Why I supported Open Government Tour 2014 (OGT14)

Voila — my talk from the Ottawa stop of the Open Government Tour 2014 (September 16, 2014) at the request of Mike Gifford


Author Douglas Rushkoff, in his book “Open Source Democracy” asks “would happen if the source code of our democratic systems was opened up to the people they are meant to serve?”

His answer? ‘An open source model for participatory, bottom-up and emergent policy that will force us to confront the issues of our time.’

I’m Laura Wesley, the federal government’s lead for web usability. I work with the team who created the Web Experience Toolkit which is open source software developed publicly on GitHub. That means that anyone with an Internet connection can trace or contribute to decisions and discussions about why and how we’re doing what we’re doing.

I am here to support the Open Government Tour because I believe that it represents a positive opportunity to talk about what Open Government is and why it’s important to have a participatory democracy.

To me, this tour looks an awful lot like any open source project – freely available to all and continuously improving as people contribute to the success of each event. More than that, Richard has done what user experience professionals always recommend: he’s gone to where the people are – in Tim Horton’s, parking lots, shopping malls and the open road.

In her book, Wiki Government, Beth Noveck explains that “What is lacking, are effective ways for government to be responsive to the public, as opposed to corporate interests, large stakeholders, and interest groups…”

That’s important because no one institution, nor one nation, group or generation contain all the people with the knowledge and experience required to solve the tough challenges we’re facing today such as inequality, homelessness, environmental and economic sustainability.

It’s this people side of open source projects that fascinate me. Like my colleague Thomas who spoke before me, I’ve been observing, studying, writing and acting on how to make it easier for PEOPLE, inside and outside of government, to connect around their issues – when and where THEY want.

Because we’ll find solutions to tough social issues by extending our conversations into city hall yes, and also into art institutions, group homes, pubs, living rooms, businesses, non-profits, high schools, into rural areas, on Sparks Street, in suburbs, in the Rockies — because experience and knowledge are distributed — not centralized.

For distributed decision-making to work, everyone needs access to high quality information – in it’s rawest form – in the right time and place – in easily accessible and user-friendly formats.

And that is why open data and open information are so critical to good governance.

Events like this connect generalists to specialists, protectors of environmental rights with the writers of environmental policy, super nerdy gov techies & regular citizens who stopped to chat while passing through city hall on a shortcut.

To achieve this model of governance, we need to gain trust with each other.

In Canada, trust in government is hovering below 50%. This year it was recorded by the Edelman Trust Barometer, an international survey, at 42%. Globally, government is the least trusted institution when compared to NGOs, media and business for the third consecutive year. (Source)

OGT14 is an opportunity to increase trust by providing a forum for people to come together on equal ground to discuss their hopes and dreams for the future.

This openness – this new way of interacting – builds trust. Trust that is needed to have difficult conversations about what trade-offs we as a society are willing to make.

So thank you Richard Pietro and Ottawa city champion Jacques Mailloux, as well as all the volunteers who made tonight possible – for fostering an open dialogue about what we can do to make this great country of ours, even better.

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Open Source Bureaucracy

It was an absolute treat to be invited to speak at DOUBLE MAJOR: a lecture series hosted by Carleton University Art Gallery (a hidden gem in Ottawa). I had a great time! The audience was very engaged and we had an excellent discussion afterwards. I recorded it live. The transcript & links are bel0w the video.

Open Source Bureaucracy


The technology exists to support a truly participatory democracy. However, as a society we have not yet realized this potential. Overcoming key social and cultural barriers could bring citizens and government officials together to solve some of the complex problems plaguing our society today.

I’ll show you a few examples of that technology, drawing from the open source movement.

Then I’ll share insights from my experience, and from the projects and writings of others.

My intention, by the end, is to convince you that government needs you to help solve pressing social problems. That is, when citizens engage in the efforts required to protect peoples’ rights, well-being and environment we achieve better outcomes.

I’ll speak from my perspective as a technocrat, not as a representative of government. And by ‘government’ I mean both the bureaucratic and the political sphere.

What kind of technocrat am I? The kind that builds websites that are easy for people to use. The one who wrote the policy mandating that government websites follow a user-centred design process to build websites that meet the needs of the people they’re intended to serve.

To help our colleagues meet this (and other) policies, the team with whom I work created open source software called the Web Experience Toolkit.

Open source is free to use, distribute, modify and study. Conversely, closed or proprietary source code is kept secret, is privately owned and it’s use is restricted by copyright licenses and trademarks. (source)

Open-source software tends to be developed in a public, collaborative manner, by communities of people with the skills and interest in a shared outcome. The Web Experience Toolkit is no different; it’s hosted on a website called GitHub, which is like Facebook for developers.

What’s awesome about open source is that you can re-use and build on other people’s work, which means you can work faster for cheaper.

Through application of open source licensing, the Web Experience Toolkit is licensed for commercial re-use so not only can it be used by anyone, it can be modified and sold to others.

This is a neat feature because it creates an opportunity for innovative business models to emerge, where open and closed systems interact.

