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Pivoting how we partner

Five years ago, we announced the launch of the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), as a three year-pilot project to help modernize the way the Government of Canada designs and delivers digital services. Since then, we’ve learned and grown a lot. Last year, we secured ongoing funding through Budget 2021, so we can continue to partner with government teams and offer government-wide services like GC Notify, with the confidence that we will be around to maintain and improve them.

While we’ve been continually iterating behind the scenes, we haven’t prioritized sharing the stories about how and why as much as I would have liked. Working in the open is an important way to hold ourselves accountable for the outcomes we’re delivering. It’s also a lot of work, and harder to do when the stories are not only about wins, but also of failures and lessons learned along the way.

Since our earliest days here at CDS, we’ve been working closely with government teams. This year, we’re making a substantial shift in how we partner. Why? I’m glad you asked, let’s dive in!

The story so far

From 2017 to 2021, we helped design, build, and launch 10 new federal services and explored how we might improve 5 existing services.

In our first year, we focussed on demonstrating the art of the possible. We designed, built, and shipped the Impact Canada Challenge Platform, and a public-facing application programming interface (API) to open up access to EnerGuide Home Energy Ratings data in a transparent and reusable way. We improved speed to market and reduced project costs by taking an iterative approach and building internally, rather than contracting this work out. We also researched and designed with potential users, to make these services easier to use and more accessible.

In years two and three, we adjusted our approach to build services with departments, while simultaneously working to help them adopt new digital practices. We tried to establish joint teams from the start, so we could build digital capabilities and confidence while designing and delivering together. Examples from this phase of our work include Find benefits and services, with Veterans Affairs Canada, Help Canadians access the CPP Disability benefit, with Employment and Social Development Canada, and Claim Tax Benefits, with the Canadian Revenue Agency.

Over the years we also experimented with providing advice and guidance, as a form of peer feedback through assessments as a service and by exploring the conditions for digital service delivery. More recently, we shifted a large portion of the team to build Find financial help during COVID-19 and COVID Alert, in support of the federal government’s pandemic response.

Lessons learned along the way

All things considered, it’s been a journey with mixed results. We could not be more proud of the national services and prototypes we’ve built. We helped ship millions of dollars in challenges and funding, helped more Veterans and their families find the benefits they need, and, during the pandemic, designed services to help people access benefits and reduce transmission.

We’ve also built services that never saw the light of day. We’ve had to decommission a service that was helping people, and we’ve had our fair share of fearless advice go unheeded. In short, where we didn’t build the right relationships or sufficient internal digital capabilities, we were unable to deliver sustained results.

This work is exceptionally hard and failures are to be expected. But, as public servants, we first and foremost serve the public. If what we do does not make things better, we should not be doing it. So, it’s absolutely critical that despite the relentless pressure of national operations and live services, we make the time to pause, measure, reflect, and iterate, as needed.

Our “fire-fighting” and demonstration efforts showed what we were capable of. Yes, we can design and ship a service quickly — our most recent one in 45 days — but heroics aren’t sufficient to scale digital transformation. Emergencies do need to be supported, but we can’t shortchange the important for the urgent.

At its core, the challenge of digital transformation is one of competing priorities — the public service must continue to deliver around the clock, while it simultaneously develops the new capabilities it needs to serve people better.

Success in this field requires substantive change and yet we know at this scale, each yard is hard-fought and change can feel slow. There remain some very real challenges and blockers to advancing federal digital service delivery, many of which were recently called out and prioritized in Canada’s Digital Ambition 2022.

Federal public servants are working exceptionally hard to be the edge of the wedge, connect the dots, break down silos, and reengineer the processes that need changing. Getting the right conditions in place to work in a human-centered, agile, and open way takes time.

Meeting teams where they are

A strong, resilient public service is one with the internal capacity to deliver consistent, reliable, secure, accessible, and — consequently — trusted, federal public services. While many service delivery teams face common blockers, their specific challenges, experiences, capabilities, and opportunities can still vary widely. A cookie-cutter approach won’t work here — there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to affecting change at scale within a complex system.

This year we’ve reset how we work with teams across government to acknowledge this complexity, and we’re staffing up to better meet departments where they are. By shifting from our initial product-focussed approach to an enablement-focus, we believe we can affect more impactful and sustained change.

CDS now offers a digital government consulting team, inside government, for government, that brings hands-on delivery experience at scale from the public and private sectors. We help departments make timely design and technology decisions, build their in-house digital capabilities, and adopt new ways of working, so they can continually improve how they deliver public services.

Through Consulting, we’re now providing guidance and feedback, sharing resources, and making connections to help government teams overcome their specific hurdles and improve their performance against the GC Digital Standards.

Through Learning Resources, we’re in the early stages of experimenting with how to create, curate, and publish practical examples and resources that help public servants build their in-house digital capabilities and make the case for change within their departments.

And this fall, we’re exploring how we might design a new type of service, focussed on enabling the conditions for change, by dedicating a team to partner directly with a department, help them build their digital capabilities, and adopt new ways of working. We don’t quite know what shape this will take, but like everything at CDS, we’ll share our experiences and lessons learned along the way.

Reach out — we’re here to help

It’s early days, but we’re excited about the potential of our new focus and services. If you’re a federal public servant who wants help to improve how you design and deliver your services, reach out and we’ll be in touch soon. We’re here to listen and ready to help.