Deepika Grover is a strategist at Finance Canada, a member of the Free Agents program, and a long-time practitioner and advocate for equity, inclusion and anti-racism work in the federal public service. She’s previously worked at the Public Health Agency of Canada, Canadian Heritage, Global Affairs Canada, and the Privy Council Office. Deepika has played a role in many of the public service’s innovation programs over the years. And if you’ve heard of Tiger Teams, you can thank Deepika for this as well. We’ve been friends on social media for many years and I’m always grateful for her thoughtful and candid insights on how to make the public service better. We chatted by email in February, followed up by virtual convos in April and May.
How did you get started in the public service?
Early in my undergraduate in Ottawa, I found work through a temp agency. One assignment was as an administrative assistant at the Pest Management Regulatory Agency. It was a really short stint, though. I didn’t really get a strong flavour for government work per se. I did get a strong sense of the people who served as public servants. They expressed a lot of curiosity and interest in the world around them. I liked the daily news clippings, as well as the resource library with all the books about leadership and strategy. I’m a big nerd, and I could see that these folks were real nerds too.
Later in my undergraduate, I learned from friends about a contract position in a government department, as part of the news clippings team. They always had trouble finding folks because the work shift was from 5 to 9am and, quite frankly, the manager was a real jerk (or as I like to think, ‘not a morning person’). I loved newspapers, and I’ve always been an early morning person. I was all in! We were a team of three people, plus the manager.
The job was to go through a selection of French-language and English-language Canadian and key international daily and weekly journals, looking for content that either mentioned the Department or would be of interest to the Department’s branches. We’d each choose a bunch of papers and go through them page by page. When we found articles of interest, we’d use rulers (!!) to cut the articles out. There was lots of repetition of stories across publications, so as a team we’d go through a collaborative sorting process, creating a thick, book-like package with sections. We’d take the packet to a small photocopier and create a primary copy of the day’s booklet, plus two additional copies. Each team member would take one copy and go to these massive photocopiers, and we’d produce the required number we needed for our ‘delivery routes’ through the department.
My teammates were amazing, I learned a lot about teamwork (we had a scrum every morning and there was a quality assurance component, too, as it wasn’t unusual for an article to get missed here and there); iteration; team process and group dynamics; as well as how to deal with a difficult manager. And there was something really satisfying about being part of an invisible support system for all the good work that public servants would undertake that day.
I hadn’t started thinking analytically about systems yet. That would start later in my graduate work, during field research. But I had already started thinking about how producing the news clippings allowed me to be part of something bigger than myself. Plus, I really loved being done with a shift of work early enough that it didn’t interfere with my studies, socializing with friends, or my other part-time gigs.
Tell us about an inspiring (or memorable) moment in your public service career.
Working in the public service comes with diverse and weighty challenges. Part of my own spiritual values encourages me to stay healthy in the face of challenges by balancing two things: (1) being eyes.wide.open, and (2) staying connected to daily inspiration, small moments of authentic joy and everyday awe. (I share this latter element cautiously because I really don’t want it to get mistaken for toxic positivity.)
A lot of my inspiration comes via people, and am really fortunate to have a close network of peers and colleagues. These folks add sparkle to my day just by being who they are and how they are in the world. They also make me feel seen, whether it’s a good day or, more rarely, a bad one.
I’ll share a moment that really stands out for me. I was co-lead on a digital innovation project. I provided policy innovation expertise, while my co-conspirator brought fabulous, forward-thinking IT expertise to the table. We are both strong proponents of systems change, open-policy making, and open government. We were excited to work with each other, and especially excited about the project. We were on-boarding a new AI technology for use in government public engagement, ensuring that the platform complied with GC requirements, like data, privacy, accessibility, official languages, etc. A gargantuan task at the best of times, and we were working on very tight timelines.
We had assembled, at one weekly table, all the functional specialists required to help us rapidly move the project forward. The rate of attendance, participation, and collaboration was high. Friction was fairly low. Most people were happy, and so was I.
During the weekly meetings, though, I noticed that my co-lead would occasionally interrupt the conversation in specific ways. Particularly, he would ensure that men weren’t talking over women (not that there were many of us at the table) and that people’s contributions were acknowledged. He interrupted because I would sometimes say something and get no response from colleagues, only to have a man repeat the exact same thought 10 minutes later and spark lots of responses and affirmation. It’s not that I didn’t notice, or that it didn’t irritate me. I did. It did. But I love collaboration, there were many other things competing for my attention, and I can sometimes be so in the moment that I tend not to let myself get distracted by friction. But this means I also didn’t really see the pattern.
My co-lead’s actions changed that. Without fail, anytime I was interrupted he would graciously and firmly re-assert space for me, and he also always corrected attributions: “Thanks for raising that, Bill. I think Deepika mentioned it a few minutes ago and also shared…” I started to note how often it was happening, and started to think about how I, myself, could practice making similar space for others on different working groups and other teams.
My co-lead was never pointed or weird about it, just matter of fact. I asked him about it once and realized he was barely even aware that he was doing it. For him it was simply a matter of fairness. Perhaps he is inclined that way… and it is natural to him. There are a few rare humans around who are just like that; their hard-wiring is fair and it informs their way of being every single day. More likely, he learned practices that contribute to an orientation to equity. Either way, it is inspiring and helped me build a stronger equity practice.
