Digital Experience and Client Data (DECD): The Seeds of a Bright Future Towards Government as a Platform
Disclaimer: This blog and any content herein is my own personal opinion and not of my employer past, present or future.
The concept of Government as a Platform is not a new one. Ever since the dawn of the information age and the digitization of our whole world, there has been a push to meet our citizens, and any relevant party in the interest of the Government of Canada where they are.... online. This has been especially true as the pandemic forced the closures of in-person Service Canada centres while also having to deal with an influx of EI and the rapid implementation of wide-scale benefits such as CERB.
There is no question that the government must provide a holistic online end-to-end experience for all its clients from all walks of life. Be it benefit applications or information delivery, this is certainly no walk in the park. Our benefits system, for example, is extremely complicated and rightfully so. There are many rules and exceptions in order to accommodate all its clients enshrined in our laws and policies. Complex interactions with different stakeholders such as provinces and different legal bodies are frequent. Not to mention, all of this is encoded in millions of lines of COBOL on 50+ year old mainframes. In terms of delivering an online experience, where a client can find relevant benefits according to their life experience, apply and receive these benefits, this complicates the delivery of this by magnitudes.
So why am I talking about this? Well, to put into context the magnitude and the sheer importance of what DECD is trying to solve. Delivering that end to end digital experience for all clients, meeting them where they are in life and providing them with a custom, dynamic online experience that suits their needs. This may just seem like another transformation shop spitting out documents with no real action or concrete steps to achieve this. But, DECD is actually building useful digital products that will be live to Canadians and residents alike soon. While DECD is at its humble beginnings, ( and not without its set of problems ) it is truly operating as a product delivery team with clear no-nonsense tangible deliverables that will provide an incredible amount of value towards achieving the goal of a digital end to end experience.
As I am leaving DECD to pursue an exciting opportunity (which I will announce soon) I wanted to sum up my experience working as a technical lead in this team and highlight the success, challenges and my recommendation in solving them.
Let's Talk About DECD
My Overview of the Organization
DECD is truly a unique place to work in government. Not only is it trying to solve high impact problems as explained above but it is a hodgepodge of members with different backgrounds, disciplines and roles all working within the same team and communicating efficiently. To an outsider, perhaps working at a well-funded tech company, this may seem the norm but it is truly a great achievement for DECD considering the immense challenges that government hiring and talent retention brings.
Currently, the team is working on foundational products towards delivering an end-to-end online Service Canada experience. This includes such products as the Alpha Site of which I am the tech lead. The Alpha Site will be used to introduce new early-stage products ( such as a benefits finder for example ) and recruit users from different backgrounds to test these products and provide valuable feedback to their respective product owners. This feedback can then be used to adapt their development iterations towards reaching a live state.
At the helm of this is a charismatic, experienced and clear vision leader (Pia Andrews)[twitter.com/piacandrews]. I can confidently say she is responsible for the wonderful work environment and the attraction of many great talents that have joined the team. I am truly impressed every time I interact with her by her sheer knowledge, intuition, and her no-nonsense approach to problems that is rare to see at that echelon of leadership. She has the mentality of a government outsider while also understanding and being able to skillfully navigate the maze of red tape that comes with a large organization such as ESDC. Being able to think outside the box while also being able to transform what's inside the box without destroying it is a rare skill, and hats off to her, she's clearly got it. It's exactly the kind of leader this organization needs to succeed. This also extends to the rest of the management team as well, they all compliment each other and play off each other's strengths while also willing to listen and change directions when things go wrong.
There are certainly challenges that need to be addressed, however. DECD must look at solving these challenges if it is to be able to continue succeeding in its mission and delivering. This includes short-term problems such as the immediate need for technical leadership and experienced technologists to the longer-term organization. I would again note, as I have stated above, this is my personal opinion and not fact. It may well be that what I view as challenges may not be to others. The goal of discussing these challenges is not to openly criticize or dissent but of providing my complete experience with the hope that it can be used to improve DECD.
