Getting traction for new ideas inside government

Figuring out how to get buy-in for new ideas is a challenge we all face every day. But it can be especially tough when you work in the public sector. Nobody knows that better than Norm Connolly.

As a long-time planner and sustainability leader, he's successfully launched new energy initiatives and policies across multiple municipalities in British Columbia, figuring out how to overcome constraints that include budget, culture and perceived risk.

What's his secret? Among other things, telling stories.

Like climate leaders in municipalities around the world, Norm and his colleagues at the City of Richmond face an urgent problem. They have to find a way to go beyond pilot programs and scale their work in order to reach the City's climate goals by 2030.

"That's a really interesting place to be. We're trying to staff up here, but we'll also need to increase the funding that's available. And there's going to have to be some provision for failures or experiments that don't work all that well. Of course, we'll have to manage those properly to not do harm or anything. But there might be some stumbles along the way and that's not always a comfortable place for a government institution to be in. So understanding how we actually rev up and really move the dial on this and expand our impact in the community is gonna be an interesting challenge."

One approach that's worked well for him in the past is to make sure that they invest time in frequent and clear communications with funders and partners so that there are no surprises and everyone feels like they're all on the same journey.

They've also used a lot of simple storytelling to make sure their programs are visible, which is critical to getting buy-in. People can't support you if they don't know what you're doing.

"If there was something cool going on, a business owner was doing something great on an energy efficiency front, we would try to reach out to them and see if they wanted to be part of a profile story. When we were introducing curbside charging through retrofitted, LED light poles – so this was kind of an experiment on public charging –  we worked with BCIT (the BC Institute of Technology), who got a big NRCan grant and identified six sites throughout the city where we could do this stuff. And so we profiled that and that was just one of many examples that would make it real."
"In another example, New Westminster has a lot of lovely, early 20th century homes. One young family that was in one of these homes wanted to improve their comfort levels by improving the energy efficiency of the home. At the time, we were offering free energy audits and free advisory services through our professional energy advisor service. So we captured the energy modelling and things they did on digital video and did a profile of before and after on that home. And those things really helped to make it real for our bosses and partners to say, 'Hey, this is  an actual community program and it is having measurable benefits.' So we tried to get as many of those early wins as possible, and those profile stories certainly helped."

Beyond this kind of traditional storytelling to "sell" ideas, Norm and his climate colleagues across the country are also investing in more informal communication and engagement to share information, experiences and opportunities amongst themselves. Through communities of practice, they get together for events like "decarb lunches" to swap stories and showcase innovations in areas like zero-emission buildings.

They recognize that no single person or discipline has the knowledge or expertise to solve the complex problems we face today. Bringing people together from areas as diverse as finance and engineering to share stories about what's worked well and where we need to go next creates space for us to generate new ideas we could never come up with on our own. It also ensures that our stories create solutions and a culture that's just and fair for all.

Listen to my full conversation with Norm to learn more about what he's doing differently to lead climate and sustainability work within municipal government.