Without a Formal Mandate

Beth Fox
14 min readAug 9, 2018


This is a recap of a talk given at the International Design in Gov conference in London on July 17th.

Tall ship and Nova Scotia Flag

The bit about Nova Scotia…

Nova Scotia is located on the east coast of Canada, on the North Atlantic ocean.

I first want to acknowledge that the Mi’kmaw people have existed in the territories of what is now know as Nova Scotia for thousands of years.

Nova Scotia was colonized by English, French, and Scottish among other European settlers. We are famous for lobster, fiddles, wild blueberries, and our maritime history (privateers, running rum, fishing, and such). We are surrounded by ocean, save a small isthmus of land connecting us to New Brunswick and the rest of Canada. It is said that nowhere in Nova Scotia is more than 50 km from the coastline, and the ocean has shaped our history, and our culture.

Today, Nova Scotia has a population of just under a million people. Over half of our population lives in the surrounding area of our capital city, Halifax.

We are the second smallest province in Canada and yet we have 11 post secondary institutions. This provides an educated and skilled population as well as a constant influx of international students from across Canada and the world.

We have immigration from all over the world and the diversity of our population is growing and changing all the time.

Today we are much more than Scottish tartans and lobsters.

The digital government journey started for me in 2014

In 2014 there was one person in the Nova Scotia public service responsible for user experience. My job was to make the Service Nova Scotia Website better.

Service Nova Scotia was delivering all kinds of services to citizens. From birth certificates, to license plates, business registrations… and many other services on behalf of departments. It was an exciting opportunity and I was ready to help improve our online services, and make things better for citizens (who also happened to be my friends, family, and neighbours!)

Lesson 1: Don’t try this alone.

Early-on, it was a difficult and often lonely experience. And I learned very quickly, if I was going to make change, I needed help. The complexity and sheer scale of the task ahead would crush any single person. It’s for this reason that you need to have surround yourself with some key people. So who do you need in that support network?

International Video Call about One Team Gov

International peers.

Near the beginning, I was lucky enough to connect with folks like Leisa Reichelt, Dana Chisnell, and many more via the International User Research for Govt Slack channel. We used slack, and video hangouts to talk about all sorts of projects.

This was important because it helped build my credibility within projects that were already underway and sometimes resistant to the kind of change that a user centered approach would mean. It was less about my (perceived) opinion, and more about tested findings from internationally recognized experts.

Second, it provided a much needed connection with those working in the same field. They encouraged me, they validated my instincts about the work, and they provided strategic advice on how best to frame feedback or advice to avoid it being “rejected” by the immune system of an organization. Also they shared their own stories of making change… the good, the bad, and the comical.

In Canada we’ve created a slack channel for people working in various jurisdictions across the country. Building and giving to the community is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your work.

Now, we have One Team Gov and the International Design in Gov community spearheaded by Kara Kane, Martin Jordan.

Mad Max Thunderdome as a metaphor for how difficult making change can be.

Find a champion in your organization.

Also, I’d recommend you find a champion within your organization. Sometimes these are people with their own battle stories. In my experience, people who have lived through a less than perfect outcome, are often the most ready for change… It is from this experience, that they can see the need for a different way forward. If you happen to be there at the right moment, you can forge a fruitful and productive alliance. For me this is exactly what happened with Natasha Clarke.

Of course, in the beginning, you need to work on building trust in this partnership. Just because someone is open to a new way of doing things, doesn’t mean they will instantly say yes to whatever you propose.

One day, early on, when we first formed our alliance. I was in Natasha’s office talking (probably over excitedly) about contextual research and going to people’s homes to chat with them about services. At the time, this was not how things were done. And what about the safety aspect? How would this even work. She had so many questions, and it just sounded really risky…

Of course, now we do this and all kinds of research all the time. It is a foundation of how we work… but it took time for us to get there. The important thing to know, as you build out a relationship with a champion is that you need to both give trust and earn the trust you are given. You can do this by delivering and ensuring you have enough empathy for the pressures of the other person. And you need to frame what your asking for, and explain how it will deliver value that helps them do their job better as well.

If you want someone to help you navigate difficult situations (we sometimes refer to these as Mad Max Thunderdome moments) you will need to have already built a solid foundation of trust and mutual understanding. Now there isn’t anyone I trust more to have my back when things are tricky.

Champions need international peers too.

By chance, Natasha was at a meeting of Canadian service delivery executives, and Janet Hughes was was presenting about the work of her team. This was a key turning point. All of the things I had been saying and trying to articulate about how to be more human centered in our approach “clicked”. The way that Janet communicated the case rang true…

“Users” tear away over Halifax harbour with “usability updates” life preserver.

Build on key messages with your own.

Natasha, inspired by Janet, created her own “users” tear away poster (it so happened that her office moved and ended up on the harbour side of our building!) Quite by accident, our users were now in the harbour! So, I set about “enhancing” the metaphor of the poster. This was the ultimate “Yes… and…” opportunity to build on something she had taken to heart and add my own thoughts.

