Apolitical Crash Course in Network-Building for Public Servants

The title slide from our crash course

On Thursday 17 October, myself and Nour delivered a crash course for Apolitical about finding your people and building communities within government.

We did this after Miki Stricker-Talbot from the City of Edmonton and UNICORNS network in Canada suggested that we join up to deliver something and share what we’ve learned from being a part of the One Team Gov community.

Obviously it was an amazing opportunity to spread the word about what both communities are doing, and so we jumped at it.

We built out these slides through talking to one another and learning about our similarities and differences. I hope they add up to some useful lessons that others can take away and use to think about how we make connections and build communities.

The lessons we presented were:

  1. Carry the spark
  2. Create space
  3. Set the tone
  4. Grow with the energy
  5. Give the power away
  6. Find your people
  7. Change from within starts from within

Our slides are below but they don’t mean much without the speakers notes so I’m going to replicate them here in blog form for you.

We started the presentation with a Land Acknowledgement from Miki:

As we are gathered in this moment in this virtual place, we are all also sitting within physical spaces and places throughout the world. The physical space and place I am sitting within today, this land, is known as Edmonton, in Alberta, Canada.

Here in Canada, as part of our country’s path to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, it has become common practice during public gatherings to acknowledge the original peoples and stewards of our land. The many First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples whose footsteps have marked these lands for centuries. And so I want to acknowledge, recognize, and appreciate that this land I am sitting upon as a settler is part of Treaty 6 territory. Treaty 6 is the 6th of 7 numbered treaties that were signed by the Canadian Crown and various First Nations between 1871 and 1877. This part of Treaty 6 territory on which the city known as Edmonton sits is a traditional meeting ground, gathering place, and travelling route to the Cree, Saulteaux, Blackfooot, Metis, Dene and Nakota Sioux.

And so, although this is my land acknowledgement as a part of my land acknowledgement today, I would like to invite you to make it OUR land acknowledgement. And so in this moment, I invite each of you to consider who were the people who were the original stewards of the land you are currently sitting upon. Who walked these lands before you? How is your government serving them today? How are you, as a public servant, serving them today?

Last year, in the spirit of reconciliation, a Cree teaching was shared with me and I’d like to share it with you today: the longest journey we will ever take is from our head to our hearts. And so I invite each of you today, and tomorrow, and the days to come, to consider how you might, as public servants and as individuals, embark on that longest journey.

And with that, let us begin.

Lesson 1

Lesson 1: Carry the spark

UNICORNS: In 2017, our local newspaper ran an investigative series exploring discrimination, bullying and harassment at the City of Edmonton. 1 in 5 city employees had reported experiencing harassment at work, and it was widely understood that those were under-reported numbers.

The organization did not have a safe way for employees to report discrimination or harassment, the wrong behaviour was systemically being rewarded, and overall, our work environment was, to be frank, toxic. In the years that passed since the problem blew up in the media, our organization has done a lot of great work towards addressing systemic issues. We now have a safe reporting system. There are new leadership competencies. And a lot of the problematic individuals have left. However, back in 2016, we were simply living with the problem.

In 2016 I had a different position in the organization than I do now and in that role, on our small team of 3, we had experienced much of the aforementioned bullying and harassment. But as a team we were able to support and uplift each other. We even set up a role for one of us to be the designated optimist each day to help keep us afloat. But I noticed that others in the organization were not so lucky. I saw a pattern of brilliant, boundary pushing innovators — or unicorns — reach their breaking point with the toxic culture and decide to leave the organization. One day, while we were lamenting the loss of another brilliant peer, my colleague Barb Ursuliak and I joked that our fellow unicorns would hit the wall with their horn because they were so far out in front. At that point, I asked Barb a simple question: “what do we need to be successful in this organization?”

Her response, though made in jest, was profound.

*Half joking* “What we need is a support group.” Barb Ursuliak, circa June 2016

Barb and I began to wonder what it might look like to have an informal peer support network within the City. And much like top Olympians helping each other when they fall (pictured here are middle distance runners Abbey D’Agostino of the US and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand at the 2016 Olympics), how might innovators at the City support each other when they hit systemic walls?