You often hear the inquiry “many folks can talk the talk, but can they walk the talk?”. Underpinning this is the difference between espoused values and enacted values. My co-conspirator lived his values. In doing so, he showed me that it really is just that simple to use one’s unearned privilege to level a playing field and create an equitable outcome.
He also reminded me of the power of positive micro-actions, or what adrienne marie brown calls fractals, which encompass the interactions between two people or small groups of people. If you can contribute to creating equity at the scale of a dyad (two people), you can imagine how it can scale upwards and outwards.
There’s a lot to unpack in that memory, and some of it is less inspiring. At the same time, my colleague really respected and appreciated working with me. He valued me as a leader. He made me aware of something that is likely happening during the thousands upon thousands of GC discussions that take place on a daily basis. I myself am part of many discussions each week. And drawing from his inspiration, I am more attentive to the gender and racial dynamics around meeting tables, and, alongside my more non-nonsense persona, I also have some very easy, gracious ways of interrupting patterned ways of being and working with others. It might lead to a greater sense of belonging, more social cohesion, and more equity.
If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about government/the public service, what would it be?
I think we understand this system – the government, the public service – from where we are in it, what we do in it, and what the consequences are of what we do. At this point in my career (I’m at the 15th year mark), here’s what I know: everytime I push against the system, the system reveals something new about itself. So, in the past, when I’ve asked myself this question, the answers have included:
Risk – Senior people have often said to me, “Canadians would never tolerate that risk.” I’ve often responded “how do we know what risks Canadians will or won’t tolerate? Have we asked them? Have we, as a society, had a collective conversation about risk?” It has always felt to me that this would be a good idea, especially as our social problems reveal themselves to be more and more complex.
The paradox of change and hierarchy – I suspect that the way we approach change as something that is managed and planned through working groups and cascading plans and templates might be getting in the way of actual change. Change seems like it’s a fairly every day human experience. Why is it so consistently painful in the public sector? I’ve noticed patterns. There’s the obvious: persistent conflation of incremental and transformative change. But, also, other patterns. Figuring out what needs to change and reaching consensus on this can be hard. At the same time, even when there is upfront agreement that specific change is required, this somehow gets forgotten when, in a project, new options are finally on the table. Attachment to the status quo is very strong and it fairly persistently manages to hijack critical thinking, including openness to new ideas and ways of doing things. Then we end up with rigid, change-resistant structures and a few people delegated to guide template-driven ‘change’ that barely yields any new or different results, much less desired ones. There’s a lot going on in this set of system dynamics… so, it would have to be a very strong magic wand that effectively unblocks the change pipeline.
I have noticed a contradiction in the nexus of change resistance that has been striking. It’s in relation to hierarchy. Even when calls for change come from the very top of an organization and are supported by its grassroots, actual change can be thwarted by activated middle layers. It’s a paradox, in an otherwise arch hierarchy, that the middle layers are often the very enforcers of said hierarchy when it comes to their power over, and also the resisters of change desired or mandated by the senior officials to whom the middle layers report.
This has always puzzled me in my public sector innovation work. There I could see some of the emotions at play, but now as I watch organizations struggle with hugely complex issues like COVID, legacies of structural racism in our workplaces and in society writ large, and complex consequences of climate change I see it more clearly: we don’t take seriously the emotions connected to change, such as fear, but also – and more profoundly – grief. Just as we don’t take seriously the structural power invested in the status quo.
Traditions – I also pondere about those structural elements that hold things fixed in place, from the Westminster Model to meritocracy to impartiality to neutrality to objectivity, etc. and the many rules that codify these elements into our institutional realities. It’s past time to question everything. It’s not only about asking “show me the rule” but also about questioning the provenance of actual rules. We have a lot of defaults that are past their best by date. At best, they pose barriers to real progress. At worst, they have and continue to cause harm, and they are based on assumptions that arguably may have once been tenable, but likely would not bear weight under critical, multi-perspective scrutiny.
I always understood that “doing things because that’s what we’ve always done” was problematic, but it’s taken me a few more beats to truly understand that this way of being, which is like oxygen in government organizations, is actually the very opposite of due diligence and critical thinking. How might we make questioning everything a rooted practice in government?
I could go on… But for me, it’s been valuable to connect with more systems thinkers and systems change agents, and build practices based on what I learn alongside them. If challenging the system is what’s necessary so that the system might reveal more of itself to us, finding ways to share that social intelligence may be the closest we get to a magic wand.
But if I did have an actual magic wand, I would no doubt use my one swish of a magic wand to put magic wands in the hands of every equity-denied federal public servant and the wands would work in the following way. A wand swish would be credited to a person’s wand for the following: every act of solidarity they undertake, every time they express courage, and for every time they experience harm. The latter happens so often that the number of wand swishes would accrue rapidly. And the wand holders could use their accrued wand swishes to achieve their desired level of work potential without the imposition of stark structural barriers. Those magic wands can serve as a proxy for unearned social privilege experienced in the public service by cis-gendered, heteronormative, able-bodied folks that are racialized as White, while also recognizing the innate excellence and agency of public servants who belong to groups that have historically been denied equity, and who are, in an on-going way, affected by the continued consequences of such unequal historical legacies.