Civil servants pass down wisdom for the ages in new online learning platform

An online learning platform has been launched in Victoria to pass on the years of understanding, knowledge, insight and useful tricks of civil servants that otherwise might be lost when they retire.

Ingrid Bergmann and Mary Garden have started Inside Public Sector Leadership: Practical Wisdom, a virtual mentoring program that dives into the kinds of things not always taught in schools nor passed on from generation to generation in the public service.

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The course gives public servants a chance to ask questions of accomplished and proven mentors and leaders. The mentors, in turn, help participants accelerate their learning by providing real-life context and examples designed to instil confidence and help develop leadership skills.

“We think the power of storytelling, a way of sharing human stories about what we need to know in a democracy, is a really good way to [pass on knowledge],” Bergmann said.

It’s about practical guidance to help when theoretical teaching might fall short.

“Our mentors share small stories about what worked and what didn’t work [in certain situations], hence the title ‘practical wisdom,’ ” she added.

Bergmann said the idea came after years of executive coaching revealed there was a knowledge gap developing between junior and senior public servants.

“In government, there are some unwritten protocols and grey areas that are not written down anywhere and not really discussed formally,” she said, adding there is plenty of professional development and a variety of courses offered to the civil service.

“But they don’t cover everything.”

Bergmann said the knowledge gap started to widen with the changing nature of the public service and an aging population.

She said it used to take years, maybe even decades, for junior staff to work their way into senior positions after they were slowly exposed to new wrinkles in the way government operates.

But she said the aging demographic, with a large number of people leaving government, meant there was no longer time to pass on insights to the next group coming through the ranks.

She also noted the amount of information staff now have to carry — and be able to make sense of — has increased exponentially, while they operate in a 24-7 media environment.

“It steals time from the normal life of a public servant,” she said.

To stem that tide and shore up the education with some practical insight, the online course brings together a group of former public sector leaders who will act as mentors, sharing their stories and tips on how to deal with a variety of situations, and how to avoid pitfalls.

The program, which is into its third season, has been used by about 100 students per season.

Bergmann said it tends to appeal to those from a few rungs below the deputy-minister level all the way up to deputy ministers who might pick up a trick or two. She also expects it could appeal to those who work with the federal and provincial governments and want a better understanding of their inner workings.

The annual program, which costs $1,495, stretches over four months with one 75-minute episode every two weeks.

The episodes that feature experts and mentors in conversation discussing a variety of topics — some of them shaped by participants’ questions — are also recorded and can be watched whenever time allows.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

• The program is at publicsectorleadership.ca

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