How might we provide them with the emotional support, the psychological safety, and the hands-on help they needed to endure in this organization? And so that was the spark of our idea.

One Team Gov: One Team Gov came from two civil servants coming together to agree that digital and policy should be inherently linked, to rail against silos within government, and to think of ideas of how to make that change. Both had a focus on building empathy , stating an explicit aim to build empathy driven services for the public.

One Team Gov started out from a very simple need to talk to other people to share ideas, knowledge, parts of ourselves that we hadn’t before. It’s a mindset, not a structure.

Kit took that spark, wrote a blog post, gathered some like minded people around and organised an event — over 180 turned up and a community started forming.

Lesson 2

Lesson 2: Create space

This is about creating space. People need the space and permission to have conversations, build connections and do work that they believe has value.

One Team Gov: Early on, our colleague James took the simple but radical act of booking the same meeting room in the same place at the same time every Wednesday for a full year.

This was a clear statement of intent. Just booking that room gave people the opportunity to come together and the permission to talk about something that was important to them.

A picture of James at One Team Gov breakfast in Westminster

Leadership is about creating safe spaces for people to have conversations that open up possibilities, where people feel able to have the conversations they want to have (to create the change they want to see).

These breakfasts were integral to the movement growing, and differed depending on who was in the room week on week. Sometimes we would hold lean coffee style discussions, sometimes it would be like a peer support group, other times we would dedicate the full hour to helping someone with a particular thing, like how to write a strategy paper, or we would use the time to think about events that we wanted to deliver.

The events we organise follow this simple premise, make the space for people to come together around an issue that is important to them, give them permission and enable them to speak through facilitation. The events we put on are diverse because people who are part of the movement are diverse. We go where the heat is.

UNICORNS: The day after Barb said that we needed a support group, we sent out a calendar invitation to 14 people in the organization we knew were change makers for the inaugural gathering of the:

United Network of Innovative Change-agents Organizing to Realize New Strategies (UNICORNS)

The people we invited came from a variety of areas across the organization, many of them doing very different work from each other. But there were 3 characteristics we thought they all shared:

  1. trying to change the world
  2. working to make Edmonton a safer and more vibrant place
  3. creating strategic initiatives to challenge the status quo

We sent the invitation to join us for a lunch-hour conversation, and offered to provide some treats. We also encouraged them to forward the invitation to other unicorns they knew. Barb and I realized pretty quickly we were on to something because the invitation list doubled to 29 people by the end of the day.

Lesson 3

Lesson 3: Set the tone

UNICORNS: Within the unicorns setting, establishing, building, and maintaining trust as well as a psychologically safe space has been a priority for us.

And so at the beginning of each gathering, we agree to our agreements. They shift slightly each time, depending on who is in the room and what they need in the moment. These are our most recent ones. I do want to point out one in particular that was added this past summer: let’s leave our titles at the door. This one has been really remarkable for its impact on power dynamics in the room. By leaving our formal hierarchical roles behind, the front line staff in the room feel comfortable being open and honest with the senior-most leaders. And vice-versa. It’s been a beautiful thing to witness.

The agreements used at UNICORNS meetings

One Team Gov: We have a set of principles that we use as a community. The principles give something for people to come together around. It gives an immediate affinity, and it also gives a framework for how to work in an organisation that can often feel immovable, too large and make you feel too small.

Sam: These principles gave voice to something I had been struggling to articulate myself. Being new to the civil service I found some of the processes and bureaucracy impossible to understand, but this helped me to define the things that I felt were important and to develop a structure for how to achieve within those boundaries.

Lesson 4

Lesson 4: Grow with the energy

UNICORNS: In our conversations, we realized that for both UNICORNS and One Team Gov, neither of us had an intentional plan for growth. We went where the energy was or as One Team Gov says, where the heat was.

When we talk about scaling, I really like this model from the Canadian design researchers InWithForward who have articulated that beyond the traditional ways that we think about scaling — scaling up, scaling out and scaling deep, there are two additional ways to scale which is scaling scree through impacting norms and expectations, as well as scaling initial conditions through impacting infrastructure.

