Transcript – Episode 50: A chat with Kristina Casey and Dan Danagher on new and innovative ways of working

Welcome to the GAC Files, a podcast about the people, issues and ideas driving Global Affairs Canada.  

And now, introducing your host, Global Affairs Canada’s deputy minister of international trade, John Hannaford.  

John Hannaford: OK, good morning everyone. This is another one of our conversations about our workplace and our community at GAC. It’s also the 50th of our podcasts about GAC, and that is, in a sense, striking. There’s an opportunity for us to take stock not only of some of the experiences that we’ve had over the course of the last extraordinary year and a half, but also to think a little bit forward as to, you know, how we can be continually improving our work methods and taking advantage of the kinds of tools that are available to us that we have used to quite extraordinary effect over the course of this period of time.

I'm very happy to have with me today 2 special guests: our colleagues Dan [audio freeze] [Danagher and] Kristina Casey. Kristina, as you may know, was our CIO [chief information officer] for a period of time and has now moved on to greener pastures and is now at Shared Services Canada, and Dan is, of course, the head of our platforms branch. So both are extraordinarily well placed to, kind of, participate in this—in this reflection. So, maybe we can start with Kristina about your experiences during the past period. It was, as I said, really extraordinary and there were a series of changes that were not at all predictable and difficult from time to time. But what was your experience during that time, and your reflections?

Kristina Casey: So, I’m very proud of the transformation that we had, not only for my team—at the time, the IM/IT team—but also for the department. So, I think we had been talking for a long time about how we needed to transform our IT infrastructure, to really move from an environment where we were really just limited to putting systems in place, and really move to digital services. And digital services are not only about putting services in place, but really about looking not only at systems and data, information management and, more importantly, the business processes that support the systems, and putting all these things in place. So, I think for a long time, we had talked about really transforming. The requirements of our clients, both internal and external, have really changed. I think at home, we all have tools like Amazon, and things like that, that make it a lot easier for us to use IT and IM just to function. And we had a lot, a lot of work to do in government and in Global Affairs to really improve the services that we were offering.

So, I think we really developed a departmental plan on services and digital that was, first of all, to identify the priorities we wanted to put in place, that is, on digital services, so, how we offer services to the citizens we support; the tools we put in place to support our employees; to create, really, an aspect so that people can communicate, think in terms of a digital service. So, not just taking a tool then recreating the way we’ve done things during the last decades, but really, how we can use technology to improve our work, and also put in place infrastructure in terms of cybersecurity, the network and the business platforms that we needed. So, it was really exciting to see that we were able to not only put a plan in place, but also to make a lot of progress in terms of the systems and processes that we could put in place.

I think, for me, the things that make me proud are that, not only did we put systems in place like SIGNET-E, which we’re working on for Microsoft Teams, but we were able to do that pretty quickly. One of the reasons is that we really… We often talk about risk, risk management in the department, but really, we said, OK, we can do an analysis for months in terms of needs and how the system is going to work, and information management. But with COVID, we had to set things up for 2-3 weeks, and people were able to adapt. So, I think we really learned how people can adapt, how we can use the systems in a different way, and how, in terms of the IM and IT team, we can engage our clients in a different way. So, it’s really a partnership between us and our clients. And, work must be done in a more agile, more iterative way, and really looking at change management, but in a less academic way, more practically. So, it was super exciting to see. A pandemic is not pleasant to go through at all, but in terms of IM and IT, it was really something that made an explosion so that we could, really, that we had no choice but to change the way we work.

John Hannaford: And how ... what was the experience like for the team? I mean, this must have been quite an extraordinary thing to … we all went through the pandemic in our own ways, obviously, and there are different demands on different parts of the department, but your folks were kind of the underpinning of an awful lot of that demand. How do people fare through that? What was the experience?

Kristina Casey: Well, I think at first, we didn’t have a choice. So it’s not like we didn’t think about putting in a platform like Microsoft Teams or we didn’t think about how do we have to choose our service model. We had been thinking about it for such a long time and we had these great plans. But with the pandemic did is it forced us to move to action. And we were almost in crisis mode. And a lot of times, IT [information technology], we spent a lot of time doing analysis. And it’s not until the rubber hits the road where you really see the difference.

