Professional Development and SPARK (Students Providing Aligned Research and Knowledge)

A big thanks in this post to @jmikelittle, who was able to draw my attention to the SPARK program that is coordinated by the Canada School of Public Service.

Google has a neat option for their engineers within their organization – they can spend 20% of their time each week on projects not related to their job descriptions. This could be anything from tweaking something that they noticed wasn’t working properly, or starting a new project altogether. From my standpoint, it would seem that this allows people to remain engaged, develop new skills, and have people constantly on the look-out for projects to be engaged in.

I find that in the public service, especially in the context of renewal, you often see things that you say to yourself, “I would LOVE to be involved in that! If only I had the time/I was allowed to…”. While there are some high quality managers who allow their employees to become engaged in these initiatives/projects, there others are who believe that if it’s not in your job description, you shouldn’t even consider participation.

In an era where interdepartmental coordination/collaboration isn’t just a ‘nice-to-have’, but a business imperative, we need to figure out how to get those with the motivation involved in interdepartmental projects. Similar to google, allowing public servants to take some of their time each week to work on other projects has an inherent value in providing professional development opportunities through networking, learning a new policy area, etc.

This is where SPARK comes in.

SPARK (Students Providing Aligned Research and Knowledge) is a program run through the Canada School of Public Service. From the GCPedia/CSPS:

The two main objectives of the program are to:

  • Better align the intellectual capacities of students and professors in academia with the public administration and public policy research needs of the federal Public Service; and
  • Provide high-performing students the possibility of being considered for future positions in the federal Public Service.

Under SPARK, selected graduate students will be paid for research projects in areas of public administration and public policy, gain knowledge and experience addressing practical, real-life issues, and can potentially be hired into an indeterminate position upon graduation. Further, working with a professor in a supervisory role, students will be able to carry out research from their current location.

I love the idea. Students essentially get a bursary for providing a research report on a particular topic. Departments send out job advertisements through, and students need to have a professor to supervise their work. I think there is a way to expand this model to public servants.

While there are assignment programs, and the occassional week-long course, I find professional development/learning to be lacking as a systematic feature of the public service. By that, I mean that if you have a good manager (and I have been fortunate to have fantastic managers thus far), you’ll likely get the opportuntity for professional development. Having a system that is dependant on the good will of managers, though, doesn’t provide the type of systematic opportunities that I think will be necessary as we move forward. You can’t learn interdepartmental collaboration in a 3 day course.

There is the occassional opportunity for intedepartmental work, where people are approached/allowed to be part of interdepartmental efforts (I’m thinking here of GCconnex and GCpedia), but I think we need to go broader to make this systematic.

PSPARK (Public Servants Providing Aligned Research and Knowledge)

Admittedly, the acronym needs work.

The major udnerlying assumption for what I’m about to propose is:

Every department has “nice-to-have” projects that they think need to happen:

  • These projects sometime require expertise/experience from other departments
  • These projects likely exist at levels where they need a lot of intradepartmental coordination to do appropriately
  • Other departments likely have similar projects that they want to do, or have already completed

Under PSPARK, individual departments (or, in an ideal world, a collective group of departments) could post one of their ‘nice-to-have’ projects. This would need to include a few key pieces of information:

  • Overall goal of project
  • Total person-hours needed/week, for a specified period
  • Expertise needed (Policy people? Computer types?)

Public servants from across the GoC could then apply to the project. Rather than get paid like those in the SPARK project, this would be a professional development opportuntity (ideally, part of the learning plan). Instead of paying to participate in the program (like we would for other courses), we would pay in ‘hours’ authorized through our learning plans.

This program would encourage innovation, allow for those motivated to work on projects to come forward and develop new skill sets, while also benefiting departments. The projects, interdepartmental in nature, would ideally end up serving a number of departments in the Government.

Of course, as with anything, there are a number of logistical issues around this project – but hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?

PS: Contributing to my thinking on this post, is also this post on GCconnex (internal to GoC only), which outlines how an assignment model could be funded for the development of certain Web 2.0 strategies. Many thanks to @dbast for clearly outlining another approach to take to this type of opportunity in gov to really harness the talent within!


4 thoughts on “Professional Development and SPARK (Students Providing Aligned Research and Knowledge)

  1. I think you’ve done some great work with that acronym.

    I don’t want to load too much onto an idea, but imagine Doug’s proposal about insourcing gcpedia/gcconnex upkeep (*link below), and think about how useful it would be to allow one person (or a group) the ability to work on a project which can not only become a useful tool for them and their organisation, but be used by the whole of government.

    I think the learning plan is the best way to go about this project because it’s an entrenched tool to help employees improve their productivity. Why not work on something real when learning and have a real impact on the public service by working on somewhere new? In my mind it works in so many ways.

    I think this is a steller idea Colin and a very good written explanation of its foundation.


    • Thanks very much for that link! I had looked at it last week, and couldn’t find it again. I’ll edit the initial post to include reference to it as well.

  2. Great idea and one I would fully support. It reminds me of another example in government, at NRCan. The department has what they call a Learning Organization Community of Practice. Anyone can be part of the CoP and can take a 5 day training program where they learn all the tools necessary to have the right conversations, dialogues, etc. They are taught facilitation skills, how to conduct knowledge cafes, and generally excellent tools to engage and collaborate. Once you are a LoCoP, you are expected to contribute some of your time to help members in other groups facilitate meetings and use their (i.e. your 10-20%)–this was a great in-house resource for anyone to access. NRCan also had a video CoP and this group would take innovative video and post to YouTube for exposure. All great and designed to develop and innovate.

  3. Pingback: A New Take on the Visiting Fellows Program « Public Service of the Future

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