When Your Audience Is … Everyone

Testing a product the Canadian Digital Service built with Immigration Refugees Citizenship Canada (IRCC)

In the last decade, several countries have created organizations at the federal level to help modernize and digitize government services. We spoke with Chris Govias, chief of design at the Canadian Digital Service, about ethics in research, the relationship between private-sector and government design practices, and the prospects for data privacy.

Frontier: The Canadian Digital Service was created as part of the 2017 federal budget. What created the groundswell necessary to secure that funding?

Chris Govias: I should preface my answer by saying that during the early 2000s Canada was a world leader in digital government. Then we did what might be a definitively Canadian thing: we got a bit shy, stepped out of the spotlight, and let others take the lead. As such, the momentum the government had been building around digital service was lost.

In 2016, a small group of policy makers began to put together the bones of a digital service within the Government of Canada. That group consulted with people across Canada about their needs and challenges and the consultation they prepared eventually led to Budget 2017 including funds for “Canadian digital services.” This digital-services initiative wasn’t a new idea—the 18F and the United States Digital Service were already up and running in the United States, GDS was active in the United Kingdom, and many new initiatives in Estonia had already inspired civic technologists around the world. In Ottawa, the administration wanted to create a federal government that moves and reacts at the speed of its citizens.

Frontier: Can CDS initiate projects, or must you wait for governmental partners to contact you?

CG: CDS works on a partnership model. We are free to use; we’re not a cost-recovery unit, so other agencies can work with us while committing nothing more than their employees’ time. Our partnership team has been overrun with departments reaching out. We evaluate queries using a 3R model: replicability, reach, and readiness. Can we replicate a project across government? Everything we do is open source and we love when someone elsewhere in government can download a project’s code and repurpose it for their own use.

One of the key tenets at CDS is that we’re open and transparent about the work we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

Does a project reach a lot of people? We want to have an impact, and so we prioritize projects that will be used often. Lastly, what’s the readiness of the partner department? Do they understand the problem they want help solving? One of the key tenets at CDS is that we're open and transparent about the work we're doing and how we're doing it. Will our partner come on board with that vision?

Designing a digital product for Veterans Affairs Canada
Designing a digital product for Veterans Affairs Canada

Frontier: And if a project meets these criteria?

CG: We begin even project with a discovery process. For example, the Canadian Revenue Agency reached out to us to help increase the uptake of the free tax-clinic program it coordinates. We kicked off a research-intensive discovery process to see just how people in Canada, especially the most vulnerable, file taxes. When we begin a discovery, we don’t know where we’ll end up, exactly; the terrain might be ambiguous or uncertain for some time. We don’t use Gantt charts; we don’t offer definitive roadmaps; we don’t suggest we’ll hit specific milestones on specific dates. That can be scary for some government departments used to consultants who say, after a bit of business analysis, “Here is what our service will cost, this is when you’ll receive the work, and you can sign a multiyear contract right now.” Our CEO, Aaron Snow, likes to say our projects are “partnerships of the willing.”

Frontier: What role does design play in the creation of public-facing technology services and products?

CG: Design plays a critical role. CDS is different from a traditional IT department. We don’t add technology to people’s lives for the sake of it. We aren’t trying to add blockchain or AI or voice assistants into people’s lives. Instead, our work is about putting people at the heart of the technology. Our solution might be low tech, like paper forms, or it might be mobile-friendly web applications. We start with people and the problems they face. That’s the essence of a human-centred design process, after all.

We’ve made sure to distinguish our design and design-research teams so that we can benefit from best practices in both fields. When you’re operating at the federal level, ethics and privacy in design research are paramount, and it’s critical to have the right expertise. For our part, we work in an agile fashion, taking good ideas from leading private-sector tech companies and adopting them here. One example is that, as soon as we believe we understand a problem, we quickly move into prototyping and testing.

Chris Govias
Chris Govias

Frontier: Many people speak about how they wish the government’s digital services would “catch up” to those offered in the private sector. But what can startups and other private companies learn from CDS and how it works?

CG: We have a phrase here at CDS: “We move at the speed of trust.” All the work we do, and our ability to do it quickly, happens because of the relationships we have with our partners. CDS doesn’t expect to change government in a day; we join with partners from a position of humility, hoping to learn. We want people to work side-by-side with us—often literally in the same office.

The challenges are so much larger and complex in government—but the corresponding opportunities are so much bigger.

Sometimes, the private sector misses that rich understanding of client-agency trust. When I worked with a company that bid on projects, we sometimes were unsuccessful because we thought we understood someone’s business better than they did. If the Canadian Digital Service doesn’t move as quickly as we would sometimes like, or if our services don’t quite match up to those in the private sector, it’s because the challenges are so much larger and complex in government—and the corresponding opportunities are so much bigger.

Frontier: And as private companies scale—

CG: Let me take privacy as an example. Tim Cook has talked extensively about privacy in recent years. The company’s messaging on the subject is phenomenal—Apple really emphasizes your right to privacy. Only recently has Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, published an op-ed about privacy; only after a public hammering has Mark Zuckerberg suggested a similar turn toward privacy for Facebook. In the next few years we’ll see which companies follow through on these ideas and promises.

Frontier: And as we speak, the Trudeau government is setting forth a ten-point digital strategy that emphasizes safety, security, user control over data, and transparency.

CG: Yes, and there’s talk from US presidential candidates about breaking up tech giants. That’s not without its flaws, but we’re entering a phase where the public, where citizens, need to call for some controls. I’m hopeful that government agencies like CDS can help the conversation by articulating what we’ve learned about ethics, individuals’ privacy, transparency in work, and collaboration. I’m excited about a future in which companies think about building privacy and ethics into their products before they even start building them.