So I think the first 6 or 7 months, we had no choice but to pivot because we had to make sure that the government, that GAC [Global Affairs Canada] continued to operate. And we needed to make sure that the business lines had the tools that they need and that people could work from home and that we provide the service that we needed to be able to support. So we actually had to throw stuff at the wall and see how much it stuck and we would learn and just, like, we would just kind of learn on what was working and what wasn’t working. So I think it really became about focus and making sure that we were focusing the people on the money and the time on the right things at the right time.

And we were able to make, like, even the department giving us a little bit of that funding that we needed to make investments in our network bandwidth and cybersecurity. And all these things allowed us to really mobilize quickly. So I think it felt like we were working at a start-up. So it just had this energy. There was a sense of innovation and risk taking, manage risk taking, and a sense of creativity and momentum. And I think it changed the relationship too that we had with our partners, like, we were seen as an important contributor to the business of the department as opposed to an internal service, so it was really motivating.

I do think, though, as the pandemic drew on, there’s only so long that you can keep that pace. So it’s always around finding the balance between having that creative, innovative, kind of “Let’s throw some solutions out” to the more “Okay, well, we need to sustain this.” So how do we kind of move from this “find solutions” to “find a way to kind of operationalize this.” So I think towards the end, we were starting to run out of steam, but I think it showed the team what we were able to do. And we’ve learned so many different things of how do you engage people differently and how … we can do this, like, the art of the [inaudible] possible is possible.

John Hannaford: Yeah. Yeah, well, you’re absolutely right. I mean, adrenaline does begin to run out at a certain point, but it also, I think, this is true on a number of scores, this was an opportunity for us to learn and to innovate in ways that just circumstances required of us. And that was true across the missions, that worked too. Obviously, Dan and I got interested in your reflections as to how we had a very specific experience, or a series of experiences, at Headquarters, much more varied in the missions and across the platform generally. And what are your reflections thinking about that and thinking about how that sort of sets us up now for the next phase?

Dan Danagher: Yeah, I think it’s a good segue to what Kristina has just talked about because usually when people ask me questions like this, they’re asking questions about big budgets and buildings because that’s what platform is, right? And, okay, my budget’s big, but I’d like it to be bigger, if I could.

But the story over the pandemic wasn’t about the building so much, it was really about the people. And people might forget that the platform’s Common Services team abroad is roughly 2,000 people. And it’s one of the biggest programs in the network, if not the biggest, and they’re mostly locally engaged, but the heart and soul of the team are the MCOs [management consular officers] and MAOs [management administrative officers], and we’re talking, like, lots of people in 170+ locations, and their focus, the focus of these teams, is really on taking care of the needs of their colleagues. And suddenly, in one fell swoop, those needs changed. And we’re used to crises, but not on this scale: worldwide and long.

So early in the pandemic, as well, and we might forget this, but a lot of our employees were patriated, or repatriated, to Canada. And some of those were our MCOs—the very people who were in the mission to take care of other people—and some of our locally engaged staff had to go home to take care of their families, etc. And our work didn’t stop. So I would say it’s adrenaline, it was creativity, it was partly panic at times. But the Common Services team is there to take care of the needs of people. And it took, after a few days, few weeks, whatever, everybody kind of got their heads on right. And we were, in addition to taking care of the needs of people, by the way, we were also involved in the repatriation of Canadians abroad. And here in Headquarters, a lot of my team were volunteering for that effort that was led by Cindy Termorshuizen’s team. And those early days were tough, and it went on for months, right? And during that time I saw something that I read about as a kid in war history books, that kind of all hands on deck, no giving up and all that sort of stuff. But what I saw at that time, John, was people who cared, I saw compassion for other people, and we just focused on our people.

And in the short term, I think we were just, we were actually triaging stresses. We were trying to manage workloads, we were trying to keep the work, our demands of the missions, like, we just completely backed off. And then we started putting in place those mechanisms to listen to the missions to see what we could do better. And remember, again, if we repatriated MCOs from a mission, we had to support them from Ottawa. So we had to pivot ourselves from a model that usually just sent temporary duties out to mission. Now we had to figure out ways to do that from Ottawa. And that’s something we’re going to look at continuing post-pandemic because it actually worked and it worked reasonably well. And that’s where necessity becomes the mother of invention. In a post-pandemic world, we have to, kind of, keep those things necessary. So I think those are really some of the important things.

