Inside the Canadian Digital Service – why immigration transformation represents its ‘first big opportunity’

In the second of our two-part feature, senior figures at the government transformation agency talk through the services it has built so far and how it intends to be ‘a bit more bold’ in its second year


Credit: CDS

“In terms of focusing on user needs, government has not always done that really well,” says Pascale Elvas, senior director of the Canadian Digital Service (CDS). “In my experience, it is great at building a Cadillac – when what people really need is a skateboard.”

Having been part of the CDS senior management team since its inception a little over a year ago, Elvas has had a key role in ensuring that the organisation focuses its energies on constructing the most suitable mode of transport for the needs of Canadians – and the government that serves them.

Unlike the UK’s Government Digital Service – which was immediately given a mandate to oversee and regulate departmental spending on technology infrastructure and digital service-development projects – CDS works only with the departments, agencies, and projects that request its help. These requests fall into three core areas, the first of which – and by far the biggest – is providing support for departments’ digital projects. The second area involves helping increase the technology skills of public servants and the capacity for digital services across government, while the final part of CDS’s remit is to consult on big IT rollouts that are in progress.

And, with a workforce that still numbers no more than about 60 people (a number of whom are pictured above), it has had to pick and choose which of the 140 individual requests it received during its first year represented the best use of its time and resources.

Having just celebrated its first birthday, Elvas tells PublicTechnology that CDS can point to four transformational service-design projects it has worked on during the year – each with a different department.

The first CDS-built service that went live was the Impact Canada Challenge Platform, which was launched in November 2017, just four months after the digital agency officially opened its doors. The platform was constructed after a request from the Privy Council – a central, non-political agency that supports the Canadian prime minister and cabinet in implementing policies and initiatives.

The Impact Canada programme allows government departments to post challenges related to major social, economic, or environmental issues facing the country. Potential solutions to these challenges can then be put forward by representatives of the private or public sector, as well as academics and the not-for-profit sector. The best of these ideas will then receive government money and support.

Challenges are posted and applications submitted via the digital service built by CDS. The overall aim of the Impact Canada programme is to make it easier and quicker for the government to find and adopt innovative ideas and technologies. 

“This is a really interesting way to turn traditional procurement on its head,” Elvas says. “Rather than putting your requirements in an 8,000-page RFP, this is very much based on the challenge to be solved.”

Impact Canada launched with two streams, covering smart cities and clean technology. A series of challenges will be posted in each stream over the coming months and years.

The smart cities challenges are being run by Infrastructure Canada, which has C$300m in funding to distribute over a period of 11 years. 

The clean tech challenges will be issued by Natural Resources Canada. Some C$75m will be invested via this stream over four years.

A third challenge stream – to be launched by Health Canada next month – will look at ways in which checking the content of illegal drugs can reduce harm such as accidental overdoses.

The second service launched by CDS came following a request from Natural Resources Canada, which wanted to make it easier for people to access and analyse information on the energy performance of buildings.

“We developed an API to query home energy-efficiency databases and make the data searchable,” Elvas says. “It is mostly used by academics and researchers, but also by individual citizens.”

“We do not have a stick – we only have a carrot, which is if you work with us, you will deliver better services.”
Kylie Havelock, senior product manager, CDS

CDS is currently engaged in work on building two other transformational digital products. The first of these is a project with Veterans Affairs Canada, which wants to create a single, easily navigable online hub of information allowing ex-servicemen and women to identify and access the appropriate benefits and services to which they are entitled.

“Currently, each benefit or service is managed independently,” Elvas says. “As a result, it is very difficult to navigate the web of benefits. We have been working with the department to create a single source of truth and a tool to help veterans.”

The other major project currently being worked on by CDS involves supporting Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) in building an online service allowing people to reschedule appointments related to their citizenship status.

“We were approached to help with the citizenship-declaring process,” Elvas says. “Currently, in most cases, when a newcomer to Canada needs to take a citizenship oath or ceremony, they receive a letter in the mail with a date. If they need to reschedule that, they need to write a letter to the immigration department to obtain a new date. In a lot of cases, those letters were arriving late and causing a lot of stress. We heard one story of a user where a person flew in from overseas because they had not heard back a confirmation from the department that their ceremony had been rescheduled.”

CDS is currently “doing a lot of work with users of the service” to scope the problem and identify how digital tools could be employed to help make the process easier and simpler.