The scaling diagram

In Edmonton, from the birth of the Unicorns in 2016 until last December, our energy had been directed towards scaling deep. We wanted to work with public servants within the City of Edmonton to address cultural needs. And to help heal some of the deep wounds that innovators endured.

It wasn’t until I wrote a couple of blog posts about the Unicorns that I had even considered the possibility of scaling out. And so I want to credit Naomi Mahaffey with Alberta Social Innovation Connect for inviting me to write the first blog post about the unicorns because she saw the potential where I didn’t.

Miki’s Spectrum for Government innovation diagram

I’m beginning to understand that innovation in government exists on a spectrum from evolutionary to revolutionary to multi-luminary.

Where evolutionary can be thought of as “let’s do something to make it better than it is now”, revolutionary can be thought of as “let’s change the system”, and meta-luminary can be understood as “let’s find the balanced system of interlocking forces”

But, this is the important part… … this spectrum exists in the eye of the beholder and is dependent on their particular context

So for me, who lives and breathes the world of social innovation, I would currently define evolutionary by things like LEAN methodologies and continuous improvement. I would define revolutionary by things like using artificial intelligence or decolonial practices, and I would define meta-luminary by things like unlearning methodologies or imagining protopian futures.

But other folks would define evolution, revolution, and meta-luminary very differently. In fact I used to. When I first started at the City of Edmonton, I wanted to make a change to a specific form. It took a year for me to be able to do so. And when I was successful, I felt like I had completed a revolutionary act. By changing a form. But it was! And so I’m beginning to think that in order to really foster change within government, we need public servants to go to that place regardless of how tame or, how radical that act looks to others.

And so within the UNICORNS context, we’ve defined “innovation” very broadly so that we can support people wherever they are on their personal innovation journey. Because people who are acting from a place of fear are often the ones who need the most support.

And so most importantly for our deep scaling of the UNICORNS model, we’ve understood that if someone believes they are doing something innovative in government, then they are. And therefore, they are a UNICORN.

We flew under the radar intentionally for a very long time because within the culture we were in at the time, even meeting felt like a radical act.

But over time, people healed. And then the fun really began. In recent months we’ve had wonderful conversations about leadership, about the notion of culture eating strategy for breakfast, and about disruption. And we’ve seen the sharing and cross-pollination of ideas, tools, and methodologies between participants and across the organization. We’ve seen more and more senior leaders join us as they have embraced their own inner revolutionaries. And we’ve seen others both inside and outside the organization be inspired by our acts of bravery so that they too can be brave.

The scaling diagram depicting One Team Gov scaling as Out and Scree scaling

One Team Gov: The movement grew through micro actions. We wanted to be a community of action, but to reduce the barriers to entry those actions needed to be small, like wearing a lanyard, putting a sticker on your laptop, the idea is that these act as a first step, and change comes from many small steps. Quickly having a lanyard can turn into supporting the delivery of an event, writing a blog post, or including One Team Gov principles in a job advertisement.

I’m most comfortable talking about what we do as being a network, a community and a movement simultaneously.

A network diagram used in the course showing interactions around One Team Gov on Twitter.

We are a network, based on a set of loose ties or bonds all gathered around the principles. It’s not possible to know everyone, especially as we have grown and become dispersed.

The picture is a network map using twitter that was built by our friends at Satori lab in 2018. It shows how clusters of groups of people formed around the One Team Gov twitter account in the run up to the Global unconference in July 2018. You can see all of these connections (that’s what I wold call a network) but then a lot of smaller constellations where bonds are tighter, maybe based on a shared interest or on geography. I would call these smaller clusters communities.

These communities are individually empowered to run events locally, to meet and talk about things that interest them. These will be different, but will lead to lots of small and localised solutions, building on these small solutions by working in the open is what we mean by those “small steps” to change.

Going where the heat is, going where the energy is, this is where communities turn into movements. For example One Green Gov, an event we have next year has come out of discussions that have been growing among different communities in the network for a while, including with public servants in Canada and at breakfast meetings in the UK, Norway and Finland.

