Getting Digital Done in Government: Considerations for Executive Leaders

Editor’s Note: Dominique Bohn is the Assistant Deputy Minister and Chief Officer for the Alberta Digital Innovation Office. Among many other superpowers, Dominique brings decades of experience in service design, digital transformation and policy innovation to the Alberta Public Service.

A version of this post appeared in the Government of Alberta newsletter for Assistant Deputy Ministers, within the first few months of establishing the Digital Innovation Office.

We have the benefit of clarion direction from the senior leadership of the Alberta government: now is the moment to go digital by default and to truly put Albertans at the centre. Executive leaders in government like assistant deputy ministers and executive directors are well positioned to lead this service transformation. We are in that perfect space — close enough to the hands-on work at the coalface of service delivery to be relevant, but close enough to the sun (like, the Minister) to have influence.

The DIO context

Keeping in mind that the DIO is new (8 months) and small (a 6 person cross-disciplinary team), we are working closely with, and relying on, program areas to deliver. Our challenge is nothing less than dramatically improving the experience Albertans have with government, and the experience that the GoA staff have at work. We need to make it easier and simpler for Albertans to get things done with government — that’s everyday folks accessing services, businesses large and small, providers and community groups who help us deliver as government.

We plan to work differently with the vendor community as well — because new digital approaches will require different talents, more focussed on user research and design, and on the opportunities that agile and open source present. Equally because we want to open up opportunities to smaller vendors and help foster a really lively marketplace for digital talent, a community of makers. We are collaborating with government program areas on a few key projects. It’s a focussed start that helps us learn what works, build up our toolset and expertise. From here, we can tackle the more systemic barriers to innovation.

We are honoured to be working with dedicated, brilliant program delivery teams across the GoA on our first cohort of exemplar projects: digital services for childcare, traffic tickets, consultation, and the AISH (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped) program — all wicked public sector challenges. And this is just the start. We look forward to further collaborations.

Here are a few things we hope you will consider as you lead digital innovation in government:

Illustration created using elements from the Humaans library

Focus on your users

The number one principle and action for digital innovation is starting with real user needs. Whether you are working on a policy project or looking at how to improve your service delivery metrics, please make the time and resources available to conduct in person research with real users at the discovery phase of your projects and throughout. There are some very good tools out there for conducting and documenting user research. Check out the UK Government Digital Service Service Manual, the Ontario Digital Service Playbook, and Service Design Playbook from the BC Government. As our DIO programs evolve, we will be offering capability and community building for staff on these methods, and we anticipate bringing forward a digital service standard that we hope will lend meaningful guidance and goals.

We think of this as evidence and empathy, and it’s the soul of what we do at the DIO.

Create digital practitioners

When you are hiring your leadership team, consider making digital innovation capability a must-have. Whether you are hiring policy, operations or project leadership, I encourage you recruit folks with enthusiasm for, and ideally some experience in digital transformation, or a strong willingness to learn. Digital touches every aspect of our lives and government can’t be an exception to that.

We know that Albertans expect to be able to interact with government first through digital channels. Reflect on the services you use every day to get things done and the kinds of skills and mindset needed to make those services great. How do we attract new talent and support current staff to re-profile so that we are able to deliver government services as good as those in the rest of our lives? How do we make government services good enough that people actually want to use them?

Digital skills are as much about orientation and mindset as technical ability. We need to hire (and re-patriot) digital roles into government, and support staff to grow into new roles. Let’s admit that governments are in the technology business, and in the design business. We need to hire and train appropriately. Transitioning staff from contract managers to service makers leads, I believe, to better days at work for employees and a better experience of government for citizens. Cultivating a community of digital practitioners, both staff and vendors, raises the bar for quality. For starters:

  • user experience designers who can conduct daring research with real Albertans in their natural habitats, and work collaboratively with citizens and staff to co-create services
  • full stack developers, focussed on delivery, who are fluent and flexible with new dev toolsets, who can build great prototypes and grow them into robust digital services
  • data scientists who can help us find the gold in our mountains of information
  • policy designers who can work as part of a service team, building digital services to help close the loop between policy and delivery
  • agile product owners and scrum masters who will keep teams creative and delivering at pace

This means that we need to evaluate every vacancy and ask ourselves if re-hiring the same skill set is the best approach.

Although our hiring at the DIO will be very modest, we would like to encourage secondments or tours of (digital) duty with the DIO. We believe this will help grow digital capability and a set of shared tools and vocabulary around this kind of work. We offer an environment that supports creativity and delivery; we’ll help visiting staff develop and practice new skills in service design, agile delivery, and modern application development.

Make smart technology choices and investments

The DIO recognizes that the capital funding process will need to adapt as we respond to the need for change at a faster pace; work underway with Service Alberta is delivering a more consolidated and enterprise approach to investment that will help rationalize duplications and free up capital for new investment. We are in a good place to work collectively on smart investments that really help business areas deliver.

Perhaps most salient is how we think about and invest in continuous improvement. The advantage of modern digital approaches (continuous integration and deployment, agile, evidence-based design) is that our government services can, and should, evolve in response to user need and policy direction. In government, we are used to making once-in-a-generation capital IT investments. This is at odds with citizen expectations — people expect digital services to keep pace.

While the apps on our phones continuously update — we experience ambient improvement — government services tend to be bad and outdated, until they are dramatically overhauled causing user disorientation. The “new” service was likely years in the planning, procuring, developing and launching so is already stale by the time it hits staff and citizen users.

So, we have the tools to do continuous and responsive improvement — iterative innovation — but our planning and budgeting models rarely reflect this. As leaders with responsibility for these budgets, we need to plan digital spend to be ongoing, perhaps more operational.

If you are about to begin a large capital project, I encourage you to base that project on real user needs, validated through authentic research. Evidence needs to be crunchy, not hunchy! We have a tendency in government to overbuy, committing to large IT spends to cover every possible requirement and feature to the end of time. Innovation is about doing more with less, getting really frugal about IT spending, building only what you know your users need.

Don’t fall into the Costco trap — the big bulk buy isn’t always cheaper if you aren’t going to eat it all. The DIO encourages agile product development — this means working in smaller increments, basing all feature development on understood user needs. Be very cautious about going to market for a specific technology until you’ve prototyped and tested in real life contexts, considering the whole service. And be extra cautious adopting proprietary solutions and frameworks that will invoke licensing schemes and high exit costs. Ask yourself, when has “easily customized” been true? Strongly and firstly, consider open source.

Be brave!

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Dominique Bohn

Dominique Bohn

Chief Digital Officer + Assistant Deputy Minister | Government of Alberta, Executive Council | Making government services better, mostly using the internet.