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Learning to Walk the Digital Talk: The Digital Standards
The world has undergone disruptive change in the last decades, driven by exponential advances in digital technologies. Our cars not only listen, but respond. Our banks approve online mortgage applications in minutes. Our favourite pizza joints let us track our pies from oven to door in real time. The ripple effects of this digital revolution are both incredible and indiscriminate, and no nook or cranny of our society has been left untouched—including government.
In fact, this brave new world poses some very real challenges to governments the world over, and while the right response isn’t necessarily to start “moving fast and breaking things,” we just as certainly can’t stand still. The digital future is here, and we must move from reluctantly reacting to proactively engaging if we are to meet the expectations of those we serve.
What exactly does this mean?
First, the digital revolution is inextricable from the technology that drives it. As such, it will evidently mean changes in government tools and systems. This transformation will help establish the IT backbone needed to deliver the services Canadians expect: simple, modern and digitally enabled, available anytime, anywhere, from any device.
Yet digital government is far more than modern websites and optical fibres, sophisticated algorithms and flashy apps. In fact, many leaders in the digital government space argue that it’s not even primarily about the tech.
Rather, the more transformative change is the digital revolution’s rewrite of how we “do government,” soup to nuts. Because doing digital right means putting the needs of those we serve at the centre of all we do, rather than continuing to privilege organizational silos or institutional convenience. It means conceding that we rarely know what the future holds, but instead need the permission and the space to fail fast, change course and improve over time. It means designing our services for the hardest-to-reach users first, not last. It means recognizing the data we collect for the asset it is and stewarding it accordingly. And it means humbly admitting that we don’t have all the answers, nor are we alone in the service delivery space. Instead, we must work in the open as digital allies, forging partnerships across branches, departments, jurisdictions and sectors, and learning from one another’s successes and failures.
In short, it means realizing the vision of digital government requires many of us to work very differently than we do today. The growing pains will be real—and it is still the right thing to do. Canadians deserve our efforts.
Where do we start?
We start by establishing a common understanding of what “good” looks like in the digital age—and that’s where the Digital Standards come in.
As the name implies, these ten evergreen principles set the standard for how government will work in the digital age in the name of improved service delivery. Imported and adapted from digital leaders at home and abroad and refined in the open to reflect our Canadian context, the Standards were announced by the President of the Treasury Board and Minister for Digital Government in September 2018. Including such tenets as designing with users, iterating frequently and working in the open, these principles are designed to help us “do government differently” by aligning our actions towards our shared digital vision. Concretely, they also serve as the yardsticks by which we will weigh service delivery options, measure performance, make decisions and prioritize activities. And, as the experiences of our digital forebears have proven, they empower the change agents, at all levels, who are living this paradigm today, while paving the way for everyone to embrace it tomorrow.
Transforming government for the digital age is a tall order. The good thing is, it’s our shared challenge—and we’re not starting from scratch. Many among our ranks have been blazing the trails towards the digital good for years by embodying the principles underpinning our Digital Standards. Meanwhile, initiatives like the Digital Academy are laying the foundation for every public servant to develop the skills, knowledge and competencies we need to follow suit.
The time has come for us all to join the digital government revolution. Who’s with me?
Alex Benay: on a Digital Public Service