Beth Fox is a service designer and digital strategy lead at the Nova Scotia Digital Service. She’s an amazing public speaker, a champion for users, an occasional blogger, a maker of awesome stickers and buttons, and one of my first-ever public service Twitter friends. We chatted on May 3. Ask her about her (excellent) sound-check warm-up phrases.
Sean: Tell us who you are and where you work these days!
Beth: I am Beth Fox, I currently work for the province of Nova Scotia. Specifically, I’m in the strategy, policy, and governance team as part of the Nova Scotia Digital Service.
You’ve been in the digital government space since before it really had a name – how did you originally get started in this kind of work?
It’s really interesting, I was thinking back – my actual first start in public service was in an employment insurance training work placement. I graduated university in the late 90s – so there, I’m dating myself – in a recession, with a bachelor’s in philosophy and a hard job market.
I got laid off from a really terrible service job, and I ended up on EI, but they sent me on this course for AutoCAD – electronic drafting before there was, like, iPads and things you could use. I actually landed a placement at Public Works and Government Services Canada (now PSPC). I’m mentioning that because I think we often underestimate pathways, and the value of those, for young people – and I was still young then – to get a taste of public service careers.
While I was working in that job, I took a bunch of training in web development on the weekends. And that led me to eventually join a really great team of web folks in Real Property services, in that department. We were doing what, at the time, was super leading-edge things, like building dynamic content before there was such a thing as content management. We were publishing web content, internally and externally. And when I was thinking back on this the other day, I’d say we really were laying the groundwork for what we might call a digital service team nowadays.
I was in a project management role, but I really functioned as a translator in that team. I was identifying needs, I was building information architectures, functional QA, feedback back and forth… and when I look back on that I realize, that was actually the beginnings of service design and digital strategy, we just didn’t have those labels back then.
What brought you from there to Nova Scotia?
Later, my partner and I relocated from Ottawa to Nova Scotia; I had to wave goodbye to Place du Portage. We started a family; I spent some time in the private sector, but I really missed being a part of a mission that mattered to me and the people around me that I cared about. Working in agency life, it just wasn’t for me.
And so luckily, I found my way back – into the Nova Scotia public service, in 2014, and joined to do UX work.
I remember, I think in 2017, seeing your CanUX presentation on UX (user experience) being more than a checkbox, which was phenomenal.
How not to be a checkbox!
Yeah! In your view, has design work become more established in government organizations since then? Does it have more of a home? Or does it sometimes feel like people still see it as a checkbox?
It’s tricky because – I think that the idea of UX has found a home. Living through COVID, we saw that: if you have bad UX, you’re going to blow up your call centre, all those kinds of things.
I think what’s interesting is: the transition from UX to service design has really made it so that – service design has a good foothold, but what happens then is that service design starts digging in on harder problem spaces. And that’s where we start to hit that friction against – I’ve actually literally been working on a presentation called, “Your UX isn’t pretty, it just looks that way.” Right?
Because when we’re only focused on the visual aspect and stuff we can see on the client interface or user interface, that part is getting easier to do, and to do well. The part behind the scenes, and the hard work to make things accessible, and getting government jargon out of content, background processes – all the stuff that’s not the stuff you see? That stuff is super hard, and it continues to be hard. And I think that’s just because you’re literally talking about systems change.
You’ve been a really big part of connecting public servants working in technology and design across Canada, like the Slack community that you launched with Susie Floresco – as far as I know, it’s the biggest community of public servants working in digital government in Canada. What’s it been like, building a cross-jurisdiction community of public servants?
I’m thinking back to that day when you were on a personal device [to use Slack], and we were having some kind of conversation about how there were so many barriers. Honestly? It’s been really self-serving, if I can be totally honest, which I know is going to sound off-brand for what people might think of me.
But: I was alone! I was a team of one, in this little jurisdiction, and I didn’t have people who knew what I was talking about, or they didn’t understand me. And so, building that community was really just, like: I needed to find people to connect with.
And of course, in the digital government space, there’s no competitive advantage between you having code, me not having the code, or whatever. And so I don’t think it took very much to just create the space for people to pile in. And to realize: we need each other, and we need that community, and we need those safe spaces where we can be empathetic with each other about the barriers and the hard stuff in digital government.
