Sean Boots

Technology, public services, and people. But mostly people.

Public service heroes: Rumon Carter

I’m really thrilled to be kicking off this series of blog posts with Rumon Carter, a hero of mine for years since I first saw his work with the BC Dev Exchange. He replied immediately after I reached out, rejected the “hero” label entirely, and we chatted the following day on April 21.

Sean: Tell us about yourself!

A profile picture of Rumon Carter.

Rumon: My name’s Rumon Carter, I work for BC Parks within the BC provincial public service. In those auspices, with BC Parks, I’m described as the executive lead for service transformation. My job is to lead and support initiatives to improve Parks’ service offerings, and more broadly, its operating model.

What’s it like doing digital services work on a provincial parks team?

It’s a fun juxtaposition. The work of parks agencies – the work of protecting trees and caribou, and supporting sustainable human recreation – is all very analog on first blush. And, to be perfectly frank about it, the organization itself is pretty analog as well – the incredible, impassioned folks in BC Parks are all high performing professionals, but by and large they haven’t had any exposure to the kind of, digital-era thinking, scholarship, change, and ways of working that you and I both work in and are super geeky about. Bringing these worlds together, in service of fulfilling the critical mission of parks, has been a privilege… and a challenge!

I’d pitched this series as “Public sector heroes” which is my own shorthand for public servants that I really look up to, yourself included. It’s a lot of people who champion open source, or build really cool digital services, in this niche of my own little world. I think it’s something you do really well, but you’re not a fan of the “hero” label.

Well… if I understand now that this is about your personal heroes, rather than the notion of “public sector heroes” generally, then maybe I can’t reject the label so strongly, though I’d do so with an awkward smile and rosy embarrassment on my cheeks. I don’t know how easily I could take that on, to be a personal hero of yours.

No pressure!

Generally, though, and the reason I initially balked at the label, is that I think that the culture of heroes, and the lionizing of heroism, are anti-patterns. And I really think that that’s especially the case in public service, which I think more than most any other profession needs to be grounded in humility and a deep belief and mindset and professional operating model where we don’t see ourselves as heroes. That we see ourselves to truly be people who are in service of public priorities and in service of our peers who support the delivery of those priorities.

Even more specific to our digital domain, I recall a couple years ago, the last time I was at a FWD50 conference in person, I was part of the regional government convening. I was invited to sit on a panel about bureaucracy hacking, and the topic of “cool kids” came up – the suggestion that the “digerati”, those of us at conferences like FWD50, are the cool kids, and I just had to throw a hard stop on that.

To explain, I think we should absolutely take pride in the work that we seek to do, because it really is hard mission-centred work, work deserving of grounded self-satisfaction. There may be truth in the observation that change-driving public servants show up differently, and it’s definitely easy and understandable for us to take an underdog position in this work, to self-identify as disruptors. But if we extend this self-identification to thinking that our difference, our disruption, our innovations make us “cool,” if we show up like that amid our thousands of peers who aren’t in this work – yet – with all its privileges and its challenges, it sets us up for dismissal. It sets us up for not bringing more people into this work, into this change and this effort, and I think we’d all agree that this work needs more people, not people being put off, excluded or left to feel “uncool” because they haven’t yet adopted our mindsets or ways of working.

Again, I get it, this work is so hard, and so it makes sense that we slip into ways of self-referencing that buoy us up from being pushed down, but we need to be more inclusive, we need to be more open, and in every way in which we show up, including our language, we need to militate against notions of heroism or coolness, and militate in favour of mindsets and practices of inclusivity, humility, and meeting people where they are.

So if you force me to accept that I’m a personal hero of yours, I’ll embarrassedly take it on, but I will absolutely reject the notion that any of us in this work are heroes.

Talking about humility and meeting people where they are, is it sometimes hard to balance that versus compromising on the things that you want to do differently, to role model new ways of doing it?

Absolutely. I grapple with that every day, including today. It’s easy from an evidence-informed perspective to be able to argue and advocate for different ways of working being, you know, more optimal ways of working.

And so any diminutions in the pace with which those ways of working are adopted and taken on? It’s hard! And again it’s just like, this is my work, my practice is: every day is regrounding myself in that this is the work. Like David Foster Wallace: this is our water, this is what we’ve chosen to do, to be in, to swim in. It’s going to take time and repeatedly showing up and doing everything we can to do rather than to say. And to model rather than push people into this work. It’s hard.

Bringing people more into this work – do you find that there are more people joining the public service these days? Are there things that we could do to make it a more appealing career path for people?

I want to speak from a place of evidence; I want to see the numbers, and I don’t have those. So what I’m about to observe is anecdotal, and it cuts in two directions. I am both seeing a lot of new professionals or, I was seeing a lot of new professionals, who are – on the research – disproportionately drawn to mission versus money, coming into the public service.

