My FWD50 Reflections and takeaways

I recently attended and spoke at the the FWD50 conference in Ottawa, and now that I’ve caught up on sleep and the time zone difference, I’m…

My FWD50 Reflections and takeaways
Me, speaking at FWD50, on 7th November 2023. Photo by @JumaniMalik on twitter/x

I recently attended and spoke at the the FWD50 conference in Ottawa, and now that I’ve caught up on sleep and the time zone difference, I’m taking a few moments to recap my experience and share my learnings

If I had to sum up my FWD50 experience in one word, it would be gratitude

  • Gratitude for Rebecca, Alistair, Suchi and the rest of the crew for putting on such a wonderful, impactful conference. The conference and speaker experience were both top-notch and so organized
  • Gratitude for having the opportunity to talk about a topic close to my heart to a large audience of people who may have the power to do something about it
  • Gratitude for all of the amazing speakers who courageously shared their stories and wisdom
  • Gratitude for having current and former colleagues working in the provincial, federal and UK governments who I could connect with. Thank you for cheering me on, inviting me to eat and drink with you, giving me stickers and snacks and just being lovely to talk to.
  • Gratitude for all of the people who don’t know me but still took the time to connect with me (in person and online,) give me feedback, share their own experience. If you’re one of these people, from the bottom of my heart, thank you. It’s been a while since I’ve felt so seen and appreciated.

Suffice it to say, I loved the experience. I could add a bunch of buzzwords here like empowering, inspiring, etc. but maybe I will just say this:

I’m someone who doesn’t naturally fit into the work spaces I inhabit. My introverted, awkward personality makes me a bit of a lone wolf. I often feel like I’m saying the wrong thing, or wearing the wrong thing, or doing the wrong thing. I’m sensitive to the energy in the room, and I often feel like that energy pushes me to sidelines like the blobs of grease in the Dawn Dish soap ads. And I felt a bit of that when I first entered the conference but it didn’t last long. I was quickly taken in by the people there, and felt seen and held and appreciated and even celebrated, just as I was, despite or maybe even because of all of the ways I don’t usually fit in.

Speaking of awkwardness, Honey said something that I felt so deeply (I’m paraphrasing a bit here): “Someone told me I was too awkward to be put in front of the deputy minister. So I weaponized that awkwardness”

Now that I’m home, I feel a bit emotional about it all. For one thing, I can never again claim that I’m first time keynote speaker, I can never fall back on that blanket of newbie protection. I am now a person who does public speaking and despite my awkwardness, it appears I actually do it fairly well. Another thing is: I felt so much inspiration and change happening in that room, and I don’t know how to keep that momentum going. So I suppose this blog post is a small step toward that.

All in all, FWD50 was an incredible experience and I will definitely be looking at ways to attend next year, even if only virtually.

Some other highlights

  • Realizing that quite a few of my ‘public sector heroes’ were in the room, and even more amazingly, a few of them knew who I was 🤯
  • Pairing up perfectly with Liz at the mentor meetup and having a rotating cast of public servants asking meainginful questions
  • Getting to know my colleagues Dea and Amy better
  • Having access to the speaker’s “green room” where I could retreat when I needed a bit of quiet time or a snack
  • Two funny moments happened at/after the speakers drinks events: Dea, Amy and I got photobombed by Hillary (I will ask I can share the photo.) And after the event I had a funny uber mixup with Tamara, Gulsanna and Angelica.

Some things that didn’t go as well:

  • I wish I’d known sooner that the Glorious Blunders Failfest was an event you had to sign up for. I really regretted missing it, although I had nice catch up with people from CDS instead.
  • The wifi in the venue wasn’t super reliable. Maybe that was a good thing as it kept me present. But it made it difficult to keep up with all the people connecting with me virtually.
  • There was one session, which I talk about lower down, that was very emotional. It was beautiful but I wish I had come prepared with tissues!
  • Being a speaker, and having connections in many areas of government, made it easy for me to meet people. But I do wonder how others felt, if there were any other lone wolves who didn’t feel connected to others
  • The hardest part of my talk was the questions that came up at the end. I’m not great at on-the-spot questions, I panic and don’t know how to answer them well. But Alistair did a really nice job of helping to guide me to a response that made sense.

My biggest takeaways

During the conference, I had a easy way to measure what content landed most for me: My notes. I’m a bit precious about my page space, so I only wrote things down when the speaker shared something that was especially inspiring, or interesting, or new, or impactful. I ended up with 25 pages of notes which is a good indicator that I was really impressed by the content.

(This isn’t to say that other talks I attended weren’t inspiring, interesting, new or impactful, but these were the ones that I attended that felt most relevant to my particular experience)

Revolution not evolution — Sean Boots

It was such a joy to see my former colleague Sean take the whole conference by storm with his signature kindness and friendliness, while also obliterating the state of digital in Canada. Some points he made that I highlighted extra hard:

  • We’re lacking leadership that has the guts to control spending and legislate service standards. This is why we’ve fallen so far behind.
  • Good ideas are getting killed by interdepartmental fighting.
  • We need to normalize radical change.
  • How can we do this? Sean had lots of suggestions but here are a couple: Get rid of a level of the hierarchy (some leaders are basically just mailboxes), get rid of in-office mandates (let public servants work in different parts of Canada,) and give people the tools for the job (this seems so obvious so why is it still so hard??)