I added a life preserver to show how a project to add usability updates to an existing service, was helping save some people (from metaphorical drowning.) We were doing some good things to make what we had better… but it wasn’t addressing the underlying design issues in the service, and it wasn’t a sustainable strategy.

I added a shark to the waters to illustrate how the structure of the service and some technical constraints were ending up surfacing to users as poor error messaging. And how that could be harmful to the client.

I added a ferry to illustrate that sometimes really effective services were neither sexy, nor high tech… but reliable and practical ways to get where you need to go.

And finally for good measure, an iceberg labelled assumptions (because we’re only aware of about 10% of our own, right?) And you cannot have an iceberg without the good intentions of the Titanic… and of course Leonardo DiCaprio.

Be creative, and authentic to your own situation… also know your audience… this worked for us and we laughed and bonded over it’s silliness… Humility and humour made sense for us. Find what works for you.

Halifax town clock (Photo by C. Neily)

Lesson 2: It’s going to take time.

When you join a mission, and are so enthusiastic about the work, it’s hard to know where to focus your efforts for maximum impact.

For me, over 4 years into the journey with no formal mandate, the biggest lesson is that things take longer than you want or hope. If changing government is slow, doing so without any kind of authority is even slower. When you’re at the leading edge of change it can be really frustrating when other people are slow… when everything is slow…

Usability can lead the edge of change.

Some of where we had early success was with usability testing things we already knew were failing. They sort of had no way to know what to fix or where to invest first, and so usability testing offered a way to see first hand the things that needed improvement. A side benefit of this, is that users are scowling at the interface, instead of you being the bearer of the “all your work is terrible” news.

It was the best “show don’t tell”, albeit sometimes too late to prevent costly decisions, but it did a great job of building our credibility, of busting assumptions, building empathy… all without requiring us to be the “heavy”. So usability testing offers a way to see first hand the things that needed improvement.

Minister McLelland and an applicant on the program launch day.

This is our first exemplar of end-to-end human centered service design. This is our minister on “launch day” with an applicant filling in her application on the live service… with a media crew there… at a food bank. Some folks were saying, “What a great photo op!” but I was like “OUR MINISTER JUST MODERATED USABILITY ON A LIVE SERVICE!!!”

Minimum viable change is worthwhile

Small wins matter. There is always a way to make something better… even if it’s just the increment of a pixel or a word.

There is a lot of jargon and horrible content coming from well intended people in government. I’ve reworded error messages, screen instructions, help files, mass emails to citizens. All of this helps build awareness. When I help improve copy, those I’m working with often see it and realize they weren’t reading it from the perspective of the user. At the same time I use those as opportunities to build capacity and skill in others… sometimes going beyond providing new copy, and instead providing a detailed explanation for every change I’m suggesting.

I’ve helped show people how to use hemingwayapp.com on multiple occasions. One program owner said to me, “It’s like you’ve taught me to fish!”

A dashboard of human centered research activities.

Qualitative stories + Quantitative data = evidence and impact.

In almost every case there are stakeholders who are moved by quantitative data (say the percentage of phone calls that could be avoided.) There are also other stakeholders who connect with qualitative human stories. The magic really happens when you offer both types of evidence. Telling the stories, and backing them up with data points for the cost or the impact of what is happening to people, this is evidence with impact. When you make it real for everyone, you can more effectively catalyze change.

Echos will come in unexpected ways.

Sometimes, when you are deep in the research, you feel so sure about the changes that are needed in a system. It can be really hard to wait for changes to happen. Especially when you’re an empath, and you’ve built deep trust with research participants. You feel the urgency of their situation.

Teachers protesting outside the Nova Scotia legislature

We had a labour dispute in 2016 in our education system. Following that disruption, and the back-to-work legislation that followed, my team was asked to interview teachers and figure out how to fix the software they were using. It had come up repeatedly during the dispute as a data collection tool that was creating a huge workload for the staff that had to use it.

We spent 6 weeks in schools, meeting with dozens of teachers, and dozens of people in school boards, and the department. Without going into too much detail, it turns out (spoiler alert) that the software (which was pretty terrible) was merely a symptom of larger issues with policy, processes, culture, and a complex situation.

Following that work, we were asked to speak to parents and students who are impacted by some of these processes and report back to the Commission on Inclusive Education. It was difficult, emotional work (and I’m a parent, so I have a personal stake as well). It’s the kind of work that leaves you impatient with large organizations. The urgency for everyone involved was overwhelming.

Then recently, I got a call from a resource teacher who had helped us when we were researching with students in her school. She called to tell me that she was retiring… but that she had a plan for her retirement. She said, “That interview with the kids… I haven’t forgotten how powerful it was… the way they opened up. The questions you asked them about how it felt, that nobody had ever asked before… I’ve decided to start a project in my retirement, to make it better for them. It has to be better. And I think I can help. Will you help me?”

