It’s time to explain the cow…

It’s about listening

At the beginning of this year, I was deep into engagement around creating Canada’s next plan for open government.

As part of this process, I was promoting events on the twitter and one of my tweets caught the attention of someone up the chain. Apparently, there was some concern that I insulting people in Cattle country, as we had recently returned from workshops in Regina and Edmonton.  I don’t know the details or the thinking behind it,  all of this happened above my pay grade and my management had the good sense not to bring it to me at the time. I only heard about it because apparently, it came up in one of Alex Benay’s regular “Ask Me Anything” events and someone related it to me.   I believe this is the tweet in question.

Cow Tweet

I view engagement as an exercise in institutional listening and the cow is an important part of that. Those of you that have been to one of my workshops have probably met Moo the interrupting cow. Moo is a facilitation device that introduces some humour to help participants be heard. I use it, along with some dog slides to set the stage for group discussion.

It goes something like this.  I would like to introduce you to Moo, the interpreting cow. Moo is the result of a knock, knock joke my kids told me years ago…sometimes a participant knows the joke which begins to engage folks. Anyway, the deal with Moo is that when you are in working in a group and someone is dominating the conversation, you can toss the cow (metaphorically) at the person to let them know it is time to let others talk.  I sometimes will give the cow to one of my colleagues to toss at me if I run over.

I am writing about this because this incident reminds me of our tendency in the public service to try and eliminate risk in everything we do. Unfortunately, this also sucks the fun out of everything we do.  AND FUN IS IMPORTANT!  Especially if you are trying to come up with creative solutions to challenging problems.

Pretty sure there is some research on this and, certainly in my experience as a facilitator and teacher I have learned that if you can make an exercise fun, you will generally get better results.  Others seem to agree, at GovMaker 2017, Hillary from Ontario expressed interest so I sent her one of my backup cows as a gift because I know they are working hard at listening as well.

But the most important thing about the cow is that it is part of a process that leads to results like this: I felt heard - nice work!

I have done a lot of engagement work over the years and this is the desired result. I am also pretty sure that if more Canadians felt this way about their interactions with government things wouldn’t be so scary for our democracy these days.

What do you think?

p.s. If you like the story about the cow and listening you may also be interested in learning about the ducks and enterprise alignment. 

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The Chatham House Party report

Some blurry people celebrating Canada.
I was reminded this morning of Blueprint 2020 and the Chatham House party that we organized back in 2013. Reviewing the blog posts from back in the day, I notice that it looks like I never wrote the follow up bit, so here it is, five years later…

20 plus folks got together for dinner and facilitated idea generation and dialogue. Several very talented people volunteered to help make the experience  extremely awesome.

We did Lego serious play and World Cafe. We drew on tabletops and constructed 3d models of abstract social concepts. We took visual notes and created a report.

Our three top items were:

  1. Decision making pushed down to the lowest possible level
  2. TBS policy that mandates openness and knowledge sharing
  3. Creation of a pervasive Work Market

Here is the final report that we submitted to the Secretariat. CHP2020_Aug_28_2013_Final_Report

What you think, do any of these ideas still resonate?  Have we made progress?

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Becoming a free agent

After more than three years with the Open Government team, the time has come to try out a new path. 
Recently I was accepted into the Free Agent program in the Government of Canada. This program is intended to help government  deliver on priorities with an agile approach to putting top talent to work on short term (6-18 month) projects.

You can find out more about the program and details on acquiring Free Agents by visiting the GCcollab group

There are  lots of good reasons to join the Free Agent program and in my case it appears to be one of the few ways someone in my circumstance can build a rewarding career in the Government of Canada.

I am excited about the prospects of working on new and important projects, while at the same time I am sad to be leaving Open Government. I have very much enjoyed listening to Canadians and I love the team and their mandate.

My personal mission has been to try and figure out how something as amorphous as “government” can effectively listen to its clients, citizens, stakeholders etc. I have learned a lot, and before I go I will do my best to share that learning.

Who is this Free Agent?

I am a storyteller, analyst, project leader, facilitator, teacher, and decision maker.  My focus is on collaboration for improving process and achieving better outcomes. Here are some sources that will show you some of who I am and what I have done.

At this point it looks like I might have my first assignment lined up, decision to be made by the end of this week (May 25th, 2018). That said, if you have a project you would like to discuss please get in touch.

