Each year the Policy Community Partnership Office (PCPO) convenes public servants and members of the public policy ecosystem (international and provincial/territorial governments, academia, social innovation labs, think tanks) in a conference with a goal to connect, learn and explore the “how” of policy in a hands-on way. For its 2019 edition – which took place on February 20-21 2019 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa – the conference theme was Practice Makes Policy and aimed to dive into the skills and mindsets needed to support great policy work and to transform our practice. The PCPO’s goal was for participants to leave the conference with new questions, ideas and rules of thumb they could apply in their jobs. As such, the conference agenda was carefully designed to offer participants a variety of ways to engage, learn, and reflect, from the usual plenaries sessions and panel discussions to slightly more unconventional conference activities such as a field trip and a Policy Park. However, of the less traditional activities available at the conference, the most immersive and intensive learning experience on offer certainly was the Ethnography Project.  

What is ethnography

At its core, ethnography aims to make unfamiliar what may seem, at first glance, a familiar, mundane situation. Anthropologist Sherry Ortner suggests that ethnography “has always meant the attempt to understand another life world using the self—as much of it as possible—as the instrument of knowing.” More than a qualitative research method that involves participant-observation and interviews, ethnography is a way of being in the world, of learning by engaging, by doing. An ethnography of the conference by conference participants themselves was thus perfectly aligned to the Practice Makes Policy theme. 

Project objectives

  1. To collect insights on the Policy Community and how its members experience the conference;
  2. To allow a selected group of participants to develop new skills by experiencing the conference in a highly engaged and interactive way; and,
  3. To develop an awareness and appetite for ethnography as a way to engage with stakeholders, to collect meaningful qualitative data, and to develop evidence-based policy.

Christmas comes early 

The project was initiated by the PCPO team in mid-December 2018, and we – Steven Schiffer (Policy and Research Advisor, Canadian Heritage) and Véronique Gilbert (Policy Analyst, Infrastructure Canada) – were recruited to develop and co-lead it. As trained anthropologists and experienced ethnographers, we were immediately galvanized by the opportunity to share our knowledge, skills and enthusiasm for our discipline, and to show its relevance and applicability as a tool for meaningful public policy. As I (Véronique) often put it afterwards, it felt like ‘Christmas came early’.

Indeed, the project did feel like an unexpected gift, as I had been invited to a PCPO team meeting at the very last minute by Alexander Enkerli, a fellow anthropologist I had briefly met at a training offered by the Canada School of Public Service earlier that fall. I had no idea what the meeting was about, and could barely hide my excitement when the PCPO team explained their vision of an ethnography experiment. I immediately suggested to bring Steve in, as we had previously worked together on a similar experiment, and brought different perspectives and strengths to the table.   

Full speed ahead

The experiment had to take shape very quickly in the New Year, as the conference was fast approaching. While the PCPO team worked on recruiting 21 public servants from different departments, regions and backgrounds to take part in the project – noting that no prior experience of ethnography or field research were necessary, but that an open mind, a willingness to learn, and a desire to challenge oneself were highly desirable – Steve and I worked on designing a training course introducing the basic principles of anthropological research to the group of public servants / aspiring ethnographers.

Based on our experience teaching ethnography to undergraduate students, we developed two half-day training sessions that covered the main objectives of the project, the nature of ethnography and ethnographic writing, interview techniques, the ethics of qualitative research, and reflexivity and distance (i.e. the presence and role of the researcher in the research).

The first session took place in person and the second was delivered online via Webex in early February 2019, while a third half-day team-building exercise took place at the National Arts Centre on the eve of the conference to allow the participants to familiarize themselves with the physical place they would be occupying for the following days. During the conference, participants worked individually and in teams of two or three to explore the underlying culture of the Policy Community and, of course, how its members experienced the 2019 Policy Community Conference.

While the PCPO team provided a list of questions or themes they’d like the budding ethnographers to address, they ultimately had free rein on the topics they would explore, and in what way. Since the training sessions had only provided a glimpse into qualitative research methods and ethics, Steve and I emphasized the experimental, learn-as-you-go nature of fieldwork, and the importance of trusting one’s judgment while simultaneously getting out of one’s comfort zone.

To make sure we’d address any concerns or ethical dilemmas our participants would have as they immersed themselves in the ethnographer role, Steve and I made ourselves available to the team at key moments throughout the conference (for example, prior to its official opening the morning of February 20th, or before lunch and at the end of each day) and checked up on the participants as we crossed paths with them in the NAC. To our knowledge, no such issue arose, and the public-servants-turned-ethnographers seemed to appreciate the purpose (and challenge!) the ethnography project added to their experience of the conference.

Following the conference, the participants were asked to join in two follow-up conference calls and were also invited to a meeting with the Policy Community co-champions to discuss their experience. As they had been informed when they signed up for the project and was reiterated during training, they were also tasked with producing a summary of their findings and experience which could take the form of a written report, art piece, video, PowerPoint presentation, etc. Their contributions (annexed to this document) form the basis of our report – a report which will undoubtedly appear unusual in tone, style and format to several readers, especially those expecting a typical government report. In keeping with tradition we do, however, conclude our report with some recommendations that we hope will inform a second occurrence of the Ethnography Project during an upcoming Policy Community Conference.    