A lifetime educator, with more skills, knowledge, and resources than I would ever have, has become a human centered advocate, and is going to change things for the better. That is an example of how your work can echo.

Lately, I’ve been experiencing more and more of these echos where work that I had done has resurfaced and taken on a new life entirely without me. It is a lesson in humility. You are not the sole agent of change… and you shouldn’t be so vain as to think you alone can/should save the world.

Joggins Cliffs UNESCO world heritage site. (Photo by L. Wagg)

Lesson 3: Authenticity wins.

You need to decide what core values will guide your work. The road can be tough and so staying true to who you are and the culture you want, is the best way to fend of bouts of uncertainty and self-doubt. I have a few that have served me well:

Everyone is capable of growth… but show, don’t tell still applies.

Just because someone else, didn’t handle a situation well… doesn’t mean that you write them off forever.

It’s easy to say or think, “Why can’t they just…” but that is not empathetic, nor reflective of how complicated work can sometimes be. If someone has repeatedly shown themselves to be detrimental to the work, believe that as well and do your best to mitigate (with kindness or radical candor if you can).

It’s also true for yourself. How you ARE as a change maker is often more important than what you say. If you aren’t your best self, or have a moment of snark, be ready to own that. Be sure you take responsibility for it and make whatever repairs are necessary. Be mindful of how you hold yourself in tricky situations. How you lead, is the “show”. Being a bit cheeky or self-deprecating may be appropriate at times, but if you are in a position of influence, know that you may have to hold yourself to a higher standard most of the time.

Image credit to Mel Hattie (www.melhadtea.com)

Culture is like a campfire.

A campfire on the beach is by definition an open thing.

And there’s a thing about campfires.

They have to be started (maybe you collect driftwood) and then they need to be tended… you add fuel as you go…

But the fire is just the meeting place. It’s really about the people, the connections, the songs and stories you trade… some show up with marshmallows, and others bring a guitar… that is the essence of a campfire. And the same is true of a culture.

You need to invite people on the periphery of your work to join in and feel comfortable. And you need to welcome those who are attracted to the light and the fun.

In Nova Scotia, we’ve created buttons, stickers, and posters. We’ve used the inspiration of GDS, DTA and others to decorate our space with posters and bunting. And this building of the team culture has been organic and human centered. We are aware of how lucky we are to be in this work and we try to extend that to all of the teams and groups we work with… to give them the permission to build their own fires.

Help others make lemonade. Be ready. Be kind.

There are situations where your best advice is ignored. When you don’t have a way to enforce good practice that will happen…

Jared Spool tells a really good story of a person who really wants to stick a bean up their nose… And when you’re making change, sometimes people will just do things you advise against.

When this happens, it’s really important to be kind. Be ready to help them mitigate the decision they just made. and whatever you do, resist the urge to say, “I told you so.” Helping someone out of a difficult situation is a surefire way to build trust… if you do so with care. They may end up becoming an ally or a champion of your work.

The Nova Scotia human centered service design team .

This isn’t about you.

I’m happy to report that I’m no longer a lonely unicorn. This is our current Human Centered Service design team We’ve added new folks, and are upskilling folks from other parts of the organization.

But this brings up a really important point. To really make this kind of change, you need to let go of your EGO. (Seriously, there’s that vanity thing again…) It’s not about being right. You can let go of the “entire responsibility” and still have great outcomes. And at the end of the day…

“The antidote to ambiguity is not certainty, it is trust.” ~Stephanie Gioia

We live by this quote. The Service Nova Scotia Digital approach is grounded in the following:

“As public servants our most important deliverable is trust.”

We focus on trust when we design for citizens… but it is also true of how we work within. Trust is the anchor for our team, and for our work. You need to navigate a lot of ambiguity when you’re working without a full mandate. You need to build a lot of trust.

What I’ve learned in the past 4 years is to REALLY have influence you need to both trust and be trustworthy. That means sometimes being vulnerable, and working openly and with humility helps with this.

Skyline train in Cape Breton Highlands (Photo by L. Wagg)

What’s ahead for Nova Scotia?

We are assuming we have the authority to do quite a bit without asking for permission.

Everything we’ve done to date has been a part of this journey and led us to this point.

It hasn’t been perfect, we haven’t been perfect, but we are a strong, growing team with a lot passion and momentum. It’s also more and more about building out capacity in every team we work with… so that human centered thinking doesn’t exist in an “ivory tower” of specialists… but rather it becomes infused and normal in as many places as it can take hold.

We are also working on a more formal mandate as in some areas we’re almost at the limits of what change we can achieve without one. (*technology spends, procurement, hiring, etc., )

And of course, we are still doing the work. We are making things better at every opportunity. We are continuing to build evidence that being human centered is the way forward using a show don’t tell approach.



Beth Fox

Multipotentialite. I ❤ empathy & kindness. Fond of asking how might we? Works @ Nova Scotia Gov to make the world better. Loosely held opinions = mine (she/her)