Digital Modernization Guidance at Scale
Technology can be flashy. It can be fast, responsive, intuitive, and give users a wonderful experience. That’s the dream at least. When you are an application designer, your mind is full of bright and creative ideas on how a problem can be solved. Software startup companies are known for delivering exciting concepts that push boundaries and challenge the way that we utilize services. Big tech companies can create robust and impressive products that facilitate the way that so many of us go about working.
On the flip side, technology can also be clunky, slow, and frustrating to work with. This is usually the case for software that was created decades ago and hasn’t been kept up to date. Older, less innovative tech companies can be guilty of this situation — and some government organizations as well.
It’s no secret that some digital government services get a bad rap. The BC Public Service has over 1,600 applications, some of which we developed as far back as the 1980s. A lot of government applications are developed with old languages, frameworks, and technologies. Some of these services are public facing and no longer meet the expectations the public has around what a good user experience should be. This isn’t a huge surprise, considering the rapid change of the digital user experience in web applications over that period. Given the massive scope of projects and the technical debt that comes with those, the government has struggled to meet the pace required to keep its digital services modern. So how can we change this?
There are many techniques to modernize legacy applications. Assessments must be performed to determine why an application needs upgrading and what can be done to improve the service so that it meets the needs of citizens in a modern digital world. For some, it’s a facelift of a web application to improve the visual representation, for others it might be shifting over the hosting to a cloud platform for a more reliable and sustainable service — perhaps it might require rebuilding the entire application from scratch.
As much as our team at the Exchange Lab would love to help each ministry team individually to accomplish their goals, it’s simply unrealistic to achieve this with so many projects. We must determine how to do this at scale.
Recently, our team –Digital Modification — was created as part of the Modernization Acceleration Program at the Exchange Lab. We were given ownership of Digital.gov.bc.ca, a web property that exists as a resource for teams to learn about various products, communities, and services that can be leveraged to build better digital services. We’re looking to improve this resource and we’re hoping to get feedback from you. If you have used our site, or have any suggestions on how we can improve the digital modernization experience in government, please feel free to submit something to our feedback portal.
To improve this resource so that it meets the needs of ministry teams that are going through the digital transformation process, we have been talking with teams across the government to determine what exactly the sticking points were in their journeys. We met with product owners, directors, technical architects and developers from 10 teams across seven ministries. These discussions surfaced valuable insights, and some recurring patterns were raised from analyzing the feedback. We plan on keeping these conversations going, but we wanted to share what we’ve learned so far.
The top way people sought out resources was talking to people or seeking expert advice, both internally and externally.
A common trend with ministry teams is that they rely on person-to-person connections to determine what actions to take or resources they should be following. It is apparent that there is a wealth of internal knowledge within the BC Public Service, and that an important skill to have is establishing the right connections so you can get the information you need. This doesn’t come without pitfalls, however. Teams described difficulties such as determining who to talk to, if those connections weren’t established already; an over-reliance on vendors for knowledge, who might not share a common incentive; and relying on transferred knowledge as a source of truth, where it could very well be that the information given to you is not correct or is inappropriate for your situation.
When asked what teams needed to have success on their journeys, the common theme was that people want centralized, trustworthy, and specific guidance.
There are many decisions that need to be made during design cycles that may seem arbitrary or difficult to make without having some level of expertise. This problem is currently solved by peer-to-peer communication but could be better solved by having guidelines around best practices and specific and concise information to help with the decision-making process.
Even for teams who have a more mature IT practice, having documented evidence of what others were doing would be valuable. They could point to modern technology being used successfully to advocate for change in their own organizations. The problem is that you need to know who to talk to so having a platform to surface these projects across the government would give much needed visibility for ministry teams.
The desire for support and guidance is not limited to technology. Many teams brought up the challenges they faced with the funding process and navigating policies. There is a clear need for this information to be more accessible and understandable.
Not knowing what to do can also be attributed to a historical over-reliance on vendors.
For the past twenty-some odd years, it has been a part of core policy that projects should be outsourced to third-party vendors. What has been realized since is that this creates not only vendor lock-in so that the government depends on external resources to support and further develop these projects, but also a void of internal knowledge to accomplish as much. To break this dependence, a shift in hiring policy is required so that internal talent and knowledge can be retained, and sustainable development can occur within government.
There is a notable desire to move to Agile development, but a lack of ability or willingness to make the change.
Government projects have been historically developed using waterfall methodology, an approach that aligns well with government processes; unlike the private industry, there is more focus on requirements from policy and legislation, and less on innovation. If the final product is absolutely known, then the waterfall methodology can work well, and sometimes faster than Agile. A good example is building a bridge — there are well-established methods for construction, and there is a consistent landscape throughout the timeline of the project, so you have a good idea of all the required steps throughout the process. If the final solution is unknown, or if incorrect assumptions are made about end users’ needs, a waterfall methodology can be disastrous.
It can be hard to be the first team to try a new way of working that you haven’t been seen done before. Sometimes Agile is presented as the panacea that will solve everything, but the implementation of Agile is the key to its success. It’s time intensive, collaborative, and can require new roles or skills that the team doesn’t have yet. If the whole team isn’t on board, Agile can quickly turn back into waterfall.
The question for us now is, how can we learn from these experiences, and improve upon the existing situation to help teams at scale?
Transforming Digital.gov.bc.ca into a Trusted Wayfinding Resource
Much of what we heard can be summarized with the phrase, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Ministry teams have the desire to transform their digital services, but how exactly do they go about it? If the information is out there, how can they find it? We want to be able to not only be a directory for said information, but also help guide people to the information they need without searching through a maze of people and documentation.
The digital modernization process isn’t trivial, and it’s different for every project. People want a centralized guide that can quickly and efficiently give them accurate information about requirements and concise, authoritative opinions to help them make decisions. We want to identify certain pain points in the process (such as cloud hosting, authentication, funding and policy navigation) and begin to create content that can help make these difficult topics a little more palatable.
From all of this, we’ve learned that the first steps towards making this journey better for teams requires creating better content. This will be our minimum viable product: creating the missing documentation that people are looking for and creating the connections to existing documentation that people are trying to find. In agile fashion we will continuously get user feedback from our designs, so that we can create the learning experience teams are looking for.
Once we’ve established useful content and a strong wayfinding methodology to navigate it, we hope to expand our project to include some of the other things teams asked for, like creating a dashboard for sharing ongoing projects across government. We want to increase the connectedness of people in similar roles by elevating the communities and networks in our organizations and break down information silos that prevent knowledge from being shared between teams.
We’re just getting started, and we want to hear from you.
We’re hoping to get feedback from you as well; we’ve implemented a feedback portal on digital.gov.bc.ca so that you can share your thoughts. If you have any opinions on the current design of the site, what kind of content you would like to see in the future, or you would just like to share your challenges and bottlenecks you’ve experienced in the digital modernization process, please submit a post so we can learn and improve the user experience on digital.gov.bc.ca.
Author: Kaegan Mandryk