Thanks and all the best,




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So today I put my best friend down

And I hope someone will do the same for me.

This is probably the hardest thing I have done, and that includes taking my mother off of life support. Tomorrow at 3:00 an animal doctor and her assistant will come to our house and gently put our, my beloved friend of 15 years to sleep. It is the right thing to do, no doubt, he has a cancerous lesions on his arm and he is really old for a Golden Retriever.

I always knew this would be hard, in fact I dreamed of it many times. My parents are both dead, so I have some experience with family members departing, but this is different.  This is a dog. A creature that cannot speak in a language we can easily understand yet that speaks clearly in a language we did not know we knew.

Saul has taught me many things, like patience and the acknowledgment that there are important things I cannot see or smell. That there is a connection to the natural world that is obvious to some, but very elusive to others (humans for instance).  That you can tell most of what you need to know with a couple of good sniffs of another’s butt.

I don’t want to overplay this, after all I am talking about a dog, but at the same time there was a whole lot of unexpected learning that I experienced in the 15 years I have known this animal. He has been aloof yet loving, judging yet inclusive, independent yet dependent, beautiful yet…always beautiful.  One of the great joys of my life has been taking Saul and Otis for walks and seeing the expressions of other humans as we approach..literally it is like taking beauty for a walk.  And yet the beauty does not know it is.

There is a language that dogs, and probably other animals speak that is not spoken yet is terribly obvious when you are the victim. There is no doubt when he looks at you that you have been missed, or that it is time for a walk or ITS 3:00 P M AND WHERE IS LUNCH?

There is a certain purity to taking your dog to the park and letting them be a dog. Even it it means they come home wet and stinky. Inconvenience yes. But also priceless. It has something to do with the look in their eyes and the connection with reality (aka mud).

I am very much not religious, but I am spiritual and I remember reading somewhere that pets can help you connect with the other, the greater. whatever that may be. This Saul has shown me and I know now it to be true.

There is no tragedy here, just the circle of life. It is hard for those of us that continue but perhaps not so much for him that is old in dog years.


So the pain and remorse I feel are real. I did not cry so much when my parents died. They lived a good life and went on their own terms, mostly. But this is different. This is a being that has been dependent since the beginning, yet independent. Someone, something that has helped me deal with loss and disappointment for a decade and a half, yet at the same time he has had a good life, swimming in the ocean and the Rideau and the St Lawrence – they have webbed feet for a reason you know:)

In conclusion, I am grateful for the time I could share with Saul, I cannot express the appreciation for what i have learned and felt from him. Those of you that have pets, I am sure you can relate.

Even as he leaves this world I think he  asks a question that we all struggle to answer.
What does it mean to be?

What do you think?

Saul RIP May 8, 2018

p.s. I have human friends of course, but as much as I love hem, they have not taught me as much as  this creature from another species.

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Perennially broken but OK for now?

Two golden retrievers looking hopefully at you.

About that thing you promised…

As some of you know I share my current life with a couple of beautiful animals. The Golden Retrievers Otis and Saul.  They consume a fair amount of food and about a decade ago I purchased a large plastic bin to store bags of the stuff.

This bin stands a couple of feet tall and provides for a large bag of dog food food to be contained within and accessed via a hinged lid. The hinge on the lid is typical of many plastic containers and consists of a series of interlocking plastic teeth. The design seems reasonable but in practice it is less than satisfactory. The lid regularly disconnects from the bin resulting in a minor but consistent irritation.

Every time I feed the two beauties, I open the lid wondering if it will fall off, resulting in a swear as I have to stop what I am doing and refit the lid. As I said, this is a relatively minor irritation in the grand scheme of things,  and definitely a first world problem.

This happened to me a few minutes ago. It has probably happened a thousand times before, but for some reason tonight I realized that the faulty, but still more or less functional bin was a metaphor for many systems we use within government.  If you are a public servant, or a citizen interacting with government, you can probably think of an example. Imagine something that more or less does the job, but in an irritating way.

It might be document management, enterprise travel, procurement or HR related system. You know what I mean, a tool that more or less works, most of the time but occasionally for no apparent reason fails utterly.

In isolation the problems hardly seem worth fixing, after all good enough it. But taken together these continuous and ongoing irritations amount to employee harassment. The complete and utter lack of empathy and respect for our time is demeaning, intimidating and occasionally a cause for personal humiliation and embarrassment.

