Inside the Canadian Digital Service – how the transformation agency began life ‘on the corner of someone’s desk’

Written by Sam Trendall on 1 August 2018 in Features
Features

In the first of a two-part feature to mark the anniversary of its opening, PublicTechnology talks to a range of key figures from the Canadian Digital Service about how it came to be established, its role and remit, and what it learned from the experiences of GDS 

Peace Tower – pictured here on the right – is one of the most iconic buildings on Ottawa's Parliament Hill 

Some cursory internet research reveals that the small city of Bend in central Oregon has long been best known for its vibrant outdoor sports scene and its impressive array of microbreweries.

These are two key contributors to the city’s popularity with tourists, and both no doubt factored into Bend being nominated last year by Money magazine as the 44th best place to live in the US.

Sadly, the city did not come to my attention via either its craft beer or its scenic hiking routes. Bend first appeared on my radar – and no doubt the radars of many outside central Oregon – as the location of the last remaining Blockbuster store in the US.

This summer, two Alaskan franchises of the once-ubiquitous video-rental chain finally closed their doors for good – leaving Bend as the last Blockbuster standing.

Little more than a decade ago, Blockbuster had a reported 9,000-plus stores globally, around half of which were in its home country. The company’s swift and unceremonious demise is an object lesson in how technological development can change how things are done – quickly and absolutely.

It was a lesson that was invoked a year ago by Scott Brison, president of the Canadian Treasury Board, when he launched the Canadian Digital Service (CDS).

“We can’t be a Blockbuster government serving a Netflix citizenry,” he said. “We need to change the way we do business.”

Last week, CDS celebrated its first birthday – an anniversary that was marked by Brison being appointed as Canada’s first-ever minister of digital government. A role in which he will be supported by national CIO Alex Benay, who has been promoted to a deputy minister-level post.

A year into its mission to help build digital skills and enable new methods of service delivery, PublicTechnology spoke to a number of key figures at the Canadian Digital Service. We found out how the organisation came into being, the challenges and successes of its first 12 months, what it learned – for good and ill – from counterparts including the UK’s own Government Digital Service, and what it hopes to achieve over the coming months and years.

Beginnings
When Brison launched CDS a year ago, he did so with the open acknowledgement that “we aren’t the first government digital service”.

“But I believe we can be the best,” he added.

Whether or not CDS ultimately lives up to Brison’s ambitions, it would seem that a number of other countries have a significant headstart in the digital-government stakes – not least the UK, where GDS came into being seven years ago.

But CDS has roots that go much deeper than just the last 12 months, the organisation’s co-founder Ryan Androsoff tells PublicTechnology.

Androsoff became a public servant in 2010 and worked on a then-nascent project to develop GCTools, a range of digital services and platforms for use by government employees.

“That was the foundations of the government 2.0 revolution,” he says. “There was a lot of interest in the impact of new online technologies like social media. It was an interesting testing ground for a lot of concepts and ideas – there was a sense that there was not [always] a safe space for innovators in the technology space to be able to try new approaches to things.”

The flagship GCTools offering was GCpedia, an open-source wiki-based platform where public servants could collaborate and share information. Other tools included the GCconnex internal social network for federal government employees, and GCcollab – an equivalent network for staff at provincial or territorial governments, as well as students and academics. A government-wide directory and intranet were also part of the GCTools family – although these were not open source.

Androsoff says that, during his first few years as a public servant, there were a number of innovators across the Canadian government – but most found they faced a challenge in making time to pursue new ideas outside of their core workload.

“When I joined the federal government in 2010, a lot of the innovation I was seeing was happening on the corner of people’s desks,” he says.

Pascale Elvas – a former government researcher and policymaker who has also been with CDS since its inception and now serves as its senior director – has first-hand experience of the difficulty of getting innovations off the ground.

“In my former department, there were 1,800 IT professionals in a stand-alone unit. My policy shop was a completely different chain of accountability,” she says. “I wanted to put a form online and was told it would cost C$1.4m and would take four years. In order to get your [content] published, you basically waited in a queue."