There’s been a lot of pressure over the years to say, can we just open this up? And it’s like, you know what? Sometimes you need a bit of a space where people get it, and where people can share without needing to worry about going to go and ask permission. Because that is the death knell of any good collaboration.
There’s lots of FPT (federal/provincial/territorial) tables and big structures, but I think about stuff that was happening during COVID, with Rumon’s team out in BC, and the Ontario peeps were doing cool stuff, and we were building stuff, and PEI was like: “we don’t have anybody to build stuff!” And we were like, “here’s the code!” I think all of us are working on the same things, and so building that community, for me, started as finding a place to feel less alone in the work.
And then it just took on a life of its own and became a thing that fed that need for everybody. And, spoiler alert: you could be in a giant jurisdiction, in a huge organization, and still feel really, really alone. And sometimes that’s a way to find people who are going to just be like: hey, it’s alright, keep going. Or: here’s the thing, I just saved you ten clicks. Whatever the case may be.
That’s a great way of putting it. There’s the sort of: you’re not facing this alone, you’re not the only person who is running into these challenges – the team spirit of, there’s a bunch of people cheering for you, even if they’re across the country.
And I experienced that internationally, too. The peeps at GDS, USDS, and Australia, and all those jurisdictions, they just openly shared stuff so readily. And I was like, why are we not doing that with Manitoba?!
If you had to choose just one moment in your public service career that was really inspiring or memorable, what stands out?
I think there’s a TSN Turning Point that I carry around in my head. I might have only been a year or two into my time at Nova Scotia, and I had joined this team with the intention of bringing human-centred approaches into online services. And I’m sure a lot of your readers will appreciate, that’s sometimes really hard to do in practice, especially as a team of one.
But anyhow! I’d been invited to speak at the annual meeting for something called GoverNEXT, I had just kind of connected with some of those folks. It was essentially, young keeners and change-makers in government, and they had this annual meeting. And they asked if I would share a keynote about being user-centred and user research. And was like: right on! I’m going to build a Prezi, which again, is like, who uses that –
Cutting-edge, at the time!
– and put all the smartest things I can think about in there, about why we need to shift mindsets. And at that point, I was admittedly, as a team of one, still pretty light on my own case studies. But there was enough material there.
But I also arranged to have 200 sets of my own custom buttons, the “Empathy Starter Pack”, I don’t know if you remember that – it’s the, “I am not the user”, “You are not the user”, “Let’s ask the user” – so I literally put those all on together in little sets. They were on every table. And, that was the big rally cry at the end of my presentation.
So I kind of showed up as my fully, authentic, most nerdy version of myself. But what I didn’t know, and probably it’s a gift that I didn’t know this going in, is that right after my keynote, in the organization of that day, the event organizers had this “Coffee with deputies” for all the people attending the meeting.
That actually meant that most of the most-influential senior leaders from across our provincial public service were just, in that room, for most if not all of my presentation.
Oh snap. No pressure.
And so I stood up to deliver this decidedly counter-culture sort of keynote, and I look up and I make eye contact at the back of the room with my relatively new-ish deputy of my department. Who I didn’t really know very well, and certainly wasn’t expecting to see at the back of the room, staring me in the eyes, along with the Clerk and a whole bunch of other deputies.
I took a big gulp, and then I continued, and I presented, in a fully-authentic way, without worrying about who was in the room. But I think I actually did make an impression on some people in that room. The deputy in charge of IT services was wearing one of my buttons later on, and I was like, oh, that’s amazing!
That moment, when I look back on it – it really helped make space, for sure within my own department, to give some of the air cover that I really needed for that early work. To show the value of user research, in particular; I was still, at that point, trying to convince people to let me leave the building. Our deputy is passionate about client service excellence. So the link between what she was focused on, and my proposal to “ask the user” – that wasn’t a hard stretch for her to see it was compatible, and make some space for it.
I think that opened a little bit of space for me to then actually start demonstrating the value of the work. Which is why, for me, I feel: as soon as you can get to “Show, don’t tell”, that’s when you turn the corner on things.
That was definitely a moment – I remember seeing her at the back of the room and thinking, “oh! I guess we’ll see how this goes”. I think I had bleeped out the swear words on some of the slides, so the swear word was there but it wasn’t written out, and I was kind of relieved that I had done that, at least.
