Sean Boots

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

Public service heroes: Ryan Hum

Ryan Hum is the Chief Information Officer and VP of Data at the Canada Energy Regulator (CER), a federal agency based in Calgary, Alberta. He’s an inspiration to so many of the best designers and design researchers I know in government, and he’s championed user research work at PCO, at IRCC, and in projects with a wide range of departments. At the CER, his team has done above-and-beyond work in data visualization, mapping, open data, and technology transformation. We spoke on July 7.

Sean: To jump into it, did you want to start with introductions? Tell us who you are and where you work these days!

A profile picture of Ryan Hum.

Ryan: Sure! My name is Ryan, I work for the Canada Energy Regulator, it’s a separate operating agency for the Government of Canada.

Nice. You’ve been at the Canada Energy Regulator for a few years now, what’s it like being a federal public servant outside of the NCR?

I think it’s really fantastic. You know, when you are in the public service, you have to apply for competitions, and most of the time – at least I do – I actually want to come in second. I never want to win; I want to come in second. So you could be on the list, you could choose your own adventure, and you can choose when you want to be promoted up.

And I applied for this job – not necessarily wanting it – and then when I got it, I had to make a choice. The CEO, the deputy head at the time, was the former clerk of the Alberta government. And you could tell that he was super seasoned, and I thought that I could learn a lot from that.

The other thing is – I think public servants, especially ones in Ottawa, need to get out of Ottawa. You don’t understand the rest of the country if you’re only reading about it in the newspapers.

That’s such a good point. That’s very cool.

Did you want to talk a bit about how – I think, in a really awesome way – you’ve had a kind of unconventional public service journey. Did you want to talk about, how you started and where you ended up?

Yeah! Did you LinkedIn me? Check out my weird, ADHD career path?

It’s amazing!

I’m a biologist and engineer by training, by my original background. And at the time when I was graduating, you had a couple choices. You could work for pharma, or you could work for oil & gas. And neither of those appealed to me, as a little queer twinky-doodle gay boy, right?

And so I looked at NGOs, I looked at a couple of different options, I was always interested in the biotech space. And I went to a conference that was in town; I was living in Toronto at the time. And I met my future boss there. We had a chat about GM labelling of food; he asked me a whole bunch of questions. And, I think it’s rare to have a science geek talk about social issues, and he hired me soon afterwards.

That’s awesome.

I’ll build on that a little bit – one of the really nice things about the public service is, there’s so many different jobs out there. I started off in biotech, then went into food and drugs regulation, working for the FDA equivalent in Canada.

As a policy geek at the time, your passport is what matters. You have to work in social departments, science departments, and to round out the experience, I had to work in an economic one for a while. Each one of those were quite different.

And after a certain amount of time in policy, I was like… I miss “doing” things!

I don’t mean to say that policy peeps don’t do things, but – the lag time by which you write a paper, or a memo, and turn it into policy or legislation – it takes a long time, right? And for a little while I thought: you know what? I’m going to go back to my roots. I miss the lab. I miss building something with my hands.

So I enrolled in a master’s of product design, thinking that I’m going to actually build things. And silly me, at the master’s level they just assume that you know how to build things. And instead we learned about ethnography, and user research, and where do ideas come from, and what’s the ideation process. That’s how I got into this whole user research, service design, digital etc. space.

I was kind of curious, when you mentioned that you did biotech and engineering, I was curious where the design angle comes in. Since you’ve done amazing work both at IRCC and at the CER on user research and testing.

I literally remember the first day of design school. My prof was talking about, you know, how users are supreme and you have to listen to them, and all that good stuff that you hear all about in design and HCD.

And I remember lifting up my hand and being that jerk in the class – as an engineer, you know, well, anyways…

My family is all engineers, so I can picture what you’re thinking!

I lifted up my hand and I said, “users are dumb”. Users break your products. Users let the best product die in the marketplace. Why should I listen to users?

It’s like, why does MySpace (at the time) win, when its technology is really bad, right? Like, those things happen.

Exactly! And my prof said, you silly boy, you’re mistaking the difference between a user knowing what they want, and a user being able to tell you what they want.

If you go down this path as a designer, your job is to be able to extract what they want, when they’re not able to tell you.

That’s super interesting. That’s a great perspective, for sure. And that’s where more, like, observational user research and things come in?

Absolutely. And when I started getting into this space, I was like: holy crap. We should be doing this for policy. We should be doing this for service. We should be doing this for a whole variety of different fields, because we don’t always know what the answers are, at all.

And so going back into this space [into the public service], that’s what I really tried to bring. That user research. And I don’t mean the theatre around, like, pretending to create personas and all that. I mean: actually talking to people.

And it’s not necessarily what they say, it’s sometimes what they don’t say.

That makes sense, for sure.

