Ask me what I learned at FWD50 and I’ll tell you this: All the cool kids are embracing digital government. And it’s okay that everyone isn’t doing it the same way—as long as the desired outcomes are kept in view. The real debate is whether or not government can innovate, take the right risks, and fail faster to learn how to achieve long-term success.
Those in the private sector and the venture-capital-funded startup community would tell you that the government is designed to resist innovation and change. Those in government would tell you they’re making progress because they’ve put stakes in the ground. In our FWD50 coverage, we talked up going agile and shaking up the CIO role, but the real fun of digital government comes in when leaps are taken—even if they end in failure. Take a leaf out of government’s book: In order to innovate at scale, you need to embrace a culture of failure and risk. Ontario is a leading example.
Follow the leader: Digital government in Ontario
When it comes to digital government, Ontario’s chief digital officer told FWD50 attendees that most levels of government are speaking from the same playbook—they’re just putting their own spin on it. Hillary Hartley outlined Ontario’s path to digital government with 10 key priorities, including focusing on users and businesses, creating a high-quality user experience, and recruiting talent that can help increase digital literacy and capacity across the public service.
But it’s more than just putting a new coat of paint on existing services and web properties. It goes deeper than that. Why aren’t things working in government, and why aren’t some services being used as much as they should be? Does the service have stumbling blocks that get in the way of usability? Or are citizens simply unaware that the service even exists? When it comes down to it, analytics comes in handy to make small changes that have large impact.
It’s also critical is meeting with stakeholders and policymakers as the province takes iterative sprints. Ontario’s Digital Services Standard puts stakes in the ground it can always come back to, highlighting what it needs to do to stay on the right path. But it’s not stopping there—Ontario’s looking at other innovation hubs to understand what Hartley calls their “methods and madness.” It has a lab at Waterloo’s Communitech, dubbed the “empathy lounge,” that’s dedicated to user experience design for the government’s digital services. But are mandates, an agile approach, and empathy lounges enough for government to truly innovate towards digital transformation?
Don’t overuse “innovation”
If you downed a drink every time someone mentioned innovation at FWD50, you’d be dead. But it was people from the public sector, like Hartley, who pointed out that “innovation” was an overused buzzword.
It’s no surprise that one of the sessions was an on-stage debate asking whether or not government can actually innovate. Private sector speakers called out Quebec’s licensing bureau going digital: Its hours of availability were still nine-to-five per labour union negotiations meant to safeguard full-time jobs. Meanwhile, government employees still aren’t getting properly paid thanks to the troubled Phoenix payroll project, which loomed like a dark cloud over nearly every FWD50 discussion about successful digital government.
So, private sector employees aren’t the government’s biggest fans. On the other hand, its advocates praise the government’s digital savviness, arguing that it innovates every day by doing small things. While the private sector is still searching for unicorns and trying to do things that the government could never do because of its constraints, the government is the “rhino”—it might not be pretty to look at, but it gets $hit done. Take the internet, NASA’s space launches, and safe drug injection sites in Vancouver.
The private sector can acknowledge these bright spots, but tends to see government in only two ways: as lawmakers and as a bureaucracy. Billions have been spent on developing portable electronic health records—but have you seen any of it? It’s safe to say that the government does experiment, we’re just not seeing the delivery.
At the end of the day, is it really about government versus the private sector, or is it about the ability to innovate at scale? Large businesses struggle to change course, too. Startups burn through venture capital money only to fail anyway. The government doesn’t have the budget for 10 different trials of e-health—so it has to make a big bet that might fail.
Given government’s commitment to be more agile as part of its digital transformation efforts, it’s becoming leaner, taking smaller bets and more risks. But does it have a culture that tolerates failure so it can learn to innovate better?
Get used to the word “failure”
The problem isn’t that government fails, it’s that it doesn’t talk about its failures in constructive ways. We’re not comfortable—well, most of us aren’t—saying things suck. But even the federal government CIO Alex Benay knows it’s time to get comfortable saying the word “failure,” or even admitting that a project is crap. In fact, he had a whole session about failure and culture on the last day of FWD50.
It’s not enough to just develop policies around the use of technology and how it’s deployed. Another session (quite painfully) illustrated how problems affecting citizens need to be solved. Canadian citizens, immigrants, and vulnerable people often bear the brunt of IT systems that don’t work, leading to unbearably long waits for citizenship or barriers to necessary medical care that keep them from being productive contributors to society.
For digital government to succeed, IT to innovate, and citizens to be taken care of, you need to create resiliency around failure so staff members aren’t afraid to come back into the office when things to go wrong. Benay’s take on it is if your leaders aren’t creating that space, find another job. Go to a leader that creates that space. We all have to be able to get back on the horse, because doing nothing is much worse.
So let’s wrap it up with this: The government needs to get better at breaking work down so it can learn from mistakes and start to do the cool stuff that actually works. Learning to fail is essential in going digital. Like Benay said, policy may be considered sexy, but doing $hit is more fun.
Featured image courtesy of Eva Blue.