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Thursday, 26 March 2015

From #PhDToGov: Alex Ryan's Story

Alex Ryan, Senior Systems Design Advisor, Government of Alberta

Brief Bio

My PhD in Applied Mathematics advanced a Multidisciplinary Approach to Complex Systems Design. I completed my PhD while working full-time with the Defence Science and Technology Organisation as a federal public servant in Adelaide, Australia. In my nine years with DSTO, I led long range research on complex adaptive systems, supported Army operations in Afghanistan, contributed to capstone Army doctrine, and informed large acquisition decisions through research, modeling and analysis. Following this, I worked for Booz Allen Hamilton in Leavenworth, US for five years. As a consultant, I taught at the graduate level at the School of Advanced Military Studies and worked with Strategic Command, Special Operations Command, Cyber Command, and the Joint Staff in applying systems thinking and design to global strategic challenges. In 2014 I moved to Edmonton to found and lead Alberta CoLab, a cross-ministry systemic design and strategic foresight lab within the Government of Alberta.

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

I was already working full-time as a public servant when I began my PhD. I saw my PhD as a pathway to a different quality of work and a different kind of career progression. I was motivated to progress but had little interest in project or people management. The PhD was a way to advance within an applied scientific organization without taking on management responsibility. I also expected that a PhD would open up opportunities to work internationally, and this has certainly been borne out.

Why did you choose an alternative-academic career path?

I was already on an established career path when I started my PhD. While I have always been attracted to theory and research, and have been surprised by how much I enjoy teaching, these have always been deeply grounded in application for me. I have found it easier to connect theory and practice by operating within organizations that are immersed in real world challenges.  

What do you do now?

I convene diverse and conflicting groups of stakeholders around the most complex and ambiguous challenges facing the Government of Alberta and guide them through a systemic design process to arrive at robust and innovative options for systems change. This is a brand new capability for the Government of Alberta, and unique in the Canadian public service. In the last year, our team led 62 workshops across 38 projects, with 14 different ministries in the lead. This resulted in new organizations, frameworks, strategies, and services for Albertans. My PhD in complex systems design provides me with a depth of knowledge that enables agility during dynamic group co-design processes. It also provides a degree of assurance to participants to trust in a process that is often uncomfortable and counter-intuitive. Even though there is no mathematics in my work, I see my theoretical training as providing me with a capacity for abstract thought that is extremely useful when moving between problem sets as diverse as military strategy, resource management, climate change, early childhood development, and health system transformation.   

What’s the most challenging part about a pracademic career?

Organizational incentive mechanisms, structures and supports are designed to encourage specialization. Whether you choose to operate on the academic or the practice side of this division of labour, there is a cost you will pay for operating in the interstitial space. As an academic, applied case studies are less valued than basic research. As a practitioner, you will be seen as over-complicating things, asking inconvenient questions, and wasting time on intellectual curiosities. I think the cost is worth it, because I believe the most interesting problems are precisely in this interstice.

Speaking from my experience operating on the practical side of the divide, the way to overcome this challenge is to be creative in how you maintain the space for reading, researching and writing. In my first job, starting my PhD was the way to create this space. In my jobs with the Government of Alberta and Booz Allen Hamilton, I have worked at 80-90% full time to give myself a “Google Day” for personal research projects. Without this continual research time, I think the deep knowledge I gained through my PhD would have eroded, rather than expanded.

What most surprises you about your job?

How intelligent and curious the public servants I work with are. It has been my experience across three countries and military and civilian service that the stereotypes are profoundly misleading.
What advice or thoughts do you have for graduate students and post-doc students in transition now?
Your PhD will get you noticed, but don’t expect it to give you an edge in climbing the ladder, because the ladder has not been designed with you in mind. Instead, use your PhD to take you laterally across many organizations to add breadth of experience to your depth of knowledge. I doubt the motivation for your PhD was career advancement, so don’t get caught up chasing the standard career progression model. Think deeply about where you want to go and then cut your own path to get there.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

From #PhDToGov: Navigating Alt-Ac Careers in the Public Service

The Edmonton Regional Group of the Institute of Public Administration Canada (IPAC) is committed to developing a stronger “pracademic” culture in Canada, by building a network of practitioners and academics to discuss the most challenging issues facing the public service. We are also committed to building bridges across the traditional divide between the scholarly and public service communities.

As part of this commitment, we are introducing a new component to the IPAC Impact blog.  Entitled #PhDtoGov, this series highlights the unique and varied career paths of “pracademics” – those whose educational and work experiences span the divide between the ivory tower and government.  This format is based on the highly popular “From PhD to Life” blog found on the University Affairs website, only with a specific focus on public service careers.

In particular, we’re asking pracademics to answer questions like:

  • What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?
  • What was your first post-PhD job?
  • Why did you choose an alternative-academic (alt-ac) career path?
  • What do you do now?
  • What’s the most challenging part about a pracademic career?
  • What most surprises you about your job?
  • What advice or thoughts do you have for graduate students and post-doc students in transition now?

If you’re an undergraduate or graduate student examining career options, a post-doc seeking a new career path, or an academic looking for a change in careers, stay tuned to this blog (and follow us on Twitter, @ipacimpact).

If you’ve got a career story to tell, let us know!  We’d be happy to post your interview here on the IPAC Impact blog.

