Week Eight: FWD50 Fun and Family Losses

It is noon on Thursday 9th November. I’m on a slow train from Ottawa to Toronto – four hours and forty five minutes of staring out of the window at the passing – and for now snowy – landscape.

It has been a bit of a roller coaster of a week in Canada. 

I got in Friday and spent the weekend in Toronto at the Ace Hotel – which is my favourite hotel this year for sure. It was beautifully designed, everything worked, the staff were lovely – attentive and friendly but not over the top and cloying. The location was close to the bits of Toronto I feel most comfortable with – Graffiti Alley (shocker), Kensington Market, China Town, Queen Street West etc. The Bahn Mi, Jerk Chicken and diner breakfasts contributed to the vibe.

I got the train to Ottawa Sunday afternoon and the hotel change was a bit of whiplash. I stayed in a Holiday Inn and was thankful to the upgrade to a suite. It was all a bit tired though and a lot of the hotel was taken up by kids on school trips with their chaperones! 

Around 04.00 Monday morning I awoke to a message from my mum that my grandmother had passed away. This wasn’t really a shock – she was 101 and had recently had a fall – but somehow it still was. The news really knocked me off balance – mainly as I just felt so far away and knew it would hit my mum and her siblings hard.

As I said on the socials Monday my family is a bit of a throwback in a lot of ways. A great many of us – 15 I think – live within about a square mile or two of where she had lived the vast majority of her life. Generations of her family going to the same schools, drinking in the same pubs, getting born in the same hospitals. It sounds suffocating and it does have its moments but really it was a lovely way to grow up and in adulthood it has just felt like a bit of the eccentricity that makes me me.

Anyway I was sad and combined with lack of sleep I was a bit low powered getting to FWD50 and was finding it hard to tune in initially. So I apologise to anyone I interacted with that first morning – I was out of sorts and distracted and I suspect poor company. 

I feel like I improved over the course of the event and was certainly more into things Tuesday and Wednesday but none of this had anything to do with the event which was brilliant – a top five conference I’ve attended.

It was obviously designed with a great deal of care and attention. The main venue was a bit of a TARDIS – so much more spacious and open than I expected. This was partly because it wasn’t cluttered with sponsor booths — the space was given over to seating and booths for conversation. Apart from a couple of stumbles the tech was impressive – the realtime translation especially but also just the stage lighting, audio etc. Also it pretty much stayed on time throughout! No easy feat.

I had soooo many brilliant conversations with folk that it almost felt like a home game. I’m so privileged to know all these amazing public servants – so many of whom are really the stars of this world – and rightly so. So many just lovely people – a big shout out to the gang from British Columbia who were brilliant company as well as doing inspiring work also to Jordan who made sure I was okay throughout the event.

It was nice though that I also had plenty of ‘me’ time – I was able to strike a nice balance throughout.

So what were my highlights? Well while it was great to see Tom do his thing and hear Jen speak it was the local talent that really stole the show.

[You can see the agenda here https://www.fwd50.com/agenda?t=false for bios and links to everyone I mention – the train wifi isn’t playing nice for linking things up!]

Sean Boots – who I finally met (if you know you know) really got things going with his talk – a passionate call to action providing a blueprint for Canada’s leaders to really start delivering on the opportunities the internet provides – to move beyond the rhetoric and start delivering some real digital transformation. He has blogged about it as well and it gave the event a real shot in the arm and influenced every talk from then on.

Ebony, Daphnée and Xiaopu did a great session sharing their experiences and challenges at their different organisations – taking different perspectives on the challenge of digital leadership in such difficult time – stories from the coal face of all this are the lifeblood of these events – especially when they are told with such care and authenticity.

Away from the conference I also really enjoyed walking the hour from the venue to my hotel through some real neighbourhoods – Ottawa can feel a bit grey downtown but the Glebe was cool – full of street art, little bars and coffee shops and people who don’t work in Government.

The FailFest event on Monday night was fun – some of the stories felt familiar even if they were from across the Atlantic. I dusted off the ONS ’national disgrace’ and disappearing website story which seemed to land well. Somebody decided to rap/sing their lightning talk. That was…something. Thanks Derek for organising and MCing.

Martha gave a powerful talk on the issue of trust in – and from – Government. She framed it around her personal experiences but brought her professional perspectives (earned across multiple branches of Government in the UK and Canada) to demonstrate the opportunity of Government starting from a place of trust rather than fear.

The panel Andrew chaired on the evolution of Service Standards was obviously a crowd pleaser for me as I have *opinions*
I was impressed with how open Elizabeth was about how hard it had been to move from theory to practice at such a big, bureaucratic organisation like ESDC (which is basically DWP for Canada) when it came to following the standards but they persevere. Amy from British Columbia talked about their work to move things beyond a list of standards or principles and to provide content and support to show what good looks like – to help teams moved from the why to the how. The way they did this in the open was fantastic – they will definitely be going in my next Working in the Open talk!

Aaron Snow chaired a panel on Open Source in Government and I have to say I spent the hour basically ‘tooting’ away on Mastodon about what I would have said if I was up there. You can read that over here —> (fixed the link!) Turns out I am still pretty passionate about it and while I am on board with the Digital is about ways of working and people we can’t forget that it the opportunities of software and the internet that created the need to change.

The Speakers drinks were lovely – I was there early (as ever) and feeling a bit like Billy No Mates but the British Columbia crew took pity on me and were lovely company and then I got into an intense conversation, with someone whose name I forgot after beer four, about the opportunities to influence the next UK Government when it comes to a digital approach and who is doing that this time around?! 

From what I did experience it seemed that Riley Ohler did an amazing job with his very personal talk about loss and grief (framed around the loss of his son). What I did see was brave and brilliant but for me it was still a bit too close to the bone so I had to skip most of it.

Honey gave a talk based around the idea of a retrospective the Canadian Government’s digital transformation journey (she also had her own cheer section #teamhoney) .  Like Sean earlier in the week she did not pull punches and was pushing a passionate and authentic agenda for change and acceleration of delivery while treating people better. It also poked at the current digital orthodoxy and called for new thinking. Great stuff.

I finished the event giving my little contribution as a mentor on the hiring and retention roundtable. Honestly I am not sure how helpful I was – to be honest Canadian gov HR challenges are RIDICULOUS and I just didn’t have a load to offer with that! I chipped in though and made a few suggestions – I also dished out dozens of stickers and fed people Whole Foods cookies!

So thanks for the invite, thanks for the conversations, thanks for the insights and inspiration and thanks for the distraction.

See you all next year maybe  

Right it is 13.30 now – I skipped the meal on the train (business class on VIA Rail is like being on a plane) and the landscape is no longer snowy so I guess I should get back to researching something to do as a reading at the funeral. 

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