As we’ve written before, digital transformation can be a process as challenging as it is necessary. For governments there is the added challenge of decades of existing bureaucracy and a need to be constantly delivering services—with very high stakes and close public scrutiny. But government digital transformation can produce services that are more accessible and efficient for citizens and businesses, and more streamlined and cost-effective for the government.
Actually carrying out change on this scale requires a team that is knowledgeable and on-board. When that team is thousands of public servants, there needs to be a rigorously structured but very clear and accessible plan that everyone can understand their parts in.
That’s why the Government of British Columbia’s newly updated Digital Plan is so encouraging. The Plan and the updated Digital Code of Practice (DCOP) clearly outline the province’s years-long and ongoing process of digital transformation on multiple levels: What exactly is being done, why it’s being done, and how it’s being done.
The plan also hits some of the key factors that make a digital plan effective. It considers what workers need to understand and to carry out, it uses plain language and clear instructions, and it keeps a focus on the users—the public—that the digital services exist to serve.
The DCOP lays out 10 practices, while the Digital Plan has 4 missions: Connected services, Digital trust, Reliable and sustainable technology, and a Digitally equipped public service. Here are 8 reasons why we love the latest versions of the Plan and DCOP.
Orienting services toward their actual users is always a valuable digital principle, but it’s especially important for governments, which have to work for everyone and handle some of the most important aspects of people’s lives. The DCOP’s very first practice is to design with people—not only with users in mind, but with users involved early, often, and throughout.
It directs teams to start from a place of user research to understand people’s needs, and then prioritizes designing for those needs—and it keeps checkin in on those needs as they change with time, so that it can keep adapting service.
Being people-focused means going beyond envisioning the standard “user” and considers all the different types of people with different needs and abilities and circumstances who will need to use government services. Challenges can range from individual disabilities to remote communities’ internet access. The DCOP also specifically acknowledges “the historical relationships, inequity, trauma, and discrimination created by government”—an acknowledgement that is needed for trust to be built—and the need to do better in serving Indigenous peoples.
The DCOP also calls to build diversity into its own teams while building out internal capacity. It directs the province to bring in workers with diverse skillsets (technical, legal, design, and more) and backgrounds and give them the resources and buy-in from leadership that they’ll need.
One of the first calls to action in the Plan is “Apply service design principles to all service modernization projects.” Too often service design is thought of as just web design, but this plan integrates it with the services themselves. The plan understands service design as not just a role but “a way of thinking that can impact a whole team,” and it takes steps to integrate service design into its teams. It embeds service designers, content designers, and UX researchers into the process—but beyond that, it wants all public servants to have a basic understanding of human-centred design.
This call to action also empowers designers and researchers to be able to point out where the services themselves have gaps. This recognizes that digital services are the services in practice, not merely an interface that is added on top of them.
The plan is upfront about why it was needed and what was wrong before. It states early on that ministries historically each work within their separate mandates, delivering services that are broken down based on how the government is organized. But, it says, this framework can make services hard for the layperson to find and navigate. So BC pivoted away from that approach during the pandemic and found ways to make service delivery more integrated and seamless across ministries.
The Connected Services mission sets out to “solve a person’s complex problem as a whole, not in parts,” and so its calls to action include partnerships between ministries to set up a more seamless experience for the many people whose service needs cross those lines. Getting to that point requires sharing resources and data between ministries—a source of efficiency that benefits the public dollar as well as the quality of service the public receives.
The Plan introduces data registers: trusted datasets that can be reused across government—reducing the redundant work of separate teams collecting similar information. Button worked with the Province to better determine which teams and branches had which data, and we’re excited to see these moves toward integrating those!
Collaborative work extends beyond ministries—the DCOP calls for work with open-source software and transparent development practices that the public can see and evaluate. Open-source work makes provincial teams more a part of the global services and development community, building on others’ work and contributing its own. These things are best practices in the field, and can save a government time and public dollars while also giving the industry more material to learn and benefit from.
The DCOP also calls to think in terms of the broader ecosystem. Decisions and practices should consider how they impact users, colleagues, and other stakeholders. Are projects being done collaboratively? Are they using reusable technology and pre-built solutions? Do they make use of the cloud where possible? Are they interoperable with other systems, making for smooth integration? The DCOP prompts provincial teams to consider the questions that good, efficient digital design should consider.
Under the “waterfall” model that many governments have traditionally used for projects, major technology upgrades or overhauls happen as a long-term major undertaking. That makes it hard to pivot during the process, and keeps the public waiting until everything is ready. Part of digital transformation is about shifting to an “agile” model of constant updates and ongoing evaluation. This allows for more adjustment overall, but it especially helps with tackling the latest security and privacy concerns right from the start, rather than trying to go back late in the game and figure out how to incorporate them.
One of the practices is to “Continuously learn and improve,” by re-evaluating the product, incorporating the findings of user testing and metrics, staying on top of the latest tech and techniques, and delivering minimum viable products that can then be tweaked.
Similarly the Plan makes it a clear priority to constantly update. One of the calls to action is to “Fund technology as products and services rather than point-in-time investments.” That means shifting technology from one-off projects to constant upgrades for security and performance, and establishing a permanent team to tackle those ongoing needs.
This is part of the Plan’s “Reliable and sustainable technology” mission, as is a call to adopt common components across ministries for building widely-used services (e.g. forms, notifications). It also prioritizes having shared design cues and patterns across government services, to make navigation smoother and more intuitive for the public. Button has done some work to help with this, creating a BC-Government-specific Toolkit that provides consistent specs, fonts, and more.
This mission also recognizes that if its tech “slows down or goes offline, the public loses access to a service they need and expect to use 24/7.” Its response is to prioritize resilient systems, updating legacy systems and making sure current applications are easy to update.
The Plan and DCOP make clear that government has an exceptionally high standard for privacy and data management, and lay out what that entails. Privacy and security need to be embedded from the start in any new initiatives, and those involved need to be up to speed on risk assessment practices. That doesn’t mean every public servant must identify and analyze risk, but they must tall know how to flag potential risk areas to the right people.
The agile process helps to keep security measures up-to-date in the face of the latest risks, and the data directives outline how to not only keep information safe and well-organized but also how to properly share it between projects and ministries to avoid repeated work for the government or repeated collection from the public.
The Plan and DCOP both take time to outline what applying their main points will actually look like, and the Plan’s fourth mission is all about how to establish a digital public service. That mission’s call to actions include training senior leaders in digital literacy and all public servants (at all levels and roles) in modern digital skills. This involves a Digital Academy to train people, initiatives to recruit those with digital skills, and more access and support for cloud-based tools for public servants to work with.
One of the biggest things to love about the Digital Plan update is that it exists. That might sound at first like a low bar, but releasing an update at this stage is evidence that the digital principles and plan are being put into practice. The plan itself is receiving the exact type of ongoing re-evaluations and iterations that it recommends.
The plan has high ambitions for digital transition, but it’s already showing that putting those into practice is feasible.
Image Credit: Alfonso Estevez / Midjourney
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