A telling moment occurred for one of our aspiring ethnographers when she came across an activity taking place just outside the Policy Park at the 2019 Policy Community Conference:

I was engaged in a discussion about the Policy Community’s approach to competency development when I was approached by the leader of a session about the link between the focus in karate and our work as analysts […] We were essentially asked to think about some basic karate principles and then ran through a basic breathing and focus exercise. This involved a punching action towards the sternum of the session lead (in some instances participants took up the offer to make contact). The variation in this exercise was very interesting. Some participants were very hesitant or quiet in their initial punch. The session leader helped these participants to focus on their breathing and find their core prior to a second attempt. Second attempts were surprisingly more effective. From what I could observe, most if not all participants seemed energized by the activity. There was some nervous laughter and a bit of hesitancy, but overall it was an effective, quick method to consider the most direct route to an end goal.

 (Croker, Neima, Thayer). 

Thick description

Reading this vignette supplied by one of the cohort of ethnographers we (Véronique and Steve) trained was heartening. Much of the strength of ethnographic inquiry rests on what renowned anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls “thick description”, and this vignette has it. It isn’t so much that the vignette describes something memorable to the ethnographer, but rather that from a short paragraph we learn quite a bit about the practice being described.

We know, for example, that the activity appeared at first only tangentially related to the conference. We know that participants were skeptical, hesitant, and a bit perplexed. We know the ethnographer gave herself over to the process, and ultimately (along with other participants) appeared satisfied that something meaningful had taken place, not only in terms of the exercise serving its intended role as an apt metaphor for reaching one’s goals, but also as evidence of the ethnographer’s growth in her quest to embrace participant-observation techniques.

From the perspective of two trained anthropologists, both of whom took great pleasure and pride in sharing insights about ethnography with a group of public-servants-turned-ethnographers, perhaps the most satisfying part of this vignette is the self-reflection offered by the author, who writes of stepping outside her comfort zone:

“This is the kind of session I may have normally preferred to watch from a safe vantage point, but I thought I would embrace my ethnographer role and observe while taking part in the activity” (Croker, Neima, Thayer).

Training ethnographers can be challenging, in part because the willingness to follow an uncomfortable path – to take up the challenge of participant-observation – goes against so many of our norms regarding comfort in social spaces.

When I (Steve) began studying anthropology, I remember the reactions of some of my colleagues from other disciplines who, largely by self-describing as ‘introverts’, had convinced themselves they could never do fieldwork. Doctoral work in anthropology typically requires long-term engagement in situ, usually of a year or more in one’s chosen field site. Non-anthropologist friends and colleagues, listing the reasons they couldn’t do it, often said they weren’t willing to “give over” their life for a year; they weren’t able to “suspend their opinions”; they said they lacked the “patience” or the “thick skin” needed to persevere through frequent moments of social discomfort inherent in ethnographic inquiry. I suspect there may have been a few participants in the 2019 Policy Community ethnography experiment who initially felt much the same way.

Modes of social engagement

In reading the reports produced, one measure of this experiment’s success has to be the construction of a different temperament and disposition – a different mode of social engagement – amongst the practitioners. As one participant put it,

“the ethnographer role was an amazing ‘excuse’ to speak to many people at the conference […] To learn briefly about them, why they were there, and what they learned or hoped to learn. I loved the legitimacy it gave me to approach almost anyone willing to chat” (Salgado).

This is spot on. Ethnography is a practice that blends the analytical with the artful, the inquisitive with the reflective; ethnography asks you to oscillate between different levels of engagement with the world. The joy of conducting ethnography is in allowing one’s mind to run wild with the possibilities presented in the simplest openings: a gesture, a symbol, a turn of phrase – even a dirty look.

Insights gained help unravel the world around us and make sense of life, while also keeping us in the flow of unfolding experience. A good ethnographer can temporarily gain access to different social worlds, and then use this access to reconcile what is out of anyone and everyone’s line of sight with that which is right in front of all of us. If this sound a bit poetic, it is. Like poetry, it takes both technique and creative vision. Insightful communication always does.

The ethnographers deployed into the conference space of the 2019 Policy Community Conference produced some remarkable insights, and the report below is an effort at synthesizing and highlighting their contributions.

In the report that follows, which may appear to be a bit of a meta-ethnography (in that it uses the ethnographers’ reports to trace larger themes), efforts have been made to keep the honesty and sincerity of the experiences reported intact. While some broader context is provided by the lead ethnographers – Véronique and Steve – the reason these themes emerge is because they were what our ethnography team saw, felt, experienced, intuited, interpreted, interrogated, or otherwise concluded.

The value we hope this adds to planning processes at the Policy Community Participation Office (PCPO) comes precisely from the fact that ethnography is unorthodox in government. Two of the reports produced centered on comfort/discomfort (The Power of Discomfort and Too Comfortable/Not Comfortable Enough). It is well-known in anthropological circles that ethnography has the ability to make people uncomfortable; ethnographers frequently describe the profound difficulty with a process that relies on social disjuncture – on not knowing how to act appropriately – in order to establish what people find meaningful. Those who inform the study, in this case the participants and planners of the 2019 Policy Community Conference, may also find the way ethnographic inquiry challenges assumptions and unsettles norms unusual or uncomfortable.    

Theme 1: The Turn Towards Affect

We can smile and laugh, but not too much, or it looks like we’re not working. We definitely can’t cry because that shows a lack of self-control. We have to know the right answer and we have to confidently deliver it. We have to deftly defend it as well. We cannot doubt ourselves or our orders. That is absolutely forbidden (Snow, Blouin, Arar).

