Sean Boots

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

Public service heroes: Nick Wise

Nick Wise is a long-time technology leader in the Canadian public service, most recently serving as the Chief Information Officer of Public Safety Canada. Previously as an executive director in the Office of the CIO, he was responsible for the GCtools team and for the small team that became the Canadian Digital Service. Nick and Ryan Androsoff brought me into the federal public service during those early days, beginning a fascinating journey to try to change government for the better. I’ll always be grateful for Nick’s insightful and humble style of leadership, and for his thoughtful stewardship of the teams he led. We chatted by email in October.

A profile picture of Nick Wise.

First, thanks for the opportunity to pause and reflect, Sean. Actually, I am poised to retire from the public service so the timing is great as I am at that confluence – looking back on years that have helped define a good deal of my contribution and identity, professionally, and looking ahead and contemplating where next to devote meaningful time and energy. As Monty Python would say, “and now for something completely different”!

How did you get started in the public service?

It has been a very rewarding career, I have to say, in all sorts of ways. I think the interest in working in some sort of public service capacity was always there – government or non. Devoting time and energy to a career that was more about service and contribution than it was about selling stuff always struck me as ultimately more satisfying and meaningful.

Interest in government and governing specifically grew throughout university which began at Queens in English Lit, proceeded with a BA in Middle Eastern Studies at McGill and concluded with a Masters in Poli Sci/Public Admin at Concordia. Concordia offered a paid internship option for credit which at the time was quite novel and so I got my start with the federal government as a student policy analyst.

What cemented my position and, in many ways, passion was the Management Trainee Program (MTP), now sadly defunct, which nurtured an important sense of pride and purpose and responsibility in the institution of the public service, and our contribution to it and through it to the country. I also liked the fact that it drew in a really diverse group of new recruits who brought different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives into the ranks. It made for an interesting group and a much more stimulating experience. The MTP was about recruitment, succession planning and management development, but also about shaking things up a bit by injecting the system with new ideas to test and challenge convention and orthodoxy.

That formative experience marked me in a way that has stayed with me over the years. Change and challenge is good, is necessary. Embracing the unfamiliar, trying new things, looking at things differently through new lenses.

Part of the appeal or at least realization stemmed also from my own experience adapting to new countries and contexts, as an immigrant to Canada, then living for a few months in a village in rural Pakistan as part of a youth exchange program, travelling a lot, then getting married young to a Québécoise and moving to Montreal and becoming a father while still a student. As a young man these experiences molded me in ways that were hard, but ultimately incredibly rewarding.

For me, much of the enjoyment and satisfaction I have had in my public service career can be traced, I think, to this impulse – embracing new realities, new perspectives, and challenging what is normal or expected. If a job started to become too routine or comfortable or if my contribution to it became too automatic, conditioned by accumulated experience or received wisdom, then it was time to change. Fortunately, the ‘Service’ always accommodated – there are so many interesting places to go and things to do and people to work with across the federal government!

Tell us about an inspiring or memorable moment in your public service career

As regards inspiring or memorable moments, there have been many, thankfully. I think the best times have come with the challenge of introducing and cultivating new initiatives without any real guidebook – working with a team that has conviction, creativity and talent, and figuring things out as we go.

The real motivation for becoming an Executive was essentially to obtain the trust and latitude and resources required to do more of this. Working with you, Sean, and other members of our happy band we helped advance thinking in government at “the centre” about service in the digital era. That was incredibly rewarding and memorable. Operating within TBS – from within the ‘house of rules and protocols’ – was challenging, but it made the impact and legacy all the more significant.

Before working on the Service Policy I had been hired into TBS to work on what we called ‘the web of rules’ initiative, cutting red tape, simplifying policy instruments and hunting down mythological, needless regulations and controls (whose origins likely began as a response to an exceptional issue, perhaps put in place by a risk-averse manager, and then became entrenched). It was a great place to develop a critical yet respectful and constructive perspective on how to influence public service culture from inside the central agency. It was a fertile and transformative and important opportunity, which was a good staging ground for subsequent work in the digital service space.

Ultimately though it was the energy and creativity and commitment of the team that was outstanding and led to great things. The legacy stands with the introduction of new tools and institutions to inform new thinking and behaviours, but it’s the informal moments shared with teammates on the journey that impress the most. Literally, in the case of our happy band travelling across the country gathering ideas and consulting to inform the establishment of the new Canadian Digital Service.

Informal moments and personal relationships count too, of course. Plying Mike Bracken (the ‘godfather’ of digital service in the UK) with beer at a bar on Preston Street in return for his perspective on GDS in the UK, which led to meetings in London alongside Yaprak Baltacioğlu was memorable and decisive in the establishment of the CDS in Canada. Meeting Alistair Croll and Phil Telio at a restaurant on Greene Avenue in Montreal to hatch the idea of what has become FWD50 as well. The name derives from conversations with the team brainstorming about how to bring non-technical policy folks to a conference on digital transformation, by imagining what we wanted Canada to look like in 50 years and then mixing things up, with technology experts and policy experts looking at solving a broad range of issues together.

These moments were important and defining in many ways, but decisive because of the people involved – leading, exchanging, formulating, figuring things out.

If there was one thing you could change about the public service, what would it be?

These experiences that we shared underline for me what is ultimately the most important thing in government, which is to bring different people together, motivate them, trust them, protect them if need be, create an enabling environment and then get out of the way.

This has been reinforced during my time at the Department of Public Safety as CIO. Part of my responsibilities at TBS included community development for CIOs across government, but after a while, I thought, to really understand the challenges they face in the era of digital service, I should actually try and do what they do.

When the opportunity arose, I took it, recognizing that my experience and credibility were going to be stretched to the limit. However, we had been preaching the need to mix things up, to cross-pollinate, to break the leadership silos between the warriors of policy and programs and the druids of tech, so I thought I would give it a go.

It was hard, but as mentioned earlier seeing the world through the lens of a CIO was a revelation. The experience at Public Safety has been probably the most challenging and ultimately the most rewarding of all. This is in part due to my personal growth in that role, and in part because of the strides we have taken to advance digital transformation at that complicated department. Most of all it was because of the culture created: bridging in new, diverse talent and forging collaboration with seasoned techs, providing opportunities to bring in new ideas, creating an environment where the dynamic and complex nature of technological transformation is humanized and made more real and responsive to the needs of policy and program colleagues, introducing a Client Experience Officer position to channel the perspectives of those we serve and support into the digital agenda.

This work is about blurring the edges and breaking silos and exploiting the friction that occurs to question traditional ways of working and serving. It’s about seeing beyond boxes and org charts and testing new perspectives. My young admin was provided an opportunity a year after being bridged in to switch out and serve as a junior IT employee based on her interests and aptitude, if not her formal qualifications. She is now a rock star in our IT desktop enablement team, and personifies the spirit I am talking about.

It comes at a cost sometimes, because change and transformation are hard, and frustration can result. But if you are open and authentic and enthusiastic, lots can be accomplished. As such, it’s not that I would change things in the public service, but I would push for more promotion of environments that enable greater collaboration and cross-training and shared experience – to break down silos, challenge convention, better understand potential, to demystify functional realms and to promote empathy.

This can be across and within organizations, occupational categories, up and down hierarchical structures. Understanding, discovering and learning together more holistically is key, crucially at a time when, as I bow out, the world of work in the public service and indeed the world it serves is undergoing such dramatic shifts and will require certain conventions and orthodoxies to be challenged and re-conceived.