When I joined the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), I was excited to work with others to help the government deliver services differently. Previously, I had been on lots of teams and projects aiming to do new things in new ways to serve people better, with varying degrees of success and failure. I was eager to bring my government experience to CDS and help make a difference.
But then, the first partnership team I joined failed to launch our pilot.
What happened? It wasn’t supposed to be like this – we had a multidisciplinary team, we did user research, we tested a prototype with real data and people that showed a lot of potential. Yet, we still couldn’t get access to the infrastructure and approvals needed to launch a small-scale pilot.
Why is it that in one context, the development and delivery of a digital service takes off, and in another, it grinds to a halt?
We’re a team of digital gardeners
We’re learning that delivering better digital services is like gardening – you can plant as many flowers as you want, but if the conditions aren’t suitable for growth, the seeds won’t sprout and the garden won’t thrive.
We’ve launched the Exploration service to learn more about the enabling conditions for digital services. People, operating conditions, and technological tools and infrastructure are all part of an interconnected service ecosystem.
I’m part of a multidisciplinary team of ‘digital gardeners’ working on this service. When departmental representatives reach out to CDS for help, we need a way to get to know the lay of the land and how they work together before recommending what, if anything, to plant and how they might nurture the soil to enable desirable growth. We work with the representatives to identify where and how to introduce digital practices, like conducting user research, practicing continuous improvement, and cultivating a culture of collaboration.
We don’t simply want to plant seeds and walk away. We want to help them sprout and grow, and consider what other things we might plant together over time.
But before we can identify the digital practices, we need to explore the existing conditions and how they need to be nourished for their specific garden to flourish. Some need more sunlight or water than others, and not all seeds are suited to all climates and terrains.
Exploring the terrain
We see the exploration of the terrain as a vital part of ‘digital gardening’ – CDS and our partners can’t make informed decisions without knowing the land.
An exploration is a 4-week process where we engage with departmental representatives, collect data, summarize learnings, and share practical next steps. After the exploration is complete, we discuss with our partners how CDS might support the department moving forward, which could include further coaching, integrating a platform product, or setting up an embedded service team.
We’re piloting our Explorations service with four departments (so far) and we’re continuously improving our framework, related artifacts, engagement, and sense-making methods as we go.
Even when we have the intention to change what we do and how we do it, our actions are inevitably influenced by the constraints within which we work. Some of these constraints: policy and budget processes, rules and procedures, roles and power dynamics, organizational structures, and how we work with others within and beyond the boundaries of our team and organization.
If they’re empowered to do so, digital teams can design and deliver services in open, inclusive, and accessible ways. Through our explorations, we’re helping our partners shift their operating constraints from being rigid and controlling, to be more empowering, flexible, and enabling.
For example, when considering a new digital product or service, is our partner aiming to strengthen its capacity in service design and product development practices through recruitment and development? Are teams empowered to engage with those who will potentially use the service directly, in order to understand their needs and experiences? Do they have access to modern technology, infrastructure, and tools? If the digital service delivers value to its users, does it have a pathway to scale? Does a service owner and champion exist - who will support and help unblock potential hurdles and delays that the delivery team might run into along the way?
The extent to which the conditions like the ones above exist, the more enabling they are for digital service delivery. To help make that shift happen, we’re pivoting how we support federal departments and agencies. We’re working with them to create and enable conditions for change so better digital practices, products, and services can take root and grow.
Connecting with other digital gardeners
We aren’t the first people to look into this work. Honey Dacanay from the public service and Professor Amanda Clarke from academia have both done great work and research on enabling conditions and the constraints public servants face.
We’re looking to connect and learn from other people doing this work too!
Perhaps you’re doing it in conjunction with developing and delivering products and services within your department. Maybe you’re developing and testing a digital readiness or organizational development and change practices.
If this sounds like you, we’d love to hear from you! Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.