Although it’s been recognized as the biggest, we’re certainly not the only government using open source to reduce costs and improve citizen engagement.

Open source is not just used in government; it’s used in every sector. Artist Kyle McDonald exhibited his facetracking machine built with open source code. Daito Manabe used the same open source software in his performance piece “Face Projection”. Hundreds of other artists have used this open source facetracking software to realize their own projects.

Inspired by the open source movement, other artists have released non-code assets from their work and encouraged other artists to re-mix them.

Here’s an example from Sara Blake – aka ZSO – a New York based illustrator and textile designer.

She released this photoshop file under an license similar to that used for open source code – and other artists did this, this and this.

So, although “open source” generally refers to software, the principles can be applied elsewhere.

This is the part of open source projects that’s so fascinating to me – the human perspective.

Since I’m business analyst who studied psychology, not a developer, my role on the project is to support its continued expansion. I don’t need to know much about code, but I need to know a lot about how people work together.

While experimenting with ways to reduce friction that would otherwise prevent people from participating in my own projects, I’ve followed similar work of other practitioners, academics and authors.

Early (government) open source projects were mostly websites that provided easier access to information, and helped citizens send feedback to the appropriate government offices.For example, fix my street is a website where people can notify city officials about potholes and graffiti.

It was developed in the UK by a non-profit organization, called MySociety, which was replicated throughout the world using the same open source code that MySociety made available on GitHub.

It wasn’t until the US Patent & Trademark Office created a website that opened up their entire process of reviewing patent applications in a project called Peer to Patent that the true opportunity of citizens working with government was demonstrated.

The impetus for doing so was a backlog of 700,000 patent applications.

In the first year alone, over 2000 citizen-reviewers joined the patent office reviewers. They helped surfacing “prior art” needed to decide if a patent should be granted, oftentimes from literature that the patent examiners wouldn’t have found otherwise. (Source)

Japan, Korea and Australia are now piloting similar programs.

With Peer to Patent we see that when we open up government processes, information, source code, and provide a direct connection to bureaucrats that results improve.

Beth Noveck, Obama’s deputy chief technology officer until 2011, Harvard and Yale law graduate created the Peer-to-Patent project.

In her book, Wiki Government, she explains that “critics may suggest that there already exists an architecture of participation…Corporations participate through lobbyists and notice-and-comment rule making. Nongovernmental organizations funnel information to government through think tanks…and publications. Interest groups lobby…Others…participate in…advisory committees…

What is lacking, though, are effective ways for government to be responsive to the public, as opposed to corporate interests, large stakeholders, and interest groups…

Collaborative democracy is about making it easier for…people to find the areas where they want to work and contribute.” (Source: Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful, Brookings Institution Press, 2009)

Author and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, best known perhaps for coining the terms “viral media” and “digital native, in his book “Open Source Democracy” asks “would happen if the ‘source code of our democratic systems was opened up to the people they are meant to serve?”

His answer? ‘An open source model for participatory, bottom-up and emergent policy will force us to confront the issues of our time.’ Read the white paper on Demos.

Solutions to problems don’t live inside institutions. They live inside people.

And no one institution, nation, group or generation contains all the people who have the knowledge, experience and wisdom required to solve these complex problems.

We’ll find solutions to emergent social issues by extending our conversations into art institutions, group homes, pubs, living rooms, labs, businesses, non-profits and non-governmental organizations, high schools, into rural areas, on the streets, on sheep farms and suburbs and slums — because experience, knowledge and wisdom are distributed — not centralized.

For this distributed decision-making to work, everyone needs access to high quality information – in it’s rawest form – in the right time and place – in easily accessible and user-friendly formats.

Some of that information has been collected or created by government institutions and, through initiatives like the Open Government Partnership, it is already being published on the Internet in re-usable formats with open source licenses. One of these formats is called open data.

Yes, the technology exists to support this ongoing dialogue that would enable people from many institutions to work together. And there are examples showing it’s possible and desirable.

So what is the final missing ingredient? Why aren’t we all embracing open source democracy and all its potential?


In Canada, trust in government is hovering below 50%. This year it was recorded by the Edelman Trust Barometer, an international survey, at 42%.

Globally, government is the least trusted institution compared to NGOs media and business for the third consecutive year. (Source)

I propose that we increase trust by increasing the direct interaction between people in various institutions.

In my experience, policy analysts in public institutions bringing together the disparate needs of citizens and businesses and lobbyists don’t have all the answers. And the decisions of government affect us all.

Specialists can be found anywhere – they’re professors and authors and PhD candidates and amateur hobbyists and business people.

As Rushkoff and Noveck say, governments need access to both the people they’re in place to serve, and the people with the knowledge and ideas to solve issues, wherever they may be.

Here’s a strange thought: What if government acted as a convener – as an organization that brings people together. As a curator. As a moderator.

This is what what Tim O’Reilly called “Government as a platform”.

This new model, connecting generalists to specialists, protectors of environmental rights with the writers of environmental policy, those who would come to an event such as this one and those who aren’t here tonight…

Well, to me, that would look like any other open source project – freely available and constantly improving.

