Here is the thing. Intellectually I understood Canada was big. I’ve seen maps. While I am certainly a little geographically illiterate this was something I knew.

The reality though? The reality is that I really didn’t quite grasp the scale. Not to mention the two official languages and multiple indigenous peoples dialects.

Which really brings into focus the challenges faced by the growing Government digital services and the large civic tech communities there. From a distance if you squint hard enough things look similar to the UK. Up close though they have some problems we have never faced here.

Over two weeks I was lucky enough to meet and chat with representatives from Federal and Provincial governments and the wider civic tech community in both Ontario and British Columbia.

Canada’s public service was a early mover in the first wave of Government embracing the internet – they had a head start on many nations getting a strong presence online. Then they somewhat rested on their laurels and found themselves falling behind as the most recent wave – embodied by the work of the Government Digital Service in the UK – took hold.

That is changing. Fast.

Canadian public service is broadly split in to three levels –

– Federal
– Provincial
– Municipal (cities)

At the federal level the Canadian Digital Service are a growing influence. Inspired by GDS they also have a significant amount of 18F, the US federal digital consultancy, in their DNA due to the background of their CEO, Aaron Snow, who was one of the founders of that agency.

Working in partnership with other Ministries/Departments they have worked on products to improve access to benefits for Veterans, making it easier for Canadians on low incomes to file their taxes, report cyber crimes and improve their procurement processes across Government (a perennial favourite for me!).

Last year the Canadian government was challenged by by representatives of their business community to;

Digitize all public-facing government services so they are accessible by web and mobile phone and available behind a unified login system by 2025.

In response to this CDS recently launched their roadmap to meet this goal. It is a challenging target given where they are today and the relatively small size of the team (under 100 people) but it is an enviably sensible approach being proposed. Focusing on implementing and enforcing standards, building shared tools and platforms, tackling the cultural issues head on and taking a disciplined approach to measuring whether new services succeed and learning from them before moving to the next project.

I’m particularly interested to see how well they are able to ‘Remove obstacles to digital service delivery’ – the other objectives are familiar and have had impact elsewhere but my experience is that nowhere has really managed to modernise public service culture in a sufficiently sustainable way that it sticks. There are lots of bright spots but the reason they stand out is that they are surrounded by the dark!

A slight complication – or maybe strength – of the Canadian federal model for Government is that CDS is separate from the ‘Office of the CIO’ at the Treasury where the powerful levers for funding and potentially spend controls and assessments with teeth sit. The relationship between the services seems cordial and complimentary and there is a case to be made that having the carrot and stick in different hands could be powerful – as long as it is coordinated.

At the Provincial level the Ontario Digital Service (ODS) feel like they are slightly ahead in their internet-era readiness. Once again there is a significant element of GDS influence (Public.Digital the consultancy founded by the founding GDS leadership team have been involved since the early days of the Service) and their Chief Digital and Data Officer is Hillary Hartley – a part of the 18F founding leadership team like Aaron Snow at CDS.

The really interesting thing at ODS is their recent success in getting their approach and ambitions legitimised in legislation. They were able to get the ‘Simpler, Faster, Better Services Act‘ added to the Budget Bill. This formalises the role of the Chief Digital and Data Officer in the Ontario Government – making it a Deputy Minister role with clear responsibilities. The Act also elevates the digital principles of the team to requirements enforceable by law – these include —>

– People-centred services
– Inclusion by design
– Responsible data management
– Public release of non-sensitive data
– Continuous improvement
– Privacy and security
– Scalable, interoperable technology platforms

This combined with their commitment to implement a comprehensive campaign of assessments against their evolving standards mean they have been given all the levers they need to really accelerate their move to a modern public service that meets citizen expectations.

It isn’t just Ontario though. Nova Scotia recently announced their new Chief Digital Officer, Natasha Clarke, and have been working on their own modernisation programme (again with a bit of help from Public.Digital– those folks get everywhere!). Whereas over on the other coast British Columbia is embarking on a much more service design led approach with people like Kelsey Singbeil pushing forward a design driven agenda to ensure user focused, joined-up, end-to-end services. BC also felt a bit more inclined towards ‘innovation’ and had been doing interesting experiments with ‘micro-procurements’ to encourage start-ups and smaller companies (or individuals) to do business with Government.

At the municipal/city level there is a really vibrant civic tech scene with multiple meet-ups and organisations like Open North and Code for Canada acting as linchpins nationally. In Ottawa there is the wonderful Impact Hub (managed by Doug Vidal-Hernández) acting as a…well…hub for local activities with co-working, office space for socially impactful organisations and hosting regular events – including the weekly civic tech meet-up (that I was proud to speak at).

In Toronto Code for Canada have been inspired by activities across the border and have set up their own version of New York’s Civic Hall – partnering with local councils to make it happen. They have harnessed the local civic tech community talent and the ambition of local public servants to embrace new opportunities to interact with their communities.

Acting as matchmaker between public servants, designers and technologists they have sparked amazing projects like —>

StreetARToronto bringing artists, communities, technologists and public servants together
Ample Labs and their Chalmers Bot tackling homelessness
– A design sprint with residents and members of Civic Tech Toronto to help improve recycling in the city
– Not to mention working with public servants at the City of Markham and Toronto’s Transportation Services to help them innovate from within.

Code for Canada also support a fellowship scheme – recruiting talent to embed with and undertake projects for public service organisations. The latest dozen strong cohort started in May working across Ontario and beyond for Government agencies including The Public Health Agency of Canada and the Toronto Shelter Support & Housing Administration.

All in all it feels like an incredibly exciting time to be involved in civic tech / digital government in Canada. Despite its share of challenges – and to paraphrase William Gibson “..digital is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed” and cases like the IBM led Phoenix pay project still cast a long shadow – there are good decisions being made at multiple levels, they are attracting talent from elsewhere and investing in their own people and they they have the benefit of being able to avoid some of the mistakes made elsewhere and the opportunity to make all new mistakes in the quest to really apply the culture, processes, business models & technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations.

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