July 21-22, 2021 / Online

An interview with Jessica MacQueen and Sophia Hoosein

Written by Steve Fisher

June 24, 2020

Kindred spirits across government agencies Jessica and Sophia talk to us about doing content design work in a large government setting; how they found that while transforming behemoth organizations from the inside can lead to feeling like institutional killjoys, it’s actually a badge of honour.

How to live a feminist life


Welcome to another episode of the design and content conference podcast. And I'm pleased to welcome to the podcast, Jessica MacQueen and Sophia Hoosein. Welcome.


Thank you for having us.

Oh, it is my pleasure. And I'm excited to talk with both of you about the talk that you're bringing to the event this summer. But before we get into that, I'd love to hear a little bit more about the two of you and how you'd like to tell some of your story to our audience.

All right. So, I guess it all starts with how we met. Would, would you say that Jessica?

Yeah, I think so.

Okay. So both of us work for the government of Alberta, but in different ministries, different parts of the organization. And I think we were both doing work, trying to do progressive work with content. I think we were both hitting a lot of the same challenges and barriers. And then we met... I had met a colleague that was already working with Jessica on something, and I was having this conversation with him and he was like, "Have you met Jessica McQueen? "She's doing some really progressive things with content." So he introduced us and then we met, and we commiserated about our joint struggles and doing content work in government and in the public sector. And then the rest is history.

I think I like to tell the story that we sort of met kindred spirits. And that's important because, you know, Sophia works for one ministry. I work for another, we have very different job titles, but we do content and design work. So to find each other amidst this big bureaucracy, was really important. And that's really what I think kicked off this research project even was a shared interest in the challenges and the unique context of doing content and design work in a government bureaucracy.

Oh, that's great. I love hearing that story. Kindred spirits met in government, in Alberta.

[Sophia] How lovely.

It is. Well, it is. And so I have a soft spot for Alberta. I was born and grew up there, moved to Vancouver about a decade ago. And so, and I did a lot of my career. My work has been in various government projects because I saw the direct impact I was making on people's lives in the work. Even though sometimes,

[Jessica] That's

there was little bit of bureaucracy to work through occasionally. And sometimes things felt like they moved a little slow, but they had big impact. And that meant so much to me. So I'm very excited to hear about your work and I'm pretty intrigued. And I think a lot of people are by the title of your talk, the institutional killjoy and the transformation of public sector content. Tell us a little bit about that. Where did that come from?

Yeah, so, to add on to our... the story of how we met, we started going to events together and the common refrain that we had to one another was, man, this is so cool. We love hearing from these people doing amazing content work. But it's going to be hard for us to translate what we've learned, into our lived reality of navigating bureaucracy. So we knew that the content conference was coming up, and we really wanted to attend. And we were thinking, you know, like, maybe there's a way for us to pitch a talk about what we're experiencing. We were trying to come up with ideas together. And I happened to on the side, unrelated, be reading Sarah Ahmed's book that we referenced, that we kind of built the talk around. I think it's called how to live a feminist life. I read the whole book in like a day. And my, I think I had to pick my job off the floor by the end, because I was like, this is my experience. And she's talking about something that has nothing to do with, you know, government content. She's talking about the experience of what she calls diversity workers. So people working in universities and academic institutions in diversity roles, to try to transform the institution from the inside. But I kept seeing such obvious parallels to the work that we were doing and the challenges that we were facing. So I said, you know, what if we put this thesis out there that the public sector content strategist is like, an institutional killjoy, which is similar Ahmed's thesis. What if we do some research to bear that out and see if we're not the only ones who feel this way? And so that is how the project was born. And I think that term institutional killjoy, it's interesting Sophia. It sounds like it's resonated for a lot of people.

It has, and it's resonated for a lot of public servants who not just work in content, but those who are trying to push change and transformation to ultimately deliver the best services and products that we can for the citizens that we serve really resonating, like that term really resonates with how they feel.