To achieve this model of governance, we need to embrace this complexity and vulnerability to gain trust with each other.

We need to admit we don’t know the answer to a lot of tough questions.

We’ll need to acknowledge that the people who need government the most often don’t have access to the technology or the discussion. That those who do have access, are not necessarily representative of the demographics of Canadian society.

And because of this, we need empathy. We need compassion. We need humility.

We need to be honest, we need to listen, we need to show our vulnerabilities.

We need to move away from polarizing debate based on false dichotomies, binary opposition or such common defences as blaming and shaming.

Only then will we be able to use this technology, this openness – this new way of interacting – to have difficult conversations about what trade-offs we as a society are willing to make.

And on this note, I leave you with no answers, only questions ⏤

How would you prefer to engage with public decision-makers?

What would it take for you, your colleagues, friends or families to participate in this country’s democracy?

What would we, as technocrats, have to do to win back your trust and extend this conversation beyond tonight?

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Design Meets…Public Policy, Really!

Last month I had the pleasure of speaking at Design Meets…Public Policy, an occassional meeting of the minds to discuss design in different contexts. This round was about design and public policy (or government more broadly as it turned out).

My presentation is below and on slideshare. My notes are below that – though, I didn’t take enough time to practice and ended up rambling through the 5 slides, which were supposed to only take 5 minutes (oops).

Slide 1: Thanks for inviting me

I’m the Web Usability Lead for the Government of Canada which means I write policy that apply to federal websites, then oversee the implementation of that policy from my very fancy cubicle at Treasury Board Secretariat of Canada.

That’s what I’m doing now. Twelve years in government means I’ve done lots of things. As a business analyst with a degree in psychology, some of the tools in my toolkit are design methods.

Like many people, I came to design via another vertical. I was a business analyst working in performance measurement and usability testing. Analytics were obvious data sources to figure out whether or not we were successful. From there I got more into user research and found tactics like affinity mapping and personas to be creative ways of drawing insights out of more traditional methods.

I like the visual, hands-on, creative parts of design. I like sketching and diagramming ideas in very rough forms and testing them on people before they become multi-million dollar decisions.

This is where you can find me online but don’t email me because I’m part of this “We quit mail” initiative so I won’t answer. But you can totally tweet at me or comment on my blog.

Slide 2: Join the User Experience Working Group

First, a little context about what’s going on so you know where to insert yourself into the goings on if you so choose.

Three years ago this little group of people and a few others created the User Experience Working Group when we found out the suite of web policies known as “Common Look and Feel” would be updated.

We provided recommendations on updating the brand and User Interface guidelines by basically recommending they reduce mandatory elements to 11 — only including elements like the Canada Wordmark for recognition and date last updated to help with credibility.

The Standard on Web Usability makes User-Centred Design mandatory for all websites and applications.  So user research, prototyping and testing for websites are starting to become more pervasive.

We held six days of training on web usability (user research and design, visual design, interaction design, UCD process overview, Usability 101) for between 1000 -1500 public servants attended (we were too tired to count).

Now I’m working on an evaluation methodology for the Standard on Web Usability. I’m totally open to feedback or input.

So designers – if you’re an “innie” you can join those efforts. Most of our work is done collaboratively & asynchronously either on GCPEDIA or GitHub.  For example, we have curated an index of usability test results on GCPEDIA, since all the websites look the same, and the target audience is often the same across sites, there are lessons to be learned and shared.

So for current state I’d say while there are some very dedicated, innovative, passionate people working in multi-disciplinary teams to create resources for others; we do not yet have a design culture within our organization.

There’s a growing awareness of the power of design to be intentional and human-centred and to treat ideas as a hypothesis. However, we’re not yet applying design outside of web. We barely have enough capacity to meet the demand; we need designers. We have lots of great developers but they outweigh designers about 100:1. There’s no HR designation for designer, Information Architect, or even typical web-related interaction design roles.

Slide 3: Contribute to the Web Experience Toolkit on GitHub

The creation of the User Experience Working Group was part of a transformative shift in the way we did web policy. Because we had little money or capacity we needed to do a lot of things differently.

So we created the Web Experience Toolkit (WxT) – open source software for building accessible, usable, mobile-friendly websites and apps. As far as we know it is the only front-end development framework that is compliant to WCAG2.0 AA. Open source is always a work in progress. We see everything as an iteration.

Specifically for WxT v4: we are asking for help with heuristic reviews on the components. Anyone can contribute in any of the ways listed below.

Slide 4: Should we create a Design and Government Resource?

The User Experience User Group has been curating design resources on GCPEDIA and we’ve pasted some of it into a Google document so everyone can see it. We also have case studies, examples of what other governments are doing around the world, links to articles, blog posts, explanations of various design methods and how they are being used in creative and innovative ways for the public good.

The screenshot in the presentation is an example of the GitHub and Government resource that anyone can edit. I love the format and the easy of updating, modifing and sharing – anyone can do it! The resource in the Google doc is in wiki formatting to facilitate loading it up on GitHub with prose.io installed just like it.

We’re happy to make it available to everyone, but we need help!