This quotation comes from one of our ethnography teams, and it describes one of the authors’ reflections on the presence of emotion and vulnerability while at work as a public servant. There is an unsettling description of constraint in this brief quotation, and it is no doubt familiar to people in countless lines of work, various working environments, and holding a great diversity of responsibilities. That Western work environments lean heavily towards masculinized, public-space-as-rationalist-space is well-known in social science literature.

People are expected to behave a certain way, and that way often seems stifling, or else favours those who can more easily adopt the historically male-dominated public presentation of a limited range of affect. For a long time, this kind of curated emotional palette was considered ‘neutral’ and a precondition for both entry and success in business settings, including government; to curtail expression in the workplace was, and still is, seen to be more ‘professional’. In government, especially, a thread emerges of detachment and depersonalization. For non-partisan public servants, as this quotation alludes to, there is an expectation that idiosyncrasy and emotion should not cloud our judgement. Our calling is to serve a broad and diverse public. How could something as conditional and inscrutable as an individual’s emotions ever be a tool used in service to the broader public, rather than a hindrance?  

Work with affective dimensions

One of the most profound pivots in public policy introduced at the 2019 Policy Community Conference is an embrace of affect, of emotion, of empathy, and of nuance in understanding Canadian society on a human level. When Elder Mac Saulis told attendees of a panel on language that “love in policy-making is a necessary Indigenous intention, because we love our people and we love the land,” it was in keeping with a broader call at the Conference to expand public policy work to recognize and work with affective dimensions.

Ethnographers in this experiment picked up on this theme as well, summarizing the message they received about emotion in policy-making:

You should fall in love with the problem. Fall in love with all sides and opinions surrounding the policy issue. Love should be the basis from which policy is developed and stakeholders engaged […] Be courageous. Be uncomfortable. Recognize your fear and move past it. Be excited. Share that excitement. Policy can be exciting (Croker, Neima, Thayer).

Nitika Agarwal, joining Elder Mac Saulis on the panel on language in policy-making, contrasted the kind of emotion-laden language used in Canadian public policy circles with that found in a more staid UK environment, claiming that a recent email she received from a Canadian colleague imploring her to share more of her thoughts by saying “I would love to hear more about your ambition in this space” would be altogether too folksy or personal in its wording for the British context.

The message received by several of the ethnographers was that far from being dangerous or unwelcome, affective appeals and the presence of emotion were instructive and authentic: they connote passion and underpin purpose. From an instrumental standpoint, they can fuel the kinds of policy insights the Government of Canada is looking for in the 21st century.

Part of this turn to affect in 21st century corporate environments stems from organizational theory that itself draws on spiritual, feminist, and psychological discourses to inform a ‘human-centered’ approach. Evidence of this rich confluence of affective approaches to organizational design can be found in the words of the MC, Kaili Levesque, who reminded the audience that “self-care is important to engage in dialogue” and that when a conference-goer begins to feel emotional or intellectual fatigue, they should “recognize that in yourself, honour that in yourself”.

Terms like “self-care” and the language of “honouring” or validating one’s own emotional responses are often tied to feminist discourses and, specifically, recent literature on Feminist Care Ethics (FCE). When Kaili spoke to the assembled conference-goers of “grounding yourself” and “rooting yourself”, as well as “creating space”, she was (perhaps unwittingly) channeling language from pop and New Age psychology movements. The influx of this kind of affective dimension to corporate environments is not unique to the public service, and the overall effect on work culture in 21st century North America is only now coming into focus. 

Cynicism and Disaffection

But the call to embrace affective lenses, and to use empathy and intuition as tools to inform sound policy-making, has a flipside that appears half-hidden in the ethnographic reports. If the instructive and authentic value of affect requires passionate engagement – love for all aspects of the policy process, love for the public served by the process – what happens when people find themselves emotionally disaffected at work? What happens when they disengage, or when they find their managers or directors have different expectations for their work? What happens when constraints outside of a public servant’s control simply do not permit the leveraging of emotion for the dual benefit of motivating employees (internal) and crafting nuanced public policy (external)? This is a recipe for cynicism.

The cynic occupied an unusual place at the 2019 Policy Community Conference. In the midst of a gathering with prominent messaging around the value of authenticity, empathy, and affective depth, the cynic was a suspicious or unwelcome presence. Following the session on language featuring both Elder Mac Saulis and Nitika Agarwal, a question appeared on Slido: “I wasn’t always so cynical… what happened?” The panelists responded thoughtfully. Elder Mac Saulis commented that he found “a lot of fear in young people today […] cynicism is based in fear.” Nitika Agarwal focused on agency and constraint, asking the audience to consider what was constraining people, and why did they not feel capable of working from a place of authentic engagement?

Often, and especially in environments like conferences where the ‘success’ of the conference lies in facilitating participants’ buy-in to various sessions and activities, cynics look like buzzkills. Where others see authenticity, cynics see manipulation or illusion. Cynics tend not to commit fully in social situations. Others occasionally regard them as cagey or duplicitous, manipulative or overly self-protective. However, as one of the ethnographers noted in relation to a more senior public servant attending the conference, cynicism is also seen as a sign of “rich experience” (Ward).

There’s a sense that to be cynical in government is to be more aware, more travelled, less easily duped by the repackaging of a promise made yesterday. The cynic has something to teach us, but in the process we might end up feeling like the cynic is a bit pompous or belittling. People sometimes worry that cynics make their own enjoyment or enthusiasm look naïve, and perhaps this wariness regarding cynics is part of the self-consciousness with which people (like our public-servant-turned-ethnographer-turned-karateka mentioned earlier) engage in new spaces or activities.