And so we're hoping to sort of unpack it because it sounds like a bit of a loaded term. I think when we started this project, I doubt either of us would have like put on our LinkedIn profile, like, I'm an institutional killjoy, but I feel like by the end of this project, we've sort of come to see it as maybe a bit of a badge of honor.

That's great. And you know, it is something that is meaningful and grabs your attention. So I'm curious about, like, you've talked a little bit about some of the background behind this and the living a feminist life like some of the triggers within that, but what, what are some of the unique contents that you would be pulling out within your talk at the event this July?

So Sophia, I wonder if you can share maybe a little bit of our methodology and what we uncovered.

Sure. So we issued a call out to participants. We wanted to conduct some qualitative research to really get at the human experience and the lived experiences of this work. What does doing, this content strategy work in governments, in the public sector looks like. So we put calls out in places like LinkedIn, they would spread the word through their own networks and they would share that this research was going on. And one of the things that we ultimately came to learn, was that we're definitely not alone in this work. This feeling of being a killjoy, just kind of coming up against walls and barriers all the time, as you're trying to positively push this kind of work forward, is a very common experience.

So what we did, we, you know, we collected about 15 folks across jurisdictions in Canada, and we asked them a series of questions and what we uncovered were like, Sophia said things like, what does this work feel like? But also what are the common challenges you face? What are the strategies you use to overcome those challenges? And I think for me, the most exciting thing that we uncovered in this project was we asked a question about what people would put in their survival kits to do this work in government. And that's a very important concept for Ahmed's book. She talks about how the institutional killjoy, needs a survival kit to be able to persist doing this hard work of transforming institutions from inside. So we asked that question to everybody and what we gathered, was this incredible collection of tools, resources, and strategies that have been tried and true for people at various levels of their career. So we spoke with, you know, junior practitioners all the way to senior level folks. And we were able to pick out a lot of like key themes or similar shared experiences that have been working for people. So I think that to me was the most exciting content that we uncovered other than just discovering that there are a lot of shared experiences and common themes across jurisdictions.

That's great. And you know, it actually resonates a bit with these types of events, too. What we find is we bring people together that are having a... Have like a disparate shared experience. And you do kind of find your people, you learn from each other. And so, I'm excited to hear about this from a public sector perspective. I'm curious though, how will some of the public sector, translate to a private sector audience? 'Cause we will have folks coming from government and doing that type of work, but we also have people coming from the private sector.

If you work in the private sector, you could be a contractor or you're working for a company or an agency that works with governments and responds to RFPs and things like that. This could help you understand like, what are the inner mechanics of how the government works? And some of the difficulty, like why are some of these challenges in place? Why are things set up the way they're set up? As we're pushing content through our projects, through our initiatives, through... It could be insightful for those in those cases. It could also be applicable to anyone who might be working in the private sector, but you're in a larger organization. There could be some of the same struggles with, you know, different management layers and approval levels and things like that.

Yeah. I think sometimes the challenges of bureaucracy translates across private and public. It's just like, that's the nature of big organizations, right? I think another thing that we are really keen on and that we often get as public sector practitioners, going to professional development events, is that dialogue. That learning between private and public. Because we do have very different experiences. And so our hope is that, you know, usually when we go to these events, we hear that private sector expertise and it is so valuable for us, but we were curious to see if flipping it and sharing that public sector perspective could have some value for private practitioners involved.

You know, and just as an example, for things like user research, often as governments, we don't have the same mechanism to recruit participants. Or incentives, I should say. We can't just offer gift cards, for example, to entice people to participate. And now we have reached a moment in time where a lot of businesses have hit some hard times, as a result of COVID. They may not have the resources, financial or otherwise, that they might need to do some of this work, but what could they pull from how we do this work? What do we use to kind of entice people to come out to participate? Or how do we do this without those kinds of incentives in place?

