I am often asked why Canada has a Minister of Digital Government and what that means. My job is to integrate policy and innovative service delivery with IT management, as we work to digitalize and transform our services to Canadians. My role reflects the importance of doing a better job of serving Canadians.
In the past few months people around the world, Canadians among them, have faced challenges many of us have never experienced in our lifetimes. The global pandemic completely upended the way we live and work. The critical importance of a rapid government response for citizens, with secure, reliable and easy to use services and information, was brought to light.
As Canada’s Minister of Digital Government I was very impressed by the herculean effort across government to quickly transition the majority of our public servants to remote work. Enabling tens of thousands of people to continue serving Canadians remotely and securely was a truly unprecedented task, and Digital Government public servants, among others, certainly rose to the occasion! This is just one example of how this crisis is accelerating our shift to digital ways of working. We also saw projects that would normally have taken months or years, roll out in a matter of weeks. Services like the COVID Alert exposure notification app, the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit and the COVID-19 Benefits Finder highlight the government’s shift to making our services digitally accessible to Canadians.
My goal is to harness this momentum to deliver better, faster, more reliable digital services that will make life better for Canadians. Canada has fallen behind when it comes to user-friendly digital services. To catch up, we can harness the learning and experience of the private sector and other jurisdictions to leapfrog and move faster.
To that end I am embarking on a virtual summer ‘tour’ across Canada to discuss my vision for digital government and service delivery, and hear the ideas of thought leaders from the public sector, private sector and academia. These conversations will allow us to tap into their expertise and lessons learned, to guide our shift to digital as we work to develop and deliver the types of services Canadians expect in a digital age.
If we can book a trip around the world on our smartphones, we should also be able to use them to renew a passport!
Watch this space for updates!
I will be sharing summaries of the nuggets of information gleaned from each virtual roundtable and will also follow up after the tour’s conclusion in September to provide an overview of the Government of Canada’s digital strategy, including working with partners in and out of government to make it a reality.
Our Government’s response to the challenges faced this year proved we can roll out supports and services more quickly when using a digital approach instead of our old, slow, siloed systems. Thanks for following along with us as we make the shift to secure, reliable and easy to use digital services for Canadians.
Week 1 (July 30): Trusting Technology: Building the digital services that Canadians will trust and use
In the first roundtable, I wanted to focus on the foundation for any relationship ─ TRUST. Poor service delivery erodes citizens’ trust in government, and that’s bad for democracy. In order to consistently design and deliver effective digital services, the GC needs to ensure citizens can trust these services to preserve their privacy, secure their data and deliver the level of service they expect in a digital age.
For this discussion, I was joined by experts from the private sector, civil society and academia, who shared their thoughts and ideas on a number of subjects ─- from digital literacy and reforming legislation, to transparency and measuring success. Through this engaging and thought-provoking discussion a few key themes emerged:
To deliver seamless digital service to Canadians we need to rework some of the existing legislative and policy barriers that may pre-date the internet age, and now serve to prevent different government departments from sharing data with one another. These barriers are cumbersome and restrictive, so it will be difficult to enact any real change without changes to how government collaborates and shares information.
Modernizing the Privacy Act is an essential ingredient to success; and we must extend our vision beyond privacy to include ethics and human rights. I heard that all digital services need the same amount of rigour in this respect.
Also, we need to consult Canadians more quickly on how to make these changes. Public input needs to be gathered, assessed and shared openly to help build the trust that’s at the core of these efforts.
Transparency and trust go hand-in-hand. Participants noted the current trust deficit with the private sector when it comes to data use and protection. That deficit exists with the public sector as well, with little trust in government to lead on technology, and a perceived lack of clarity on how we ensure technology is used responsibly. Although we have made strides on responsible use of artificial intelligence with the government’s Directive on Automated Decision-Making and the Algorithmic Impact Assessment, this leadership must be strengthened for all government services. How can we ensure responsible use is a core principle of all digital services? Who is accountable?
We also need to show our work and let Canadians see results through open information sharing. Experiment more, use more open source solutions and practices, and work in the open. Third-party validation will help us build trust with Canadians.
Last but certainly not least is the question of measurement. How do we know we are headed in the right direction? Can we use data to effectively course-correct while we’re developing and improving services?
Roundtable participants highlighted the need to improve the use of measurement and metrics in our government’s digital transformation. We also need to share these metrics openly by default, to build trust and gain insight from Canadians. This in turn informs everything else we do.