Then scree scaling: Through working in the open and sharing discussion topics, regular one team gov meetups are legitimising the subjects of conversations and discussions as well as actions for change. There are more than 16 regular meetups that happen around the world.

We live our values of working in the open. We publish everything here on our Medium page. We don’t sugar coat things, we publish feedback, don’t shy away from important conversations.

We publish what we are thinking in the run up to events, sharing often and early. Then we share after the event to show what we’ve learned, this means we can help others to organise events, learn about what they can expect from us and enable the community to hold us to account, and spark more conversations.

A photograph taken at One Team Gov Wellbeing Camp

We want others to be able to take anything we are doing and find a way to replicate it, or at least to know who to speak to about it. The publication is not a slick marketing tool, it’s a resource.

That scree scaling legitimises certain subjects, such as OTG Wellbeing Camp. It made it acceptable and gave people permission to think about their mental health and wellbeing.

Lesson 5: Our title slide for this lesson shows a swan above and under the water

Lesson 5: Give the power away

One Team Gov: When One Team Gov launched the Global event in 2018 we brought together over 700 people from around the world. In the run up to that we had a few comments from people that

“One Team Gov has come from nowhere!”

It might look that way to others, like this organic thing has come out of nowhere, but there have been people working hard. One Team Gov did not just grow organically, and it did not just come together.

The key reason why the growth appears invisible is because the people who are working hard are giving away their power and keeping the community spirit alive.

As a convener or a facilitator we work really hard, but that work is often unseen, coordination, brokering and supporting others. By giving the power away you divert attention away from yourself.

In a network the power becomes dispersed, so any growth looks easy; like a swan on water, when in reality the swans legs are working hard below the water.

Co-create, but it’s not yours. Building communities is about giving away the power. We feed the community through support, alignment, sharing, connections, to build relationships.

We can achieve more when we empower others to do things.

And those working tirelessly in the background, at the heart of it all, they deserve your gratitude, patience, kindness.

Unicorns are everywhere slide by Miki

UNICORNS: This is certainly true for the UNICORNS as well. After writing the blog post about the UNICORNS first for ABSI Connect and then for Apolitical, new unicorns emerged from hiding in our organization. And this includes new members from the senior-most levels in our organization who are now providing us with additional top cover to be more bold.

In addition, incredibly to me, groups of unicorns started popping up in public service across Canada and around the world.

A couple of examples, the photo on the left is from Sarah Lamb from the government of New Brunswick. She along with her colleagues Rebecca Jefferson, and Meghan Morrison have been convening unicorn parties in eastern Canada, and sent me this photo of the gifts and art they’ve started receiving from appreciative colleagues. And for another example, Thiago Tonus is an innovator in Brazil who translated the post I wrote about the unicorns into Portuguese and published it on LinkedIn so that more public servants in Brazil could read it too.

Change agents and innovators are everywhere in government. You just need to be able to spot them. Which brings us to our next lesson…

Lesson 6: Find your people

Lesson 6: Find your people

UNICORNS: We know that making change from within can be hard. Intrapreneurs are people who are trying to make change for social good within large organizations. And we know that the the journey of the intrapreneur, can be really challenging and lonely. And so finding your people can really help. But the question is, how do you go about doing that?

How to find your people (UNICORNS)

At first can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. How do you actually find the people who are wholehearted, open-hearted and curious? For me, I’ve tried to hone my radar to be able to find unicorns — both those that are visible and those that are still in hiding.