There were cynics at the 2019 Policy Community Conference. Often they were people who felt like the thematic turn towards affect did not apply to them, either because they simply continued not to regard affective lenses as rigorous or requiring discipline, or else because they felt their own home departments had little or no hope of adopting an organizational culture conducive to human-centered policy-making. In some cases, they simply rejected the union of emotional investment and paid labour for the Government. The request to do their work with passion and zeal would then become an additional, unpaid condition of their employment – service with a smile – when they saw no issues with the existing quality of their own work or with the decision-making in their business line.

Reconciling these cynics with the push to see more empathetic analysts who “fall in love” with the policy questions they face is not easy. Returning to the words of the ethnographer who felt such tight constraint around emotion in the workplace when she rejoined her office after the Conference, we see the tension between the emerging vision of empathetic public servants, armed with authentic self-expression and passionate engagement, and the stuffy, top-down, public service of years past that commanded blind deference to institutional norms. The ethnographer writes:

“when I stop and look around, I see a collective that has been stripped of their individuality, taught to blur their identities to fit within the definition of a public servant, never feeling safe to express themselves, never feeling at home.”

Managing the turn to affect in public policy, and of shepherding departments away from this characterization, will require a concomitant focus on power and authority in the public service. It may prompt us to ask the following questions and seek further study: 

What forces cause this profound feeling of constraint?

How might we better understand this ethnographer’s observations about conformity and the tamping down of expression?

In what ways does the turn towards affect help public servants develop greater agency in their lives and, in so doing, positively impact their work for the public? 

Theme 2: Power, Opportunity and the Invisible Status Quo 

I felt some discomfort from a man sitting next to me. He was in his late 50s. I saw his face cringe. Could be disapproval or simply him being bored (Sylvestre).


The ethnographer who wrote this was observing a man listening to an Indigenous teaching at the 2019 Policy Community Conference. What is fascinating about this quotation is the uncertainty. It is entirely possible the man is bored, and any look that swept across his face was unrelated to the content he was taking in. But for the ethnographer, the possibility that the man disapproved of the content of the Indigenous teaching, that he may have disagreed with the views of an Indigenous Elder, or perhaps even disagreed with the Elder being given the platform to share those views, was enough to spark some concern.

On a separate occasion at the Conference, I (Steve) turned to ask three conference-goers in their late 20s or early 30s what they thought of Natan Obed’s talk and his call to action to transform policy-making on issues affecting Indigenous peoples. The three attendees turned to look at each other and waited briefly to see who would respond first. One attendee then said:

“I think we’re all on the same page about reconciliation and Indigenous issues, but what can people at our level do? Why is it that what appears obvious to us isn’t resourced by those at the top? Where is the obstacle, exactly?”

It struck me, upon reading the contribution of the participant-ethnographer quoted above, that her curiosity about the man’s facial expression stemmed from the possibility that she could be in proximity with someone who wasn’t on the “same page” and was, perhaps, part of the “obstacle.” There is no way of knowing now, long after the end of the Conference, but it raised an interesting point about the Conference itself: much of the focus of the Conference suggested the Policy Community is an organization unsatisfied with the status quo. If broad changes in our collective social values mean our ways of working and making policy in Canada are outmoded, then we must first locate and make visible the status quo, so that we know exactly what aspects we wish to cast aside.

But who defends the status quo? We know change is not easy, and while it is usually relatively easy for us to identify people we might call ‘change-makers’, it’s remarkably less straight-forward to identify the folks who represent staying the course.

The power of the status quo is that it shifts and recalibrates. It always seems to appear as a shadow or else is insulated by structures of authority and resourcing. Whether it is a status quo that resists the moral imperative of improving lives for Indigenous peoples, or a far less charged status quo that restricts public servants’ interactions with Canadians through strict travel budgets, the power of the status quo is that it is both obvious and implacable. No one in Government ever argues openly for poor living conditions for Indigenous people, or for restricting public servants’ ability to get out and see the communities their work affects. 

Powerful People 

At the 2019 Policy Community Conference, power and powerful people were everywhere and nowhere. Well-known figures like Natan Obed and Michael Wernick gave talks to the assembly. Deputy Heads, professors, Elders, poets – clearly, there were people of great repute and influence. One ethnographer wrote of “visible connectors” who she saw drawing attention in the halls outside the sessions:

I noticed some prominent patterns among visible connectors who were being pulled from one group to another, sharing their insights as social capital with select few before pulled into a different conversation, even while they were waiting to get a drink. These people were in high demand, they were trusted. They were at the conference for reasons likely different than those of others; they were willing participants in complex systems, looking for opportunities to collide their ideas with the ideas of others and building touchpoints towards policy (Nieldzielski).

The kind of power being expressed in these connector roles, of brokering and convening, of holding court and influencing others, is a very different sort than the kind of power that either directly maintains or overthrows the status quo. The type of power the ethnographer above is describing, exercised by many of the ‘big names’ at the Conference, is a kind of social status. The ethnographer, drawing on the theory of social capital, astutely observes the behaviours that demonstrate that this kind of power has a marketplace quality to it; those high in social capital must enter into exchange scenarios – the charitable giving of advice, the provision and receipt of favours – in order to maintain and grow their influence and, by extension, their power.