One participant noted that following UK public consultations on technology, a simple yet essential conclusion was revealed: if it works, it builds trust. But make sure you know what “works” means! Effective measurement and metrics will tell us that, and in turn can help us set the right landscape of standards to reduce duplication amongst departments and services.
I would like to express my appreciation for the time and effort our roundtable participants invested. The depth of expertise and caliber of feedback has certainly set a high bar for the remaining sessions and has given me much food for thought. I thank our guests and look forward to the next discussion.
Stay tuned for upcoming posts on the following themes:
- Digital Tools for Better Service: Building and procuring digital solutions that can be scaled, leveraged and reused across Government
- Putting Canadians First: User Testing, Experience, Inclusivity and Accessibility
- From big and slow, to quick and agile: A digital approach to procuring innovation
- No More Silos: Effectively managing a Government-wide culture shift to support digital delivery
Week 2 (Aug 6): Digital Tools for Better Service – Building and procuring digital solutions that can be scaled, leveraged and reused across government.
Good government in the 21st century calls for quality digital services that are secure, reliable and easy for people to use, from any device. In our second roundtable, we talked about how to build or buy digital tools and solutions that can be adopted across government, rather than each of the dozens of federal departments providing their own. A unified focus on the people being served, rather than on each department’s autonomous delivery objectives, is key.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put our government’s digital capabilities in the spotlight. While we were able to quickly and successfully respond in some areas— the shift to public servants working from home, the development of new digital tools such as the COVID-19 Benefit Finder or the COVID Alert App, and of course our success in quickly delivering the Canada Emergency Response Benefit—there is still an enormous amount of work to be done before this type of agile response becomes the norm.
For this second roundtable discussion, I was joined by Shared Services Canada (SSC) President Paul Glover and experts from the private sector, civil society and academia, who shared their thoughts and ideas on a range of issues, from key barriers and challenges that we need to overcome, to agile procurement, and open source solutions.
Like the first roundtable, on July 30, a few key themes emerged:
The biggest challenge our government faces as we transform our digital capacity are the barriers of a parliamentary system with built-in legislative and policy requirements, and bureaucratic structures pre-dating the internet age, thus frustrating collaboration.
Building digital solutions that can be shared and implemented across government departments, makes it easier to adopt new ways of working that are consistent, whether it’s the Department of Veterans Affairs, or Citizenship and Immigration. This requires breaking through those barriers.
While legislative changes may be an approach down the road, most of the roundtable experts agreed that by bringing all players to the table, and doing so early on, we can take meaningful steps forward. That work has already begun as we start to bring all the players together across departments and jurisdictions to overcome the “culture” inherent in government. As one participant put it, this is not a technical issue, it’s a cultural issue; and as another noted, there’s not an innovation problem, there’s an innovation adoption problem.
The challenges of culture change will be examined in more detail at a roundtable discussion later in September, so stay tuned!
Role for Vendors
Vendors have a significant partnership role in the digital transformation, but government needs to be deliberate about greater involvement from outside partners. While we need to harness private sector innovation and expertise and seek greater collaboration, we must strike a balance to ensure we retain the talent and skills for effective control of critical IT projects. One participant noted that the epic initial failure of the Healthcare.gov website stemmed from the US government outsourcing its mission.
Acceleration and Adoption
With the launch of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (the CERB), the government showed it can accelerate and deliver digital solutions at an unprecedented speed when Canadians need it. So, how do we maintain that momentum?
Here again, there was a call for deeper collaboration between federal and provincial governments, building on prior collaborations on digital identity and authentication. And, as one expert noted, a possible future scenario fully extends Canada’s “digital railroad” to industry through building blocks such as the Canadian Digital Exchange Platform.
Another participant equated acceleration to creating a “garage” for fast integration of problem solving. In this case, the garage is an incubator of innovative ideas, operating in an industrial fashion that allows the government, with citizens and start-ups, to innovate rapidly and then scale it.
Standards for Open Source and Interoperability
How might leadership through “open source” principles contribute? We should aim to make open source software the go-to, which will foster culture change within government organizations. COVID Alert is a great example of using open source to produce a useful tool for the broader public far more quickly than usual. By becoming the default, open source will germinate many more cost-effective, innovative, and accessible solutions that allow us to serve people better.
