The Canadian Digital Service’s first show and tell

A summary and some recommendations

I love show and tell. Participants reveal what’s important to them, sharing it with the audience—a rare but rewarding experience!

Last week, the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) hosted its first show and tell. CDS is a new group within the Government of Canada, using new approaches to revitalize government services by building on successes further afield. It’s a major project, one that I’ve been excitedly tracking from the sidelines.

Part of CDS’s approach is to engage with the community. The team hosted the show and tell in a downtown Ottawa conference room, simultaneously livestreaming it (video). The audience included both government and non-government attendees. While the event took a lecture format due to the constraints of the room, they took questions from both the physical and virtual audiences via a web app, and hung out afterward to chat. (They’re already planning on changing the setup to be more interactive, once they have a better space—a great example of the team’s willingness to experiment and evolve.)

To jump onto CDS’s willingness to engage with the community, I want to offer my summary of the event and some ideas for improvement (jump to section)—hopefully there’s something useful for anyone, attendees or not!

Key takeaways for me:

  • Reading correspondence is a great form of user research.
  • Government serves its clients at key (and potentially stressful) moments in their lives—government services should recognize and empathetically incorporate that into their design.
  • CDS is doing great work and sharing it openly. That said, their open blogging could cover more aspects of their operations while also being more frequent and more detailed.

Careful collaboration

CDS does three things: deliver solutions, build capacity, and provide advice. The event mostly profiled the first activity.

Guiding CDS’s approach to service delivery are their “three Rs”: reach, readiness, and replicability. These principles allow them to select projects based on who will benefit, how primed the problem and partnering department are for a collaboration, and the extent to which a solution could be extended for other situations. CDS publishes these principles, along with questions that detail them further. We heard a few examples of existing projects that touched on these principles. (For example, the recently launched Impact Canada Challenge Platform.)

Case study: rescheduling immigration appointments (or, the part where Lucas teared up)

The best part of the event, for me, was hearing an in-depth case study from Mithula Naik and Chris Govias about CDS’s collaboration with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). The team had already published a blog post about it, but the show and tell presentation provided some memorable details.

A CDS team visited IRCC’s Vancouver offices to learn about the citizenship application process. Through interviews, participation, shadowing, and other methods, they identified some significant pain points. They chose to focus on the appointment rescheduling process, for citizenship tests and oath ceremonies—two momentous events in the citizenship process.

Interviewing participants and studying correspondence received by IRCC, the team found that the process was stressful, unclear, and—sometimes—inconsiderate. The appointment notification came in a six page letter, including several imposing paragraphs about what could disqualify someone from receiving their citizenship. Compounding this stress, there was little guidance on rescheduling: if someone couldn’t make the assigned appointment, they were told that they had to write a letter to IRCC—furthermore, if their reason wasn’t valid, their citizenship process could be halted.

Scary stuff indeed.

What made me tear up? Midway through, Mithula showed a letter that IRCC had received, asking to reschedule. It was apologetic and anxious—on top of the stress of everyday life, the writer had to navigate an opaque process to reschedule their citizenship ceremony. I teared up because I realized how significant citizenship was to this writer—as it should be to us all, something I certainly take for granted—and how much they wanted to make this right. What should have been a celebratory moment turned into a stressful one. (Here’s the video of Mithula discussing this.)

This process represents a lot of what could be improved about government services: it did little to consider the mindset of recipients; it referenced the gravity of the citizenship process only by pointing to what could halt it, not celebrating the significant moment that this was for the applicant; it didn’t provide clear help for people who couldn’t make the assigned appointment.

That said, IRCC knew there were limitations, and were ready and willing to improve their service. That’s awesome—major kudos to them. When CDS interviewed and shadowed IRCC staff, they saw that they were extremely hardworking, caring people, who wanted to do the best by their clients; the documents and process were moreso the problem than the people.

Takeaways for me from this case study were twofold:

  1. Reading correspondence can yield really useful insights.
  2. Empathy really is essential: government services shape people’s lives—understanding how stressful and significant that can be is key.

Hiring flexibly

One of the recurring themes brought up by CDS folks was that they’re hiring!

We heard that scaling up is going a bit slower than expected. CDS is experimenting in a lot of dimensions: in addition to bringing in modern design and development workflows for service delivery, they’re also testing new approaches to hiring for government.

One aspect of this is the “tour of duty” approach, pioneered by other jurisdictions but also by the government’s own Interchange program. It was heartwarming to see a few non-government folks in the room alongside myself—all are potential CDSers, and you don’t have to make a lifelong commitment to government to make a contribution.

Sidenote: If you’re reading this and you think you could make government services better, I highly recommend you apply. The people at CDS are some of my favourite in Ottawa, and their work is so important.

My thoughts and some (humble) advice

Throughout the event, I felt constantly that the library is a good metaphor for CDS.

They’re a group of highly-skilled individuals who collaborate with external clients, providing advice and laying the way with service prototypes before handing them off for others to continue. Their constant experimentation with new approaches—and the desire to share their successes and failures in ways that others can study—echoes the library-as-laboratory approach. (It helps that I love both libraries and what CDS is up to…)

If I could provide some humble advice, it’d be on the subject of open blogging. There have been some good first steps on the CDS blog, but at times it’s felt a bit like the thing that’s always just around the corner. To be fair, it’s still early on, but early on is when a lot of decisions are made, decisions that are worth documenting. Even if they get reevaluated a year down the line, recording them now can make that reevaluation a more useful public lesson.

That said, I was assured that more open blogging is coming, and I believe it. One of the concerns I heard was regarding the length of blog posts: one way to address that could be to include a point-form summary of lessons or takeaways at the start of each post. This way, the long body of the post would serve to detail each takeaway, and it’d be even easier to share each post as a resource. (I tried doing this with this very post! It may not be perfect, but it could be a first step.)

There’s quite a bit I’d like to read or hear more about. To that end (and if this isn’t too presumptuous), here are some ideas for open blogging:

  • Every action (including the show and tell event itself) is an opportunity for a post on lessons learned, a resource from which others can learn.
  • Capacity building and advice are really interesting aspects of the mandate. I’d like to hear more case studies about those activities: in the words of one CDSer, they’re “boring but important”, and important work should always be shared!
  • Thoughts on the hiring process and challenges with government HR policies would also be interesting. How is CDS pushing against traditional job descriptions? What obstacles come up while doing so?

These are just small ideas, and I’m sure some of them are already on the minds of the fine folks at CDS. On the whole, the team is rolling along at an impressive rate. Hosting the show and tell was a clear indication of their willingness to be open and engaging.

Major thanks and congratulations to the team at CDS. Hearing about both the successes and failures to date is encouraging. I look forward to the next show and tell!

Thanks to A and S for reading over a draft and making excellent suggestions, including that I eat my own dogfood regarding the takeaways.