Taking Risks, Learning from Mistakes, and Being Innovative

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Jun 25, 2019
by Oscar Tollast
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Taking Risks, Learning from Mistakes, and Being Innovative

President of Public Service Commission in Canada discusses applying scientific rigor to public sector experimentation Patrick Borbey at Salzburg Global Seminar

"Agile means being nimble, being able to be responsive, being able to take issues and rather than try to overcomplicate them try to bring in some simple elements that you can test and try out…" This is the view of Patrick Borbey, president of the Public Service Commission in Canada.

Borbey spoke while attending the recent Salzburg Global Seminar program, Agility for an Accelerating World: Can Governments Keep Up? The program was the latest installment of the Public Sector Strategy Network, a series supported by the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court in partnership with Apolitical.

The former associate deputy minister of Canadian Heritage was among senior public leaders from 18 other countries at Schloss Leopoldskron, in Salzburg, Austria. Together, participants examined some of the pressing challenges and opportunities for the public sector and governments in the near future.

Borbey started in his role in May 2017. Having spent the first few months of his role in "learning mode," he has since begun engaging with public service employers across Canada to encourage them to take a more future-oriented approach toward staffing, increasing diversity, and recruiting from talent pools previously untapped. Borbey said, "We want a public service that's representative of the society we serve."

The Public Service Commission of Canada is "responsible for promoting and safeguarding a merit-based, representative and non-partisan public service that serves all Canadians in collaboration with its stakeholders." Borbey is keen to maintain a level of excellence traditionally associated with the service and reaffirm the values of bilingualism, diversity, inclusion, and respect.

Borbey also remains interested in learning from other jurisdictions and sharing best practices. Having previously engaged with representatives from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland, coming to Salzburg presented Borbey another opportunity to expand that approach further as he was able to hear from participants from other countries and continents. He said, "We do have a lot in common, and we can learn from each other."

During the program, participants heard about different techniques and methodologies used to tackle challenges and develop policy, including sandbox tests and hackathons. Borbey said, "I was struck by the examples, and I think that's an area that I'm going to want to explore as well in terms of… when we do our next policy work, can we take some of those approaches that are much more collaborative [and] iterative?"

Changes made to the Public Service Commission's policy frame for staffing have allowed for flexibility and innovation. Departments and agencies, meanwhile, have also been encouraged to experiment. It is an approach the central agency has tried to foster, particularly in areas which may have been considered risky, according to Borbey.

"Look, we're supposed to be the watchdogs of the staffing system, and if we're willing to take a risk and experiment and do things a little bit differently, then that hopefully encourages others."

Experimenting with new ideas is important, but so is applying scientific rigor. Borbey said, "You have to make sure the criteria are clear. You have to have a risk analysis with mitigation strategies in order to be able to make sure that the pilot [and] the results will be measurable and that they will be shareable and scalable potentially also to a broader application.  

"Unfortunately quite often some of the innovation happens because somebody has a good idea and they say, 'Let's just run with it. Let's just do it,' without properly framing it and making sure that there's a performance measurement framework for example—a strategy to be able to report on the results and see what exactly you've learned.

"The other thing is you have to also be prepared to deal with failure, and how do you address failure? At what point do you declare this particular experiment is over? 'It's a failure, or it's not leading to the results we wanted. What did we learn and how do we move forward from failure?' Again that's all part of the scientific process. Thomas Edison failed hundreds of times before he got the light bulb light. In the public sector, we have to accept that that's part of also learning and growing."

During his career, Borbey has held several positions of significant responsibility. He has been president of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency; chair of the Senior Arctic Officials; chair of the Arctic Council; senior assistant deputy minister of Treaties and Aboriginal Government; assistant deputy minister of Northern Affairs; assistant deputy minister of Corporate Services at both the Privy Council Office and Health Canada; and associate assistant deputy minister of the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch at Health Canada. He has also overseen the departmental mandate for Sport Canada and worked closely with the National Capital Commission and Canada's six national museums.

Joining the public service as a student, he held low expectations, unsure whether he would enjoy the work ahead. Within time, however, he gained a better understanding and appreciation. "I thought maybe government was going to be a bit boring, and I was completely blown away. My experience was so positive. I had a great manager who was a coach to me. I was given work that not only matched my capabilities but actually pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I was given a fair amount of autonomy, some guidance, and support but then after that a lot of trust in terms of carrying out my duties and I was listened [to] as part of the team, and I thought, 'Wow this is an organization that meets my expectations in terms of where I would want to work.' Eventually, I joined, and that has been my experience throughout my career.

"The other thing that I found fascinating about Public Service of Canada is how it's the largest employer in Canada. There are so many different opportunities to serve your country and all kinds of different ways whether it's regulatory, working on the environment, on the economy, on social issues, working internationally, working on scientific projects, [or] getting a chance to see parts of Canada that a lot of people would never have a chance to see and represent your country abroad. There [are] so many opportunities, and we don't talk enough about it to young people when we're trying to attract the best and the brightest."


The Salzburg Global Seminar program, Agility for an Accelerating World: Can Governments Keep Up?, is part of the Public Sector Strategy Network. This program is supported by the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court, in partnership with Apolitical. Additional country and institutional partners include the Australian Government, the Government of Ireland, the Government of Canada's Impact and Innovation Unit, Civil Service College Singapore, and Nesta. More information on this network is available at the following link: https://bit.ly/2PMCt5m