The Digital Downfall of the GoC

If you’re old enough, you might remember a time when the Government of Canada (GoC) was a leader in the online (web 2.0) space. A time when just having a presence on the web put our government in the upper echelon of forward thinking administrations. That same time when we, (user) experience professionals, were dreaming of being involved in creating future portfolios of government online services that are open, beautifully designed, and created to directly address the needs of our citizens. That time in the early days of the promising #uxwg (the GoC UX Working Group) professional community. The time when everyone was talking about a future where research, user-centricity and service design would be done across and within all government departments. A future when the newly released WxT (Web eXperience Toolkit) and the upcoming accessibility, usability and interoperability standards were going to revolutionize the way government services were built.

That future never happened.

The number of epic project fails of the last two administrations when it comes to technology in general, and (experience) design in particular, are mounting. The Phoenix payroll system is such a clusterfuck, it makes the Healthcare.gov fiasco seem like a model of success. Most of the core Shared Services Canada projects are behind schedule, some substantially so, with a bill currently topping a whopping $3 billion. Canada.ca has a design that would be obsolete in 2005, while its string of separate sign-ons for other departmental websites frequently force citizens to abandon their online pursuits and either call in or proceed to wait in long lines at government offices. “Conservative blue” is somehow still the preferred colour of our Canadian government online branding even though it can’t be found anywhere on our flag, and the Conservatives are now a minority. The border crossing eManifest project has been delayed for years. The list of projects hemorrhaging taxpayer dollars keeps growing, while the actual list of successes is minuscule in comparison (to give credit where credit is due, shoutout to the Census team at Stats Canada for being one of the very few who actually improved their online service).


Fast forward to today.

At the recently concluded #GCCIOSummit (June 26–27, 2017), a working group/hackathon summoned by the newly minted government Disruptor-in-Chief Alex Benay, a self-congratulatory pow-wow of GoC CIOs took two days to supposedly address the most pressing matters of future government tech. The agenda included Blockchain, AI, chatbots, intrapreneurship, accessibility, open data, a musical performance (and a talk on creativity) by Moist frontman David Usher, and playing with Legos.

Are they so shortsighted to think that the upcoming wave of AI, chatbots, Blockchain and photo ops with David Usher are even remotely related to why our online government services currently suck (and will keep on sucking for the foreseeable future)? I’m sure that if you ask this question to any of the CIOs present at the summit, none of those things would make their list. During many conversations with some of our GoC friends over the last few years (a list that includes practitioners, middle managers, Directors and CIOs), it became quite apparent that the reasons behind this have more to do with departments having vastly different implementation practices, capabilities, leadership maturity, and cultural values. Moreover, all other previous similar efforts to standardize them have also crashed and burned. Combine that with the GoC’s general inability to properly conceptualize adequate user centred digital services, and even well-intended public servants have no way to stop the vicious circle of internal politics and bureaucracy that are rampant in most GoC departments.

Incidentally, becoming more user centred was not part of the official agenda at the #GCCIOSummit, but it was briefly addressed by Benay himself, and then quickly glossed over, further emphasizing that it’s not a high priority item for the team. Or at least not as high as Blockchain, AI and chatbots. A Michael Jordan quote later, Benay’s quest for “disruption”, “innovation” and “transformation” in the GoC was prominently featured on every social media platform out there. All this, while (quite possibly knowingly) ignoring the only blueprint that has proven successful so far: creating a real government digital services transformation department to spearhead the transition. We’re talking a centralized citizen-driven design and policy shop similar to the UK’s GDS, US’s 18F and USDS, Australia’s DTO, the Danish Agency for Digitization, and the list goes on. A department made up of legions of talented technologists where user/design/product research and experience/service/product design standouts (from both the public and private sectors) work together to create the right services for Canadian citizens, unshackled from the misguided agendas of single departments’ internal development and business teams overflowing with the politically thirsty and the professionally obsolete.

To pour more salt in our collective wounds, this year’s federal budget actually teased the creation of something called Canadian Digital Services (CDS), but no further details were provided. CDS was mentioned at the #GCCIOSummit on June 26, but beyond the usual talk, it doesn’t look like there’s any intent to address it at scale anytime soon (beyond maybe back office strategy work to which we’re not privy to).

“CANADIAN DIGITAL SERVICES”
“The Government has an opportunity — and a responsibility — to lead the way when it comes to digital innovation to support more widespread adoption of digital tools, and to better serve Canadians.
Informed by similar initiatives in the U.S. (the U.S. Digital Service/18F) and the United Kingdom (the Government Digital Service), the Government will adopt new ways of serving Canadians. Better use of digital technologies could improve the ways in which businesses can access government services, speed up immigration processing times through better-integrated information, or make it easier for Canadians to access benefits or tax information online.” Canadian Budget document, page 105.

In contrast, Benay’s approach as CIO seems to be following a pattern of setting direction centrally while continuing to leave departments to their own devices when it comes to actual research, planning and implementation. To my knowledge, this approach has worked successfully in a single country, Estonia, a tiny Baltic country of 1.3 million people whose ITC infrastructure complexity is dwarfed by Canada’s. Incidentally, Estonia had the luxury to reset its entire digital services offering and rebuild them from scratch a few years ago, something completely unachievable in the context of our federal government.


To compound the situation, the GoC doesn’t even have actual user research and design job designations. If you are a design researcher or an experience designer in our government, you’re likely forced within a CS (Computer Science) or IS (Information Systems) job designation. It’s 2017 (as our equally social media savvy Prime Minister would say). Design has been the main disruptor in technology for the better part of the last 10 years, yet our government is happy to continue to ignore it and chase technological band-aids that fatten the wallets of consulting giants (Big 5 and the likes) and headhunting shops. Incidentally, IT procurement also continues to be a big mess, continuing to favour the big boys with large pockets over small shops highly motivated to do good work (but we’ll leave procurement for a future rant).

These days, the once promising #uxwg is practically dead (though we hear rumours about a possible rebirth in the near future). Government UX practitioners are no longer a unified voice and have reverted back within the GoC ranks. If CDS ends up being more than a pipe dream, why not suck up all the talented #uxwg people into CDS to gain some scale, and let them go to work? The open source Web eXperience Toolkit was adopted by many departments, but in the last few years the world has evolved moving on from disjointed component and pattern libraries into integrated design systems, and sadly, the WxT has failed to react and adapt in any way. Adherence to accessibility standards is mandated by the fear of further lawsuits, while the GoC’s usability standard has become a checkbox in the lifecycle of a project, satisfied by lazy usability and tree testing sessions. Actual mixed methods design research is non existent. Most modern design and research tools are still prohibited from being installed on GoC computers. You get the idea.


And let’s talk about Benay for a moment. Ever since he’s taken office, he’s been tearing up social media with Kardashian-like aplomb in an effort to beef up support for his cause. If you ever need a digital buzzword dictionary, all you need to do is look up his LinkedIn conversations from the last few weeks. And while the Ontario government appointed a proven large scale government digital transformation entity in former 18F co-founder and director Hillary Hartley as their new Chief Digital Officer, the feds have gone with Benay, a sales professional who mistakes social media engagement and photo ops with actually getting stuff done. And when he’s called on his bullshit, his stock Trump-like social media reply to those criticizing his approach is to call them bitter, and ask if they’re willing to do something about it. He’s forgetting one thing. He’s actually the one in charge of that “doing something about it” part.

So I guess we’re gonna get ourselves some popcorn, sit back, and admire the mushroom cloud…

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