The resource is targeted at (in my mind): people wanting to use design methods within government(s), specifically public servants who want to integrate design methods into their service, program and policy development. I know lots of other people have done research and have their own favorites, and even authored articles, so let’s share!

In conclusion, whether you choose to do one or all three, that you can help bring design thinking to government and make it better for all of us!

User Stories : what would you like to see?

Before we create a Design and Government resource, we need to know if people would use it.

design user research

Feedback from designers about Design and Government

To this end, I brought some sticky notes and a big flip chart to get some feedback.

The ask to the people in the room was simple: use the sticky notes to share your story….

As potential users of this resource, could you use the post-it notes available to add your idea about what it would look like to you.

I think I tried to say too much in 5 (*ahem, 10) minutes, because the feedback I got wasn’t specifically about building the design resource.

However — what people did say was really interesting and awesome! I have the poster of all these stickies hanging in my office now and I’m slowly going through and actioning each one. I think it will take about 6 months; so be patient.

So, my offer still stands – if anyone is interested in making this resource available more widely, let me know. I have some ideas but certainly nothing fully formed that can’t be iterated!

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Changing the way we work: on communities, collaboration, and crowdsourcing.

Much has been said about “Google’s 20% time”. In a nutshell, it was a program that allowed employees to spend 20% of their time on self-directed work projects with the intention of enabling employees to come up with Google’s next innovation.

We adopted a similar approach* in my office over three years ago by incorporating Working Groups of multi-discipinary subject-matter experts into our official governance structure. (*amount of time commited by each person varies.)

Instead of encouraging employees to spend their time tucked away in corners working on projects intended to “reveal” them once they are successful, we took a different approach: through the use of collaboration tools, we seeded ideas and made space for people to work on solving enterprise-wide problems together.

The projects that had the most success were completed by a diverse mix of people. While a vision of what needs to be done can be helpful, it’s not necessary.

A mature leader trusts the process. They believe that any problem can be solved with the the right people, methodology and mindset. They are comfortable with the chaos and unfamiliarity each new problem presents and take a discovery-driven approach to framing the problem and investigating potential solutions. They work without answers when there are none; exploring, observing, reading and asking until they find clarity.

Legitimizing “20% time”

If you are interested in creating self-directed work teams within your organization, start by legitimizing the effort. Good intentions quickly take a back-seat to the work pressures of the day unless management is invested in your success.

Create Terms of Reference for your group explaining the gap you are filling, your mandate, membership critieria and expected results. Create a list of initial projects and members. Get it approved by an existing body within your organization. The higher the level of authority of that body, the wider your scope of influence. Listen to the challenges of that body; align your mandate and outcomes to meeting real challenges.

Becoming an official part of a governance structure is very important as it aligns “20% time” to committees and councils that have resources and decision-making authorities. It ensures there is a group to receive the proposals and outcomes of self-directed work teams.

Depending on your Terms of Reference, they can approve proposals, contribute funds, as well as help identify linkages, related projects and potential partners. At minimum, the governance body provides feedback about how well self-directed work outcomes are aligned to enterprise-wide priorities.

Here are some of the commonalities of the Working Groups we coordinated:

  • An employee must have their manager’s approval to be on the Working Group.
  • Active members are required to spend a minimum of two days per month on Working Group activities and projects.
  • An employee’s manager does not manage this aspect of the employees work. All parties are able to schedule an appropriate workload by agreeing to the division of time that will be spent between the priorities of the work unit, organization and enterprise.
  • Projects are planned based on resource availability. How many people X how much time they are each able to commit = duration and scope of the project. This often results in phased projects where the first phase may just be stating the problem and creating a wiki page for people to brainstorm potential solutions.
  • The work itself is managed by project leads identified for each discrete work package.
  • A community coordinator helps cross-polinate ideas and connect people with the right skills and interest to the right projects.
  • Working group members do not represent their organization.  They are members because of their skills, experience and expertise (personality plays a role here as well).
  • Members who are inactive for a set amount of time (say, 6 months) may be moved from the list of active members to the list of inactive members. This helps community leaders identify available resources who have past experience with the Working Groups.

Based on my experience convening and cultivating multiple working groups within government, I offer the following advice to future community leaders:

Find a co-chair who shares your values. You don’t have to be similar; in fact, it’s better if you are each bringing a unique perspective to the leadership of the community.

Recruit members early in the process so that people feel they are part of the decision making. First step: draft your Terms of Reference together.

DELEGATE!! Don’t try to take on everything yourself (this is where I need to take my own advice).

Enable people to sign-up to projects. Assign leads. State the skills required to work on the project.

“On-board” new members by meeting them face to face. Find out what their motivation is for joining, which will help you match their interests/skills to a project. Assign them to a project that is either starting or underway.

Find ways to meet peoples’ needs depending on their motivation for joining. Some people just want to get awesome work done, some people appreciate recognition or rewards, some people just want to be included. If you know what their motivation is you can make sure that people feel appreciated for their contribution and continue participating.

