Year-end Reflections on Digital Government
On how more than ever, digital government teams need coherent and visible central agency leadership. Also, how almost everything comes down to talent
Recently, Sean Boots wrote a very sobering account of the state of public sector tech in Canada, and Paul Craig shared his specific lived experience of how difficult it is to launch a website in the federal government.
Both pieces have come out at a time when it feels like the public sector writ large — not just digital teams — is at its lowest ebb when it comes to energy and morale. They are important reading. And yet I want to ask for more. Especially from central digital government teams.
I began to get at these themes during our FWD50 workshop this year. TL;DR, I challenged digital government teams to:
- Dream bigger and commit digital teams to advancing policy outcome measures, not just web analytics, because this is one way to ensure digital teams don’t lose sight of their larger ambition to make government work better.
- Persist in making the good path the easy path, which is easier said than done. Exposing the document-heavy and outdated processes is the easy part; negotiating a radical governance rethink from box-checking gatekeeping functions to actively engaged service providers of practical expertise is definitely harder, but much more worthwhile.
- Look inwardly and address the ever-pervasive strategic and organizational design debts that digital teams have taken on to exist, to secure one licence after another to deliver that next prototype, to get to that next TB submission. I also went so far as to also mention that our talent strategies need to be more wide-ranging and include career and leadership paths outside of digital government teams.
If you’re still curious, here are my FWD50 slides and speaking notes.
In retrospect, I wish I took it even further. Seriously, my kingdom for -
1 — Coherent central agency leadership
The digital government mandate at the federal government is fragmented, with one organization responsible for policies and standards, another for HR, yet another for infrastructure, for digital learning, for procurement, and then consultation and platform services. Without an aligned core, the different organizations operate with separate theories of change that usually reflect only their own organization’s remit. Meanwhile, their best intentions to align are subject to the whims, leanings and priorities of their organization’s leadership cadre.
More importantly, this disjointed set-up means a missed opportunity to model one of the fundamental aspirations of the digital government movement: policy, delivery and evaluation in lockstep and happening concurrently rather than consecutively.
2 — An institutional advocacy and delivery mandate for the Canadian Digital Service
And I mean the kind of mandate where they can go beyond illuminating problem areas via blog posts and actually addressing them for all, and partnerships not in an awkward “Here we are pulling up <! — insert government department here — >’s pants again” way that makes departments feel terribly small but in a manner that makes them feel “We are going to go through this pain with you so others after us won’t have to”. (Side note: That first quote was a literal cringe-worthy quote from an exec).
CDS has team members capable of things well beyond a cookie-cutter shiny innovation team can do, and yet central agencies appear to be completely okay with endlessly perpetuating the divide of “Let’s just have them try out new things with their access to cool non-standard tools like Slack, MacBooks and Figma” while “Departments work on grown-up problems with their grown-up constraints”. Until CDS secures an institutional mandate to make the good path easy for other public servants (not just their team), I promise you this narrative will persist.
3 — A TALENT STRATEGY (#sorrynotsorry for the all caps)
All roads lead to this.
Digital team talent strategies tend to focus on just keeping whoever they manage to convince to hire and get through the door and fill operational gaps. There is no reference to leadership paths for those who are there because digital teams are supposed to be flat, with no recognition that paths do exist outside of those teams in government.
And yes, the recruitment process is broken in ways that would take generational investments to fix. There is no time like the present to start.
When Sean talks about adoption of agile words rather than practices, it’s largely because of a missing sense of urgency around a government-wide talent strategy. This is true not only for digital, but also (and even more critically) all of the government’s attempts to address systemic racism and diversity, inclusion and equity within the public service. A learning strategy that is not accompanied by a fulsome talent strategy signals that getting the rhetoric is all it takes; that is, complete this module, and don’t sit in discomfort from here onwards with the message that you need to reevaluate and actively change everything about how you work, what you value and what drives your decisions.*
This final thing is what I would demand of central agency digital teams: create career paths that lead to the demand (not just the supply) side of digital. The surest path to delivery-driven government is to demand it, as a policy ADM or a Deputy Minister who demonstrates that they have internalized the aspirations of the movement by creating sustainable and intentionally diverse teams that reflect the people they are serving, by asking or themselves observing user research, and by being bold about the outcomes that they are seeking and relentlessly asking about policy, delivery and evaluation tradeoffs in the same conversation.
Until then, we will persist and carry out our roles in the Ship of Theseus paradox … not quite blazing a trail all the time but taking moment by moment in a series of small, barely perceivable wins, including launching that small government website. ;)
Wishing you all restful holidays and a safe, healthy 2022.
*Big caveat — Diversity, equity and inclusion warrants its own separate post. I will do so when I summon more energy.