone who attended, who was like, you know, in a position of authority in a digital government unit, um, gave me a very troubling response. That person took offence to my asking that question. Um, because they didn't take the time to examine their [00:37:00] own privilege in that kind of situation and their ability to influence change, as a white male in a position of power, versus me. Um, So often people with more privilege than me, don't recognize the validity of that question because they don't experience the barriers. They don't see the issues and it's clear that they haven't experienced the same challenges that I have when I navigate power structures that weren't designed for my benefit.
So it's hard to have a conversation about power and influence and what you have to do as you navigate through that structure if people that are answering that question, aren't willing to look at their own privilege and their ability to affect change. Um, and the privilege that comes with that.
Paul: A metaphor that works for me is it's just like driving at night. You can see what's ahead of you as far as your headlights will go, which a certain distance. You could see behind you as far as the taillights will go. And as a species. I don't think we're really good at comprehending much more than that. Like [00:38:00] that's about all you can process is information.
I think it's both privilege and bias combined with just our, our, our cognitive limits. Like the only we can only hold so much information or so much context. And it's so easy to lose. It's so easy to lose, which I think is why we need to double down on looking at intersectionality and looking at power structures and organizations.
Because otherwise our natural tendency just based on our own cognitive limits will be to fail others around us. That'd be like me telling you, "well, Sophia, the way you get your director's attention, who's a male is you just talked to me in the bathroom." You know.
Sophia: You know, it very much felt like that. And the thing is that person then went on to say that particular unit only pick who they want to hire. And me asking that question demonstrates, or it makes it look like I can't get things done. Which is like, so not.
Sophia: There's so much to unpack there, but the thing is, the answers are always the typical, like take the, take the executive along on the journey and show the proof and, [00:39:00] and show your work. And it's like, it's not that I'm not doing those things. I'm doing all of those things. I'm showing the data. I'm showing the proof. I'm showing me evidence. But for some reason, when it comes from me, a racialized woman, it doesn't carry as much weight as it would from someone, for example, the, the white male in this, in this context. And so if I'm working in bureaucracy proper or anywhere, and I'm trying to affect change and I'm doing all the things and if I'm not able to get it done, it's not because I'm in effective or I'm purposely not trying to get it done because I have tried. It's just about my intersectional, and to be frank, often disadvantaged position where I'm situated. And so this positioning informs my ability to successfully affect change in a lot of cases.
Paul: Thank you for sharing that honest story about a painful moment of work. That is not just frustrating, but that's career limiting. That's preventing someone from [00:40:00] producing the value they can produce in the organization just through a failure of imagination. You know, and many other things. We fast forward a little bit. Here you are both today. You're you're in CRA. You're in a organization that has chosen a more progressive approach to design and to, to content strategy in particular and you are enrolled. How does power influence the way you operate today? What are your current issues with power and influence in getting things done, having a voice, what's changed?
Jessica: Well, it's interesting because I feel like as content strategists and as public servants in general, I think we can't do our jobs effectively if we don't take that DEI or diversity equity and inclusion lens. For us as new people to an organization, what do you do the first few months in any new job? You're trying to figure out like who's who in the zoo. How do decisions get made? What did the decision-making tables look like? Who has influence who doesn't?
Sophia will say, "now that we have a little bit more positional power, we have to make sure we use that power for good." And I really do take [00:41:00] that to heart because I think we are very invested in, in having public sector careers. And if you're invested in building a public sector that serves citizens and staff better, you want to be mindful of how you are either upholding, uh, systems that maybe don't work well for people or how you're enabling new ways of working together. And that's really where our mindset is right now.
Paul: And what's actually happening on the ground. Like you'd like, Are you seeing outcomes that are improving? Are you seeing. Are you seeing benefit from that?
Sophia: Well, I will say, um, the fact that we have executive support when we're identifying these organizational factors and when we're suggesting um, ways to move forward. Like using this diversity equity and inclusion lens, we are getting support. And that's very, that's very nice.
Jessica, thank you for mentioning my whole I "have to use my power for good," because I [00:42:00] really truly feel like when those of us who have any kind of power, need to use it for good, particularly in the public sector, in governments, where we are designing things that really have an impact on people's lives.