One vivid example of social capital at work came from an ethnographer who interviewed the Deputy Minister of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), Graham Flack, over lunch on day 1 of the Conference. The ethnographer describes feeling the weight of a vast chasm of seniority between her and the Deputy Minister, detailing the nervousness she felt approaching him and situating herself in the interview:  

We walked about half-way up the stairs until DM Flack found a spot where we would be comfortable. He started eating his lunch; I knew I wouldn’t be able to touch mine until after the interview […] I quickly jotted down a few notes and took a deep breath before opening my mouth and thanking him for the 5th time for the interview. He smiled and politely waved his hand. My voice was shaking a little bit as I started the interview (Croker, Neima, Thayer).

There are some good examples in this vignette of how social capital operates, and how senior public servants continue to effectively build social capital. The ethnographer describes the Deputy Minister as having given a thoughtful talk to a rapt audience. Mr. Flack lingered after the talk and made himself approachable for discussion with attendees. When the ethnographer asked for an interview, not only did Mr. Flack agree, but he offered a more personal and egalitarian format: lunch on the steps. Just two people, eating and talking.

The ethnographer’s knowledge of the difference in seniority and status in the Government of Canada between her and the Deputy Minister made this scenario seem striking and unusual; the temporary equality fostered by such an unassuming interview format only served to make the DM, through his assuredness and graciousness, appear more powerful. The distance which the ethnographer maintains in her writing – calling him DM Flack, rather than Mr. Flack or Graham Flack or Graham – is constructed in inverse proportion to the gestures he actually makes to close the gap between them. The ethnographer leaves the situation seemingly more convinced that the DM is worthy of her initial and continued deference. In the process, both the ethnographer and the DM have just built their own social capital; her by gaining access to a DM, him by offering approachability seemingly at odds with his structural degree of seniority. 

Opportunity may only knock once

One of the reasons this interaction worked out for both the ethnographer and the DM appears to be the well-defined sense of hierarchy found throughout the public service, but also of the public service’s cultural dynamics of inclusivity/exclusivity, and of the rarity with which certain kinds of opportunity present themselves in government. For some of the participant ethnographers, even the opportunity to attend the 2019 Policy Community Conference sparkled like a “golden ticket” in the usual scope of professional development available to them. One ethnographer writes: 

It’s so rare in government to have opportunities outside of one’s area of ‘expertise’. It felt like a breath of fresh air. Something exciting and new […] It is important to note that in ‘my world’, we all have an equal opportunity to attend the yearly conference [associated with our usual line of work]. Tickets are sold per person per day and the personal learning budget is used for this purpose. A quest for a ticket was foreign to me, but all the more desired (Zaitsov-Hassin).

Tickets to the 2019 Policy Community Conference are, then, but one example of the rare and desirable provision of opportunity in government. For many public servants, including some who work outside the NCR, there exist great constraints on the ability to acquire the kind of social capital that could be built over just a couple of days through the 2019 Policy Community Conference. One of the ethnographers describes the rigidity of the situation she sees for herself and those around her in her home department:

“better to be bland and forgotten than to stand out for the wrong reasons […] just follow orders, or risk your career.”

It is difficult to imagine how public servants could become less risk averse, or how they can fully capitalize on a rare opportunity like the 2019 Policy Community Conference, if there is a general impression of tremendous constraint and risk. The old adage of “fearless advice, loyal implementation”, at least according to this ethnographer, has been replaced with “fearful obedience, thankless implementation.”

The hyper-competitive nature of career development in the public service appears from this quotation to be throttling creativity and innovation, rather than incentivizing it. Public servants like this ethnographer appear to be suggesting that in the absence of structured career progression, they are left somewhat paralyzed when an opportunity does come their way, unable to make sense of it and unsure whether they’d be better off just keeping their head down.

For regional employees, the rarity of a professional development opportunity like attending the 2019 Policy Community Conference is coupled with a sudden change in both the scope and culture of the public service in the National Capital Region (NCR). One ethnographer, cognizant that the event contained elements that would be generally more familiar or comfortable for those who worked in the NCR, pondered in her report:  

What is the conference like for non-Ottawans? For people who have travelled there? How can more of the policy community across Canada be more involved? Is Ottawa the right place to hold the policy conference? Could there be satellite conferences or should the conference travel every year? (Isaac-Saper)

Satellite conferences 

Satellite conferences for the 2019 Policy Community Conference were held in multiple cities across Canada. One ethnographer participated in this experiment from Halifax, and reported mixed results. She documented technical issues that prevented full engagement, and lamented the peripheral nature of regional work: 

Federally, policy in the region is primarily implemented, rather than developed, while provincial and municipal jurisdictions create and implement policy with minimal influence and therefore minimal coordination with federal counterparts. As previously stated, as public servants we are all working in support of the same people – the citizens we serve (Ward).

The meaningfulness of the event in Ottawa, if we can extend the earlier conversation about social capital, is partly a byproduct of the sense of working on a national scale. Honoured guests like Natan Obed are known coast-to-coast-to-coast. Public servants who attended the event in the NCR had a realistic expectation that they could follow up with those they’d met for another face-to-face meeting. One thing may lead to another, and they could see their own social capital translate into career advancement or a higher-profile file.

Contrast, for example, the earlier vignette offered by the ethnographer who interviewed Graham Flack, and the gregarious response she received, with this short description offered from the regional event in Halifax. The ethnographer describes the most senior person in the room for the satellite event, saying:  

Throughout the event the senior leader was a bit aloof, he kept to himself but not such that he was cold, more so independent. He listened to the virtual presentations and simultaneously conducted what was likely some of his regular work via his smartphone (Ward).

