Agile, Inclusive, Digital-Ready Public Service: Nancy Chahwan in Conversation

Nancy Chahwan discusses how the public service can remain nimble and adaptive in a digital society.

Nancy Chawan interview (op)

1. How should the public sector gear up to better serve an increasingly digital society? 

Digital society is here. Citizens of all ages are embracing technology: it is the new way of life. In order for us to remain relevant to the people we serve, we have to be able to learn and adopt technology and its possibilities. We also need to understand the expectations of our citizens, who are themselves adopting digital in their own lives.

In addition, there is a business case, not just for responding to the needs of our clientele, but also for being an effective public service. We know that labour and public funds are not unlimited, and we know that productivity is an area of focus for public services. Problems are becoming incresingly complex, and we are expected to resolve them ever more quickly. This complexity means that we need to be able to innovate as a way of working, and technology plays a big role in this.

I offer five ways to how the public sector can step up to align with society’s expectations. 

First, we need to start with outcomes. It is not just about embracing technology because it’s trendy. We need to make sure we know what we are trying to achieve: that we are starting with the right questions. And we have to make sure that no one is left behind as we do this.

In Canada, for example, apart from publishing digital standards for adopting technology, we are also pursuing omnichannel approaches to service, because we know access is not available everywhere or accessible to everyone. We want to make sure we are inclusive in serving all Canadians. At one point, going digital meant revamping the service offering and reducing personnel presence. Last year, we realised that we actually needed to go back to basics and diversify our channels of service, in some cases reinstating face-to-face interactions. It is a matter of ensuring we serve end users in the way that’s more relevant to them. That requires the public service to be extremely nimble and adaptive because needs evolve very quickly.

This is also about working as one public service, the outcome being to reduce the burden on the citizens when they access government services. For example, there are pilot initiatives in the Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada, where you only need to enter your credentials once to identify yourself as a beneficiary of government services, using blockchain to authenticate identity and protect personal information. All this is based on beginning with the outcomes we want to achieve, and learning how we can use technology to achieve them.

The second point is that going digital is not just about digitising paper forms, or automating some of our work. It is also about digitalisation, which is the fundamental rethinking and re-engineering of our business processes. Canada’s digital standards include designing with users as we are re-engineering our processes, to make sure that the new processes are relevant to today’s needs. They also stipulate being good data stewards, in recognition that the public sector owns significant amounts of data.

Digitalisation also means understanding that the use of data is for the greater public good, and the government does not necessarily have the monopoly to make good use of that data. Using open data sets can encourage innovation outside the boundaries of public service. It is our responsibility to make sure that the necessary infrastructure and framework to enable this are in place, while respecting the need for privacy.

A third area is deliberate citizen engagement. We are good at consulting: we put a public policy question out, we gather stakeholders at roundtables across the country and come back with what we’ve heard.

Over the past three years or so, there’s been a significant shift in how we integrate the citizens’ voices in policymaking and programme definition. We use different channels, including new digital means, to engage. We capture what we have heard, and we follow up by indicating how we have incorporated feedback in our policy development.

At one point the question arises: how much citizen engagement is enough? What’s a good consultation and what isn’t? So we are working on developing key performance indicators, related to impact and satisfaction related to engagement efforts, in support of continuous improvement.

A fourth area is building capacity. Canada has done this in several ways. We’ve reached out to the private sector to understand how best to leverage digital technology to serve the public. The Canadian School of Public Service will also be launching a digital academy to develop key skills such as data and digital literacy, and we are working with our unions so that they support this approach. We’ve created communities of practice. But while we can reskill in very specific areas of digital competency, we also need to make sure we are recruiting to bring in the right skills and expertise.

The fifth area is culture, without which all the other areas are insufficient. We need to inculcate the right mind-sets and behaviours at all levels, whether it’s leadership or the front line. We need our public officers to understand that they are being empowered to innovate, that we will be supporting them as they do that, and as they experiment—and that our collective success is predicated upon embracing the digital age in how we serve Canadians and how we function as a public enterprise.

Inculcate the right mindsets and behaviours at all levels, whether it’s leadership or the front line.

2. Are there different skill sets or competencies that the public sector should develop to fulfil its evolving role in a digital society? 

I mentioned digitalisation earlier, which is about rethinking business processes for a digital age. This cannot happen haphazardly. It has to happen by design. We need to make sure that, embedded in our policies and programmes, is an approach that accounts for user experience, citizen-centricity, and use of technology; one that is open by default, and involves co-creation with a very broad range of stakeholders. This in itself puts demands on public servants who may have come up in the organisation working at a cubicle, and who thinks of collaboration as “I’m calling my colleagues into the conference room”. You actually need to nurture a very broad network, even international network of experts in the field you’re tackling, as well as voices from complementary fields.