“We are not a mandatory checkpoint in the approval process – departments do not need to work with us. In the early days, it was determined that we would not have any spending controls until we had some form of delivery experience under our belt.”
Pascale Elvas, CDS senior director

Those, like Androsoff and Elvas (pictured in the tweet above, second on the left, with Brison to her left) who wanted to embrace technology, innovation, and new ways of doing things, were given a boost by the Canadian federal elections of 2015. A change of government often provokes an increased willingness to try new ideas and initiatives, says Androsoff, and the Liberal party government that swept to power three years ago had a particularly strong desire to do so.

“In 2015 we had an election and we had a new government, and there is always a window of opportunity to try new programmes and approaches,” he says. “We had a government and a minister who were very interested in improving how we use technology, and improving how we deliver services. There was a real appetite and desire to do something."

Within a year of the new government taking office, discussions about establishing a digital government agency had begun “in earnest”, Androsoff adds.

Where and how
Perhaps the two biggest issues being debated were the questions of where such an agency would be housed, and how far its remit would extend.

“There were a lot of opinions on where it should be based, and there was a discussion with a lot of people,” Androsoff says. “Does it fit centrally, or should it be an arm’s-length organisation, where it could potentially have more flexibility, and more freedom?"

The decision was ultimately taken to establish CDS within the Treasury Board of Canada – the government’s central agency that oversees departmental spending and the operations of the public service.

Senior director Elvas says that being housed at the Treasury Board has enabled CDS to have a close working relationship with Canada’s CIO – and now deputy minister of digital government – Alex Benay.

“This has enabled us to use our delivery mandate to work with departments on navigating the policies and processes that are put in place, [and] to understand how they interact with one another on the ground, and bring that feedback back to the centre,” she says. “Being housed in the centre of government has also enabled us to have fairly good line of sight to what all the departments are doing."

Androsoff adds that CDS’s central location was, in part, informed by the examples of other digital-government agencies.

“It was a conscious decision to go with the Treasury Board, from the experiences we had seen from other jurisdictions,” he says. “It would allow [CDS] easier access to people who were designing policy across government."

The answer to the question of what responsibilities – and powers – should be given to CDS was answered with the organisation being handed a “three-pronged mandate”, according to Elvas.

The first part of this mandate – which accounts for about 80% of CDS’s resources, she estimates – is supporting departments with the delivery of digital projects.

The second element, which takes up about 15% of resources, is building digital capacity and increasing technology skills across government. 

The third, and smallest, strand is “a small ‘geeks-on-wheels’ team that can look under the hood of big-ticket IT projects”, the senior director says.

Departments can request support from CDS in any of these three areas, but are not currently mandated to work with the digital agency. 

But CDS has not been short of work so far, with more than 140 individual requests for support made by departments to date.


100
Number of employees CDS expects to have on board by the end of 2018, up from a current total of 60

October 2008
Formal launch of the GCpedia wiki platform, part of the GCtools programme that provided ‘the foundations of the government 2.0 revolution’, according to CDS co-founder Ryan Androsoff

C$1.867bn
Amount that will be spent across all government departments on ‘enabling digital services to Canadians’, according to the 2018 budget. Some $90m of this will be spent via the Treasury Board.

Reach, readiness, replicability
The ‘three Rs’ CDS assesses when triaging requests for support from departments

140
Approximate number of requests for support received during CDS’s first year


“The requests from departments will fall into buckets,” Elvas says. “Some of them are focused on classic service-delivery issues, such as notifications or picture capture. Others are more in the area of capacity-building and digital literacy.” 

She adds: “A lot of departments are interested in learning about human-centred design methodologies. Some are interested in internal services, others are more interested at a macro level.”

For an organisation that only began life with a handful of people a year ago, and still has only 60 employees, the challenge has been in “prioritising those requests and, in some cases, finding ways to help them indirectly”, according to Elvas. When assessing requests for support, CDS looks at what it terms “the three Rs”. 

