Yesterday in the MaRS Auditorium, a healthy mix of Ontario Public Service employees, City Hall workers, and open technology advocates met for the third Canadian GovCamp “unconference” as part of Net Change Week 2011.

Government goes to camp

GovCamps happen all over the world, as do TransitCamps and BarCamps. “Camps” differ from regular conferences in that the attendees themselves come up with the session topics and panel questions, often in real-time. Yesterday’s GovCamp, organized by Mark Kuznicki at The Moment, had more workshops, labs and demos than would a standard conference.

The open nature of the event coordination was a model for how most of the delegates hope the government will one day run: open, transparent and collaborative, rather than closed and hierarchical.

Studies have long shown that public services run better when programs are co-created by the very people they are designed to serve, but government bureaucracy has enormous inertia and is hard to change, even from the inside.

An unconference in action

Education is one of the worst offenders. The structure of the public education system in Ontario is a mass of intersecting stakeholders. An entrepreneur with tried and tested educational software, or a teacher with an innovative model for delivering curriculum, often have a hard time scaling their innovations, getting lost in the system.

At GovCamp yesterday, I asked a room full of people to help me work through this complex problem: how can we change the education system in Ontario to make it more amenable for innovative solutions to some of the problems that plague our students?

We began by creating a “systems map” of the education system in Ontario. Whiteboards quickly became a mass of intersecting lines connecting stakeholders.  Parents, teachers, trustees, consultants, and board procurement officers all have a stake in the way education is structured in this country.

Next we identified some “change goals”: actionable, measurable goals to change an aspect of public education. It could be lowering the rate of bullying in middle schools in Toronto, or increasing engagement in teaching high school biology.

To put those change goals into effect, we need to find an entry point into the thicket of bureaucracy. We need to find our champions within the system, and identify the people who can help us move our goal from vision to reality. There are many middle managers and civil servants who might be sympathetic to our goal, but aren’t in a position of influence over the system.

It quickly became clear that different goals had different entry points. One venture, run by a workshop attendee, sought to use a Grade 10 Civics course to engage students in not-for-profit activities in their communities.  For her, engaging principals and teachers school by school is probably the best way to expand the program.

Another attendee was looking to make her current pilot program, providing extra help for immigrant students, last after the pilot money disappeared. For her, finding a champion at Federal Citizenship and Immigration Canada might be a good fit.

We didn’t revolutionize the education system in 90 minutes. But we began a valuable conversation designed to sensitize people to the complexities of systems change and to provide people with actionable strategies to start to effect change.

All in all, a productive day at camp.

Yesterday’s meeting was the largest such GovCamp ever held to date, with 200 people from across the province. People who signed up suggested topics, and a few days before the event, Camp organizer Mark Kuznicki (The Moment), sloted everyone in.

Joseph Wilson

Joseph was an education advisor at MaRS Discovery District. He writes on topics of science, culture and city issues for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…