Ok so I am taking the definition of harassment a little out of context, but the erosion of our mental health is real. #Justsaying



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The sausage and the salad

Over the last few years I have been trying to understand how open government can save democracy and help us deal with the big challenges in society today. Recently I have turned my attention to the policy making process as a big part of what government does.

Policy, according to Wikipedia is “a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes”.  Government does a lot of policy.  It creates laws, regulations and a whole series of policy instruments.  You could argue that government really only exists to create policy, and implement policy via services.  So policy is important.

Traditional government policy is like making sausage

Wikipedia 1200px-Kielbasa7.jpg
Various types of government policy produced in the traditional way.

To make sausage you grind up some meat, add some spices and maybe some filler. You stuff it in a tube of something using a special machine and package it up for cooking and consumption.  Once the sausage is made, it is pretty much impossible to change the recipe.

To make policy we grind up some knowledge, add some words and maybe some regulation. We get it approved by the department, the cabinet or the legislature in a process that takes years. Once approved, it is pretty difficult to change. Lessons from implementation are frequently lost as the policy does not get renewed for years.

The thing about sausage is that even though it might taste good, you never really know what goes into it.  Also too much of it is probably not good for your health.

Open policy making is like making a salad

Modern open policy produced with collective input and open to iterative improvement.

On the other hand, let’s think of a salad. Not only is it more colorful and diverse, you can instantly see all the ingredients. You can tell by looking at it whether it is fresh or not. Salads are versatile and easily changed. In fact, if you really want to you can still toss in some tasty sausage at the last minute.

Open policy making lets you know what went into the creation of government direction, you can easily see and examine the ingredients in the end product. In open policy making you can even offer up your own ingredients.  And salads are generally good for your health.

The world is changing and we need to adapt

We have spent centuries in government perfecting a convoluted sausage policy making process that depends heavily on expert advice and a bureaucratic understanding of the

Declining meat consumption in Canada as a metaphor for the changing policy landscape and rising demand for open policy making. 

public good.    But the world is changing. Meat consumption has been declining for decades and for government to stay relevant it must adapt.

I think we need more salads in our policy diet, what do you think?

Links and credits:

Posted in Culture, Open Government, Positive Change | 1 Comment

Finding free and legal images

2014-03-29 Outis on the Ice

Otis on ice. Personal photo.

This post is for marketing communications students and anyone looking to use free and legal images online.

With Google’s advanced image search  you can filter by licence to find images tagged as free to share, use and modify. Flickr will also let you search for images where Commercial use and mods are allowed.

The creative commons search tool will help you find images and other resources from a number of search services. Be sure to confirm the resource has a Creative Commons licence.

Pixabay is a service that provides images and videos that are free to use without attribution. Unsplash is a similar site offering free high-resolution photography.

Library of Congress photograph collection provides free images for non-commercial Wikimedia Commons is another good source.

Of course, you can always take your photo, or you can stylize text with a tool like Notegraphy

If you are looking for icons, one of the best sites I have found is the Noun Project.

Remember even though an image may be free for use and modification many licences require attribution.

Here are a few more: 

I am sure there are many other sources out there, what have you found?


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No one cares about open government

Open government is one of those terms that has different meanings depending upon your perspective.You might feel it is mostly about open data, or making information freely available, or you might think it is about engaging with constituents.

In 2014 and 2016 I had the opportunity to ask a lot of folks (mostly academics, civil society and public servants) why they thought open government was important. No one talked about open government as something inherently good, they talked about:

  • solving complex problems and creating social opportunity
  • fairness, objective knowledge and opportunity for positive change
  • understanding measuring, and connecting government
  • learning from the past and financial transparency
  • growing a healthy democracy
  • improving government
  • economic opportunity
  • citizen empowerment

They do care about Open Government they just don’t call it that.

p.s. For me, that healthy democracy item is flashing in my mind these days.

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So what’s with the ducks?


Several different colors of rubber ducks. Could be a symbol of diversity or cooperation

Those of you that have been to my office know that I seem to have an obsession with ducks, particularly the bathtub kind. My collection of rubber, plastic, glass and paper ducks was mostly accumulated a few years ago when I was working to sell the concept of enterprise architecture. Many of the ducks in my collection are gifts from that period. This post explains the story behind the ducks.