(Sean’s already written a blog post on this if you want to learn more.)

It comes down to teams — Daphnée Nostrome, Xiaopu Fung, Ebony Sager

This session was so full of wisdom and insight that I would be impossible to summarize in a few bullets but here are some things I highlighted:

  • The best leaders aren’t the ones with ‘digital skills’ — they’re the ones who truly, deeply care about the users
  • We need to recognize the minority tax in this work, and also the transformation tax of working in an org that is pushing against us. Minorities are paying double taxes.
  • Be a good ancestor. Embrace the cycles of change that we will go through and think about the people and teams that will come after you.

Open Science & Indigenous Knowledge: Challenges & Solutions — Delta Flood, Sean Power, Marie-Ange Gravel, PhD, Dr. Morgan Kahentonni Phillips, Brad Greyeyes-Brant

I was very grateful to be able to learn from this group of people about the challenges facing indigenous nations when it comes to data sharing. Some of the things they said:

  • First nations are best positioned to own and protect their own data.
  • When it comes to data we can’t just take. We need to establish thoughtful and intentional data sharing agreements.
  • There are no data points, there are only data ecosystems. We can’t just ask for small slices of data. We have to consider the rich and complex context that data lives in.
  • If government has workforce capacity issues, indigenous nations have those issues x100. They cannot keep up with all the requests we are making on their time. They are willing but not able.

The Radical How — Tom Loosemore

I already knew I would agree with most or all of what Tom shared. And yet I still learned and took away so much, particularly because he did a really good job of connecting the concepts to — and telling the stories of — humans, both users and public servants. A few things that really stood out:

  • Government is not a complicated system, it’s a complex system. And it’s impossible to predict what will happen in a complex system.
  • When universal credit was in its early days, it had $4.25 million spent, 1,500 people working on it, 800 pages of documentation … and 0 people who had used it. So that was 800 pages of untested assumptions.
  • Government’s usual process is: policy > guess requirements > procure > inflict on people > operate. This is the “accidental how.” But if we want to change things we need to be radical, do things differently and break out of this cycle. The “radical how.”
  • The radical how is: short feedback loops, empowered operational people on delivery teams, flat hierarchies, and protection for people doing the work.
  • This requires exceptional leaders and exceptional circumstances. But it can be done.
  • This really resonated for me (because I identify with being both radical and unappreciated): “Your colleagues might not appreciate your radicalness, but [your users] will”

Digital Service Standards Takeover — Andrew Greenway, Amy Kirtay, Elizabeth Dussault

Digital service standards are something I’m passionate about so I was looking forward to hearing the perspectives on this, from Andrew (who was influential in GDS where I formerly worked), Amy (who leads the Digital Standards where I currently work,) and Elizabeth (who works on standards at the federal level.) Here’s what I wrote down:

  • Service standards are a tool and tools are neutral. They can be used for good or bad, what matters is how they are implemented.
  • Ideally service standards aren’t just the standards themselves. They should also be guidance on how to meet them, governance to ensure they are implemented, and a team that curates and leads them.
  • The most successful digital governments in the world are the ones who have tied standards to power levers (money, access to people etc.) The ones who don’t use those power levers (like Canada) will see their standards fail to gain momentum. GDS’ standards had teeth because they controlled the website, and also spend controls.
  • We (Canadian government) have to be willing to implement consequences of not meeting service standards. When you stop the bad, you give hope to the people doing the good.

Open Source Government Services: The Promise and The Realities — Aaron Snow, Nele Leosk, Sean Boots, Dorothy Eng, Andrew Greenway

I thought this panel discussion might be too techy to catch my interest but I was surprised at how much wisdom I took from this conversation.

  • The fact that open source is ‘free’ is one of it’s downfalls. There’s this perception that giant commercial software bills are reassuring. Sean told the story of a minister saying on a call, in all seriousness, “It’s only $1 million? I can’t take you seriously for less than $50 million.”
  • But a penny drop moment in the UK was when the government realized that they had ceded all the power to big tech companies, but not the accountability. They were still getting yelled at when things went wrong, even though it wasn’t in their power to fix it.
  • A lot of open source work comes from grass-roots civic technology teams. But grass-roots teams are burning out. They are ready for someone else to take the torch. We can’t keep relying on them to fix our problems, we (organizations) have to take some of the burden.

Channelling your inner salmon & Why societies fail — Alistair Croll

Alaistair opened the first two days with a couple of really interesting talks

  • Getting up a waterfall feels impossible. Perhaps we can build fish ladders to enable us to take small steps upward.
  • The Andon Cord is a rope that stops all production on an assembly line until a problem is fixed. When pulled, everyone gathers around that problem. We need this in gov, and we need to be able to take accountability for what’s wrong.
  • There are two options for fixing society: Controlled demolition or reducing complexity. Modularity is one answer to reducing complexity, using things that are unentangled, independent, easy to build on, and predictable.

Designing my Grief — Riley Ohler

This is one talk I didn’t take notes on — not a single one — because I was too affected by the story. Riley talked about the tragic death of his son, and how the experience caused him to examine how we deal with (or don’t deal with) death and tragedy on a service and systems level. I sobbed from the moment he started talking. I was so moved by Riley’s courage and story, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

👋 Until next year!

Thanks again to the organizers and attendees for a wonderful conference experience. I’ll be working on figuring out how to get the chance to go again and if you feel like you have something to share or learn, I think you should too!