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The first one is always a challenge…

During our engagement sessions, people told us that the government needed to identify ways to enable non-traditional players to work with government and co-create solutions.

Challenge platforms like have proven successful at engaging folks from coast-to-coast in civic problem solving. Teams compete for the cash prize, the opportunity to grow a business or a market, and the satisfaction that comes from solving important problems, which creates an incentive for additional private and nonprofit sector investment. For example, the $10 Million Ansari X PRIZE was won in 2004 by Burt Rutan and SpaceShipOne, after the 26 competing teams spent more than $100 million attempting to win the prize.

So this fall, when the Privy Council Office (PCO) approached us to help them design and build the Impact Canada Challenge Platform, we said yes.

As with most shifts in the way we work, the technology isn’t the hardest part. A lot of heavy lifting is required, which may include updating programs and policies to enable more civic engagement in problem solving and helping agencies get better at the process of creating and running challenges. Big kudos to our colleagues at PCO’s Impact and Innovation Unit for stepping up and leading the way.

This heavy lifting was moving in parallel to the site build; as the new program had not yet been announced, we weren’t able to work fully in the open on this project. Wondering why we took it on then? We believe in the mission of challenge platforms, and it was a good fit while we were still building up our team’s capacity. We also knew we’d learn a lot along the way.

Our build approach

Our first order of business was to work together to understand what users of the platform—both those posting and participating in challenges—needed to participate effectively. Then we took a step back to see whether there was existing code that could be repurposed.

Procuring a commercially available option was not deemed a good fit, as they were costly, ranging from service fees of a $20,000 fee per challenge to hundreds of thousands for a custom build. Plus, our solution had to meet requirements for bilingualism, accessibility, and data protection. We talked to other digital service teams and confirmed there wasn’t an existing, open source platform solution that would meet our needs.

As it turned out, we found a solution closer to home—a lot of great work had been done on the DrupalWxT project. We weighed the relative merits of reuse vs. net new creation and determined that reuse was the right choice. One of our criteria is the replicability of solutions; we needed a modular solution, something we and others, be it PCO or other jurisdictions, could build on. By avoiding the costs associated with procuring or building a new platform from scratch, our partners will be able to focus their resources on what’s most important – designing and running the challenges.

Waiting for cloud

Following the Government of Canada Cloud Adoption Strategy and the “Build cloud first” declaration under the alpha-version digital principles, we were keen to experiment as an early adopter with this project. We’re heading in the right direction, but departments still tell us they are unclear about how to get cloud. This isn’t easy or straightforward for them yet, and it will need to be for cloud adoption to scale.

Given our tight project timelines, waiting wasn’t an option, so we began experimenting in cloud space we borrowed from another project. As we geared up for launch we moved the solution over to cloud infrastructure procured by PCO through Public Services and Procurement Canada and Shared Services Canada. Part of our job is to help a department be in a position to operate the service we’re building together. In this case, that meant digging in on DevOps and helping to configure and test that infrastructure.

If you’re a department looking to experiment with cloud, getting a sandbox space set up sooner rather than later is a great idea. Agile projects suffer when they stall. We will continue to work with our partners to make sure this doesn’t become a stumbling block on projects, as we build better services together. There’s still a lot of work to do to structure cloud procurements so departments can realize all the benefits of cloud adoption, including the scalability and financials of paying for use.

Content is king

Challenge platforms are a bit of a known entity, but designing one that is simple to use is no easy feat. Content is part of your service, and it has a direct impact on effectiveness. Too often in government, content drafted for decision-makers or other internal audiences ends up on a website as the basis of a public service. This doesn’t work for users.

Over the course of two months we iterated relentlessly with our partners. We struggled to move from an early prototype into the full build because so much of the platform’s functionality depended on crisp, clean, user-centric content.

To get over the hump, we led content design workshops with both PCO and Infrastructure Canada, which launched the Smart Cities Challenge on the platform. Our partners realized the words were getting in the way and worked hard to revise their text so we could create a better product. We reduced overall site content by over 50%; a two paragraph intro became two simple sentences.

As this unfolded, platform demos were held every second week so we could iterate together and progress the build. Digital principle #15 came to life for us as we had the opportunity to work with not only our program partners and their senior management, but also the Minister of Democratic Institutions, who is responsible for the service.

Deploying beta

We believe strongly in starting small, iterating, and constantly building in feedback throughout a product’s development. Our colleagues at the Government Digital Service have proven real value in developing a minimum viable product (MVP) and getting it quickly into the hands of real users. They launch services transparently as beta offerings, with the expectation that improvements will be made based on real world use. We were really excited to find a partner in PCO that was ready to work this way.

We moved from the initial prototype to the beta launch in about two months. Launching an MVP doesn’t mean sending a sub-par version out the door; we started by taking a small slice of the platform and building it well. We’re now monitoring actual usage and iterating. At the same time, we’re researching, designing, and building new functions for the platform. These will be rolled out gradually over the coming months.

Want to know more?

PCO is responsible for the Impact Canada Challenge Platform and is leading efforts to identify and post challenges with Government of Canada departments. If you have questions about the Impact Canada Initiative, you can contact PCO by email.

If you have questions or comments on our approach to this partnership build, we’d be happy to hear from you. We’re hosting a show and tell on December 8th where we will talk about this and our other early projects on the go! Register to attend via webcast.