As the national railroad did for our country more than a century ago, this metaphorical digital railroad is now driving economic development opportunities and social benefits, using secure data sharing mechanisms among organizations in all sectors of the economy.
This was a useful analogy for the overall project of digital transformation and an apt note with which to conclude this quick overview of the roundtable.
I would like to express my appreciation for the time and effort each of our roundtable participants invested. Thank you, and I look forward to the next discussion!
Week 3 (Aug 12): Putting People First: Designing and delivering inclusive and accessible services
For many people, federal government services are complicated and hard to access. Long line-ups, faxes, mail-in applications—these are processes of the past. Folks often have to set aside a considerable amount of time for their transactions with the government, like applying for EI or a passport. This needs to change.
A successful digital transformation will transform how we approach service design and delivery. Instead of services that reflect cumbersome government-centred processes, we will design digital tools and solutions that are person-centred—secure, reliable, easy to use.
For our third roundtable, we convened experts from across Canada to discuss how to approach this challenge. Because even the most innovative technological solutions are only useful if they work for the people who need them the most.
The discussion was moderated by Aaron Snow, CEO of the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), who lent insights gained from a career spent leading this type of change in government organizations.
Putting People First:
The shift to digital government is often misconstrued as simply putting services online, but it is much more than that. Several panellists reiterated the importance of governments putting the people who will be using their services at the heart of the decision-making machinery, in all stages of the process. Directly engaging people—to understand and consider their needs and experiences from the very beginning, before any solution has been envisioned—allows for a better service for everyone.
One tech expert commented that in her experience working with the public sector, the best project results happen when the team is crystal clear on the problem, but not invested in any pre-conceived solution. Another panellist shared an example from the Government’s COVID-19 pandemic response that illustrates the importance of thoroughly understanding the problem and applying user research and prototyping before assuming what the solution might be.
In the first few weeks and months of the pandemic, our government rolled out several programs to support individuals and businesses. Although the programs and information were available online, some people had difficulty navigating the various options and understanding what they might be eligible for. In response, the Canadian Digital Service worked with ESDC to identify the barriers; they tested solutions, and they were able to quickly build a useful online benefit finder tool “Find financial help during COVID-19” (CDS and Service Canada).
Inclusivity (“Design for the Edges”):
If digital government is about designing and delivering services that are secure, reliable and easy to use, we must ensure that they are so for everyone, regardless of age, income, education or digital literacy. In discussing inclusivity, an expert in accessible design emphasized the need to “design for the edges.” This concept expands on the idea of a people-centred approach to service design. Addressing vulnerable populations and barriers to accessibility from the outset results in more flexible, adaptive services for all users. A low-tech example is the wheelchair ramp: while originally implemented for people who use wheelchairs, ramps are also used and appreciated by people pushing strollers, those with mobility issues, and children who might have difficulty with large steps.
Governments must actively harness private sector innovation, as well as hear from people who are left out of the traditional consultation processes. By opening ourselves up to listen and learn from diverse perspectives, we’ll find better ways of doing things. One panellist highlighted economic studies which show that, by designing accessible services to everyone from the outset, governments can save time and investment in the long run. In this vein, we are also charged with delivering improved internet access for rural communities.
I reflected on the enormous culture shift necessary to embed an inclusive “user-focus” in all aspects of public sector digital service design. Panellists responded that our digital standards must become an integral part of every government program and service. Senior executives must examine user needs and accessibility from the very outset of any project, and conversations must include groups with whom we don’t typically engage. Open source government resources should be easy to find so they can be leveraged by new or non-traditional entrepreneurs; and, once government employees routinely put their ideas and work into the open, others will contribute and improve the outcome. By working together, the entire range of citizens’ transactions with their government can become faster, easier, and better, for everyone!
Once again, I would like to express my appreciation for the valuable time and talent our roundtable participants contributed. As always, the depth of expertise in this country continues to amaze me and has given me much to consider as we develop our digital vision for the Government of Canada. I left the discussion with a lot of smart, actionable ideas we can use to ensure government services are designed with the needs of the people we serve at the very centre. I thank our guests and look forward to the next discussion.
Stay tuned for upcoming posts on the following themes:
- Week 4: September 10 - From Big and Slow, to Quick and Agile: A digital approach to procuring innovation
- Week 5: September 17 - No More Silos: Effectively managing a government-wide culture shift to support digital delivery