5 Core Practices for Modern Digital Services

Working differently to deliver public good

The Alberta Digital Innovation Office kicked off its first exemplar service RFP with Alberta Children’s Services to create an Early Child Care System that will make child care easier and more accessible for working Albertans. More exemplars are coming soon. We wanted to share what is different about these projects.
Here are five core practices the Digital Innovation Office uses to create modern digital services (these ways of working are used everywhere from Google to the UK’s Government Digital Service). Working with these proven approaches is important for successful teams — especially as vendors and public servants collaborate together.

Keep spend under program control
Start with a smaller budget to deliver working software that provides value for citizens and government faster. Make small bets instead of big bets. To keep business accountability, the program area supplies a dedicated product owner who is empowered to prioritize and make day-to-day decisions.

Start and stay human-centred
Use tools from design and anthropology to go out in the world and see firsthand people’s experience, needs, and goals. Use these frontline fieldwork insights to keep the big picture organized around people’s service journey. Then as you prototype and build new pieces, frequently have real users take things for a test drive to see what works and what needs improvement. Tap into program staff’s frontline wisdom, and design for field-tested needs.

Be Agile
Break projects into a backlog of small, bite-size pieces based around user stories — things that users need to do to be successful. Work in a regular rhythm of 2 week sprints to design, build, and test working software. That’s software that does something useful, that you can test and demo, and that you can course correct easily if you need changes.

Close the gap between business and delivery
To work at speed with an Agile cadence, digital service teams must be embedded with the business. Otherwise decisions take too long, and there is too much distance between the team and real users on the frontline. As mentioned, dedicated product owners from the business provide clear priorities through design, development, and ongoing delivery. And digital teams work together with program areas to align all the layers of a service — from the specific functionality all the way through to policy and strategy.

Outcomes driven
Government today is in the software business. Digital services are changing every aspect of our work, from policy to delivery. The temptation in this sea change is to focus on technology — after all, that’s what enables this transformation. But that tech-first approach creates solutions looking for problems and results in “software done to you” projects. Instead, we must be focused on outcomes as our north star. By doing fieldwork in the real world and being clear up front about outcomes we can prevent situations where digital services meet the formal requirements but fail to actually deliver value.

Our first Agile course

To build foundations for this way of working in the Alberta Public Service, we just ran a 2 day Agile Introduction for our exemplar teams and other partners in government last week.

An Agile Tip for Public Servants
Something agile public servants can start today without a course or designing a digital service is a daily stand-up meeting. Teams meet at the same time every morning for a 15 minute stand up (literally, we stand in a circle. Meetings are shorter that way). In a stand-up, everyone shares what they will do today, what they did yesterday, and anything that blocked their progress. That’s it. The team assigns people to help on any blockers, but doesn’t discuss or try to solve issues or provide long explanations — stand-ups are about awareness and accountability. Longer discussions are scheduled as follow-up conversations. Teams stay focused and can course correct quickly.