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Bringing together policy and digital delivery

Here at the Canadian Digital Service, we’ve been lucky to have great role models to learn from, in the U.K., the U.S., Italy, Australia, Ontario, and many other places, as we work with our partners to improve digital services for Canadians. We use a well-established play to help drive this mission: bringing together multidisciplinary talent into teams that tackle a service challenge together. Our product teams include designers, researchers, developers and product managers, but we’ve also embedded policy and communications people into those teams.

Inspiring initiatives are happening in Canada and around the world to bring different skills, perspectives and expertise together to better serve the public. One such movement is OneTeamGov, which brings together various people from across governments, from policy and design and software development, to front-line staff and senior executives and others, in order to make multidisciplinary delivery “more than an experiment.”

Why have a policy team within a digital delivery shop?

Policy roles in government can take on a variety of forms, from crafting program proposals or supporting program policy, such as introducing a new benefit for Veterans, to developing government-wide management policies to provide direction for departments and agencies, to researching the global impacts of climate change.

Some of our colleagues in policy roles elsewhere ask us why we have a policy team within a digital delivery shop. For us, being multidisciplinary is about taking a one-team approach that breaks down the lines that divide disciplines, such as policy, operations, IT, communications and others. It’s having designers, researchers, software developers, product managers, and policy experts and other talent all working together within the same team.

Gov whisperers” or “bureaucracy hackers” are essential to the success of digital delivery teams working in complex public-sector environments. Within the Canadian federal government, we have a centralized set of management policies, standards and guidance, which are usually complemented by departmental equivalents. These policy layers can be difficult for delivery teams to navigate and it’s not surprising that it’s challenging to keep them up to date with the speed of technological change and the realities of modern digital work.

At its core, a big part of our policy team’s everyday work resembles policy work elsewhere in government: researching and analyzing issues and developing options and solutions. We’re helping teammates, many of whom are new to government, figure out how to navigate government-wide policies and the internal policies of our partners: which rules are really rules, how those rules are being interpreted and what their spirit is, and which rules are actually not rules at all. We aim to clear the path for delivery in a replicable way, by learning from and documenting each situation we face, and by building tools and guidance that can be used again in the future.

We also act as the interface between product teams and the holders of government-wide policies in areas such as IT, information management, contracting, communications, privacy and personal information. We believe that good policy, whether it involves a new program or new government-wide direction, is directly informed by delivery. Our policy teams help our delivery teams do their work, and we learn from that experience to help inspire government-wide change. These relationships are especially important given our mandate at CDS to experiment with new ways of working that are foreign or rare in government.

Being an effective policy person within a delivery team

In our first year of operations we’ve been learning how to support our product delivery teams as well as possible. It’s a work in progress, but here are some of our lessons learned so far:

  • Learn and listen as much as you can. It’s humbling to be surrounded by really talented designers, developers, product managers and others. It’s also a great chance to learn about each function, how important good data is, how to think differently about project management, and so much more.
  • Help your team navigate government structures and processes. We often describe this as helping delivery teams stay focused on the thing: researching the thing, designing the thing, building the thing, showing the thing. For example, they shouldn’t have to know the intricate details of how procurement approval processes work (unless they’d like to!). We provide the bureaucracy roadmap so they can focus on what matters most.
  • Be a connector to other teams and other departments. Public servants across government are trying to solve similar problems. As a policy person (especially if you have significant experience in government), you can build a really useful set of contacts that can help share ideas and troubleshoot potential problems together.
  • Don’t be an internal gatekeeper. It’s easy to fall into the trap of enforcing complex rules and processes within your team. Solve problems for your team and empower them. Being a good enabler is about understanding the intent behind policies and processes, and navigating through them while aligning to that intent.
  • Challenge the status quo. Oftentimes you’ll get told that you can’t do something in government that you know is the right approach. Don’t be afraid to test assumptions, try new things, and share what you learn.

Doing policy work within a delivery team is really motivating, since it’s easy to see how, as better services are developed, our work has a positive impact on people. Being part of the process of interacting directly with users in the research, design and delivery of a service is incredibly rewarding.

What does the future look like?

Within the Canadian government, there’s a growing movement to bring more traditional policy work into the digital era. Earlier this year, our colleagues in the Policy Community Partnership office held a conference on this topic: how working in the open and talking to users should be a key part of developing regulations and policies, reporting, analysis, and everything else that we do.

Beyond service delivery, the future should bring digital skills, design and user research and data, into the policy and legislative areas themselves. Code for America focused on “delivery-driven policy” at their recent annual summit. Pia Andrews’ team in New Zealand is working on incorporating developers and data experts into the legislative process, which is a brilliant approach, since successful digital delivery is sometimes hampered by policies and legislation that weren’t developed with users (or technology) in mind.

For our policy team, we’re working on a number of areas, including privacy and consent notices for user research, acquiring cloud that’s certified for personal information, and providing compensation for participants in user research and usability testing. Working with policy centres, our goal is to eventually publish guidance and tools for broader use across government.

We’re really excited about where things will go next, and it’s clear that, no matter what, initiatives to bring together multidisciplinary talent will be essential to making the future of public service better.

Interested in chatting more? Reach out to the team!

John Millons, Klara Steele, Sean Boots, Lucas Cherkewski, Stevie-Ray Talbot, and James Mickle.