What Works Well for This Organization
The Team and Culture
DECD is a truly multidisciplinary team. You have product owners, governance experts, developers, designers, content experts, agile and scrum practitioners all working in the same team. The culture of DECD is one of humbleness and kindness. We all understand that just because we see things one way, due to our experience and preconceived biases, that does not discount opposing views. This may seem like a simple fundamental thing, but it's actually a very difficult thing to achieve especially in a large organization whose members may have not had the experience in working in a multidisciplinary team such as DECD. It enables candid discussions and problem solving as we all understand that opposing views are not personal attacks or questioning our profession. Rather, this is part of the normal discourse and generating a full view of problems and ideas with different perspectives. I am rambling on this point but it's truly a cornerstone of what makes DECD a great place to work.
Another element of the organizational culture that greatly aids in delivery is working in the open policy. Everything from documentation, to code, presentations and most content is open for anyone to see and access if they so choose. The weekly DECD wide showcase helps everyone see what other members of the organization have been working on and it greatly helps connect the whole team, align to the mission and culture of digital delivery.
Having a multidisciplinary team with an open and fostering attitude is key to the continued success of DECD. I would advise that the organization continue to foster this culture and to stay vigilant in ensuring its maintained.
The Leadership Team's Experience and Ability to Listen
As well as the excellent Pia Andrews, the leadership team is experienced when it comes to managing a delivery are able to adapt and quickly organize to solve problems. They come from various backgrounds and bring those experiences to the table. Crucially they have the capability of listening to staff and using the feedback to make adjustments to their teams and the organization as a whole. You are able to freely communicate with any level of the leadership within DECD and their meetings to share updates ( Open Leadership Scrum as it's called ) is open for anyone to attend. In an unprecedented time, they were able to successfully organize DECD ( not without challenges ) and its staff and that definitely deserves recognition.
My recommendation for leadership is to continue bringing their experiences to the table, continue being as transparent as possible in their decision making and crucially to continue listening to staff feedback and acting upon it with a quick turnaround time. Adaptive leaderships are essential for the success of a multidisciplinary dynamic organization.
Open Source ( for the most part )
Open source is an integral part of the technological success at DECD and the organization should always favour and push for open source solutions over proprietary software.
What Are the Challenges Faced by This Organization
Staffing Shortage Particularly in the Development Area
I see this as one of the biggest challenges for DECD. The organization has a shortage of staff to accomplish its broad mission, particularly developers. There aren't enough experienced developers in the organization currently to be able to deliver all of DECD's mandate in my opinion. While clever reorganizations might help solve the immediate short term, it is not an effective solution that will work for long. Developers also need stability in their projects and what they are working on to avoid burnout. So, frequent team changes to help fill high-priority gaps, while can be effective, should be a last resort. This is also not accounting for the fact that people get sick and take vacations or that time should be set aside to allow developers to further their learning.
The solution to this, however, can't just be contractors. We need senior, experienced, and hands-on public servant technologists who will help mentor more junior developers, lead the technological direction of the organization, and install sound engineering practices. Essentially clone Paul Craig three to five times and then also hire more experienced full-stack developers to work with Paul to implement the products.
You may be inclined to hire more junior developers and train them. This is resource-intensive and requires senior developers to be able to do so. If DECD is hoping to accomplish the technological success of an organization like CDS or the UK's GDS for example then it needs a similar level of technological resources. Even if junior developers could somehow be trained with very few senior developers, once they gain the experience they will be looking to progress in their career. With not enough senior positions available, they will likely have to move to another organization. While this is a government-wide problem for the most part and not specifically DECD. The organization must find a solution to address this.
Preemptively Procured Proprietary Software
Another very big challenge for DECD. Proprietary software, regardless of what it is used for, means we are locked into the vendor. If features do not exist, or the capabilities to implement them, we are out of luck. Furthermore, we will not be able to hire the talented developers needed to implement them. Talented developers do not want to work on monolithic closed source systems.
The challenge however is broader than this. Solutions must not be decided on (particularly expensive proprietary ones) before the problem is well understood. It is worrying if the organization is meant to fit square pegs into round holes simply because the square peg was bought before the hole was even seen. The traditional approach to IT procurement will not work and DECD must advise to the strongest possible extent against this.
If you want a fun challenging place to work, one where you can make a big impact, DECD is an awesome place to be. The leadership is excellent and all members focused on delivering the mission of DECD to deliver an end-to-end digital experience all Canadians can rely on. There are certainly challenges, but they are not insurmountable and I have full confidence in the organization in finding unique and innovative solutions to address them. DECD is a true beginning to the bright future that is Government as a Platform.