This is where we in government have a differentiation proposition – as I heard again the other day in an interview with Matt Cutts the other day – we have mission. We have meaning. We have – subject to all the challenges of getting this work done – we have impact on our side. That’s amazing. People get a taste of that, new professionals especially, and they’re into it.

And so, especially when I was at the Exchange Lab, I was seeing a bunch of new professionals coming into government. People were super excited about what we were doing and how we were working. Similarly, here in BC Parks, it’s super easy for us to recruit when we have vacancies – the mission here is one that is highly resonant.

And yet, the world is changing so fast. The labour market in the past couple years, our economics, the cost of inflation, the matter of whether public service organizations will support distributed ways of working… these days, even with mission in our favour, if we give potential public service employees more reasons not to work with us, it’s going to get continually harder.

So, yes, I’m seeing people leaving right now; I’m seeing great people leaving. And I’m hearing evidence, especially in this digital space – developers and other folks in related roles – that we’re having a hard time recruiting and retaining. They’re leaving or choosing to take on roles out of school that offer them two or three times what the public sector can pay. And when you reach the point – as we’re reaching in many areas – that simply meeting your basic needs, to say nothing of owning a home and raising a family, requires more money than a government job can pay… let’s just say you can’t eat mission.

All to say that I think the public sector is at a point of inflection, one in which it needs to consider not simply its wage, retention and succession strategies, to ensure that its hiring and workplace policies aren’t doing anything to turn people away, but also how it can open the tent to a greater diversity of contributors to public impact missions, no matter where you get your pay cheque.

How about your own public service career journey? How did you get started?

I’m a kid who grew up with a forest in his backyard; psychologically, emotionally, and health-wise it gave me so many gifts. That led me into a wildlife biology career and research. I worked a while in research, but felt that I was working on symptoms, rather than systems. I wanted to work at a systems level.

That’s what led me to law school. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but I wanted to learn more about social ordering and decision-making and governance. I didn’t ever think I’d practice. And then I got really into – I geeked out – on law school, specifically public law, and more specifically the Charter and most specifically constitutional litigation, as a mechanism for change.

I learned how that lever of bringing forward public interest actions, plaintiff-based actions for change, is highly effective in moving the needle towards what we might define as progress. I tried to get a job with the province’s leading public interest litigator; he only ever hired one person, typically the gold-medallist in the class, which wasn’t me. And so my next option was to pursue learning within the “heart of darkness”, government itself.

So I came to government to learn how government worked – to better inform myself, and then to leave and pursue public interest litigation, to sue government for change.

Wow, no way!

And then early days in my legal career in government, by dint of a couple of things, I got recruited into our Premier’s Office. I got asked if I wanted to work on a file that was called “Government 2.0”, giving you the air quotes.

I said yes, then I looked up what Government 2.0 was, which led me to look up what “Web 2.0” was. Which gives you a sense of how much I knew, i.e. nothing, about what I was getting into. I’m a total accidental technologist, accidental now-digital guy, but that’s how I got my start right in government, and on what we now call this digital transformation trajectory.

It’s interesting the number of people you meet in the government tech space that have a law background. (For example Aaron Snow, the original CEO at CDS, also did law school back in the day.) Having that understanding of the systems and structures that are built around society seems really useful for a lot of things.

We could get geekier and get all fractal and talk about systems… it’s all systems and they’re all interconnected. That goes from the individual systems of our brains and mindset and how we show up, to our interpersonal systems of two and teams and communities, and et cetera. And nowadays, these human and social systems are interwoven implicitly with technical systems.

All the way back to my biology schooling and reading Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park or Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework in my formative years, those were the gateways to a deep interest in complexity and complex adaptive systems. That’s the thing that I’ve been circling around this whole career.

For dark levity, consider this quote from Crichton’s Ian Malcolm character, written 32 years ago: “In the information society, nobody thinks. We expected to banish paper, but we actually banished thought.”

If you had to choose a particular moment in your public service career that really stood out, really inspiring or memorable, what would that be?

The experiences that jump to mind, plural, are all about people. I guess I’m speaking to the converted given the subheading of your blog, but all the best times have mostly been about people.

It’s when I’ve seen teams, like true Teams – capital T – come together around a mission and get lit up – with digging into that mission, with working together, truly collaboratively and cross-functionally. It’s those times. But while working within a single team has typically been my jam, as an introvert, what I’m growing increasingly interested in and focused on is how we move beyond those individual units of delivery to coordinated networks of broader impact.

So a concrete and recent example, and a bit of context: As is the case for many government agencies, for reasons that are well-documented, when I arrived at BC Parks I found it had a pretty segregated disposition. Uniformly great people, some stellar examples of teamwork, but challenges operating, consistently, as a team-of-teams.

