Enabling conditions, not just heroics

On how we cannot lose sight of the larger mission to create the conditions where digital government can be a reality.

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Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/iDzKdNI7Qgc

This week, I am excited to join my long-time friends and co-conspirators Katherine Benjamin and Katy Lalonde at the FWD50 conference to run a workshop based on what we’ve learned to date about how digital teams can be set up to deliver at the speed of need. My part of this workshop focuses on governance structures, and that’s the subject of this post.

I’m going to start with the role governance plays in enabling delivery at the speed of trust for digital teams globally. There is no shortage of inspiring stories right now about what’s possible with agile, empowered multidisciplinary teams including Canada’s COVID Alert app delivered in 45 days, Ontario’s self-assessment tool in a week, and many more. For those who have been working in this space for years, there is a feeling of pride and vindication that makes the non-stop long hours of the past few months feel worthwhile. Some of that vindication comes from having these principles come to life and be more than trite slogans in their Chief Digital Officer’s roadshow deck. A less satisfying outcome that we need to also acknowledge has been the stark reality that those jurisdictions with the most refined digital responses are — unsurprisingly — those jurisdictions who were already transforming their organizations for the digital era. In short, governments who had a head start could accelerate their work, whereas others are still struggling to orient their organization to the basic premise of government in the digital age.

A summary of principles published by GDS (2014) and the UK National Audit Office (201
A summary of principles published by GDS (2014) and the UK National Audit Office (201
This screenshot from my presentation is a summary of principles published by GDS (2014) and the UK National Audit Office (2016).

Awkward question moment: how much do we really want to change about governance?

I do not want to diminish the victories that our teams have won in the past months. But as much as I rejoice in seeing the passionate digital teams and their servant leaders’ efforts finally being recognized, I long for something bigger and more ambitious.

Take a look at this imaginary sentiment from no digital team ever about a post-crisis world where not so well understood governance committees and processes return with renewed frequency and energy.

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In a post-crisis world, no digital team would ever say that “finally, we can go back to government as usual”

Spoiler alert: this sentiment is really imaginary. None of these processes and committees have disappeared. The hard truth is that for every digital team that delivers, there are servant leaders / shit umbrellas around them who take on the thankless administrative overhead and shelter their teams through various briefings on top of making sure their teams have the supports they need to just do their jobs and manage their careers. In many cases, digital teams’ success in the context of COVID-19 is despite, rather than because, of the broader organization. None of the surrounding conditions have changed; as far as culture and practices go, it’s still government as usual.

And yes, it can get worse for digital teams, most of whom have been running themselves ragged over the last few months almost exclusively on passion and mission. The perverse logic of “do what you love” is perfectly illustrated in this quote from Anne Helen Petersen’s new book:

“Of course no worker asks their employer to value them less, but the rhetoric of ‘Do what you love’ makes asking to be valued seem like the equivalent of unsportsmanlike conduct.

Digital teams often pull off herculean tasks, and yet, the dedication, drive and enthusiasm of product teams in a crisis is often used against those very same teams when they attempt to get reasonable resource allocation to align with the demands placed upon those teams.

Governance is about helping teams deliver, and not just in a moment of crisis. It is also about taking on the even harder work to create enabling conditions so that digital teams are funded fairly and sustainably, are focussed on the things that generate public value (not just cost avoidance).

If we are to truly think of doing governance as a service, one of the most important things we can do to build a digital organization is to address the hard questions around enabling conditions. Like policy, governance involves many tradeoffs, requires multiple parties, and cannot be addressed by a single solution.

Each of the following facets of governance warrants a standalone post, but I recommend that leadership teams examine each of these every 6 months to plot where they are and where they’d like to be and what actions they need to make time for to get there. Because while the strategy is delivery, delivery is only possible when teams don’t have to rely solely on the kindness of servant leaders / shit umbrellas.

  • Leadership / “air cover” — What type of stable and coherent leadership structure and accountability needs to be put into place across government so that new ways of working thrive?
  • Funding — What type of funding model is necessary for sustainable and continuously improved services?
  • Direction / expectation — How specific or prescriptive do we need to be in the design of policy instruments to set new bars? Are we asking enough of others?
  • Capacity-building — What proactive institutional supports beyond the digital team need to be created and given more momentum?
  • Talent — How many doers vs watchers do we have in our structure? As Katherine Benjamin would say, “How many individuals do you have in your organization who, working on their own, could both conduct a user research interview, and turn those insights into a rough prototype in the next 24 hours?”
  • Intervention — What reactive institutional supports need to be stood up to help departments deliver on minimum direction/expectation?
  • Measurement and evaluation — How do we ensure that teams are measuring things that matter? Who is involved in the measurement and evaluation work?
  • Reporting — How will we keep ourselves honest? What level of exposure are we providing to the things we are measuring and evaluating?
  • Community engagement — How do we ensure teams are also taking time to reflect and share what they are learning so other government teams and partners outside of government can learn from them and vice versa? Good ideas and reflections are worth forking

I’ll update this post with links each time I fill in some of the pieces here. In the meantime, here is my FWD50 presentation.

Written by

Passionate about making government work better | Director, @DigiAcademyCAN | Founding member & lead, @ONDigital | views, mine

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