“We triage the requests, and we look at the reach: are we saving lives versus saving money? We then look at the readiness of the departments – are they willing to work the way that we want to work, and are they empowered to work alongside us? We also look at the replicability.”

The last of the three Rs goes back to a key factor in the formation of CDS – the historic inability of innovation to break through the siloes and sovereignty of government departments.

Elvas provides the following pre-CDS example: “The Revenue Agency developed an API for tax. That was a great thing, but the capability was hosted within that department – which does not have the capacity [to scale it to other departments]. That is why we were housed in the centre of government, with the delivery capability to drive scale.”

Lessons learned
CDS was established with funding and an initial remit that lasted three years, until 2020. For the duration of this time, it will remain an optional provider of support, rather than a mandatory regulator of digital projects – and it will not assume any form of spend controls.

This lighter-touch approach was adopted as it was felt that CDS first needed to demonstrate its credentials and its worth to departments – and society at large. 

Androsoff says: “One of the things we realised early is that there is an inherent scepticism of anything involving digital in government – there have been high-profile failures. There was a sense that CDS had to be able to prove what is in the realm of the possible.”

“In 2015 we had an election, and there is always a window of opportunity to try new programmes and approaches. We had a new government and a minister who were very interested in improving how we use technology, and improving how we deliver services. There was a real appetite and desire to do something.”
Ryan Androsoff, co-founder of CDS

Elvas adds: “We have tried really hard from the beginning to build positive working relationships with departments. We are not a mandatory checkpoint in the approval process – departments do not need to work with us. In the early days, it was determined that we would not have any spending controls until we had some form of delivery experience under our belt.  At this time, we do not have any power to stop a product, and our services are not mandatory. We have an imperative to build credibility with departments that are willing partners, and not be overly disruptive.”

The CDS director says that this non-mandatory model also works well in Canada because, unlike the UK, for example, Canadian government departments do not typically have their own in-house digital teams – and so are more likely to seek out and value the assistance of a central agency.

Of course, in founding a digital government, those who established CDS looked to the examples of existing agencies in other countries – most notably GDS in the UK, which Androsoff describes as “the granddaddy of them all”.

The CDS co-founder picks out “a couple of big things” that CDS took as direct lessons from the experience of GDS and others.

“One was about the need to build momentum early on,” he says. “In all the examples we saw – in the UK and other countries around the world – in the first year or so of them being around it was [important] to be able to find a handful of projects they could point to and were demonstrable successes.”

He adds: “The other lesson was building the right kind of team. You need to get a balance and a mix – it cannot be all external people coming in from the private sector.  And the flipside is you cannot only have people who have come from the public-service system. We have people who came from both inside and outside the system.”

Elvas also picks some other lessons – both technical and operational – that CDS took from those that went before it.

“We learned about coding in the open, and we do open source,” she says. “Another example is structuring our teams as multi-disciplinary teams: we will couple front-end and back-end developers with designers, and with policymakers.”

Twelve months into its initial remit, CDS is still growing, and expects to have 100 staff on the books by the end of 2018. 

As it gets closer to 2020, the successes and challenges the organisation has encountered will be scrutinised more closely, as will its potential future paths, according to Androsoff – who left CDS in late 2017 to focus on helping drive the digital government agenda from the private and third sectors, and also to take some time to work on personal cultural projects related to the history of his Doukhobor ancestors.

“We had a clear idea, but we did not want to close off the possibility of it evolving in some way,” Androsoff says. “[This model] gives us enough scope to then adapt CDS at the end of that three-year mandate, and look at whether it continues on in that mandate, or whether it needs to take on a bigger, or different, or new role.”

But, for now at least, its mission remains simple.

He adds: “CDS is demonstrating the art of the possible, and can really raise awareness of what people can achieve and aspire to.”

 

 

This is the first part of a two-part feature. Part two - in which senior director Pascale Elvas and other key figures discuss the range of work the organisation has undertaken during its first year, and its intention to deliver a 'huge-impact" project in the coming 12 months - is now published and can be read by clicking here.

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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