Where is the marketplace of social capital in this scenario? What was there to gain for either this senior leader or the more junior attendees in Halifax? Had there been a meaningful rapport developed, like the one shared by the ethnographer who interviewed the DM in Ottawa, could it have led to the further provision of professional development opportunities that would help make this a meaningful ebb and flow of power and status in government, or would the interaction have been constrained by structural forces, leaving it exceptionally difficult to advance both personal and Government agendas for change and growth outside of the NCR?

Two kinds of power, revisited

It is here that the type of power that governs the exchange and accumulation of social capital meets the kind of invisible power that maintains several variants of the social and political status quo. Whether poet, professor, or Deputy Minister, there appears to be a pervasive sense amongst the attendees of the 2019 Policy Community Conference that there’s a valuable link between networking, influence, and the slow but persistent ability to effect both institutional (internal) and social (external) change in the Government and throughout Canada. Even the highest profile attendees can’t change the world alone. If those who defend and maintain the status quo are invisible, and no one can quite pin down the nature of the obstacles facing a public service that shares morally progressive values – a public service that is on the “same page”, as my (Steve) colleague at the Conference stated – then radical, immediate exercises of power to change course are a kind of fiction. Instead, power shows up as the careful and well-recognized negotiation of social capital. To empower public servants is, then, to extend the marketplace of opportunity as far as possible; to provide as many points of entry and as dynamic a space as possible within the Policy Community to see tangible difference on a person-by-person level.

Put another way, public servants must see success for themselves in championing and modelling the substance of that which is exchanged at conferences like the 2019 Policy Community Conference. If it is the case that no magic wand can be waved to fix the ills blighting the public service and Canadian society, in general (and that is most certainly the case), the only course of action is to ensure an organization like the Policy Community has what communitarian thinker Robert Gilman calls “multiple centers of initiative”, each enlivened by its ability to serve as a point of exchange for social capital.

The former Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, spoke to the assembled group about the importance of serving elected leaders, and of the meaningfulness and purpose he felt walking the steps up to the Parliament Building. The occasional production of that same purposeful feeling amongst conference-goers at the 2019 Policy Community Conference gave the event both its gravitas and its buzz; the event felt grand and pivotal. Extending that feeling, and moving it outside of a conference format so that it permeates ordinary, day-to-day business across departments, so that those who will never become Clerk can still feel they are involved in heady pursuits, helps give the everyday power and status of good networking the transformative potential to tackle implacable obstacles.

Additional Themes

In the section that follows, we analyze more succinctly some other common themes that came up in the ethnographers’ reports. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but it aims to highlight the diversity and value of the insights gathered in such a short time. We strongly recommend to read through each of the individual or team contribution.

1) Social discomfort: putting yourself out there

As anticipated, our ethnographers did not uniformly find the process of engaging with people entirely easy. However, what several reports indicated is that this was actually quite typical of the conference experience overall, even if the effect was somewhat amplified amongst the ethnography team. Ethnographers relayed observing numerous instances of people looking uncertain, lonely, or apprehensive about socializing in the conference space. People appeared to be checking their phones only to look busy. Some conference-goers hung back during the initial meet-and-greet time at the beginning of the Conference, possibly because regular work colleagues had yet to arrive, or else because they knew no other attendees. Ethnographers reported paying more attention to the way they dressed when they attended the conference, and observed the way others were dressed and noted particular efforts of conference-goers to look “professional”.

This general sense of social discomfort is common in conferences, but it was still somewhat surprising to see how much emphasis the ethnographers put on it in their reports, and how finely attuned to others’ discomfort some of the ethnographers were. Several ethnographers also mentioned the morning session ‘Margins are the Majority’ as a moment during which they witnessed participants’ discomfort, and experienced it themselves: “… it was like watching a live art performance that felt uncomfortable, real, and relatable” (Harris, Ng, Schultz). The session was controversial and some participants contended that its “theatrical style […] was too ‘angry’, that the presenters were ‘a bit much’, and that the messages were utterly impractical in terms of policy lessons and practical application” (Croker, Neima, Thayer). For one of the ethnographers, the session   

[…] provided and emotional and grounding wake up call for me – a similar experience that a handful of other attendees share with me later that day and week. The discomfort was palpable as the MC handed the session over to an empty stage – and instead the audience had to pivot and find the French-speaking performers in the audience. Instead of easily consuming information by facing frontward and knowing what to expect, the whole audience had to reconfigure themselves. And the performance planted a number of ribbings that reminded me (and murmuring others in the room) that our policy analysis and option development cannot responsibly be an isolated act – but demands that we find more meaningful, and respectful ways to include many voices and experiences (Van Den Berg Gunn).

In addition to the emotional and physical discomfort the session triggered because of its sensitive topic and delivery style, the fact that the presentation was entirely in French seems to have added to that sense of agitation. As noted by one ethnographer,

“it was confusing because of the lack of clarity on how to use the headsets for translation. I was not aware, and from observing others, it appeared that some other people were also not aware that the headsets were able to translate the speakers’ content from French to English so it was quite frustrating. […] Clearer communication about the function of the headsets and how to get the correct language would be helpful next time”.