In terms of acquiring these capacities in the public sector, I think we can top up certain skills, but I do believe public services around the world need to increase their permeability to bring experts in emerging disciplines. The UK, for example, is now doing external recruitment by default, because they realised that they have a lot of policy experience within the public service but not necessarily the specialist expertise required in certain areas. So I think you have to go both ways.

One debate is whether digital or data skills should be developed across the board, no matter what the job is. I am of the school of thought that almost every public servant should acquire a minimum level of data and digital literacy. And then there’s a skill top-up, not generic but very specific training across the spectrum of artificial intelligence—whether in robotics, data mining, analytics, data modelling or even automation.

While we can reskill in very specific areas of digital competency, we also need to bring in the right skills and expertise.

It is important to remember that, in our diverse societies, citizen engagement is not just about technology: we are doing ethnographic studies, for example. We need multiple skills at that table, with public servants who are able to reach out, understand and “speak the language” of the diverse stakeholders around the table. This will determine their degree of success. Another area is what I would call execution excellence: strong skills in project management and ITC implementation are two top areas that come to mind.

We need to recognise that this is not just about our office work being automated. It’s about how we can help our workforce adapt, evolve and remain relevant to the people we serve. I always go back to that.

If you want to encourage innovation and experimentation, you need to make sure that you are starting with the right question. But you also need to be training your public servants to understand how to identify risks, and to agree with the decision makers on the degree of exposure and amplitude of course correction measures, should those risks materialise. Beyond what we typically call risk mitigation, we also need public servants to develop a way of thinking around the ethical questions that come with this new digital environment. The digital era increases our accountability because when we apply the openness by default that citizens expect, we will need to maintain their trust by stating what we set out to do and the level of success we have achieved.

To succeed at this, you need to have a leadership that is committed to key values, such as the public good, and transparency. You need leadership which is not threatened by innovation that comes in a haphazard manner, but leadership that knows how to frame experimentation success, which by definition includes the possibility of failure.

And you need to have leadership whose actions are congruent with the encouragement to innovate. Our survey tells us that most of our public service employees understand that there is encouragement to innovate but a lesser percentage say that they feel they will be supported if the innovation fails. If you don’t work on the risk aversion culture by changing mindsets and behaviours, then you will regress.


3. What are some considerations in attracting and assembling the new public sector workforce?  

For the public service to remain relevant, it must represent the people: diversity of public servants is key. But we need to go beyond diversity to become an inclusive public service. This will include permeability at all levels.

It’s not just a diversity of backgrounds that’s needed, but a diversity of skills. For example, in the public service you have policy developers on one hand and programme implementers on the other: there’s a need to bridge this divide very quickly.

In Canada, we have taken a very deliberate approach towards diversity and inclusion in the public sector workforce. Data shows that many of the people who come in mid-career into the public service, as well as people with disabilities, join the public service but end up leaving within a few years or faster. This speaks to many things, including the fact that there’s an insider culture in the public service that is sometimes difficult to crack. I would mention here that an ambitious strategy to improve the success of people with disabilities, including within the public service as the largest employer in Canada, is under development. It is simply our responsibility as leaders, not just to increase representativity of the public service, but to make sure there is a space to help all public servants succeed, and for different or divergent voices to be heard at any time.

This speaks to different mindsets; we also need to rethink the way we organise the work and the way we value the work. We still assess the value of work (and related compensation and level) using organisational design principles that were once relevant but no longer allows us to recognise the value of specialised skills, reward people accordingly, and design nimble organisations. Talent and performance management need to signal that we are serious about the outcomes and behaviours, in addition to attributes such as courage to experiment, resilience to adapt to emerging trends, and determination to constantly progress.

For the public service to remain relevant, it must go beyond diversity to include permeability at all levels.

As Chief Human Resources Officer, I want to look at how our policies facilitate the permeability and the mobility of public servants, how we recognise and compensate the value of work, how we deliberately manage talent and performance, and how we organise the work itself. I want to support a clear career path for people who demonstrate the skills we are looking for. 

We have initiatives such as our Free Agents, who go through a stringent but flexible qualification process: they are assigned to specific issues, contribute to solving them and move on to the next challenge. Our Talent Cloud initiative is another an example of hiring based on skill, rather than on education or experience. Given the emergence of the gig economy, the life-long career public servant is not necessarily the only recruitment model we need. We need to modernise our people management regime from hire to departure, in conjunction with unions.

Our role as senior leaders is to make sure that we are transforming the policies and the structures of work to make sure we are allowing for nimbleness to happen, if we want to enable an empowered, productive and relevant public service today and for the future of work.



Nancy Chahwan was appointed as the Chief Human Resources Officer at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) in August 2018. Prior to this, she served as Assistant Secretary of the Government Operations Sector, TBS from May 2015 to March 2017, at which time she was appointed Deputy Commissioner of the Canada Revenue Agency. Ms Chahwan is passionate about authentic leadership, empathetic service and lasting partnerships, and actively champions youth and executives. She is the recipient of the 2017 Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada (APEX) award for a respectful and healthy workplace.

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