Yeah, that's a good point. And like, we all know that governments play an important role in all of our lives, but somehow right now it feels really heightened. Yeah. And I think it is really worthwhile to learn from other people's experiences. But also from other organizations and the ways of working that can happen through that. I love the example of the research and saying, yeah, we don't have the $200 gift card that you're maybe able to hand out for something. But maybe there's another intrinsic motivation to helping improve the government services. And it is really valuable cross pollination of ideas, I'd say. So thinking about your talk, what are some of the key tidbits or takeaways or gold nuggets that might come out of this?

Well, I think from a big picture perspective, we're hoping to give participants two things. One is a framework and a language, to think about doing this work in public sector. So there's something really powerful about, you know, we will expose ourselves as having studied English in university. But there's something very powerful about reading theory and getting the language and the framework to understand your lived experience and be able to speak about it better. Right? It can sort of give you the words to talk about what you're feeling. So we're hoping that one of the things we can do, is give practitioners a language and a framework to talk about the experiences they have. And then that leads into the second thing that we're hoping to offer, which is this concept of the survival kit and then all the contents that you could put in the survival kit. So tools, resources, and strategies to do this work well.

Yeah, that sounds really practical for people to take away things and apply it or think about it right away. And so with the event going online, what are some of the things that you're looking forward to now? Like what is, what what's something new about that, that you're excited about?

One of the things that I'm interested to see, is how the networking component of a conference, which is so critical, plays out in a virtual environment. And I know they're like, that's probably been a reality for many conferences this year.

As I've been attending other things and helping plan for this one, we realized that the back channel is now the front channel. The thing... Like Slack for us, will be that essentially. And what has been like a side chat, is now where a lot of that networking is happening. Not all of it. But, but much of it. And so I am too, excited to see how that goes, because there's a bit of a, the ability to have your own breakouts and record of those chats and things that is really positive.

That's really interesting. The idea that you might be able to maybe capture some of the conversation a little bit more longterm. And I think for Sophia and I, you know, we've been conducting research, to be able to do this project and that all had to shift virtual as well. So, we've already sort of been operating in this extremely virtual space and in a way it feels very comfortable. And there's something kind of funny about the interviews that we were conducting. We had a lot of folks at the end sort of take a deep, big breath and say, "This felt like a content strategist, "like therapy session."


And there's like this intimacy, when you're just like, it's you and the camera, And you're just like, let's just talk about these shared experiences. So, you know, I think a lot of people are thinking about what is lost and what is gained when you are in person or virtual. And I think there's positives and negatives to both, but we've been able to have really valuable conversations entirely online this whole time. So I think we're excited to just keep that going

In some ways, it's yeah... It is more intimate. You could almost have this feeling of being spoken to directly as opposed to being in this larger room and being one of many.

No, I do know what you're getting at. In that... It's like some of the concerts I've been attending, online, like through my TV. And at first I thought, Oh, this isn't going to be as good because I'm not there. I'm not like able to hear like Dan Mangan's voice or the national singer whoever it happens to be. But then it was something about him being in my living room with me. That changed it and I felt like it was more, you know, one on two or three and so, yeah. I do hear what you're saying Sophia. There is that sense of intimacy that is unexpected and special. Thank you so much for your time today. I appreciate it. And we're looking forward to your talk.

We're so excited. Thank you.

Thank you so much. And I'll leave you with this from "Parks and Rec." Sorry, you're going to roll your eyes Jessica. Maybe

One of the things that we come up against is this. So I don't know if you watch "Parks and Rec," but there's a character

I loved it. named Tom, like this younger person in the office. He wanted to do something really innovative and Jerry kind of scales him back and it's like, that's not what's asked, don't go beyond that. And then he goes, "I've been here for 37 years. "And the best way to cope with this job, "is to do everything the exact same way every day." And so I feel like that is so often what we come up against in the public sector doing this work.

So true. Well again, excited to have you out. Thank you for the "Parks and Recs" reference, that makes me happy. And looking forward to hearing about the institutional killjoy.


Thank you so much for having us.

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