Immigration transformation
Work on the service for rescheduling citizenship appointments seems set to represent merely the first step in a much longer journey that CDS and IRCC intend to take together. 

According to Elvas, this relationship will fulfil both the digital agency’s wish to take on a much more far-reaching and ambitious project, and the immigration department’s increasing enthusiasm for digital transformation.

“I would really like to have a demonstrable evolution in the scale and complexity of the products we have developed. Looking back on year one, and the work that we did, I would now like us to be a bit more bold,” she says. “We are now mulling over our next round of products, and we are still considering what we will be working on. But there is a huge appetite in the team to pick one project that will have a huge impact for a vulnerable or marginalised community.”

New permanent residents Canada intends to welcome over the course of 2018, 2019, and 2020

23 November 2017
Go-live date of CDS’s first project – the Impact Canada Challenge Platform

Government funding that will be awarded over the coming years through the first two challenge streams on the Impact Canada Challenge Platform

Development and product management
Two areas in which CDS has a ‘rolling campaign’ to recruit people as it plans to grow headcount to 100 by the end of 2018

She adds: “I have worked in social development and I would really like to see something that has a real impact on social conditions in Canada. There are a number of options, but the one that we are fairly confident speaking about at this juncture is immigration.”

Leading CDS’s work with IRCC is senior product manager Kylie Havelock, who arrived in Canada in January – for an initial spell of one year – after four years in digital roles in the UK civil service, including stints with the Department of Health, GDS and, latterly, the Ministry of Justice.

“It takes 16 months in total to become a citizen,” she says. “We did some discovery looking at what the pain points are – you have to attend a number of in-person appointments.”

In November 2017, the Canadian government announced plans to grow its immigration rate and welcome to the country almost a million additional permanent residents over a three-year period. This includes about 565,000 economic migrants plus 265,000 family members, as well as about 150,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and others admitted on compassionate grounds.

All of which will, of course, place ever-greater bureaucratic and service-delivery demands on the country’s immigration department. CDS could play a crucial role in helping meet these demands.

“We have set ourselves stretching goals to deliver a much bigger end-to-end transformation, and the relationship with the immigration department is the strongest we have built,” Havelock says. “Canada got close to three million applications for a work permit last year, and there is no cap on temporary residencies. We want to take this as our first big opportunity to transform how a department works.”

One of the first items on the transformation agenda is likely to be looking at how digital services could be used in the administration of temporary residency permits, Havelock says. 

This work will “cut across the department”, she adds, which will require CDS not just to help build and implement digital services, but to assist IRCC in boosting the technology skills of its own workforce. In the coming months Havelock, would like to see CDS play a bigger role in helping increase capability across the Canadian government more widely.

“In the early days, there was a necessity to bring some experienced heads in,” she says. “Now, I would like to see more developing of existing public servants into digital roles – especially in the big delivery departments. I think that is the next step: building the skills from within.”

As CDS grows and works on more projects with different departments, an increase in public servants’ digital skills will happen organically, Havelock believes. 

Trust fund
And, as it takes on a greater volume and variety of projects, CDS will also continue to build the levels of credibility it needs to drive digital transformation.

“It is about planting the foundations. In the UK… the big delivery departments have their own [digital] teams. In Canada, we have to build a lot of trust with the departments that want to work [on digital projects] with us, and we do not have mandates such as spend controls,” she says. “We do not have a stick – we only have a carrot, which is if you work with us, you will deliver better services.”

“There is a huge appetite in the team to pick one project that will have a huge impact for a vulnerable or marginalised community… I would really like to see something that has a real impact on social conditions in Canada.”
Pascale Elvas, senior director, CDS

Trust is also the watchword for senior director Elvas, who says: “In our first year… we have come up against some cases where we have a very willing and eager business owner, but other parts of the department were not ready to come on board.  We are now… building trust in the system.”

A year into its mission to help transform services, Elvas says that “government is a big machine… and there is a lot of work to be done”, but recognises that the very existence of CDS represents progress.

“The government’s willingness to test this model is a step in the right direction, and there is a recognition in this system that things need to change,” she says. ““Creating a dedicated team with a dedicated mandate to make that happen is a great sign.”

And a sign, perhaps, that Canadians will finally be getting the skateboards they really need.

This is the second part of a two-part feature. To read part one – including lots of insight into how and why the Canadian Digital Service came into being, and how its remit and structure was decided upon – please click here.


Sam Trendall

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