That’s amazing. Sometimes, depending on the government organization, you often feel like there’s this big gap between people at the working level, or front-line staff, who really understand where things are broken, and it’s hard to communicate those things up to the very, very top. You did that, maybe almost by accident, but, that’s massive.
I think the Clerk may have, later on, like a year or two later, been talking to our CDO, and referred to me as “you know, the girl with the buttons!”
The beauty of this, for people who don’t know me – I’m totally into stickers and buttons. I have this whole collection of stuff. I mean, you and I have exchanged stuff; the “I know Sean Boots” button is one of my most favourite buttons. But anyway! That’s a non-threatening way to kind of – it’s really propaganda – it’s a non-threatening sort of “gimme” that you can get people thinking about stuff.
Definitely a turning point, I think, for what I was trying to message.
I have one of your “You are not your user” stickers on my CDS laptop.
The buttons got expensive, so we started making stickers after that.
If there’s one thing that you could change about the government or the public service writ-large, if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing, what would it be?
I’ve thought about that question – it’s a hard one to answer, because the systems thinker in me is like: well, how far do you want to zoom in or out, in the system?
Root cause, I think incentive structures are really what’s holding back so much. That’s what I would change.
It’s human nature to always do what gets positive feedback, or gets rewarded. Within public service, from what I’ve seen in Westminster public service, we have a lot of perverse and counter-productive defaults that are baked in to the fabric of how everything gets done. And a lot of this goes completely unexamined.
There’s a lot of what I would call normative culture entrenched into quote-unquote “successful public servants” and how they look and what they do. And our systems promote this so-called “professionalism” but that’s really just code for: don’t be emotional, or, be hyper-organized. People who make good presentations in front of large groups are labelled as leaders.
The unsaid flipside of that is: we’re excluding people who might process information differently. And those people are often more reflective, or thoughtful, than people like me who are just a really good showman. Or sometimes, we promote the people who “get shit done”, no matter the cost either to themselves or to other people. When I say that the incentives are skewed, that’s what I mean.
And, I would add that, in most cases, our current definition of what we consider to be desirable is based on one world view, that’s usually white, cis, het, not disabled, and neurotypical. And we really have to move past those ideas. Because they’re not only not-inclusive, but they’re harmful to everybody, including the people in that group. And I’m someone who benefits from all those things that I just mentioned, right? I’m part of the power that holds those defaults in place, and so I really consider it my responsibility to actively work to change those defaults.
I was thinking about incentives, and what would be different, like, how would public service be different if we incentivized totally different defaults?
What if we incentivized distributed decision-making, instead of being in the room?
What if we incentivized reflection and thoughtful response, over fast reaction times?
Or radical candour, over the comfort of people who hold power?
Or continuous progress, over, “we’re all done!”
Being an ally in the moment, versus being seen as being nice?
Or, learning and adaptability through failure, over this “knowing, certainty, minimized risks”. That’s one of those incentives that’s, just, totally backwards.
It sounds like a lot; I realize, that’s a heavy list of things, but, I don’t think anyone is ever going to just come along and flip that switch or have that magic wand. And so I really think: for me, I’ve found that I can actually change my own default, and make space for, just, the people that are around me.
And, each and everyone of us can shift our own defaults. Not big, symbolic flourishes, but, literally holding ourselves accountable for what we incentivize in every interaction, every day, over time. That’s what’s going to have that big impact.
I like that. The sort of, making a difference in the small things, and then having that add up.
If you think of the idea of a fractal – when I talked at the beginning, zooming in and zooming out, what would I change? It’s like: what’s the pattern that’s repeating at every single scale?
When you zoom in really close, it’s the little pattern of, me and you and how we interact. And as you scale out into your team, and then into your ecosystem of teams, and then beyond your particular organization into the rest of government… If you’re repeating a crappy pattern at the small scale, it’s probably showing up at the big scale.
Really on-point. That was all the questions – awesome of you to take the time to chat! Any closing words?
I might just say: this notion of heroics, or, if that’s the label we’re putting on it? To me, I see so many people around me that are just, showing up, and continuing to show up every day and do all of these things.
If I can make Sean Boots’ list, I literally think anybody could. Don’t put on a cape… just keep doing what you can and take care of your mental health while you do that… and take care of each other, because we need good people to not burn out.