Interestingly, prior to the beginning of Will Prosper and Nadia Duguay’s presentation, conference organizers took great care to inform attendees that the session would be in French, walking around and distributing headsets for simultaneous translation. This particular effort to ‘pamper’ English speakers made me (Véronique), and a few Francophone former colleagues I was seated with, uneasy: no one walked around to hand out headsets to French speakers the previous day, there was no repetitive message to warn us that we were entering a unilingual English session, the MC did not remind the audience over and over again about the language of the session to come. Francophones often don’t need translation and have learned to function in a predominantly English environment, or simply know that they have to get their headsets themselves. Much as the ‘Margins are the Majority’ presenters suggested, the emotional labor of participation and inclusion seems to rest on the minority group, and the headsets were a striking example of how power structures subtly reproduce themselves. 

2) Event-planning expectations

Another somewhat unexpected theme that emerged from the ethnographers’ reports, as well as from my (Steve) own notes, was the degree to which conference attendees focused on the logistics and event-planning aspects of the conference. The supply of coffee, the heating in the facility, the contents of the lunch bags and swag bags – these topics surfaced numerous times in the reports. People’s focus on the hospitality dimensions suggests conference-goers (and the ethnographers) have some experience attending events of this scale.

Quite apart from the purpose or content of the conference’s proceedings, people seem to have very finely calibrated expectations when they attend an event of this nature. There were occasional hints in the data collected by the ethnographers that conference-goers were particularly aware of the moments when the Conference appeared either to exceed the usual standard of experience for a public service conference, and so appeared at times somewhat ‘lavish’ (like the playing of violin music in the mornings), and when they had expected more (like the swag bag containing only a pencil and an invite to a Brian Mulroney talk, or bottomless coffee and snacks in the morning).

3) Big kids playing

Like in the vignette shared by one of the ethnographers about trying the karate activity, there were numerous moments shared in the ethnography reports and observed by me (Steve) when people appeared child-like in their enthusiasm, or else when some aspect of the professional, grown-up façade faded away and people appeared to be having fun, like kids at recess.

One moment that stands out for me was laughing with a member of the Policy Community Partnership Office (PCPO) in the Policy Park at the remarkable high quality of the homemade models she had in front of her. I was impressed by her artistic ability, having originally thought these custom models were built by a professional graphic designer of some kind, and this seemed to strike her funny. There was something about the incongruous nature of her sharing these homemade projects she had done in her kitchen or at her dining room table, which now appeared at a 600+ person conference of public servants in the Government of Canada at the National Arts Centre. The sincerity of her efforts, along with her artistic skill, made an impression on me.

A similar moment was shared by one of the ethnographers who found herself in between sessions getting coffee:  

Unknowingly, I approached the coffee stand surrounded by a semi-circle huddle of Conference attendees. Wondering why the group was standing together and not talking, I soon realized they were just silently and purposefully waiting for coffee. Seemingly content to just wait, and with few screens in sight, they all had a common purpose that resulted in this quiet knit. There was something tender about it (Van Den Berg Gunn).

In both my (Steve) interaction with the model-maker from the PCPO, as well as this brief description above from one of the ethnographers, there was a sense sometimes of seeing conference-goers not as professionally-engaged public servants with business agendas, but rather, as if using some transcendent vision, as kids eating their brown paper bag lunches, sharing their dioramas, or waiting silently for a drink. This was a warm sentiment.  

4) The Setting, Venue and Spatial Orientation

The National Arts Centre (NAC) is a remarkable space. It was my (Steve) first trip to the building, and I was impressed at the way the Conference weaved through it. In addition to the physical setup, there were a number of interesting aspects of holding the Conference at the NAC. As lunch approached on the first day, a high school band set up at the base of the stairs in the foyer and began playing music. Initially, I thought this was part of the Conference, but someone in-the-know promptly informed me “they aren’t part of the Conference.”

On the second day of the Conference, I arrived in the a.m. to see that a Sixth Estate show was taping adjacent to the conference space. Later that day, a silent movement class gathered inside a glass-walled room next to the Policy Park. While initially somewhat confusing to determine which activities were part of the Conference and which weren’t, the realization that the NAC was a lively building with multiple simultaneous purposes and gatherings made the venue appear particularly well-suited for a conference emphasizing the dynamic potential of the public service.  

5) The Language of Public Sector Innovation

One of the striking aspects of the 2019 Policy Community Conference, as well as the ethnography experiment and its initial planning, was the use of an emerging vocabulary around public service innovation. The section above on affect, detailing some of the vocabulary used by the MC, highlights some particular phrases that suggest there’s a particular way of talking about innovation that may not be familiar to all public servants. Additionally, the document outlining potential questions for the ethnographers provided by the PCPO asks the ethnographers to “find the signals through the noise.” This is a phrase I’ve heard elsewhere in the public service by those who work in innovation teams.

There are also frequent references to “users” and human-centered design is sometimes called “user-centered design”. These appear to be terms borrowed from the tech sector, much like the lingo used in government around the digital shift and learning to work with the “agile” method, including iterative “alpha, beta, and live” stages. This new vocabulary cuts both ways. On the one hand, it provides a catchy shorthand for a growing movement in government focused on process change, as well as big picture conceptual change regarding the most effective ways of engaging in public policy in 2019 and beyond. On the other hand, this emerging language can serve to reinforce the exclusivity of innovation and change-making in government, much the same way comparable specialist vocabularies serve gatekeeping functions in disciplines like law and medicine. There is risk in making public service innovation a technical or esoteric pursuit, rather than a ‘big-tent’ movement.      


