Finding Insights Through Play – A Focus on the Public Sector with Sara Huang
Sara Huang moved from policymaking to facilitation within the Dutch government several years ago and, as such, has a perspective not many in our profession share.
Sara knows how to facilitate change in an environment that is infamous for being process-laden, risk averse, and slow-moving. Whether or not you agree with that assessment, it is the prevailing view of many people when they think of governmental bodies and the public sector.
So, what does it look like to facilitate in the public sector? What is different and what is the same? And what can we all learn from Sara? Read on to find out with some choice excerpts from Sara’s fascinating discussion with Myriam.
What are the challenges for facilitators in the public sector?
Facilitation and our practice varies from each client to the next, but there are some universal truths to the practice. Sara describes her role as being “about activating the wisdom that’s in the room” – something that every facilitator, I’m sure, can identify with.
Sara admits that “people think of the public sector as having a lot of bureaucracy, full of civil servants not being very innovative… something that’s not very flexible.”
“But the government is huge. You have different administrations, different people working their with different assignments and challenges, so you can’t say that the government is only very static and not innovative.”
Whilst Sara acknowledged Myriam’s suggestion that many people view the prevailing approach in government to be either to “agree with everyone or to find some synchronicity”, she also challenged this point. Sara believes that people working in government “understand the importance of system thinking, the importance of stakeholders – because all the stakeholders hold a piece of the puzzle – and the interdependency of all these stakeholders.”
After hearing more about Sara’s experience in facilitating in governmental departments, Myriam posited that “maybe we all get the public sector wrong”.
It seems, really, that the government is only as bureaucratic as the people in the room. Rather like work in the private sector, no?
How to facilitate effectively in the public sector
Sara notes that working in the public sector, dealing with huge decisions and big machines with many parts, focusing on the bigger picture, ironically, usually means starting small.
“Imagine you have to change a huge building – you can sketch it, plan it, and rebuild the whole building. Then two years after, you realise it was a bad decision and now you have this huge building that’s not right.”
So, “maybe we can start with the smallest room and try to build what we want. After that room is done, we ask what we are feeling about it and what can we improve from it.”
Sara also places a lot of importance on the intake of participants and their preparation for her workshops.
She will always ask “what’s the ideal outcome and what’s the ideal output of the session?”
Creating this kind of “growth path”, as Sara calls it, means she knows who needs to be in the room (in terms of making decisions) and what she needs to bring to achieve those desired outcomes and outputs.
This system was born from Sara’s own experience of working in government – “having the experience of being a Policy Advisor, nothing is as frustrating as going to a workshop, spending time, having all these flipcharts of action points, and then seeing nothing else come from it.”
The importance of play
Helping groups along their “growth path” to achieving their goals and desired outcomes and outputs is the entire purpose of the facilitator! And for Sara, one of the most useful tools she uses is play.
“It’s actually a natural state of being in flow and being creative”, says Sara, but “we don’t play just because of play. We play because we want to get a certain result.”
“Play is a method to get the brain to pay attention,” says Sara. “When we see things, we can relate to it.”
So playing in a way that creates something “concrete” moves the discussion forward, away from unspoken thoughts and nonverbal communication. Getting the room to play means you can “get more insights of what might happen. This is vital, says Sara, “in the context of system thinking, interdependency, and of different people holding different pieces of the puzzle.”
Flattening the room in an extremely hierarchical organisation
Facilitation isn’t all fun and games, as we well know. The public sector is notorious for being, as Myriam states, “hierarchical by nature”. Myriam wondered how Sara negotiates this and how she approaches “flattening the room so that every voice is the same”, and to create opportunities for creative problem-solving and changemaking?
“It starts with the agenda of the person hiring me, of course! But also what are the other voices? Who else do I need to see or communicate with before this workshop?”
It’s difficult, but essential, to ask “who has opinions on this and how can I integrate all these needs and voices into the design?” Understanding the different voices and power structures at play is important because “there are always different kinds of stories and the stories have their own dynamics. Power is relational.”
Once Sara understands the dynamics, the stories, and the structures at play, it is a matter of taking “small steps within the workshop, trying to bring awareness” to them.
Sara describes this beautifully, calling it “a dance of what you are saying within your role and what you are saying as a person.”
Something for everyone
It seems that public sector facilitation is not actually so different to private sector facilitation.
There are, of course, some nuances and idiosyncrasies that need special attention, but at its heart, facilitation is the same wherever it is practiced.
The lessons we can learn from other facilitators are valuable and rich, regardless of their specialism or area of interest. That is the beauty of our profession and this podcast – we are all practicing similar work in very different settings.
If you would like to hear more from Sara and learn about the fascinating nuances of public sector facilitation, you can listen to the show on your favourite podcast player, searching for “Workshops Work” or stream the episodes on www.workshops.work.
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