The Digital Downfall of the GoC: CDS Edition

I’m not gonna lie, I was stoked. Even though I heard things were moving behind the scenes, when I read that title in July, the “Launch of the Canadian Digital Service” I really felt relieved. It was finally here. Not as an idea, not as a vague budget line, not as a backchannel whisper. It was in every feed. On every platform. After years and years of what I presume was a ton of work by an army of people on the inside (kudos to all of you who convinced politicians to approve a budget line for this initiative) and a lot of twitter sarcasm from the outside, the Government of Canada eventually realized what everyone was so sick of repeating, that it might want to join the ranks of 21st century digital government by having a dedicated entity in charge of digital service delivery. Or at least that’s what the transcript said…

The initial red flag.

I hinted at this earlier, it’s pretty clear to see that CDS’ initial positioning is not ideal. CDS is not its own entity but a department within TBS. Which also means very little decision autonomy (after all TBS is Brison’s department, and he handpicked Benay to play the ‘disruptor’ role at the head of the transformation rhetoric, a rhetoric in which the “delivery” part of service is pretty low on the agenda compared to their relentless pursuit of public conversations regarding new shiny technologies). And while the two of them were doing all the chest pounding at the launch, there wasn’t a single nod to the people who actually worked behind the scenes to actually make this happen.

I also have a difficult time believing that Brison & Benay’s Buzzwords & Binders agenda, and their incessant talk about what amounts to platitudes du jour for the average citizen (things like Blockchain, AI, innovation, etc.), will ever clue in to the fact that our government’s service design and delivery approach is in dire need of proven, competent interaction designers, experience designers, service designers. You know, all those people who can actually improve the quality of the interaction between citizens and the government, right at the point of contact. Incidentally, designers and design researchers are also the people who could’ve potentially improved the public perception of some of the clusterfucks our government IT decision makers are responsible for behind the scenes (see Canada.ca, eManifest, Shared Services, etc — though not Phoenix, no amount of lipstick would’ve given successful CPR to that moribund pig).

But overall, against my usual instincts, I was still quite optimistic. Hey, if the NAC can take a Soviet Era nuclear bunker and transform it into a state-of-the-art 21st century performing arts center, why can’t the GoC step up and create a modern, 21st century digital transformation department? It could happen, right? Right?

Fast forward to now…

CDS has been in existence for 8 months (yes, it was officially launched in July but the department was started within TBS in February). They’ve got 23 employees listed on their site. 6 of the 23 are senior staff . Yes, I am counting the newly hired Chris Govias as senior staff even though he’s not listed as such, because he happens to be the only person there with a track record of successful service delivery at scale within or outside the government (and no, ‘delivering’ policy doesn’t count in my book. You’d think that for all the talk about design finally having a seat at the table, they’d at least attempt to make it seem so, at least virtually, on their site’s team page, but instead, they’ve lumped Chris below the senior staff line (or ‘key contacts’ line) with the rest of the crew. So designers are not key contacts, but senior policy people are. So basically nothing has changed from a typical gov department in that respect.

I was also happy to see a few familiar faces in its ranks, and some names that I’m familiar with only from afar. Sadly the department currently includes 1.5 UX designers, and 2 visual designers. I don’t know them personally, but I’m assuming they’ve designed the digital.canada.ca web presence. The site itself is pleasantly surprising. There were some initial WCAG hiccups and some still dock it points for readability issues related to centering content, but I think it’s a way to show compromise between archaic government mandated standards and a more modern web presence interpretation. If anything, it’s a way to show off to the rest of the GoC that 3.5 people can design better than everyone else (and that ‘everyone’ probably amounts to hundreds of people, both designers and policy makers), who for the past 15 years created rigid, outdated standards that shackled the Canadian government’s online identity.

If you ask me, the way this ship is picking its crew is deeply flawed. Before Ryan Androsoff resigned yesterday, CDS was essentially stuck as a glorified policy shop, with extremely limited delivery capability. Aside from communications (3), policy (3), HR/operations (3), they seem to have a team of 3.5 developers, 2 designers and 1.5 UXers. Is a team of 7 people really intended to tackle any kind of meaningful government services overhaul at scale? I mean, even if every single one of those people are Red Bull-infused fire-breathing unicorns, how are they gonna deliver fast enough to keep up with the sheer volume of meaningful requests from other departments coming their way? At least for the time being, their actual delivery team is obviously too small (more than half the CDS team is either management, policy or admin) to actually satisfy any kind of enterprise scale demand. I’m not going to get into how junior most of the staff is, because I’ll get accused of ageism, but I would venture that we might want some seasoned, proven delivery resources in there to navigate the hellholes that are about to unfold, and shield some of the junior staff from non-delivery related politics. Or is that something that only people in private sector do and it’s frowned upon in the GoC?

Other than the new grads and FSWEP juniors, the majority of CDS personnel are transplants from other government departments. Among them, there are multiple previous position hits for departments like Shared Services. CBSA. TBS. etc. You get the idea, the same departments that have been hemorrhaging money by consistently butchering their digital transformation projects and citizen-facing services for the past decade. They might as well add a tagline to their logo that goes something like this: “If your previous ship is sinking, you can always get a promotion with CDS”.

