Tag Archives: NGO

Canadian Foreign Policy as a Disruptive innovation problem

After having a long brain storm session with some people interested in the future of Canadian Foreign Policy was inspired to write this thought experiment.

Perhaps a helpful way to frame our current Foreign Policy ennui is to see the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) as facing a challenge analogous to that discussed in The Innovators Dilemma – sometimes referred to as disruptive innovation.

Disruptive innovations are products or services that rather than simply evolving, overturn the existing dominant approach in a marketplace. Often the disruptive innovations starts off serving the low end of the market but it eventually matures and serves more demanding and larger clients pushing the established players out of business.

What does this have to do with DFAIT? Consider the graph below (a play on the wikipedia page graph). It used to be that DFAIT served four segments – from low quality all the through to the most demanding use. And yet, over the past decades other actors – sometimes in the private sector, but more frequently NGOs – began to offer services that more effectively deliver what political masters, or more often, citizens, were looking for. At first this was true merely of the lowest tier, travel agencies and news groups began to tell people where was safe and unsafe to travel and so the government ceased being a primary resource for this. Then NGOs began to effectively deliver services in the more traditional areas of advocacy and programs. Increasingly the government has retreated from that space. More recently, you’ve seen NGOs actually take the lead by moving into new areas of debate and creating supporting documentation for critical actors. At the same time you’ve seen other ministries become significantly more active in the management of “international files” that overlap with their areas of focus (eg. Health or the Environment).

Disruptive 3

This is classic innovators’ dilemma. A challenge to DFAIT from a community using a strategy that initially seemed marginal (and even helpful because it alleviated it of performing mundane tasks) has evolved into a true competitor, appealing (usually more effectively) not only for the hearts and minds of Canadians, but for the attention of other ministries and key influencers.

The real question is how does DFAIT compete? Again this is a thought experiment – I’m regularly impressed by the work done my people (many of them friends) at DFAIT. But the department has suffered over the past decade. It should be asking itself: can a (and how should a) centralized bureaucracy compete against an ecosystem of NGOs and other actors? DFAIT may be able to retreat to performing in only the “most demanding use” areas – but there is no guarantee that even this space is completely safe (although the government will maintain a monopoly on certain areas).

The real challenge as outlined in the Innovators Dilemma is that innovation is often difficult, if not impossible for the incumbent actor. One thing that gives me hope is that the department may shrink, helping it become more nimble. For example, I’m pleased to hear that International Trade may be heading over to Industry Canada. This makes all the sense in the world – can anyone today legitimately claim that there is a real difference between domestic and international industrial policy?

Smaller, leaner, and more partner oriented. I suspect one way or another this is the future of Foreign Policy. The question is, can Foreign Affairs innovate its way into that space? The author of the innovators dilemma isn’t optimistic – but then they were writing about private companies that could go bankrupt, not government ministries that can live on as the undead for extended periods of time… hardly an outcome Canadians or our Foreign Service officers, deserve.

Negotiation Workshop for NGOs in Vancouver

I’ll be doing a Negotiation Workshop on behalf of the Hollyhock Leadership Institute in Vancouver this April 25th and 26th. You can find out more, or register, here.

Since moving back to Vancouver I’ve been interested in finding ways to enable the local NGO community so when HLI asked if this is something that might be possible I jumped on the opportunity. While the workshop will be applicable in a number of circumstances, I want it to relate to two specific challenges.

Puzzle Circle

The first relates to what I think is a critical moment in BC, particularly for NGO’s.

With the coming Olympics and the passage of the recent provincial budget I suspect the number of negotiations between NGO’s and the provincial government will likely increase and/or taken on greater urgency. On the one hand this is an enormous opportunity for ENGOs to engage and partner with government and advance their cause – if the two parties can create a collaborative framework for working together.

Creating such a collaborative framework is often challenging.  Further complicating the issue is that parties will need to be able to sustain this collaboration in specific areas while the NGO community (legitimately) continues to critique and condemn government activities in other areas. These cooperative/competitive relationships are always difficult to manage, but all the more so when two groups – government bureaucrats/politicians and scoail activists – come to the table with a complex (and sometimes personal) history.

The second challenge relates to the equally difficult issue of the negotiations between NGO’s or among the activists within a social movement. As anyone experienced in this type of work will tell you, these conversations can be equally, if not more draining. If we can begin to develop skills and foster a culture that improves our capacity to engage in these conversations and negotiations, the movement can only be strengthened.