Paul: It is so important that if you're going to serve all Canadians, you're able to think about all Canadians. You're able to comprehend all Canadians and their needs, you know? So why would you not need that type of inclusion lens on how you think and operate and make decisions.
How has decision-making changed in that context? Do you have the ability to make decisions you weren't able to make before? Do you feel when you talk about power, often power is the ability to make decisions. Or as we talked about earlier, the power to fail. Have you gained anything that you didn't have before?
Jessica: You know, that's a fascinating question because I have to say, I don't think that I necessarily have any more power to make decisions in my current role. I think the thing [00:43:00] that's really exciting and that I'm hopeful for in this new organization is that we're taking this sort of like multidisciplinary team approach. Where you have all sorts of different digital practitioners around the table working on a product together. And so that's a very sort of like horizontal way of working.
Where ideally every different type of digital practitioner has equitable influence. And so I think something that Sophia and I are really interested in is trying to bring more voices to the table so that you can design better products and services. So that's a roundabout way of saying, I don't know that I, as a lead content strategist, hold more power now, but I'm working in an organization that is asking, how can we distribute decision-making across different types of thinkers and practitioners.
Paul: I love that.
Sophia: Yes, because no one wants to end up with like the soap dispenser that doesn't work on darker [00:44:00] skin.
Paul: Yes. Yes, because we want everyone's hands to be clean.
Paul: Especially during the pandemic.
Sophia: Sorry, just for context, you know what I'm talking about, right?
Paul: Oh yeah, yeah.
Sophia: Yeah. Okay.
Paul: So maybe as a closing question here, this is just fun. So thanks for the open and honest conversation about the actual experience of working in government. What happens. So you're both in a really creative, energized, um, open. Uh, an inclusive moment in your careers right now. Um, three years ago, let's say maybe dial back that far. Maybe less. So, you know, you both express media less, so, you know, less open, less inclusive, um, less opportunity. What's your advice to each of yourselves three years ago? Jessica, what would you say to you three years ago in terms of how to move career forward, how to be more effective and have more agency?
Jessica: I would say the difference three years ago is that I hadn't found, or I was only starting to find other people who are as invested in designing [00:45:00] digital content and services differently. And more inclusively. So for me, it was all about like, find those people and build those connections and build those relationships and then you'll, you'll find your path. You'll find the place you want to work. But it's more important, I think, at that stage in your career where you're sort of wondering, like, how do, how do I do the work I want to be doing? To surround yourself with people who sort of share that vision so that you can stay motivated and stay energized in the face of the, you know, the inevitable disappointments that come along with working in, in government sometimes.
Paul: Absolutely. Sophia?
Sophia: Um, I would echo that completely. Um, I would also tell myself, honestly, I just feel like having that acute and heightened awareness of power dynamics has really kind of helped me understand the system that I'm trying to navigate. Um, and perhaps I didn't have such an acute [00:46:00] understanding three years ago. Um, but yeah, I think we need to keep having honest conversations about systemic issues and bureaucracy. We need to be honest about the way things are built without fear of retribution. Um, because we all share that common goal of making the public sector better. And so perhaps, maybe even not something that I would have told myself three years ago, like, "don't be afraid of flagging injustice when you see it. Obviously, you have to be careful about how you flag it, but.
Paul: There's always a better way. Absolutely. I love that. So we got, standing up to injustice with friends. So basically the two of you are superheroes is what I'm going to say.
You're fixing all the content in the world so that people could pay their taxes and get their refunds and do their things. And you're clearly two of my heroes. I absolutely love it. Well.
Sophia: Thank you so much.
Paul: Thanks so much for being on the podcast. I wish we could do this in person. Hopefully [00:47:00] soon we get together with coffee and chat. That'll be a goal, but, uh, thanks for spending some time with us today and sharing your experience with the audience. And if folks want to find you online we'll share a Twitter handle or anything like that in the show notes that you shared with me and appropriate way to reach out if other people want to become friends of yours and join your superhero squad.
Jessica: Love it. Thank you.
Sophia: Thank you so much, Paul, for having us.
Paul: Thanks so much.