Match new members with someone more experienced. That person answers questions so newbies can familiarize themselves with the concepts and practices of collaborative working. This is another way to avoid becoming a bottleneck.

Communicate as openly and as much as possible.

Default to open.

Use whatever collaborative tools are available. If you have many options, tools  (GCpedia, GitHub, Twitter) choose the one(s) that are available to the widest number of people possible. There may be reasons for staying within boundaries; however, question whether these boundaries are real or perceived. They can also change and expand over time.

Some training is likely required on the tools. At least part of the team’s activity will go into overcoming technical barriers (and probably cultural ones too).

Don’t waste people’s time by having meetings about nothing. Meet as often or as little as is needed to get work done.

Same is true for on-boarding new people: if there is no project that meets their skills and interests, tell them that and tell them that you will be in touch with them when there is an appropriate project.

Create an online space where people can make their ideas for a project discoverable and sign-up to work on other people’s projects. This provides a framework for how many active projects the group can support: only as many as resources available.

Host working sessions (we call these lots of different things – codesprints, work bees) rather than holding meetings to talk about stuff that you’re then going to have to do some other time.

Ask people to take on tasks or projects. You have no idea how much people will do if someone just asks them. Not everyone can observe online activity and just know what needs to be done.

Dont’ be afraid to call people on the phone. Ask them how they are doing. Have office hours specified to help manage your work load while being available to your colleagues who may want to call you.

Most of all : have fun and celebrate success (and failure). Learn. Grow. Cherish.

And not least of all: listen. Listen to feedback, to people’s sticking points, to what’s going on around you.

Draw your own connections and conclusions.

Be intentional.

Have I missed any? Add your advice in the comments section!

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The Future of Work: New Media Literacy

Employees of all sectors are increasingly expected to be proficient in creating content in multimedia formats such as video, blog, microblog, podcasting, instant messaging while excelling in traditional ways of presenting and communicating in person as well. I’m going to include social media writ large here since I’m not going to cover it elsewhere. Subject matter experts are designing and conducting training sessions and presenting information and ideas in meetings (not as easy as presumed).

Beyond technical video production skills – which include working with a camera, lighting, framing and editing – are storytelling skills. Within the next few years, we’ll need to portray concepts, ideas and activities using visual language. We’ll be expected to portray facts, connections, and data through information visualizations. The modern knowledge worker is already expected to be able to read and interpret these data/visualizations.

Future new media skills that will be required (listed by profession)

Analysts will have to know how to:

  • read & understand the legalese of service agreements made with third-party platforms.
  • mitigate risks, including those around perception and privacy.
  • meet accessibility requirements (as well as other policies if you’re in the public sector).
  • improve usability/ease of use of existing employee experiences.

Administrative professionals will need to know how to use social sharing sites as well, for example, to upload video to video sharing platforms.

Human Resources will be self-service. Leave requests, vacation, health insurance forms, pay and benefits options will all be done online. Employees will be expected to take most of their training online as well.

At the manager level, people will need to know how to use web-based collaborative project management software (e.g. BaseCamp). They’ll need to be aware of and understand implications of using cloud-based options for overcoming internal IT challenges.

Senior managers will need to trust employees to use new media technologies, while guiding them to do their due diligence. They have the right and the obligation to question the value proposition and support staff them through small failures and experimentation in an effort to get it right before unveiling large systems or projects.

Where can you get it?

It’s difficult for employees to keep up with the ever changing landscape of new technologies. Considering ongoing advancements in cloud-computing, social media and new media formats, you basically have to commit yourself to life-long learning.

For video production, the price of tools like Camtasia are worth it for novice level video producers. If memory serves, Camtasia also includes the option of sub-titles which is great for improved accessibility for the visually impaired (or for anyone who prefers to read vs. listen).

First, try the free video creating software to see if it’s something you would enjoy doing. You may already have proprietary software that came with your computer. I made this video in an afternoon with a digital camera and software I had never used before.

SAW Video rents video gear and offers workshops. Though you should be able to get started with your smart phone or digital camera. For those more inclined towards moblie/app-based fun, Animoto is great for those on the go.

In the workplace, slides remain a dominant software for just about everything. If you’re stuck with that, or maybe a safe stepping stone, I recommend reading Slideology by Nancy Duarte (and follow her on twitter) and practice her tips for visual storytelling.

Even easier, and especially useful in a pinch with tight timelines is to record your voice over slides or over screen captures. Both slideshare and prezi now have this option with their free, hosted solutions. (Note of caution for prezi: be intentional with movement as the jerky motion can cause nauseau or distract your audience from what you are trying to say. Prezi is best when you want to show depth — narrowing in on details then pulling back to show the context/big picture).

If you are going through the trouble of recording it; write a script. A little planning goes a long way. The script also works as a transcript for posting with the video which improves accessibility for those who are visually impaired or don’t have the time/software for playing the video.

Speaking of presentations
I might as well add here that I also find there is increased expectation within the past 2 – 3 years to be able to deliver an hard hitting talk in less than 10 minutes.

Recent popularity of ignite, peccha kucha, lightening talk means many of us have given at least one of the forms a go.

