Why the Canadian Digital Service is a Major Milestone for Canada

Over the course of the past two decades, there have been numerous initiatives/movements relating to the Government of Canada and the digital space. I can see why it’s hard for people to get excited about yet another one. However, having worked as a management consultant (specializing in the digital channel) with nearly every federal department, I’m convinced the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) is a legitimate major milestone.

Before I get into the “why”, here’s a quick overview of the various stages I witnessed the Government of Canada (GoC) go through relating to the digital landscape over the years.

E-government era (late 1990’s and early 2000’s):

This stage dealt with the migration of government services online (mainly through offering downloadable pdf’s and providing Canadians with the ability to fill out forms electronically). It’s worth noting that Canada was seen as a world leader in e-government, having been one of the first governments to establish an online presence for each one of its departments. Needless to say, we didn’t stay on top for long.

Web 2.0/Gov 2.0 buzzword era (mid to late 2000’s):

Having attained comfort in its e-government leadership, the GoC got a bit too comfortable on top and was caught off guard with the rapid rise of web 2.0, and the subsequent democratization of content and publishing that occurred. While various governments around the world began looking at the policy and service delivery impact of this space on government (referred to as Gov 2.0 at the time), the GoC made the mistake of seeing web 2.0 as a technology issue that CIO’s should be dealing with (note: the role of CIO’s in the GoC at the time was primarily IT security driven as opposed to the broader role that CIO’s tend to have in the private sector). At the time, the only high-level official government group responsible in some way for web 2.0 (other than rogue pioneering individuals/branches within departments) was the Five Nations CIO Council. Their focus, however, was primarily on its internal implications. I distinctly remember attending various Gov 2.0 conferences in Washington DC during this time of which there was very little GoC presence other than a few forward-thinking individuals (some of whom came on their own dime). Towards the end of this period, we started to really fall behind on the e-government front. Bumping ahead were the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand among others.

Social Media Communications era (early to mid-2010’s):

This is when the bulk of politicians and their political parties caught on to the power of social media (this term only took off around 2007) and started using these platforms to disseminate their message. Naturally, the bureaucratic side followed suit and government departments started to officially use social platforms as well (with policies/guidelines built around them). This period was least exciting to me as it tended to stifle progress on the digital front through centralization and heavy bureaucratization. There was also very little attention being paid to end-user needs, user experience, and service delivery. Basically, old-guard communications practices were brought in to tackle the new media digital space.  Thankfully, this didn’t last long.

Digital Government / Service Delivery era (present time):

I see this as the golden age of the digital channel since it is finally being understood and recognized for the organization-wide transformation it requires rather than being a siloed comms or tech issue. In this era of exponential growth and advancements in artificial intelligence, automation, blockchain technology / fintech, and augmented reality (driven in large part by smartphone ubiquity), the entire role of government and how it serves citizens needs to be re-thought.  To address this, the GoC has finally indicated that it plans to play ball on the digital front by launching the Canadian Digital Service.

What exactly is the Canadian Digital Service?

Its official goal is to “modernize the way the Government of Canada designs and delivers digital services”. I like to think of it as an internal government skunkworks organization that has the freedom to be more agile, innovative and risk tolerant in its quest to help government departments transition into the digital government era. Watch this video if you’re more of a visual person (embedded below as well).

What do the folks over at CDS actually do?

  • They work with federal organizations to design, prototype, and build better digital services.
  • They focus on solving problems using design, agile methods, and proven technologies that put the user at the center of their work.
  • They take successful digital solutions and help replicate them across government.
  • They invest in recruitment, learning, and communities of practice to help departments and public servants amplify their skills in areas like user research, design, and data science.
  • They provide advice to federal organizations grounded in practical experience and global best practices.

How is this initiative different from the others?

  • There are plenty of best practices and success stories to build up from.  CDS is based in part on extensive country-wide multi-stakeholder consultations and modeled after similar organizations in the US (18F and USDS), UK (GDS) and more recently in Ontario (ODS).
  • It has the right level of senior-level support and executive leadership champions.
  • There is a strong growing team with many experienced individuals from both inside and outside government (some of whom I know well and can personally vouch for).
  • It’s already playing outside the government sandbox and demonstrating that it is different (note the platform it’s using for its website).
  • It was launched at the right time. The demographic composition of government is changing rapidly as Gen X and Y’ers are entering management and leadership positions at a rapid pace. There is no denying that there is a correlation between risk-tolerance level and age.
  • The smartphone penetration rate in Canada is about to hit 80%, and  50Mbps broadband speeds have been mandated by the CRTC within the next 5 years. Digital-first design thinking is no longer an option. It is mandatory.

How can you support it?

You can help spread the word about its services, or contact CDS directly if you’re interested in partnering and working on something together (see details here).  And of course, whether you’re in the public, nonprofit, or private sector, ensure you’re a part of the #GCDigital community by actively participating in events and sharing best practices as we all move our government forward, together!

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