Some of the tricks I’ve picked up are to:

  • Listen for who asks interesting questions and/or uses interesting language
  • Look for clues in the ways that people present themselves. Who wears bright colours? Or unique jewelery? Or a-typical office wear? And pay attention to how people take notes — are they drawing sketches or diagrams or charts or capturing information in ways that are a bit out of the ordinary?
  • Work to find the people who make you laugh. Keeping our sense of humour is so key to ensuring that we are able to run this race as a marathon rather than a sprint.
  • Keep your invitations open forever. Every calendar invitation we send out to folk encourages people to invite others who might be interested
  • Leave bread crumbs and croutons along your path — so tracks that are both big and small; What unicorns ways of being and doing can you sprinkle into the projects you work on? A couple of examples from my world, I use big and yet big signals like playing music before meetings begin, and using fun stickers rather than simple dot stickers in faciliations I lead.
  • I also do my best to go through through my days open-heartedly. For me, this required a big mind-set shift to present myself as my whole, authentic self, rather than the quote unquote “professional” I thought I should be. But being open-hearted and vulnerable has been so deeply rewarding for me, both personally and professionally. And has helped me develop deep and authentic relationships with so many of my fellow public servants
  • And related to that, the final point is to simply ask. I’ve taken a lesson from my children and have started asking people I’d like to get to know better if they would like to be my friend. It is such a simple yet radical act to ask another human to be your friend. And for me, the answer to my question has always been “yes.”
How to find your people (One Team Gov)

One Team Gov: We organised an event to focus on Wellbeing. it was outside of London and we wanted to bring this conversation to people who worked in operational and non Whitehall roles in order to legitimise a focus on personal wellbeing and inclusion in our organisations. It was really hard. We had to get people to buy in, we had to find a way to persuade their managers and teams to let them attend.

We were terrified that we wouldn’t have attendees, and it took a lot of work. Delivering something that you believe will be useful, will benefit people, that has value, can be an incredibly vulnerable position to be in.

So, acknowledging the privilege that this suggests, and understanding that it’s more difficult for some of us than others, try to be vulnerable. When something feels hard, acknowledge it, but jump anyway.

It will be really hard to find people in your community if you don’t put yourself out there, put your thoughts, ideas and feelings out there in the open.

Be prepared to communicate and share openly and often. If you think something is important, follow your nose, be tenacious, keep going and your thoughts will eventually fall on responsive ears. Be generous and listen to other people, their views, differences and opinions will propel you and your thoughts.

For me, One Team Gov has encouraged me to blog much more, sharing my thoughts feelings and ideas about work. Which has, in turn, enabled me to meet more likeminded people and have more interesting conversations, which brings us on to…

Lesson 7: Change from within starts from within

Lesson 7: Change from within starts from within

UNICORNS: you need to look under the water line to see just how deep the iceberg goes.

  • Mind your biases
  • Know thyself. Practice mindfulness
  • When you are stuck, examine what mental models you need to unlearn; how might you shift the conditions that hold the problem in place?
  • From IQ to EQ (emotional quotient / emotional intelligence) to LQ (love quotient / love intelligence
  • Care about the way you feel
  • Actively find the joy
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself” Rumi

IQ has been the traditional measure of intelligence, rooted within the brain and rational or logical intelligence. EQ is about emotional intelligence, and is about our ability to understand the feelings and motivations of other people, to put ourselves in their shoes, and then use this knowledge to guide our interactions with them. LQ, or love quotient is about the intelligence of the heart. It refers to our ability to be kind and compassionate to ourselves and others. Both EQ and LQ can be developed. But they are different. One way that I understand how they are different is that EQ is rooted in empathy, while LQ is rooted in compassion. And compassion might be understood as empathy plus action.

One Team Gov: We work in the open and positively. That last bit is important — positively — we don’t dwell, we reframe and we show how to learn and grow. Personal opinions, personal reflections, real voices. All shared openly.

Once you start sharing you make it easier for others to do the same.

Each of the lessons listed.

We ended the crash course with a short discussion within the chat window. There were lots of really interesting questions and comments, we will share these in a separate blog post.

Depending on demand we may do this course again or re purpose it for other audiences, we would also like to explore more about how privilege plays a part in self selection into communities.


We shared some suggestions of where to find more detail about building communities.

Get in touch

Sign up to hear more about UNICORNS here:


Find out more about One Team Gov and follow us on social media using these links:

Twitter @OneTeamGov


A huge thank you to everyone who attended to hear our thoughts, and to Sean at Apolitical and Miki for inviting us to join her. Thank you.

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