Obligatory Disclaimer

This should go without saying, but just to be totally explicit:

The views and opinions expressed here are credited to individual authors (currently: me) and don’t reflect the views of teammates or employers.

The pitch

Federal Field Notes is a newsletter about digital transformation in the federal Government of Canada (GoC), written from first-hand experience. It catalogues the ups and downs of working to create a more responsive, empathetic, and user-centred public service. Tune in for interesting stories, useful observations, and practical advice.

Why should I listen to you?

Fair question.

I’ve worked in government for the better part of a decade now: I was ~3 years at the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the UK, and I’ve been nearly 4 years in Canada, mostly at the Canadian Digital Service (CDS).

Open by default

At GDS, I spent the majority of my time working as a Developer on the (UK’s) Digital Marketplace, but also the (erstwhile) Performance Platform (RIP), and, very briefly, on GOV.UK Notify. As a civil servant for the UK government, I was always on design-led multidisciplinary teams with autonomy over their technical stack and product decisions. We used modern technology, regularly tested upcoming features with users, set up continuous integration for daily releases, and put nearly all of our work on into public Github repositories. In sum, we were following the Government of Canada’s Digital Standards Playbook to the letter.

Moving back to Canada in 2018, I was surprised to learn how closed-off our government culture is by contrast, where many (most?) federal public servants don’t have an easy way to publicly share the work they do everyday.

Closed by default

From what I’ve experienced, traditional Canadian government culture is fairly opaque, mostly due to over-calibrated assumptions around risk: eg, that teams communicating openly with the public may cause public embarrassment or leak details of upcoming work that they aren’t supposed to.

“What if this ends up in the Globe?” is a sentiment heard quite a few times, implying that media stories that aren’t carefully managed are necessarily bad news. Compare this to GDS in the UK, whose early successes resulted in many positive media mentions, or COVID Alert, specifically lauded for its openness.

A culture of silence is bad for all of us: for public servants who can’t (or don’t feel they can) easily share the interesting work they do, and for the public, who often distrust what they perceive as a large, inscrutable organization, unable to see the many motivated and passionate individuals working on their behalf.

Make things open

The UK’s highly successful government digital transformation was predicated on a culture of transparency: working in the open, blogging frequently, encouraging public involvement/discussion, and a strong commitment to plain language. (Check out GDS’ “Words to avoid” in their plain-language guide — see how many you come across regularly.)

As an example of this, the UK team working on a new government identity platform is blogging openly about their progress, even talking to an impressive 720 end users in 7 months.

Federal Field Notes continues this all-important tradition of government transparency.

What’s the angle?

What I’m aiming to do here is open up a place to talk about digital government in Canada in a way that’s honest, insightful, and a little irreverent. Government IT transformation is hard, but it doesn’t have to be boring.

The whole story

I find a lot of public discussions about digital transformation in the GoC are couched in a kind of relentless positivity — obviously it’s great to trumpet your wins, but this only tells half of the story.

While there have been many successful modern digital services released in Canada, there are also years-long initiatives that don’t ever seem to ship, and motivated teams who end up stalled or burnt out under reams of onerous oversight. All to say, there are plenty of lessons being learned across government that would be helpful to share with other culturally-aligned teams.

This site is not about criticizing specific individuals or committees, leaking secret or upcoming projects, or for commenting on government policies. Rather, my intent is to highlight structural tendencies and patterns of behaviour, and to uncover issues or propose possible strategies that may, ultimately, help to create a more reponsive government, relentlessly focused on user needs.

My colleague Sean Boots has a great blog post on blogging as a public servant, where he effectively sums up the goal as:

The approach I want to champion is: openly criticizing things that are systemically broken, while still acting with the respect and integrity that public servants are meant to embody.

That is to say, it’s not about airing dirty laundry, more about pointing out how the washing machine shreds all of our good shirts.

If that sounds interesting to you, give it a try and subscribe . If not, well, you should subscribe anyway: you will rarely get emails from me and you just might win an iPod.

Have feedback, or want to leave a comment? I couldn’t figure out how to set up commenting with eleventy (might do it later if comments are something people want), but I have opened up Discussions in the Github repo. Feel free to leave a comment in there, or you can always Contact me directly.