Monday, 23 March 2015

How do we boost youth turnout in Canada?

by Ilona Doherty

Three things to know about young Canadians and voting:

1.  In the 2011 Federal Election only 38.8% of Canadians aged 18-24 voted, continuing a long-term downward trend in Canada and throughout most of the western world of young people not opting into the democratic process. 
2.  Voting – or not voting – is a habit. If a young person doesn’t vote in the first two elections when they are eligible, they are less likely to vote throughout the rest of their lives. 
3.  If we don’t address this issue, in a generation we will have a country where the majority of citizens don’t vote. To begin tackling this problem, first we need to dispel a few myths about young people. 

Three myths about young Canadians and voting:

Myth #1:  Young people are left leaning in how they vote. 

Reality:  In the US “for most of the past four decades there was little difference in the voting preferences of younger and older Americans” a Pew Research Centre study concluded. Research clearly shows us again and again that young people tend to vote like their parents. All political parties should consider young people as a potential voting base.

Myth #2:  Young people are more cynical about politics than their elders.

Reality:  When it comes to being cynical about politics young people and their parents don’t agree.  Research tells us that young people are actually more optimistic than their elders. We don’t need to convince young people that voting is important, we just need to support them in getting out to the polls.

Myth #3:  Social media is the solution to this problem.

Reality:  Asking a young person to vote in person increases the likelihood that they will vote by 10% and is by far the most effective method.  Reversing a long-term trend isn’t easy, but organizations like Apathy is Boring will be working hard in 2015 and beyond to ensure that the next generation of Canadians becomes a generation of active citizens.

For more on this issue, attend a presentation by Ilona Dougherty, President & Co-Founder of Apathy is Boring, brought to you by the Peter Lougheed Leadership College in conjunction with the University of Alberta Students’ Union.

Monday, March 23, 2015
4:30 – 5:30 PM
1-190 Edmonton Clinic Health Academy
University of Alberta Campus

As seating is limited, advanced registration is recommended:

A lifelong social & public policy innovator, Ilona Dougherty’s diverse experiences range from being a Canadian delegate to a United Nations conference at 17 years old to working with youth in a small community above the Arctic Circle. In January 2004, Ilona co-founded Apathy is Boring (, a national non-partisan charitable organization that uses art and technology to educate youth about democracy and encourages them to vote. Ilona is a regular commentator on CTV News Channel and, and speaks to audiences internationally about redefining intergenerational relationships, changing the way we think about young people, and encouraging active citizenship. 

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

How do the public and third sectors intersect?

by Peter R. Elson

Three things to know about Third Sector Relations:

1.   Non-profits have been around for a long time and they aren't going away.
The first non-profits in Canada were established in the early 1800s by the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec and by others in Maritime port cities to deal with the poor and impoverished that were "exported" from England after the Poor Law Amendment in 1832 that first distinguished between "deserving" and "non deserving" poor.  Non-profits provided social supports long before governments felt any obligation to intercede.  

2.   Non-profits emerge to address social market forces.
In Nordic Countries that have a healthy and sustainable social and educational support system, non-profit organizations focus on the expressive dimension of life – sport, culture, religion, recreation.  In Canada, more than 85% of non-profits are focused on an instrumental or service role in society. Many continue a role started in the 1800s, but all strive to provide quasi public goods and services left unattended or underfunded by governments.

3.   Governments leverage non-profit social capital.
It has been well established that non-profits, on average, receive 85% percent of the full cost of delivering a good or service for government. Not only are profits rarely allowed, but the additional 15% gap is filled with time-consuming fundraising efforts and/or skilled and underpaid workers with few if any benefits.
Three Myths about Third Sector Government Relations:

Myth #1: Non-profits are risk adverse.

Reality:  When the risk that non-profits assume involves becoming a cog in a program rather than a contributor to community well-being; when services are underfunded; and when contract or grants operate on a year-to-year basis, the risk assessment by the non-profit is very high indeed. 

Myth #2: Non-profits just need money.

Reality:  Non-profits may talk about needing money, but what they really need is a) a meaningful and productive funder-fundee relationship; b) a relationship that is consistent, reliable and based on shared outcomes; and c) funding that provides a living wage for all.

Myth #3 Non-profits are disorganized.

Reality:  Non-profits are as diverse as small businesses and while herding cats may be an apt analogy, groups like the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (CCVO) and the emergent Saskatchewan Network of Non-profit Organizations (SNNO) are making strides to present a more collective voice for their respective non-profit sectors. Meanwhile, there are umbrella organizations in abundance that represent the collective voice of program specific priorities, whether sport or social services.   

Elson, Peter R. (2011). High Ideals and Noble Intentions: Voluntary Sector-Government Relations in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Elson, Peter R. (2014). Third Wave, This Third wave, third sector: A comparative provincial analysis of the governance of third sector relations, Canadian Public Administration Vol 57 (4), pp 527-547.

Peter R. Elson PhD is Adjunct Assistant Professor, School of Public Administration, University of Victoria and Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Community Prosperity, Mount Royal University.
His research focuses on social enterprise, nonprofit-government relations, and Canadian grant making foundations. He is editor of the Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research and editor of a forthcoming IPAC Series in Management and Governance book, Funding Policies and the Nonprofit Sector in Western Canada: Evolving relationships in a changing environment