At the same time, we also need to excel at traditional methods including letters, whitepapers, the elevator pitch, briefing note, deck and other forms of short presentations to peers or decision makers.


According to Rotman Magazine there are “10 New Skills That Every Worker Needs”. Each week, I’m posting a summary of local (or online), free (or cheap), resources that are appropriate for public sector professionals to gain skills in these areas.

Posted in Improving the Public Service, Public Service Renewal | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

On feeling like a failure: let’s do it!

In our Blueprint2020 discussions last week, our Assistant Secretary acknowledged how scary it was to engage the entire public service in an open and transparent discussion around public service renewal. Apparently the Clerk’s been acknowledging the same. That statement stuck with me more than anything else during our small group discussion.

Why is it scary? I’m assuming he was referring to how much one opens up one’s self to criticsm by being “out there” asking for feedback (amongst other things).

I think I know how he feels because I feel the same way. I’m guessing I’m not alone. Most days I feel great. Most of the time, if I feel vulnerable I put on a brave face; fake it til I make it. Every once in a while, I’m overwhelmed by massive feelings of what an enormous failure I am. I’ve been told I’m too hard on myself so let me first say I have tactics and tools for staying present through those moments and coming through them relatively quickly and unharmed.

I can only guess how much harder it must be as a senior manager, always being watched, observed, criticized. I’m guilty of it myself; gossip, judgement, inappropriate and unkind words said in anger or frustration. And all that despite an ongoing practice and learning process through mindfulness (meditation, yoga, journalling, reading, listening, trying…). I still take short cuts (ahem, double gin and tonics!) to relax (err, avoid).

During our meeting our Assistant Secretary used the word “authenticity” which really resonated with me. I felt the need to come clean. To admit to my shortcomings. To acknowledge things I wish I had done better. To commit to improving.

Here’s a short list of the things I wish I’d done better this year:

1. I wish I had released the evaluation methodology that supports the Standard on Web Usability already.

2. I wish I’d participated more fully in ensuring the widgets and features in the Web Experience Toolkit were usable (e.g. tested).

3. I wish I answered more comments I’m tagged in on GitHub.

4. I wish I was more interested in programming and relied less on my soft-skills as a CS. Sometimes I feel like I’m re-enforcing gender stereotypes.

5. I wish I’d finished the usability testing on the WExT website.

6. I wish I’d shown more compassion towards colleagues and resisted the temptation to indulge in negativity.

7. I wish I’d followed through on more things that I’d started.

8. I wish I over-committed less frequently.

9. I wish I judged management less harshly, when they are grappling with all the same insecurities, pressures and constraints that I am (probably way more).

10. I wish I were living my values more consistently.

Friends, colleagues, readers, resist the urge to fill the comments section with accolades and examples of successes I’ve shared in! My blog is already full of things I’m happy and proud of; I’m not shy to post those things myself. :)

This post is my way of standing in solidarity with my Assistant Secretary and the Clerk, my senior managers and fellow leaders from anywhere in the hierarchy, who take risks to be authentic and suffer the criticism that comes with having a public persona (as most of us do in this social media-driven world).

Despite my (idealistic) cynicism around Blueprint2020, I’m cautiously hopeful with the energy and ideas that are emerging through this open dialogue. I hope for one thing — increased acceptance of failing. Let’s create opportunities to fail small and often, as individuals, and as teams.

I’d love to see a more rigourous selection process placed around the prolific ideas coming out of this exercise; a demonstration that we we’re treating each idea as a hypothesis and seeking data to support the best way forward. I believe that alone would lead to more frequent successes and an overall better environment in which to work.

Posted in About me & my blog | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The Future of Work: Cognitive Load Management

We live in a world of information overload. Our effectiveness depends on our ability to filter and focus.

Each of us must develop our own techniques for handling the overwhelming amount of information thrown at us every day. This could be as simple (yet time consuming) as setting up lists in Twitter, Netvibes or Hootsuite that aggregate information from credible sources, preferably from a wide range of perspectives. Here’s a deeper dive into Five Forms of Filtering.

Photo of Rotman magazine

This is the third article in a series of ten about skills of the future and how we can work on them.

There is a growing opportunity for people who know a lot about a certain area to aggregate or filter for others who are focused on something else. That’s why lots of people have (or read) blogs.

You can help other people filter through your information holdings too. For example, by adding tags to content on GCPEDIA, blogs, pages or posts to help people discover related information.

If you’re organizing a conference — take your lead from the IA Summit lists – speakers for each year, attendees, volunteers, and past speakers lists. I started following the speakers and attendees the year I went, and I still do. It helps me remember how (or if) I know those people.

One of the other best examples I have seen is CanadaInternationalOnline on NetVibes. Martha McLean set it up for her clients – digital diplomats.

Where can you get it?

The easiest way to get started is to follow someone else’s list. For example, Ana Lissansky has lots; I like to lurk on the Government of Canada employees on Twitter. Yes, I realize the irony of saying you need to pull more information into your life rather than less. That’s the reality for most of us knowledge workers; we need to keep on top of what’s happening in our field.

