Transforming government, one digital inch at time

“I spent a lot of nights on the run
And I think oh, like I’m lost and can’t be found
I’m just waiting for my day to come
And I think oh, I don’t wanna let you down
‘Cause something inside has changed
And maybe we don’t wanna stay the same”
“Spirits” by The Strumbellas

It’s been a big few weeks as far as milestones go in my professional life. July 18th saw the launch of the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), a project that I have poured my heart and soul into for the past year and without doubt ranks as one of my proudest professional accomplishments. The week after marked 7 years since I joined the Canadian government as a public servant, all of which I have spent working on initiatives at the intersection of public policy, innovation, and technology. For those following our work, you will be hearing lots about CDS in the weeks and months to come on our blog and on social media. However I wanted to share some of my own personal reflections on the journey that led here. This will be far too navel-gazing (and long) for the CDS blog, hence why I am publishing it here instead. So with that fair warning, here we go…

For me this journey actually starts almost a decade ago. Having spent the early part of my career working in politics both on Parliament Hill and back home in Saskatchewan, with a stint down at the World Bank in Washington DC in-between, I had decided that the time was right to go pursue a Masters degree. Fast forward to the fall of 2008 and my first semester at the Harvard Kennedy School. President Obama was making his first run for the White House and there was much chatter on campus, both in and out of the classroom, of the impact that his campaign’s groundbreaking use of social media was having. That chatter soon turned to what people were calling “Government 2.0” and I had the privilege to learn about and discuss it with some of the early pioneers and big thinkers in the field; people like Nicco Mele (who ended up becoming my thesis project supervisor), Beth Simone Noveck, John Della Volpe, Vivek Kundra, Jerry MechlingJonathan Zittrain, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, to name but a few. There was genuine excitement as to what new platforms and technologies like social media and open data would mean for the future of government. It was early days, but as the song says, “there’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear”.

I had made up my mind by the end of those two years in Boston that something was indeed happening here, that the impact of the internet and new online technologies was going to be one of the biggest storylines on the future of government, and that I wanted to roll up my sleeves and help shape that story. Why? Because it matters. A lot. As I wrote in the intro of my MPP thesis research project, “Either government must change to adapt to and harness the opportunities of new technologies and societal structures, or citizens will have no choice but to work around government and find other ways to get things done.” As someone who both passionately believes that government can be a force for good, and had always had a healthy personal interest in technology, I knew this space is where I needed to be active for the next chapter of my professional life. The question was just “where” and “how”.

As is so often true in life, once you are clear on your intention, the opportunity presents itself. For me it came in the spring of 2010 as I was finishing up my time down at Harvard and exploring options for what was next. A friend shared with me the annual report by the Clerk of the Privy Council to the Prime Minister that had just been published (the first by Wayne Wouters in his role as Clerk) which highlighted the need for government to take advantage of the “Web 2.0” revolution. The next day I received an email informing me that I had been accepted into the Government of Canada’s Recruitment of Policy Leaders program. Shortly after followed a week of interviews in Ottawa where I got to meet seemingly countless numbers of passionate public servants who made up what a former boss of mine called the “fight club” of government – all of whom were dedicated to modernizing how government works from the inside out and using these new technological tools to get it done. That week was capped off with a job offer from the then Government of Canada Chief Information Officer, Corinne Charette, to come join her team and lead policy work on social media. The rest, as they say, is history.

I’ll be honest, I never expected to spend more than a couple years inside the public service. I knew from my previous work on the “other side” of government just how big, slow, and bureaucratic it was likely to be. But the opportunity to work on the issues I was passionate about from inside the machinery of government, and hopefully make things a little better in the process, was too intriguing to pass up. Yet after what I assumed would be a relatively short tour of duty, here I still am seven years later. Two years developing and implementing the first government-wide policies on social media usage in the Government of Canada. Two years leading the GCtools team, scaling-up internal collaboration tools to over 100,000 public servants across the country. One year in Paris at the OECD working with their Digital Government team and getting a chance to learn first-hand about how governments around the world are thinking about digital transformation in places ranging from Slovakia, to Northern Ireland, to Morocco, to Ecuador, to Japan. And then, since returning to Ottawa last spring (following an unexpectedly early return to Canada), an unrelenting marathon of work these past 15 months to create a new digital team at the heart of the Canadian government that can spark a change in how we deliver services to people and use technology – informed in part by an ambitious cross-country engagement tour late last year – and all culminating in the launch of CDS last month.

I was recently digging through some old files and came across the very first presentation I gave after joining the Government of Canada. It was for a Policy Ignite event in the fall of 2010 (as a side note the Policy Ignite team is currently looking for pitches for their next event this fall which is, coincidentally, all about digital transformation). The presentation was called “GC2.0 Incubator: Creating a safe space for innovation in the Government of Canada“, and while the terminology was all “Gov 2.0” -era and seems a bit dated now, and the clip art slides are embarrassingly tacky in retrospect, at the core of it was a call for creating a new organization within the federal government with a mission that is strikingly similar to today’s Canadian Digital Service. Who knew that it would take almost seven years to make it real. But to be fair, who knew it would happen at all.

Trying to transform an organization as large and complex as government is not for the faint of heart or for those lacking in patience or perseverance. As the saying goes, if it was easy it would have been done already. From the vantage point of today, the arc of the storyline seems clear and logical. Yet at the time, it was anything but with many moments along the way where the path ahead seemed cloudy at best, with the occasional crisis of faith sprinkled in for good measure. As a friend once memorably said to me during one of those more difficult moments along the journey, you don’t work in government because of the speed of the impact you will have. You do it because of the scale of the impact you can have. You are trying to push on a mountain, and you may only be able to move it an inch – but – you’ve moved a mountain an inch.

The Canadian Digital Service is my inch of the mountain, and I couldn’t be prouder to have spent these past few years pushing alongside so many countless others to get here.