And it’s hard for us to think about because here in Headquarters we had central programs for IT, we had central programs for furniture, etc. I couldn’t buy furniture in Ottawa and ship it to all the missions so that they can have it in their SQs [staff quarters]. They had to do those things locally. And they weren’t the only game in town trying to buy that kind of stuff either, like, everybody else was. So, like, kudos to the Common Services team and the MCOs for doing what they did during this pandemic. It was an amazing effort and they did it sometimes individually, sometimes as part of a team, and we marshalled and supported them as much as we could.

But I think those of us who are old enough to remember something called the Glassco Commission [Royal Commission on Government Organization]—and I know I’m the oldest one on this call—but the motto of the Glassco Commission back in the 60s was to let the managers manage. And I think it’s important to remember that we have really good people in the field and that we just need to trust them to find solutions. And I think the last 18 months has been a really strong reminder of that.

John Hannaford: Yeah, I completely agree with that, Dan. And I think one of the features of this whole experience, you said at the outset that we’ve been used to crises, but we had been used to crises that were sort of cyclical. The thing that was unusual about this is that it was the pandemic part of it: everyone was in a crisis. And so, we were all kind of … every country was challenged by this, every program area was challenged by this, and it really did require enormous creativity for us to figure out in that sort of environment, which is brand new, how do you function? How do you function well? And I completely agree: I think the backbone of this place functioned extraordinarily well, and that’s to the credit of individual managers and individual team members who just threw themselves at these problems.

So, Kristina, just to, kind of, turn forward a little bit, like, how do you see … we talked a little bit about some of the lessons learned from the last period of time. But, in the next few years, how do you see the situation evolving with respect to our digital tools? And how do you continue, as well, kind of, to foster that sense of innovation and service delivery?

Kristina Casey: So I think we’re only scratching the surface, I don’t think we’ve even come into the final frontier. And digital is not about just using Microsoft video calls. There’s so much more to it. And just to build on what Dan said, I think there was so much grassroots around how we … so we launched these tools and then we had, like, these missions and different teams to start to understand that this platform, SIGNET-E, is not just around being able to do video calls. We had the FPDS [Foreign Policy and Diplomacy Service] trying to build forms and we had missions that kind of used it as their own version of Internet. So I think one of the lessons that we have to learn is that we … it’s not just the IT and the brainwave of how we can move to digital. It’s not just within the IT shop, right? There’s pockets of it around. And I think we need to move just beyond thinking of digital as using video and MS teams, but how can we better collaborate. And I think how can we collaborate on documents differently versus sending things over email or putting things in InfoBank? How can we share information beyond putting things, again, through email? So I think we’re going to continue to build on collaboration. I think that’s going to be important. And I think there’s a lot of tools that GAC has released in the last year that can help, kind of, build a new way to kind of work.

And I think GAC is really uniquely positioned, right? Because a lot of the conversations around town is “What does the hybrid workplace look like?” where you have people working at home and people working in the office and people are not co-located. GAC’s been living like that for forever since it was created. So I think that there’s … we’re in this business already, or GAC is in this business already. So I think we can leverage a lot of this to kind of help continue to build the digital services.

I do think that we need to kind of keep building some of the data science capabilities. Data is so rich and we collect so much data as a department. It’s not just about dashboards and I think we have a great tool in Spectrum, but how can we evolve that to kind of use data for insights? And there’s been some really great digital data science projects that they’ve done that looked at scraping social media to help predict trends. So I think we need to continue to build that and all the work that Elissa’s been doing in terms of pushing the data strategy, I think needs to continue and that’s going to be foundational to continue to support the future of work.

I think there needs to be an investment in better tools for employees. We are going to see things like robotic process automation, artificial intelligence, to help kind of automate some of those repeatable tasks. Chatbots—do we really need to have a service desk person answer a call around resetting your password? Can we automate some of these things? The onboarding, the account creation, can we automate these things so that we can free people up to be able to kind of provide better service? So I think there’s a lot of opportunities in terms of streamlining the processes, moving away from paper even more. So, I think there’s a lot of opportunities around using robotic process automation and artificial intelligence to help streamline those repetitive tasks.