Another source of eternal overload for me is my inbox(es). Priority Management has in-class training in Ottawa on how to manage Outlook effectively. Lynda.com has free training videos on Outlook (and probably other email clients as well).

David Allen is famous for his proprietary method for Getting Things Done that started with a book. His site has a lot of free resources. I haven’t read it, but neither has Joss Whedon and he still follows some of the principles. After you’ve returned from that little rabbit hole, visit the Ultimate Productivity Blog.

The last little tip comes via one of my mentors. After a particularly harried quarter, she confided in me – the toughest thing we have to do is figure out what NOT to do. Word from the wise: sometimes you have to just say no. Go for a walk! Clear your head! Get out into a park, a forest, a field! Put down your phone! Admit you don’t know, don’t have time or don’t want to! What’s the worst that can happen?

Exercise: set up your own information dashboard to help you stay on top of changes in your domain using netvibes, twitter, hootsuite, feedly or pinterest. 


According to Rotman Magazine there are “10 New Skills That Every Worker Needs”. Each week, I’m posting a summary of local (or online), free (or cheap), resources that are appropriate for public sector professionals to gain skills in these areas.

  • Computational Thinking
  • Design Mindset
  • Cognitive Load Management <–We are here
  • New Media Literacy
  • Transdisciplinarity
  • Sense Making
  • Social Intelligence
  • Cross-cultural competency
  • Virtual Collaboration
Posted in Public Service Renewal | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Future of Work: Design Mindset

According to Rotman Magazine there are “10 New Skills That Every Worker Needs”. Each week, I’m posting a summary of local (or online), free (or cheap), resources that are appropriate for public sector professionals to gain skills in these areas.

Photo of the cover of Rotman magazine with my name tag from CodeFest 2013.

Thumbs up for Design Mindset

Last week I presented the idea and focused on Computational Thinking. This week, let’s talk about Design Mindset. This is a topic I’ve been researching over the past three years as I’ve focused on creating policies and reducing barriers that improve the usability of government websites. I hope to extend this practice beyond the Web soon.

  • Computation Thinking
  • Design Mindset <–We are here
  • Cognitive Load Management
  • New Media Literacy
  • Transdisciplinarity
  • Sense Making
  • Social Intelligence
  • Cross-cultural competency
  • Virtual Collaboration

Why is Design Mindset a skill of the future?

There’s so much talk these days about change and what is required for change, usually under the umbrella theme of innovation. Yet, how can we create new neural pathways that help us THINK DIFFERENTLY?!

Increasingly, authors, academics, entrepreneurs are proving that design is not just about making cool products. Design is about making life better for people. IDEO has been doing it for years. Roger Martin has written about ‘integrative’ thinking for solving wicked problems. Cyd Harrell issued a call to action to User Experience (UX) professionals to get involved with government in UXMag.  The UK government is doing it. Helsinki Design Lab (now closed) provides a snapshot of a strategic design practice in action.

Here in Canada, Jess McMullin specializes in using design innovation in public sector through his firm Centre for Citizen Experience because “the status quo won’t scale” to meet increasing citizen demand. The video below is his talk on Reinventing Government at TEDxPennQuarter.

What is it?

Put simply; design mindset uses design methods such as ethnography, prototyping, and co-creation techniques and design process (research, design, test, iterate) to think differently about solving problems.

Photo of flip chart with post-it notes on them. Some have writing on them; others are empty.

User research in progress: sheets on the wall during CodeFest 2013 invited developers to post their needs & wants for our products and services.

As Hilary Little said in her keynote at CodeFest ideas should start out as a hypothesis to be validated. In this way, design integrates the scientific method into a focus on people and their environment. It relies on such diverse fields as psychology and ergonomics.

Design can be applied to products, services, processes, physical locations…basically, anything that needs to be adapted to optimize it for human interaction. Design helps us be intentional about the outcomes we are most interested in. It makes room in our minds, hearts and society for new solutions to old problems.

These are two of my favorite resources on Design in the Public Sector as a starting point for learning more:

Where you can get it?

  • OCAD (Toronto) and Carleton (Ottawa) both have design programs though they both seem to focus on product design.

Exercise: hack your office!

Photo of books on a shelf

Laura’s Lending Library invites colleagues to stop by and talk about books or whatnot. Photo shared by @nellleo.

In the Rotman article, Fred Gage is quoted as saying “Change the environment, change the brain, change the behaviour.”  So, in light of this — and the fact that design thinking is something that is developed over long periods of time – I suggest starting with yourself!

Make room for design thinking in your workspace.

Prompted by Mary Beth Baker and Kevin Grignon, I removed half of the furniture from my 10 x 10 foot cubicle, covered the walls in dry erase paper and put out bowls of markers & post-its. Now I have room to stand up (preferably with a colleague or two) draw pictures that map out possible solutions to barriers. I usually have a wall full of  post-it notes that I can re-arrange in different groupings. I set up a lending library beside my cubicle to attract colleagues to stop and chat. And posted the personas of the people that our team serves along the wall.

Props to Richard Akerman and Kent Aitken for sending me resources and adding them to the GCPEDIA pages about Design.

