Berkana Blog

Transforming Public Health in Nova Scotia with Participatory Leadership

by Michelle Murton on November 29, 2011

Co-authored by Nicole Druhan-McGinn

We have begun a new journey in Nova Scotia, one that has challenged us to re-imagine, regenerate and reinvigorate our public health system. In December 2008, a group of practitioners and partners in public health from across the province began searching for new ways to bring people together to seek solutions that would benefit the public health system and improve the health of our population.

We recognized that to address the current challenges, we needed to tap into the wisdom of diverse stakeholders, and doing so required a different approach. One that fostered leadership, collective ownership, deep listening, and innovation. Our approach was rooted in participatory leadership, believing that change for the common good called for involvement, collective intelligence and co-creation to discover new solutions and wise actions. We invested in learning new ways of working together using participatory methods including Art of Hosting, Appreciative Inquiry, World Café and Theory U. We chose Theory U to guide our journey as it encouraged fresh ways of being and seeing the world and its opportunities, and uncovering solutions together.

The first steps of the journey began with the challenge of articulating a shared vision for public health in Nova Scotia. Between February 2009 and April 2010 we engaged people within and outside the formal public health system through interviews, “learning journeys” and stakeholder consultations to discover what was working well in communities, to gather information on what was possible for public health, and to understand what communities needed from public health. We spent time with people in organizations doing innovative work and began to better understand how opportunities were created for innovation. We heard some very difficult things, some conflicting things and some things that needed attention relating to how public health was working with and within communities. This served to awaken us and to deepen our commitment to participatory leadership approaches.

Then we took some time to sit with what we learned, internalizing it, considering our roles within the wider system and beginning to brainstorm ways to bring the highest future potential for public health into the present. Through intentionally working with participatory methods with public health workers across the province, we have been able to articulate a purpose statement for public health and, even more exciting, identify four strategic opportunities for innovation where, if we collectively focus our attention, we can really effect positive change. The purpose and strategic directions were validated with our stakeholders at a number of gatherings. The gatherings helped us deepen our collective understanding of the purpose of public health in Nova Scotia. Our Purpose: “Public health works with others to understand the health of our communities and acts together to improve health”.

Our journey is still in motion. We recognize that the ideal, imagined future for public health will be realized over time. Some of what we are doing now may not be done the same way. Some of what we do will remain the same but with an enhanced focus on our stated purpose. And some of what we do in the future will be completely new. What we do know is that how we do everything will be as important as what we do. That is part of why we are now being called to become stewards of participatory leadership approaches within our public health systems and our communities. We are investing in and nourishing ourselves as stewards because we believe that system transformation requires the emergence that can only be accomplished by using “new ways of being” with ourselves, our issues and collectively with our system.

For more information on the transformation of Nova Scotia’s Public Health system, please see “A Journey Towards Renewal” and “Moving Forward: A Commitment to Public Health’s Future.” Read about their entry into Theory U in this feature on Nova Scotia’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Robert Strang.

Michelle Murton is a nutritionist and public health practitioner with the Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness, and a registered yoga teacher. She says she is privileged to learn from and work with fellow lovers of good, healthy, sustainable food–nationally, provincially and in local communities. She believes food and health are essential, sacred and precious, and offers her experience and passion to ‘real’ conversations and action in these domains.

Nicole Druhan McGinn is a practitioner and steward of the Art of Hosting, and facilitates community and organizational development through the use of participatory research and evaluation methods, appreciative inquiry, World Cafe and open space technology. Living and working in diverse healthcare systems has fueled her deep belief in the power of communities to shape their own health and wellness. Nicole holds a Masters degree in Population Health from Australian National University. She is currently Coordinator of Research and Evaluation with Capital Health, Public Health in Halifax, Nova Scotia.




Comments (1)

  1. Wendy Dixon on April 17, 2013 at 11:23 pm

    I am working on a project I have named Joshua’s Tree. It is creating space for innovation and alternatives for psychosis recovery. The starting point is to bring people with lived experience and their family, friends together and ‘present’ with professionals, policy makers, government, lawyers and find our way forward. I want to do it in the spirit of Adam Kahane scenario or the work of Birkana. I noticed there was a retreat in Nova Scotia of some sort with Margaret Wheatley. You folks part of that?