I may be harsh here, but if CDS supposed to be following that same proven successful model previously employed by GDS in the UK, 18F and USDS in the US, DTO in Australia, shouldn’t they stick to the strategy of showing their value right away by tackling some very high profile service design projects like alpha.gov.uk (GDS) and the redesign of healthcare.gov (18F). In fact, they won’t even openly admit what they’re working on (for that I had go searching through Brison’s Facebook posts, to find this little nugget:

Not exactly high profile. Instead of working on the actual immigration application (and by that, I mean, all of it, since a lot of the process is still paper based in 2017), they’re working on a tiny subsystem for scheduling citizenship tests on oaths. I had to take the citizenship test and oath in Canada years ago. Not exactly a painful process. You know what was painful? The process of applying, receiving feedback, and being able to follow the progress as it goes along. And I have friends who are in the process of trying to bring their families and loved ones over, and they’re exasperated with our immigration application.

And shouldn’t they stick to the model in which those departments hired heavily from the private sector in order to build a brand new playbook that sabotaged the internal politics and bureaucracy at play in those governments? Why didn’t CDS go after people like Leisa Reichelt or Jess McMullin? I know, they may not have the same policy chops as those with Harvard Business School graduates, though since you’re all policy PhDs over there, surely you can cover at least some of the policy holes of some of those potential newly hired private sector service design leaders, just as they’re surely going to cover your obvious service delivery holes. I also wonder if the last decade of having policy wonks in charge of government transformation has proven yet how ineffective that strategy is. Does CDS need to fail as well to keep driving that point home?

In the end, reluctant skepticism may be the name of the game.

Citizens care about actual results. I would even settle for stories of failure. Things that you’ve actually tried (though, for the record, I would certainly prefer results). Spending your time on your blog and social platforms writing warm and fuzzy blog posts on ‘eminent’ fluff like openness, being focused on the user, vague project selection process details and shoutouts to slow-drip hiring campaigns, doesn’t make this a success, not by a long shot. And speaking on grandiose terms about the above at every conference on the planet, when you haven’t delivered anything else other than a glorified blog doesn’t mean you actually have meaningful things to share (and consequently keep blowing your budget on). If anything it reminds me of the incessant chest bumping by the those in charge of the Canada.ca project a couple of years ago, before the project was anywhere close to being done (and obviously before it was unceremoniously abandoned earlier this year).

Let’s face it, the current budget of CDS is too small to create any kind of meaningful scale (and therefore could very well be set up to fail from the beginning). What is the strategy there? How about writing about that in a blog post? Maybe the higher-ups at TBS are clueless enough to think that traveling to the UK for a one week bootcamp at GDS makes them competent digital service transformation strategists.

They also messed up the messaging. Brison also stated the following:

Funny enough, Anatole Papadopoulos, one of the CDS executives, has public stated that CDS has no intention of being a silver bullet for service design in the Canadian government, but more of a proof-of-concept, prototyping arm. Well, if that’s all you’re gonna be doing, stop comparing yourselves with 18F, GDS and USDS as those guys are delivering, and are doing that at scale, improving the service delivery culture of the departments they’re working with. Instead of wasting millions on a prototyping department, why not hire IDEO, or AdaptivePath, or Frog? They will gladly take your millions, they will put on some of the most qualified people on the planet and they will create some truly amazing prototypes. Prototypes that likely no department in the GoC would actually be able to execute on. Instead of working closely with the departments to improve their service delivery culture, methodology and overall quality, CDS is actually trying to position themselves as an internal prototyping consultancy, working on tiny projects. Again, why not hire an external consultancy with way less overhead than CDS has, we have great companies in town like Macadamian, Akendi, that IMO would do a better job at this than CDS can with its policy overhead.

And while they are careful to say they’re not ready to deliver, these guys are racking up air miles faster than full time flight attendants. They’re everywhere, speaking to everyone, as part of their ‘consultations’ and awareness campaigns. Incidentally, this is where they’re losing me. More ‘consultations’? Weren’t there years and years of consultations before getting to the point of creating CDS? When is this consultation madness gonna stop? Why can’t they actually hire some more people instead of blowing their already lacking budgets on vanity travel and photo ops?

I get it, CDS wants to claim full transparency, and needs a social media presence in order to appears cool to millenials, while also projecting the ‘open by default’ trait typically associated with a progressive internal culture. But from the outside, it looks like you’re displaying the tendencies of a poker player facing a situation where it’s blatantly obvious to everyone at the table that you’re making a raise only because you’re trying to represent a much better hand than you actually have. You’re not really saying anything of substance in those posts. Watch Brison’s and Benay’s speeches from the CIO Summit when they introduced the GDS. Apart from letting the CDS cat out of the bag, everything else was a bunch of platitudes. Now read your own blog posts. That’s right, more platitudes. Those of us who have been around the block a couple of times both outside and inside the government know better than to equate prints of GDS quotes, walls of post-its, and smiles all around, to successful delivery.

You’re also part of a community. The same community all of us are a part of. The same community that has been privately voicing some of the concerns that I am making public here. And while most of the policy wonks I know don’t think that digital transformation is also about experience design (UX) and service design, you’d think that if you were actually following those GDS and 18F models, you’d try to warm up to the UX communities within the GoC, and those outside of it in your own backyard. On an inevitability scale, I would even venture that you might want to hire people from this community at some point, and for the sake of your survival, I hope we reach that point sooner rather than later…

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Corneliux

Experience design professional. Troublemaker. Mars Rover. Wanderer. Nomad. Part-time vagabond. Co-chair of @CanUXconf, founder of @ampli2de.