Posted in Service Design, Usability & User-Centred Design | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The Future of Work: Build your own learning plan

I can buy-in to the idea of lean government.

But for that to work, we need people with the right skills, attitudes and motivations. In my experience, an ideal team is comprised of  people who are intrinsically motivated and really enjoy producing high quality work.

What are the skills that everyone needs to create high quality work? And where can we learn these skills when there’s never enough time just to get the work done?

According to Rotman Magazine there are “10 New Skills That Every Worker Needs” by Devin Findler and Marina Gorbis. The article is not online, but there is a recap here on the TechthisWay blog (including the image below). It also resonated with this person who works at Timeraiser, who revealed they were working on a “BIG plan to…provide a number of Canadians the opportunity to gain these digital skills.” This plan is now operational – it’s an internship and training program, and open architecture platform (very cool!).

Computational Thinking, Design Mindset, Cognitive Load Management, New Media Literacy, Transdisciplinarity, Sense Making, Social Intelligence, Novel and adaptive thinking, Cross-Cultural Competency, Virtual Collaboration.

Future Work Skills 2020 via Techthisway

The 10 skills every worker needs, according to the article, are:

  • Computation Thinking <–We are here
  • Design Thinking
  • Cognitive Load Management
  • New Media Literacy
  • Transdisciplinarity
  • Sense Making
  • Social Intelligence
  • Cross-cultural competency
  • Virtual Collaboration

What’s creating the need for these skills? Again, according to the article its:

  • shift towards a computation world
  • new media ecology
  • demographic transformation
  • rise of smart machines and systems
  • globally connected world

Yet, with shrinking budgets and increasing pressure for public servant to perform, perform, perform, it’s difficult to find time for re-skilling.

Over the coming weeks, I will publish a series of blog posts of where and how you can get these skills cheaply, on your own time, whether that be from the office or after hours, and hopefully in a fun and meaningful way with like-minded people. There are amazing resources freely available on iTunesU, podcasts, SlideShare, TED talks and YouTube, and local Meet-Ups, just to name a few. Please add more in the comments if you have other ideas.

Let’s start at the beginning –

1. Computational Thinking

What is it?

“(N)ovice friendly programming languages” which enable us to manipulate our environments & enhance our interactions. Also included here is use of simulations, and understanding algorithms for understanding vast amounts of data.

I’m seeing this more and more in my industry – UX designers are expected to know how to program, artists like Kyle McDonald share and re-use open source code and increasingly code-sharing tools like GitHub are being used for EVERYTHING!

Where can you get this skill?

A quick list to get you started — there are many many more….As you can see from the list, computational thinking is more than programming, although programming is  increasingly expected by a wide range of industries and can help you take matters into your own hands!

Suggested Exercise: Edit a page on a wiki – wikipedia, gcpedia, github wiki…wherever there is a project that is of interest to you.


Stay tuned for more local, public-sector appropriate, resources to help build the “10 New Skills that Every Worker Needs” according to Rotman Magazine.


Posted in Improving the Public Service | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

WxT CodeFest: not *just* for coders

CodeFest is designed to get more people working on or with the Web Experience Toolkit (WET), regardless of their role in the Web publishing process, skill level or area of specialization. It will be held at Ottawa U on August 8 & 9th.  Follow the Web Experience Toolkit on Twitter or check out the website for ongoing communication about the event and the Toolkit. Here’s a bit of what’s on deck….

For the techies

Ok, it’s not *just* for coders, but there will certainly be lots of activities to choose from if you are a developer. Codesprints are being planned as I type this, and last year’s wiki pages are being updated with the information you need to come prepared.

So, grab your laptop and attend or organize a pre-CodeFest tutorials on one or more of the following topics:

Update: the CodeFest website now lists the pre-CodeFest activities and events.

Inspired by Cory Doctorow’s idea about designing for a spectrum of engagement the UX folks on the planning committee have been actively planning activities for everyone else.

For the designer in you

The Design Jam will be an opportunity to improve the Web Experience Toolkit website. Beginners welcomed!

We also have a variety of roles to fill with ux specialists, such as:

  • Mentors who understand the user-centred design process to help with the Design Jam.
  • Usability experts who can provide heuristic reviews and feedback directly to the developers.
  • People who are comfortable enough with user research and test methods to do rapid hypothesis testing.
  • Web User Interface designers well-versed in usability principles and approaches who want to participate in the event.

I just want to use the Toolkit

You’re our #1 client! Come give developers and designers your comments and suggestions about what you need!

Still not sure?

If you’re still not sure but you’re curious, sign-up as a volunteer. We need friendly faces to greet folks at the door, help direct traffic during the afternoon chaos, and add content everyone’s ideas onto GitHub wiki and issues tracker during the event.

But I’m not in Ottawa

No worries! The keynotes will be broadcast online in a Google Hangout. There are also satellite events in the works for Winnipeg, Vancouver or Summerside.

Posted in Conferences & Events, Government websites, Improving the Public Service, Usability & User-Centred Design | Tagged , , | 1 Comment