My hope is that this workshop can enable members of the community to better manage these negotiations and their relationships both with government and one another. If this is of interest, check out the workshop webpage. Also, I’ve mapped out what some of the critical negotiations in social movements are in this earlier blog post.

Critical Negotiations in social change movements

Recently I had the good fortune of sharing a tea with Andrea Reimer of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. Our conversation focused on critical negotiations in social change movements – and more specifically, environmental movements.

Andrea pointed me to The Movement Action Plan, an article by social activist Bill Moyer.  The article outlines both the 8 stages (graphed below) a social movement often goes through – as well as the opportunities and pitfalls that exist along this path.

I’ve identified and mapped out (see slideshare presentation below) the 3 points where I believe there are critical and predictable negotiations. This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive, nor an absolute list. But based on a number of recent conversations I suspect this simple list of negotiations are both likely as well some of the most difficult for any movement to engage in. That said, I could be wrong and would love for critical perspective or countering data. This would be helpful as this is helping me frame my thinking for the negotiation workshop I’ll be giving on behalf of the Hollyhock Leadership Institute to members of the Environmental NGO community in late April.


  • The first key negotiation is in stage 2 through 4 where the movement’s component groups and individuals need to negotiate with one another about how to best advance their cause. This is, in short, a large alliance management problem where the benefits of collaboration could be increased public awareness and activism.
  • The second is in stage 5. Here the movement has to transition from being purely activist drive to long term focused. Here the movement is confronted again with an internal negotiation – the “take-off junkies” need to be persuaded to either adopt a long-term strategy or take on a new challenge. Alternatively, the movement could attempt to marginalize them.
  • The third is in stage 6 and 7. Here the movement may find it is negotiation – implicitly or explicitly – with the powerholders. Here the option is to reach agreement to establish a new status quo or, should negotiations collapse, to return to either activism or pressure building. This is where I believe many (but not all) Environmental NGO’s in British Columbia currently find themsleves. They are negotiation with the Provincial government over standards, policies and plans where they can either reach agreement or retreat to protest politics. In a sense their ultimate BATNA (and nightmare scenario for the government) is to threaten to engage in another round of the 1993 Clayoquot Sound protests. The question is, can the NGO community negotiate effectively, both with among themselves over their strategy, and with the government over the standards, policies and plans?


OpenCities and Seneca College

As many of you know I’m deeply interested in Open-Source systems and so was super thrilled when David Humphrey invited me over to Seneca College for a reception at the Centre for Development of Open Technology (CDOT). Who knew such a place existed. And in Toronto no less! There is something in the air around Toronto and open-source systems… why is that?

This is exactly one of the questions those of us planning OpenCities are hoping it answers… (as our more formal blurb hints at)

What is OpenCities Toronto 2007? Our goal is to gather 80 cool people to ask how do we collaboratively add more open to the urban landscape we share? What happens when people working on open source, public space, open content, mash up art, and open business work together? How do we make Toronto a magnet for people playing with the open meme?

Registration for OpenCities starts today. If you have any questions please feel free to ask in the comment box below, or, drop me an email. I’m doubly pumped since the whole event will be taking place at the Centre for Social Innovation – I can’t imagine a better space. (If you wondering – do I live in Toronto or Vancouver, I don’t blame you, I sometimes wonder myself).

Congratulations to Engineers Without Borders

Since they are too humble to say it (it’s not even on their webpage!) fellow Canada25 alum Parker Mitchell and fellow ActionCanada alum George Roter won the Public Policy Forum’s prestigious Young Leaders Award for founding and then growing Engineers Without Borders (EWB) into the successful organization it is today.

I’d encourage anyone not familiar with EWB to check out their webpage. They are an amazing organization that exemplifies how ordinary Canadians are empowering themselves to take action and help make the world a better place. When we talked about empowered Canadians in From Middle to Model Power, these engineers are a perfect case study.

If you are already familiar with EWB I strongly encourage you to donate money to them by clicking here.

Finally, I’m embarrassed to admit that back in the dwindling days of the Martin administration, just after the International Policy Statement was released (anyone remember that?) Parker bet me an expensive bottle of whiskey (single malt – but brand yet to be determined) that Canada would begin contributing 0.7% of its GDP in overseas development assistance by 2012. It’s a bet that I took, not because I wanted to be right, but because I knew it was a good bet. However, to ensure good karma… Parker, if I win, I’ll donate double of whatever the bottles costs to EWB. And of course, we’ll drink it all together. In one sitting.

[tags]EWB, engineers without borders, public policy forum, NGO[/tags]