Bringing tech into the heart of government

By Kent Aitken, Prime Ministers Fellow, Public Policy Forum. @kentdaitken

Governments are struggling with technology — but there’s hope yet.

The thing about trojan horses is that you’re not supposed to talk about what’s inside, but I think we should in this case.

When I say “a digital office,” I mean a central technology organization within governments dedicated to some combination of internal consulting, project work, prototyping, standards, procurement reform and expenditure control. The common comparisons are the UK Government Digital Service, the Australian Digital Transformation Agency, the U.S. 18F and the U.S. Digital Service. The 2017 federal budget teased at something that would be “informed by [these] initiatives,” but was mum on details.

It almost seems as though the time for breathless hope about these models is over. The above organizations are facing scrutiny and, in some cases, existential challenges. And digital teams are one possible solution among many to the core problem: governments are — systematically, predictably — struggling with technology.

Canada needs a digital office precisely because Canada needs far more than a digital office. This is the thin end of the wedge.

The primary goal is that such an organization will help build or improve high-impact digital services for citizens, working with program and service areas across government and building capacity. Which seems abstract, so let’s put it in real terms.

We know that small changes to websites — language, layout, functionality — can change success rates for users by astonishing degrees. Changing just the wording on a subscribe button can double subscription rates, and the same principle applies to people applying for programs or benefits (or finding those programs in the first place). A 10 percent increase is a metric; it’s also a mother using a computer in a public library who doesn’t give up on a tax credit because poorly worded, legalistic web writing made her think she was ineligible.

Forget about cost savings. There’s a moral imperative to make sure that digital services for citizens are effective and continuously optimized, and that we maximize the number of Canadians who can and do use them — across demographic, regional and cultural lines.

So why a central office? There’s a legion of talented technologists in government. The problem is that they work in a context of legacies that don’t work for technology, including accountabilities, structures, policies and hiring practices. We need to change the surrounding system, and those second-order decisions about governance are important and far-reaching. We need to bring a deep understanding of digital services much closer to the center of government.

(And a deep understanding of how people use technology, and those people themselves, once called “users.”)

That’s what’s inside the trojan horse. Beyond the projects it undertakes, a digital office adds the landscape view of the challenges and experiences of technologists across government. It adds a capacity to architect for data collection about how an ecosystem of services is working for Canadians. And it adds a point of insertion into not just technology decisions, but governance decisions.

No volume of indicators, surveys and reports can adequately convey that perspective. You can’t understand it from a boardroom.

Is it the solution? Not by itself. We’ll need changes to training, policy, hiring practices, organizational design, procurement and more. But a digital office is a start, and more importantly, a platform that makes it more likely that the government will make the right decisions about every other part of the solution.

Kent Aitken is the 2016–2017 Prime Ministers of Canada Fellow at Canada’s Public Policy Forum, studying and advising on governance in the digital age.

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