Header image: looking across the sea.

There’s nothing wrong with being unoriginal

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

I didn’t think that a quotation by Sir Isaac Newton, spoken almost 350 years ago, would be so relevant to my work in digital government, but I’ve found that statement to be especially relevant, lately.

Public servants around the world are doing excellent work — groundbreaking, enlightening, important work — to create simple, intuitive digital services for their fellow citizens. Much of the work on digital that we’re doing here in Ontario is inspired by, or builds on that great work already taking place.

This is especially true as we develop our digital service standard in the province. Other countries and jurisdictions have shown leadership in creating their own service standards, and we’re learning from their lessons and their experience as we develop our own.

After all, there is nothing wrong with being unoriginal: recognizing good work, learning from it, and applying it effectively in context — with attribution and permission, of course — is a great way to learn from the experiences of those who have come before us.

In the process of creating our digital service standard, we decided to look at the commonalities in themes across similar standards in five different jurisdictions. Here is a quick table of what we found:

Table: themes in service standards around the world. (For plain-text version, please contact us.)

Service standards around the world are constantly evolving — even the table above will change regularly — but we’ve quickly noticed common themes and principles that are present across the globe. Here are a few quick observations from our research:

  • We are not so different. You might naturally expect that differences in cultural norms, political ideologies, or geographic distance would result in vastly different approaches to digital standards from one government to the next. In actuality, governments around the world are releasing digital strategies that share more in common than you might think and include many of the same core principles.
  • The devil is in the details. The principles in many digital service standards are simple, intuitive, and easily relatable; but not always as easy to put into practice. It’s one thing to say ‘make it simple’; it’s another thing altogether to make simple happen. These simply stated actions have profound impacts on how government operates, behaves, and thinks.
  • The standard cannot stand alone. Standards are helpful; they set expectations, provide guidance, and help to coalesce people around a common goal. But, on their own, standards are not enough to create large-scale organizational change. People need support. We require training, coaching, practice, and the freedom to make mistakes. How we implement standards is just as important as the standards, themselves.
  • Change is constant. Meeting modern digital standards takes work, but it’s important to remember that we’re all in this together. Our digital products, practices, and policies won’t change overnight. Being patient and supportive will help as we learn and grow on this journey, together.

We are developing the Ontario digital service standard to meet the needs of everyone in our home province, but our work is being inspired by other passionate and smart public servants who are doing the same, around the world. We’ll be ready to share a draft of the new service standard in the new year.

We’re thankful for the shoulders of the giants who came before us, and proud to stand tall on those shoulders. From up here, there’s a much clearer view of the path ahead. So we may not be 100% original, but we’re learning from the best to be among the best.


Dana Patton is a service design advocate on the Digital Government Team. He has a passion for creating simple, user focused online services that make life easier for Ontarians.