Digital planning, strategies and shifts can be challenging and multifaceted. For governments in particular, with many different departments and services and many years of built-up legacy technologies combined with bureaucracy, these shifts are long, comprehensive, and an ongoing process.

Digital transformations and strategies are carried out by different people at different points, but still need to have shared priorities and practices. That's especially true (and especially challenging) for governments with massive staffs and built-up processes of formality and paper work.

This need has prompted many governments to engage at a deeper level in consultation with the public and with digital transformation best practices in mind. The standards they establish guide teams in designing digital services in a way that is increasingly agile and receptive to the public and their user experience.

With standards now created by the Government of British Columbia under their Digital Policies and Standards and the Canadian Federal Government’s Digital Standards Playbook, as two examples, the Canadian digital transformation landscape is on a great path forward. Standards such as these put important frameworks and guardrails in place around design for users, open standards solutions, accessibility, trust, ethics, and so much more that now needs to be included in digital strategies and final outcomes.

What do playbooks do?

Once standards are created, they have to be conveyed. For this, governments have playbooks: clear and easy-to-interpret breakdowns of the points of guidance and how they play out in practice. For governments these playbooks are a way of communicating key intents and practices with both themselves (that is, their different departments and staff) and the public.  

Somewhat like Government Rules As Code, playbooks are an attempt at clarity around how guiding documents or solutions should be created and applied. The playbooks open with the broad points of the guidelines/standards (usually 10) then expound on what those points entail and how they are implemented. The points often overlap rather than each having their own lane, functioning as an ecosystem of concepts rather than a list of directions.

The guidelines are not strict rules to fall inline with but directives to bend and reshape toward. The government of Canada explicitly says that its playbook's guidance is aspirational. While it understands that things don't quite work those ways yet, it wants teams to"assess their own and others’ behaviours and work to better align with this guidance" as they go.

Ultimately, playbooks recognize and respond to a key reality: it is people that are involved. It is people who make up the public using the services and people of all kinds who make up the government staff designing and implementing them.

This seems simple and obvious. But in a government landscape that is large and complex, choices can tend to fall inline with what fits the system more than what best suits the needs and habits of those who interact with it every day.

As the US Digital Service Playbook puts it: "The needs of people — not constraints of government structures or silos — should inform technical and design decisions" and continuous testing with real people will "keep us honest about what is important."

How do playbooks benefit government?

Most straightforwardly, the guidelines are intended to produce digital services work that is efficient and, well, works.

But the benefit of the playbook format specifically comes not only from what the guidelines are but how they are incorporated. Governments are made up of many people, often in limited roles. A central playbook is a resource that those in different jobs and different departments can refer to. It gives them guidance that is consistent with overarching government digital priorities, and it gives them this guidance as needed and without relying on superiors' subjective sense of the priorities.

To be useful to workers every day, guidelines are presented as practically as possible, with clear sentences outlining preferences and in some cases "Do’s and Don'ts." The Canadian Government phrases these as in-practice examples of "aligned" and" misaligned" behaviours given below each guidance. For instance, "Our team considers user needs and feedback when defining key service metrics" is listed as aligned with the guidance Design with users, while "management dictates how our team prioritizes tasks" is misaligned. There are also workplace posters of the playbook that help guide and remind staff in their day-to-day.

Meanwhile the BC Government Playbook includes a how-to-apply spectrum that ranges from the minimum to the live stage, as well as presenting tools and supports that team members can rely on.

Governments benefit not only from guidelines being clear to staff, but also from being clear and accessible to the public. The playbooks cover not just what outcomes but what processes people should expect from the state as it provides and designs digital services for them.

How do playbooks benefit citizens?

The playbooks are accessible and written in plain language, so people can understand it easily and can cite it, to hold government accountable. The explicit statements can give people clarity and peace of mind on things that concern them about their government's digital interactions with them: privacy, data collection, diversity, and more.

The guidances/standards are also the results of the approaches they recommend: They have been developed in collaboration with the public, giving people a say in the guidance that will affect them. The guidance is understood as an evolving process, meaning that the public input is not set in stone after the release of the playbook but can be updated as needs change or more people participate.

How open work benefits everyone

Ultimately, the public gains more access and ability to participate because these standards prioritize working and sharing in the open. Openness is prioritized in accordance with the Digital Nations Charter which Canada has signed and which calls for open standards, open source, and open licensing. Prioritizing being open increases the transparency of government work, its ability to be understood by more people, its availability to be reused by others, and the amount of collaboration happening both within government and between others outside of government.

Using open source also allows people to access what the government is doing, without a cost barrier to the file formats and interfaces being used. It helps all governments to adapt its services to users accessing on any device and at any time. This priority also has a benefit to the government: standards state that using open sources and solutions allow the government to use a wider range of digital vendors.

Open work operates in tandem with the playbooks: while the playbooks make the practices and priorities clear and widely accessible, the open practices make the details of the digital work itself clear and widely accessible.

While open source software delivers many advantages such as lower project costs, a quicker path to completion by not having to reinvent the wheel and a robust community-driven eco support system, at the end of the day the biggest benefit is transparency and trust being established between government and denizens to achieve outcomes that make all of us better.

Image credit: Alfonso Estevez / Midjourney

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