And then I think the most important piece that we can’t forget about, I think a lot of the work that we’ve done through the pandemic around the future of work has been really about our employees. And I think there’s a lot of opportunity in terms of how we deliver services as part of our mandate, right? So if I’m a trade commissioner, I might want the intelligence of who I’m meeting with at the flick of my finger, right? So can we provide these mobile tools so when someone goes to meet with a trade commissioner that we have this information. Can we use things like blockchain around permits instead of when we’re looking at import/export permits? Can we use that for that? And is there a … because our clients, our external clients are going to be expecting more from us. So how can we leverage technology to change the way we deliver services? So I think the opportunity is ripe and it’s super exciting to see what’s going to happen.

John Hannaford: Absolutely. It’s really exciting. And on your side, what are the implications for our missions and our network in general?

Dan Danagher: Yes, for the network, for the future, John, for sure you accept the fact that at the moment, no one has a precise idea of what our mission network will look like long term. But we have already implemented a certain number of things, like cleaning protocols, personal protective equipment and distancing and no-contact things. And we have certainly made some plexiglas providers very rich! But these measures are born of necessity, and the pandemic is there and it’s permanent. But for the future, we have already contacted our team around the world to get their advice on the way to meet the challenges of this persistent pandemic and the world after. And we have established links with other ministries of foreign affairs and other workplace experts in our network so as to have an idea of what will work for Canadians and our local staff members so they are safe, productive and have the feeling of belonging to a team. I recognize that the platform is not holder of these policies for these questions, but nevertheless. And it’s important that our infrastructure functions above things, above the mechanical aspects.

But, John, I think the vision for the future will take more time to take shape. We are evaluating the impact of the pressure exerted on remote work and the advantages of doing more. When the chancery capacity reaches its limits, and that takes a lot of time in our network, we will see clearly the increased reliance on remote work and we are starting to see it in in those very particular cases. Again, it’s a question of necessity. We talk about necessity very often here. But we intend to use these as experimental cases. The pandemic makes it more complicated to focus on savings made by the intensification of employees in our buildings, because that’s a way we look for very often in network management. And it’s important, I think, to not forget that remote work abroad is different depending on the threat and risk environment at each mission. And there is no doubt more than 1 approach for all situations, and everything we do must be balanced and take into account considerations like information security, our staff’s physical safety, IT support, availability and accessibility of bandwidth, the pressure to increase the size of our staff quarters so as to accommodate an office space in their quarters. And that’s what might increase our total costs for the network. And there’s a diplomatic viability guaranteed by the Vienna conventions, as well as the rules of the host countries. It’s very complicated when you start these conversations, but the important thing is the fact that we’ve started the conversation, and fortunately, I will have a head of mission returning to the country; she joined my team this fall, and she and her new team will be at this stage of the conversation here in the platform. The goal must be an overseas infrastructure targeted on improving missions’ program results while maximizing our staff members’ safety, our data and our goods, and at the same time maximizing value for Canadian taxpayers. So I’d like to see the day when we can build a modern chancery that’s secure, efficient, but also smaller and more affordable than the one we now have in our network. That will take a lot of time, because we have 170 buildings or places in our network, but work aimed at exploring the ways of getting there has already started in the platform. Fortunately, the future is full of possibilities.

John Hannaford: Well, that's true. I think it's quite exciting, and you see what has been possible in the circumstances that we've lived through over the last period of time to pitch forward and think about what our workplaces will look like and what our tools will look like in, say, 5 years or 10 years. And I think I want to thank both of you for the conversation today. I think it's very important that we be thinking through these things and thinking through the lessons that we've learnt and drawing from those the best that we can to continue to refine our workplace and to improve it. And I also want to thank you both for the work you've done over the last period of time, because I think you and your team have served us well and that it mattered. So thanks for today. It's great to get a chance to chat, and I look forward to continuing these conversations in various ways.

Dan Danagher: Thank you. Thank you very much, Kristina and John.

Kristina Casey: Thank you.

Thank you for listening. And we look forward to you joining us for future episodes of the GAC Files, a podcast about the people, issues and ideas driving Global Affairs Canada. Don’t forget to join the conversation online using #GACFiles. 

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