From a project to a product culture... one project at a time.
As Marj and Stephen mentioned in their recent post, Canada is no longer the Digital Government leader. Even more concerning to me is, as Paul recently shared: Clients’ expectations of interactions with their government have evolved beyond the capability to meet them, and the gap is growing.
So we're late and it's not getting better; how do we catch up?
2016-2020 IT Strategic Plan?
Perhaps the latest 2016-2020 IT Strategic Plan can provide some answers? The plan is packed with great value, clear strategic actions and emphasizes - rightly so - the need for a whole-of-government or "enterprise” perspective to use IT as a strategic asset and in innovative ways. The plan also shares that the Government of Canada (GC) is looking at what other jurisdictions are doing to organize internal capacity to drive innovation in digital services - and thereafter will likely chart a path forward for Canada. So until that direction is provided, the Digital Government conversations and efforts may remain slightly fragmented, yet the Digital Government LinkedIn and GCConnex groups are great initiatives to unify the discussions and increase collaboration so that when the digigov plan is shared, we will hit the ground running.
Governance vs Agility
The current context is also influenced by the historically conservative nature of the public service. Indeed, the stewardship of public funds is one of the core responsibilities of the federal government - or at least one that attracts lots of media and public attention - and is explicitly stated in the principles of the Policy Framework for Financial Management. It is the public sector's hard reality that citizens demand excellence in management, yet this demand for more control and governance often comes at the expense of speed and agility.
We're ready! But where do we go?
As Paul Wagner recently tweeted, the GC CIOs held a summit and, amongst other topics, discussed the need and value of a Digital Government. The overall appetite is high and the potential value, well recognized. The key question remains: how to get there? And let's not forget that, often, what brought you here won't bring you there.
Project vs Product
Given my background working in product companies (you don't have more product-focused than working in the video game industry), when joining the GC 2 years ago, I noticed a difference in how the GC builds digital products compared to what I've seen in the private sector. The GC is certainly not the only place though; when I was a consultant, I saw many organizations that focused more on project vs product. The focus and development culture in the GC therefore contrasts with what I learned at Ubisoft, Taleo and later at digital agencies like Macadamian and Soshal.. In short, I feel the GC sometimes - as many other organizations - focuses more on the project vs the product. The TBS guidance and policy instruments on project management are plentiful and of high quality. The guidance on digital product management or, "product creation project management", is not as rich.
Sound project management is critical, yet delivering on time/scope/budget will not necessarily deliver a high quality product/service nor tangible business outcomes. The guidance on outcomes management is well written and having an outcomes management practice will surely improve the likelihood of producing and reaping business outcomes, yet we may need to go even further. Having had the chance to experience iterative development back in 2006, and believing in its benefit to the point of founding the Gatineau-Ottawa Agile Tour and teaching agile development at l'Université du Québec en Outaouais, I believe we can benefit from moving to a more user-centred and iterative approach. And, as emphasized in the IT 2016-2020 strategic plan, Adopting Agile approaches to implement IT solutions is one of the current strategic actions.
Moving from a project to a product-focused culture requires us to change how we operate (see this Gartner paper for more on this topic). The U.S. Digital Playbook is a great place to start. So how do we augment our typical teams made up of project managers and business analysts with the people and/or skill sets needed to: conduct user research, apply user-centred design principles, design and develop iteratively, form multifunctional self-empowered teams, talk to, engage with and involve the actual users of the system, identify product owners and build product/service roadmaps, automate product builds and deploys to release frequently and even launch half-finished products like beta.fec.gov!
18F's approach - one project at a time
When looking at 18F's tagline: Delivery is the Strategy. I can't help but think of the current government's focus on Deliverology and how, IMOO, iterative development and Agile principles is Deliverology applied to Digital Product creation.
The above requires a paradigm shift and one of the best approaches to implementing change is to start small.
So because it's hard to change complete organizations, or release new policies and guidance or develop a new GC-wide Digital Government plan, one short-term approach is to rather change projects and project teams. That's exactly the approach 18F is taking. They augment existing teams and projects with the right resources and culture shift to produce user-centred, efficient and effective digital products that are enjoyable to use and are driving a true Digital US Gov.
It's certainly not the only way and accelerating the quality and time to market of digital products is only a subset of Digital Government, yet I think it's a pretty good start. Some departments and agencies have already embarked in this shift - including the great work at ISED. And I think that having a few people acting as internal consultants - that would be available to move freely from project to project and across departments - could help support and accelerate all of the great work departments and agencies are doing.
What do you think? Does a Digital Services Centre of Excellence, operating on a cost-recovery model, make sense? We could start small with 2-5 people and grow if needed, based on demand from departments. 18F are now 165! I wonder how many they were when they started...