Throughout all phases of the Ethnography Project, we – the lead ethnographers – have endeavored to design and deliver a meaningful, positive learning experience for the participants, to grow their appetite for ethnography and hopefully open up new possibilities for qualitative research in public policy. While we humbly feel that we’ve achieved that primary objective (and had a lot of fun doing so!), we have also reflected on and discussed how the project could be strengthened and further developed.

1) Review timelines

The core challenge we faced throughout all phases of the project – from design to delivery to reporting – pertains to its tight timelines and the conflicting priorities the lead ethnographers and the participants had to juggle. Therefore, we recommend to:

a. Launch the project earlier

As mentioned in the foreword, we first heard of the ethnography initiative in mid-December 2018. Considering that the Christmas holidays were just around the corner and work resumed in January 2019, it actually gave us about a month to obtain necessary approvals: 

  • to take part in the project from our respective managers and senior executives;
  • to define a concept;
  • to design training sessions and develop accompanying materials; and
  • to deliver said training in early February 2019.

Kicking the project off several months in advance would give everyone involved (lead ethnographers and participants) the time to prepare adequately and to align their regular day-to-day tasks with the project requirements. Consequently, we would suggest that the recruitment period begin early on in the process, and for the opportunity to be advertised in multiple ways and locations. A call out for participants was first published on January 14, 2019 on GCcollab, with a deadline to express interest set to January 16, 2019. Since the platform underwent technical issues, applications were accepted passed that date. However, that still meant that there were only three weeks between the time members of the Policy Community heard about the project and the first training session, which left them little to no time to express interest and obtain management approval. An extended recruitment period would give the PCPO team time to advertise the project on several channels and to different groups of public servants across the country, which would likely increase interest and uptake.

It would also likely help diversify the group of participants, who were all women, albeit representing several departments. While there is no inherent issue with the gender composition of the team, it does raise question as to whether out-of-the box initiatives, or those of qualitative nature such as the ethnography project, appeal to women and other minority groups more than men. Diversifying the group could bring different perspectives to the table.

b. Allow more time for training

Launching the project earlier would allow to build in more time for training, which would benefit participants and strengthen the outcomes of the project. Designing the training sessions differently, for example by making them shorter and by spacing them out, would give participants more time to practice the different research methods and techniques, such as interviews and participant observations, during their regular work hours. We believe this could make the project more meaningful, as it would make it an integral part of the participants’ day-to-day job and facilitate knowledge and skills transfer.

c. Build time in for report writing

To facilitate collaboration between participants and support the collaborative writing of their reports, a two-day writing retreat could be organized in the month following the conference. The participants, much like us (Steve and Véronique), struggled to find time to get together, share ideas, and put their findings on paper (or in any other format that they see fit). Including dedicated time for this essential part of the project would certainly speed up the process and reinforce its importance.  

2) Formalize the project

While the recommendations above are valid on their own, they are also intrinsically linked to and reliant on another one of our recommendations, which is to formalize the project. Early in our discussions with the PCPO team, we suggested that the initiative be offered as a micro-mission or micro-assignment so that it would be perceived as a legitimate development and learning opportunity for participants and their management. The project was indeed presented that way on paper, but the reality was that it was perceived as a side-of-the-desk project for most participants, including the lead ethnographers. Therefore, we recommend to:

a. Create an official micro-assignment or special Canada School of Public Service immersive course

For the lead ethnographers and the project participants, an official registration to a course or project could ensure that appropriate time is set aside to attend training sessions, do the required readings and exercises, attend the conference, and prepare the report. That way, the project could more easily be included in learning plans and Performance Agreements, and would potentially ensure better overall engagement from participants. Indeed, due to operational constraints and conflicting priorities, some participants could not attended all training sessions, or the full 2 days of the conference, and at least one person attended the first training but did not show up afterwards, without ever formally withdrawing from the project.

b. Budget for more out-of-town participants

One person participated remotely, from the Halifax regional office. Her experience provided valuable insights, but as several of the reports show, the Policy Community Conference is a unique, highly sought-after event that is worth experiencing in person. Formalizing the ethnography project could factor in the inclusion of travel expenses for one participant per province, for example. Alternatively, making the project a CSPS special course or micro-assignment would potentially allow interested non NRC participants to request that their department fund their participation to the conference.

c. Recognize participants’ involvement

Lastly, we would like to suggest that the PCPO team formally recognize the people involved in the project through a Certificate of Participation or Completion.

In addition, we would recommend that the PCPO and/or the Policy Community Co-Champions communicate with the lead ethnographers’ respective director general and assistant deputy-minister to thank them for allowing Steve and Véronique to get involved in the project.  

3) Clarify communication and leadership structure

Ideated by the PCPO team, the content of the ethnography project was designed by the lead ethnographers, Steve and Véronique. This process of co-creation was overall successful, but could be improved by:

a. Clarifying the channels of communication

At the beginning of the project, and especially from the moment the call for participants went out until the first training session, communications were all led by the PCPO team, which resulted in several back and forth between applicants and us, and sometimes delay in responding. Making the lead ethnographers the main points of contact with the applicants/participants from that early stage would have facilitated the process and eased the burden on the PCPO team.

b. Establishing leadership

The ethnography project was framed as an experimentation and process of co-creation between PCPO and the lead ethnographers. Maybe due to the fact that we were recruited shortly before the project took off and that we were designing and refining it as we went, at times it felt like there were many cooks in the kitchen. Consideration could be given to clarify the roles and responsibilities of each participants from the onset.