Is there a particular moment doing this that stood out? I was reading about the work you did at Pier SIX [IRCC’s Service Insights and Experimentation unit] doing usability testing in front office kind of counters, like when people are waiting in line-ups. What was that like?

Really cool. I wrote a little LinkedIn post about that, where the origins came from, so I won’t get into that too too much.

But IRCC is such a special place. Not only do you have front counter service, and now digital, but the people that work there don’t want to leave. Because they are passionate about helping people and making Canada better.

And so you get all these amazing opportunities to work with this extraordinary staff, who are user-inclined anyways. And just giving them the tools to be able to do that is just phenomenal.

One of my favourite moments was, creating design challenges at IRCC. Previous to working at IRCC, I was working at the Privy Council Office in what was the Central Innovation Hub, what ended up becoming the IIU.

And there, I was just prototyping different ways of doing user research. So, working with OEE on energy efficiency in homes; we did the first photo study probably ever in the Government of Canada. Working with Health Canada, we did a whole bunch of intercept interviews at random places to better understand how products are regulated and how consumer products can be safer.

By the time we got to Immigration as a project, I had prototyped a whole bunch of different ways of: lengths of time, how many people, etc. And I was able to be a little bit bolder, and I was seeing that – there’s a mixture of finding the right user research, and allowing for time to percolate into ideas. But also, you need to support that culture change afterwards so that the ideas actually turn into something.

So meeting with Michelle Latimer and Alanna MacDougall, we were really lucky to have a four-week design challenge. Week One was all user research, and in that process we probably interviewed 300-some people. Week Two, we suspended all the analysis until week two, and we did all our journey mapping, user analysis… trying to find insights. Week Three was all ideation, like, a full week on ideation, and Week Four was prototyping and crafting our storyline to tell senior management.

And we took fifteen people from across the department – everyone from call centre staff to policy analysts, comms, finance people, immigration officers, anyone who touched that file – and they were part of the process.

And it was just this amazing process, and you could see how it changed the way that they were developing policies or services. Our first one was so successful that – we presented on a Friday, and somehow Michelle Latimer got us onto the agenda on Monday morning to brief the minister and deputy minister. And that’s when I knew that we hit something really special.

That’s amazing, that’s very very cool.

Yeah. And you know, the classics, like – Ryan Androsoff was there, and Mithula Naik – and, yeah. It was just, a really really special time.

That’s really cool. Like, really cool work, and really cool people.

And you can see how – we ended up doing these design challenges, like, two major projects a year. And they were so popular; minister’s offices kept on saying: oh, you know, we’re having this problem, can you just do a design challenge about it?

Because they were seeing it as a tool to be creative. And the popularity of this, and bringing in user research to do creative problem solving, became so intense that we had to create a service. So that’s where the usability lab in the front office came about.

That’s awesome.

Going to the last question – and this could be for any department or any level of government – if there’s one thing you could change about the government or the public service, what would it be? Sort of like, if you could wave a magic wand to change one thing. It could be anything.

I thought about this for a little bit, and I don’t think they’re quick, but, I have two.

One is: when we hire new public servants, we should send them out the door at the very beginning. We should get them to meet stakeholders. We should get them to meet clients. Experience a service, before they actually join.

By doing that, I think we would create a culture where that’s permitted, and acceptable.

Whoa, yeah.

So that when they’re actually in their career later on, they could feel like they could do that.

That’s huge. I really like that.

And then the second one was: in one of my first EX town halls, Michael Wernick said, every one of you – this year – should make one risky hire. And I think about it – like, a lot of us hire people with our backgrounds. If you’re in policy, let’s hire someone with an MPA; I’m an economist, I know what I could do, therefore I’m going to hire people that think like me…

Asking all managers to do at least one risky hire, to bring in diversity and different perspectives; I think it would be really, really good.

That’s awesome. That’s a really cool strategy.

It’s slow-burn, but I think if you change too much, sometimes, there are unintended consequences, right?

Yeah. I like how both of these are “long game” investments in both the approach and the makeup of the public service, and how to make that better.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there’s some quick fixes around procurement and other things, but yeah.

So good. This has been awesome! Any last closing thoughts or closing words?

Is someone going to interview you?

Um, I don’t think so?! That’s the fun part about being on this side of the Teams call.

If I could recommend one thing: you’ve brought in some amazing, very senior people to be interviewed. I wonder whether or not bringing in some “newbies” to be interviewed would be really, really neat.

Almost putting in this, like, behavioural science commitment – do you know what I mean? Like: they say that this is what they actually want to do, and this is what they want to change in the public service.

As public servants.

And having that on the public record I think will make them think differently about their career.

Whoa. I like that. Okay. I might reach out later on that!

If you’re a new public servant (within the last few years) interested in being interviewed as part of this series, that would be amazing! Send me an email if you’re interested. Thanks for reading!