If the government of Canada is going to reimagine its service relationship with citizens, it has to make key changes to how the public service works.

(This article has been translated into French.)

We are in an age where digital technologies and practices are being adopted at an unprecedented rate. Today, we can purchase almost everything online, we can work from home or from another city, and our data are being analyzed and used to shape services and products. Faced with this pace of change, the government of Canada has to keep up or risk losing the confidence of the citizens it serves.

The term “digital government” is not a buzzword for flashy new government websites, apps or the end of paperwork. Rather than an exclusively technological transformation, “digital government” presents an opportunity for a cultural and operational shift that is much more than the digitization of government services. It is about cultivating an environment that prioritizes citizens and promotes streamlined, secure service delivery supported by technology. It is about reimagining the service relationship with citizens to remain relevant. To do this, government must build an innovative and agile public service, with modern governance structures that correspond to the new digital landscape.

Building an environment where digital government can thrive

Canadians now live in a world where you can access information and services easily and securely, and they expect as much from their government.  We need to embrace the opportunities a digital-centric approach offers.

Government’s service offerings are spread across various channels and platforms. While steady improvements have been made, the citizens’ experience remains inconsistent, requiring them to navigate multiple institutions to fully complete a service transaction. For example, something as “simple” as updating your home address with the federal government has required that you submit requests to several departments: the Canada Revenue Agency for a tax submission, Employment and Social Development Canada for employment insurance and so on.  We have to do better for our citizens.

In 2018, we introduced the Government of Canada Digital Standards to help guide departments and agencies in designing effective digital services for citizens that work cohesively with one another. We are now emphasizing the importance of designing programs and services with user needs in mind right from the start.  This will help pave the way for more seamless, simple and secure service delivery to citizens.

It is critical that we adopt a more open approach that encourages idea generation at all working levels.

So how can the federal government create an environment where a digitally enabled, citizen-oriented approach can thrive? To keep pace with citizens’ expectations, we have to address how we as public servants work.  An open, collaborative and innovative workplace culture encourages new ideas and experimentation in the way we design and deliver programs and services. It is critical that we adopt a more open approach that encourages idea generation at all working levels. We’ve begun doing this across government, and we can already see the results of this approach. For example, we are experimenting with tools that will enable citizens to access government information and services via smart devices such as Amazon Echo and Samsung smart fridges.

The new pilot project Talent Cloud has embraced the rise of the gig economy, looking into new hiring practices to help bring contract workers more quickly into the government, while also protecting their rights and benefits. This innovative hiring approach will help the public sector tap into the talent that it needs in the digital age. While Talent Cloud will nicely complement the existing workforce, growing the abilities of current employees is also critical to this transition. Last fall, the Canada School of Public Service launched the Digital Academy to modernize the skills of the public service workforce. The government intends to develop and refine the skill sets of existing employees so they can succeed in a digital age.

To date, one of our most impactful digital government achievements has been redefining how we work with industry to procure technical solutions. Improving service delivery means delivering innovative programs and services in an agile and timely manner. In the past it has taken several years, hundreds of pages of documentation and predefined technical requirements to procure technical solutions for government operations.  More recently, we flipped the process on its head and implemented a newly designed agile procurement process, which is being piloted to develop the Next Generation Human Resources and Pay that will succeed the Phoenix pay system.

Procuring a solution for a department or agency would often take so long that the technology would be outdated by the time the process was complete. In order to stay relevant in the digital age, the government needed to find a way to reduce the time it takes to bid on a contract, fine-tune the requirements, and deploy a solution. This “agile” approach embraces private sector best practices and encourages ongoing collaboration with key stakeholders, vendors and citizens simultaneously, reducing barriers between industry and government. The initiative is flexible enough that the government’s requirements for a solution can adapt as the preferences of the target users (employees) are established, and as industry defines what is possible.

Rethinking governance

A successful digital government encompasses more than a modernized workforce; it also requires adjusting its rules and regulations to reflect the ever-changing operating environment. This means writing legislation, policies and directives in technology-neutral language that leaves room for innovation, while also establishing clear responsibilities and accountability for senior leadership.

We started from the top by adjusting authorities in the Financial Administration Act so that the role of the chief information officer (CIO) of Canada mirrors the authorities of its colleagues, such as the comptroller general of Canada. These authorities ensure that the CIO of Canada has the capacity to establish a digital baseline for all government services and operations across Canada.

One of the biggest challenges we face is fostering innovation while maintaining the high level of service that citizens have come to expect from their government. We recently established a Digital Advisory Board where experts in the public service can collaborate and confer with their counterparts in the private sector on digital initiatives. It is an important venue where best practices and lessons learned can be shared across sectors. We also introduced the Enterprise Architecture Review Board, which sets standards and guidelines around technology plans and investments so that departments and agencies align their activities with the rest of the government of Canada. The board is responsible for ensuring that proposed digital government initiatives, such as the adoption of cloud computing for service delivery, meet these established standards and guidelines before advancing to development and implementation.

Collectively, these elements lay the foundation for a more digitally focused public service as we enter the fourth industrial revolution and the digital age. This is only the beginning, and there is still much more to do.

Call to action

To make a real shift toward a digital government, we will need greater support from across the public service and the private sector.

We have one of the most effective public services in the world; it is time for its leaders to support their employees and give them the tools and space to tinker and innovate to deliver creative solutions.

In 2018, Canada joined a network of leading digital nations in the Digital 9 to share expertise and explore opportunities for greater digital government collaboration. We hope to build upon this momentum and broaden the scope of our collaboration. In May 2019, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat will be hosting the Open Government Partnership Global Summit, and we encourage our partners to join us and continue the conversation as to how government information can be used to improve the lives of citizens. When digital government and open government are designed well, they can make our society more inclusive, helping more citizens participate in better government decision-making while helping government deliver better services, designed with the citizen in mind.

Finally, citizens are encouraged to get engaged online, by interacting with #GCDigital on Twitter and LinkedIn. Public servants are listening. Government of Canada employees are being encouraged to work in the open and talk about their work on social media. This culture shift is an important pillar that supports the digital government transformation.

Digital government presents an opportunity for the federal government to profoundly impact the lives of citizens by making it easier than ever before to access and influence government information and services. Through greater co-creation and collaboration, together, we can deliver the public service that citizens want and deserve.

This article is part of the Wiring Public Policy for Digital Government special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock/By DD Images


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