Over this past winter, our political leaders presented us with a hard problem, one at the continuingly challenging interface for parks agencies of recreation and conservation. The problem space had responsibilities spread within at least three or four different domains within Parks, spread across multiple geographic locations. There was no way we were going to move with the kind of pace and intent that we needed in order to deliver if we worked in the typical, serial fashion, with multiple hand-offs, approval layers and all the rest.

Skipping the details, we adopted a number of methods and practices of progressive operating models to clarify goals and responsibilities, to speed communications and to run product, policy development and governance in parallel. It was hard off the bat to shift the ways of working and lean into an approach of shared consciousness (to steal from Stanley McChrystal), but this came to be one of the times that I’ve really seen a true team-of-teams come together, and orient around that shared mission, and make space for everyone to show up with their gifts. And the team crushed it. And, I dare say, had fun in the process.

They went so fast, so effectively – all their work was informed by user-centred research, it was evidence-informed, and it was built on tech that applied platform approaches and reused pre-existing common components. In doing so, they delivered a solution in five weeks, and that wasn’t just the tech. That was policy and everything. It was awesome.

And it feels good. You hear that from people, like, “wow, that was great! I loved working in that way.” It was so effective. We all feel positive when we’re, like, chopping wood and carrying water, as opposed to sitting in meetings. That crew moved the needle. When you can do that, in a truly shared and connected fashion, that makes work a joy. Hearing that joy, seeing those results, that was a massive highlight for me.

There’s that feeling when you can feel that energy, when people are like, “this might just work!” That’s huge.

Yeah… it makes me think of an analogy. Knowing where you live, Sean, do you paddle canoes? You have to have the right canoe for this, a really lightweight boat to pull it off, but if you really hammer in a canoe, it actually starts to plane, on top of the water. It’s no longer going through the water, it’s sitting on top. It feels so good, the paddling actually becomes easier after that initial hard effort, and you’re rocking along the water… that’s what jumps to mind for me when we talk about these ways of working.

When you can do that with people, and with teams, and with work? So good.

One last question, it’s something we always ask at our CDS “Ask me anything” sessions. If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about government or about the public service, what would that be?

I’ll welcome you to push me on this one, because my immediate answer might seem like a hedge. It’s not. It is truly something that I wish I had the power to change, and I do my best every time I speak to people.

It’s less about government; it’s about the perception of public servants. I’d change that.

Maybe it’s earned, in certain quarters, and maybe I’ve been disproportionately privileged in my experience at work in government, but throughout my public service career I’ve worked with such amazing human beings. They are the best kind. And they do incredible work. In the face of – and within a system – which is designed, as you know, and we’ve talked within our community about, as Honey says: bureaucracy is a system feature, not a bug. Talk to Max Weber. We’re going for stability here, right?

And so in that context, people show up with their gifts, their mission focus, their abilities, and they do incredible work, objectively. But people can’t see that; folks can’t see that context. And so public servants get denigrated, we see Edelmann Barometer readings on the public service going down, and honestly, it breaks my heart.

Because – it ties back to the conversation earlier about hiring, even; it becomes a thing that works against our hiring, that sense of what it’s like in here. And it’s true, in government, it is hard.

But if people feel like if they’re going to a dinner party, and the response to answering the question “where do you work” is “government”, and people are like “ughh, womp womp”. Like, “I know you, you show up at 8:31 and leave at 4:29…”

I’d change that perception, so that – again – we could have more of that humility-grounded pride within our organizations. Because, I don’t know what you’re feeling, or seeing, but I see a lot of tired folks. I see a lot of folks who are proud of themselves and their work, but they feel like they’re pushing a rock up a hill, and when they hear that sense of blame, or being called out in the media and whatnot, it’s a disincentive to stick around. And I think we need our best people here.

Long-winded, maybe feels like a hedge, but, I’d change that.

I like it. Any last closing thoughts or closing words?

You can keep this in or not, depending on how much you yourself want to align with the notion of being a hero. I think we need more of you, and by that I mean we need more people who understand the fact, and are supporting it, that the nature of the work is changing.

I know you strike a balance with your disclaimers and otherwise on your blog, but I guess it goes back to my last point – I think we need to share a greater understanding of what the work is, and how to make that work better, and more effective. So I think we need more folks like you who are openly and humbly and capably grappling with these issues, speaking about them, seeking to address them, and making all of that okay. And allowing this community to find each other so that we can do our best possible work, individually and collectively.

Interested in more of Rumon’s work? Check out the in-development beta version of BC Parks’ content platform, which, in his words, “actually expresses the hours of user experience research feedback we’ve received, in terms of supporting a more coherent user journey, applying the design guides we’ve established to support and speed our development efforts, versus the rabbit warren of accreted information still found at”