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We get by with a little help from our friends

I often get asked by fellow public servants “What authorities did the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) get to operate the way it does?” So I thought I would share the authorities we received from government when CDS was established in 2017:

Adding a unique visual identifier to the corporate identity for CDS as an exception to the Government of Canada Policy on Communications and Federal Identity.

That’s it. This single provision allows us to have a “visual identifier.” That’s the whole list, but obviously, it’s nowhere near the whole story.

We’ve used operational agreements, with senior-level support at the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS), to secure important flexibilities and tools. For example:

  • We manage our own communications, website, and social media, in collaboration with our departmental communications colleagues. This enables us to work in the open.
  • We operate unfiltered WiFi and non-standard devices under an “Authority to Operate” with our IT colleagues. We’ll tell you how we did this in an upcoming post, but it’s part of how we make sure our team has access to the tools it needs to do its best work.
  • And we’ve used established processes to seek a few policy exemptions. For example, we brought in our Code for Canada fellows through Interchange Canada, with an exemption from part of the directive (see B.1.1b). The Office of the Chief of Human Resources Officer (OCHRO) then applied that exemption to the entire public service. This enabled Transport Canada, the Public Service Commission, and others (coming soon!) to bring in their own fellows.

But most importantly, we can operate the way we do because of — you guessed it — people. We have colleagues at TBS and across government who help make it happen.

They’re creative. They focus on outcomes and values over process. They know the rules — and the intent behind them — inside-out. And they’re willing to take risks and support us taking them.

They’re lawyers, human resource and classification advisors, procurement specialists, technology professionals, immigration program managers, and more. They work with our own “bureaucracy hackers” to find ways for us to deliver. Without them, we’d be nowhere.

And for every partner we have, we know there are many more out there across the public service, doing the hard work necessary to help their departments serve the public better.

There’s plenty of room in government for doing things differently. It’s not easy. And there are genuine barriers encoded in rules (we work with partners on those, too). I won’t pretend there aren’t times when we wish we had additional authorities. But much of the time, we’re our own worst enemy. As public servants, we too often limit ourselves based on unwritten rules, perceived or imagined consequences, and narrow interpretations.

Doing things differently takes will, know-how, and just the right mix of patience and persistence. We are so thankful for the steadfast support, ingenuity, and courage of our partners here at TBS and across government. In coming posts, we’ll tell you about how these incredible public servants enable us and our partners to build better services. We get by with a little help from our friends.