Problem: How to communicate the benefits of Enterprise Architecture.

In the summer of 2007 the Enterprise Architecture and Standards Division, of CIOB TBS GC, faced a dilemma. Over the previous three years they had invested heavily in creating a robust and comprehensive approach to business transformation. Called BTEP for Business Transformation Enablement Program, this approach integrated business architecture and project management concepts into a disciplined method for horizontal change. After several successful implementations it had begun to attract attention and communications with potential adopters became important.

Unfortunately, the brilliant scientists that created the method responded to this interest using the sometimes arcane language of the discipline and simply overwhelmed business people with detailed descriptions of what they had done. A few like-minded individuals got the message and were enthusiastic, however, most business people simply didn’t get it.

In early 2008 the most senior levels of management in the Public Service began to ask questions around alignment. They wanted to know if projects they were being asked to fund were aligned, that is did they follow strategy, use compatible technology, comply with policy, and not duplicate one another? Alignment is a key goal for Enterprise Architecture and the division had been working on ways to measure (and create) alignment as part of its efforts to stimulate coherence. What interests our bosses, fascinates us, so naturally the division wanted to bring its alignment work to the forefront.

The division knew it had important knowledge and useful tools that could help. But they also had learned that selling Enterprise Architecture using the language of the discipline only worked with other architects. Strategically they understood that they needed to change their approach to communications and had hired myself as a senior communications person. I was a recent convert to the idea of Enterprise Architecture and was not steeped in the language of the discipline. Knowing the power of images and metaphor I stumbled upon the idea of ducks in a row and added it to the spider web, gear images, and railroad metaphors as things to try out.

Having previously worked in advertising, I sought to obtain a visual to go along with the words coherent government by design. In order to cut through the visual clutter and get noticed, the image had to be different than what people were used to seeing. The concept of ducks in a row seemed to resonate. The brightly colored ducks were nothing like the complex diagrams and charts that populated most of the decks in the division. There was no question they got attention.

We added the slide to an executive presentation the CIO was giving and while talking to the slide he associated the different color of each duck with the unique personalities of the departments in the federation that makes up the Government of Canada. The argument being that they did not have to give up their autonomy to move in the same direction.

The ducks turned out to be an excellent metaphor, not only because they communicate the central message of alignment, but because they are well suited to an extension into the physical world. The division even gave out rubber ducks as instant achievement awards. These ducks sit on desks and bookcases, as a means of drawing attention and reminding us of the importance of alignment.

As the program rolled out and ducks began to propagate, people started to give me ducks that they collected from their travels. I now have ducks from all around the world, drop by my office sometime and I will show you a few.

The book chapter can be found on the Enterprise Architecture Marketing page.

This post is an excerpt from the marketing communications chapter of Coherency Management: Architecting the Enterprise for  Alignment, Agility and Assurance Edited by: Gary Doucet, John Gøtze, Pallab Saha, and Scott Bernard

Posted in Culture, Marketing & Communication | 1 Comment

Guest Speakers Wanted 2017


As many of you know, in addition to working in Open Government, I teach a course entitled Professional Practice,which is part of the Advertising and Marketing Communications Management Program at Algonquin College. A program that I graduated from when typewriters were the norm, and which I eventually led in the nineties—until the internet lured me away.

The course is for graduating students and helps students transition from school to the workplace, the blurb from the program outline reads:

“Attitude, communication, and human relations are the key to surviving in the ever-changing world of advertising. This course helps you prepare for workplace success by providing practical expectations and useful tools to make a successful transition from school to workplace. The course discusses self-management, workplace politics and etiquette, building relationships, and tools for the future.”

A key part of the course is the speakers program where professionals just like you come in for an hour to share their wisdom and insights into the real world.

The main themes of the course are  personal brand, networking, and finance with an emphasis on the first two.  I try to bring in a variety of people, and not every speaker is from the communications industry. Some speakers dive deep into relevant topics while others simply tell their career story and engage in conversation.  Self awareness and career success are two common themes we explore, usually within a marketing context.

If you have some insight to share or an interesting (and motivating) story to tell, I would like to hear from you. This year there are potentially 18, 45 minute speaking spots available on Thursdays from January 12 to March 16.  The detailed schedule and other information is available in this google document.

Thanks, I hope the new year is good to you.

Posted in ADV1691 PP, Learning, Marketing & Communication | 1 Comment