Why we need Code for Canada: Op-ed in the Hill Times

I just published this in today's edition of the Hill Times, following on Code for Canada's launch last week.

Why we need Code for Canada

If you’re like most people, you probably don’t spend too much time thinking about government IT—that is, until it fails you.

You’ve felt the sting of these failings while waiting in line, exhausted and impatient, for a government service you can’t believe isn’t yet available on the web. You’ve also felt it when you use a government service that is available online, but that’s infinitely more confusing and time-consuming than the ones on offer from Amazon, Uber or your favourite dating app.

Most recently, we’ve witnessed government’s IT deficiencies in massive cost overruns and delays at Shared Services Canada, and in the Phoenix pay system rollout, a colossal failure that has seen tens of thousands of federal employees over and under paid, and whose clean-up costs were cited at $50 million as of 2016 alone.
The Government of Ontario has taken a lead in this regard, recruiting Code for Canada’s first three fellows, who are set to begin their work in the late summer. We can only hope other governments follow their lead, and soon.

Elected officials have particularly acute reasons to be worried about government’s IT failings. IT is the sleeping giant of contemporary policy implementation, only to be ignored at the policymaker’s peril. Just ask Barack Obama—after years of hard-fought political battles, he was finally able to launch his signature healthcare initiative, only to witness its early failings due to a poorly designed website.

To be fair, in the face of such failures, certain governments are working diligently to build their digital capacity. The City of Toronto recently launched a Civic Innovation Office, and the provinces of Nova Scotia and Ontario have invested in impressive digital teams dedicated to improving government services. The recent federal budget signalled the creation of a Canadian Digital Service, a unit whose specific mandate and resources have yet to be detailed, but which will form part of a more sustained effort to improve the feds’ digital offerings in the coming years.

These initiatives respond to the fact that failures in government IT are in part a simple human resource challenge. As demand for data scientists, designers and web developers has grown, it is the private sector success stories of the digital age—Amazon, Google, Shopify—not government, that are snapping up digital talent.

My own analysis of Canada’s top ten computer science schools’ recruitment strategies finds that outside brief references to opportunities in healthcare, none even mention government careers when advertising the appeal of their degrees. And why would they? If you want to work on cutting edge digital innovations, all evidence suggests that government is the last place you should look for work.

Enter Code for Canada, a national non-profit organization that launched last week with the ambition to jumpstart digital talent recruitment in the Canadian public sector.

Code for Canada picks up on the success of Code for America and its counterparts across the globe. The model is simple: drawing on government and private sector funding, Code for Canada embeds teams of coders, designers and project managers into government on a time-limited basis (called ‘fellowships’), so their digital expertise can be brought to bear on specific government projects. This fills a skills gap in the short term, but has the broader goals of fostering stronger relations between the tech sector and government, and educating bureaucrats on the tools and ways of working that are driving digital innovations outside the walls of their departments.

For their part, Code for Canada fellows are offered the chance to “work on things that matter” at the heart of government. Sound cheesy? Well, this branding has worked immensely well in other jurisdictions, with Code for America alone having pulled in over 120 fellows thus far. These fellows have helped launch initiatives like ClientComm, which cuts rates of recidivism by connecting clients with probation officers via mobile phones, and GetCalFresh, an application that reduced the time it takes to apply for food stamp benefits by 80%.

To be sure, Code for Canada is not a silver bullet for governments’ digital failings. Even if the digital skills gap is narrowed, many public sector organizations will still suffer from excessive hierarchy, dated procurement models, an unwarranted love affair with proprietary IT solutions, weak information management, a crippling status quo default and a tendency to prioritize internal process compliance over the needs of citizens. Code for Canada’s success will hinge on its fellows’ ability to navigate and challenge a public service culture anathema to innovation, digital and otherwise, and to do so while earning buy-in from the ‘bureaucracy proper’, as has been a challenge for other recent digital talent initiatives internationally (see the UK’s Government Digital Service).

Fellows will also need to appreciate the entirely valid constraints that come with working in government, including those that preserve equity, political neutrality and democratic accountability. These principles can be easily ignored in tech startups, but are at the heart of government’s legitimacy.

Of course, government’s legitimacy will also come under fire as citizens continue to suffer sub-par services and costly program failures (or, for victims of Phoenix, as they question whether the government can even figure out how to pay them correctly). Acknowledging this risk, we should welcome Code for Canada as a much-needed response to the IT failings that currently plague not just the quality and cost of our governments, but more consequentially, that undermine citizens’ faith in the state.

Amanda Clarke is an Assistant Professor at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration and an advisor to Code for Canada. She tweets @ae_clarke. For more information about Code for Canada, visit codefor.ca.

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Opening Keynote at Information Without Borders

On February 15th I'll be giving the Opening Keynote at Dalhousie University's Information Without Borders conference. In my talk I'm going to walk through what I view as three evolutionary phases of orthodoxy in digital government theory and practice, from the mid-2000s to present. The title and abstract are below:

"The Evolution of Digital Government Orthodoxy: 2006-2017"

As of the mid-2000s a series of public management paradigms emerged to describe the impact of the digital age on government. Variously labelled Digital Era Governance, Government as a Platform, Wiki Government, Gov 2.0, and, in practice, often ushered in as part of Open Government reforms, these theories anticipated that government would become more participatory and collaborative in the digital age, increasingly turning to outside expertise and capacity to design policies and deliver services. In this presentation, Professor Clarke explores the wave of research and practitioner experience which suggests that these paradigms as originally conceived at once greatly over-estimated the capacity of government to undertake a more open and collaborative style of governance, while also ignoring insights from traditional public administration research which question the logic of unbridled openness and participatory policy and service delivery models. Responding to the deficiencies of these early theories, Clarke argues that in recent years governments and scholars have entered a new phase of orthodoxy in digital era public administration, one which calls the public service to invest in the coordination and accountability mechanisms that any collaborative policy and service effort demands. In more recent cases, governments are flipping the script entirely, turning not outwards to build their digital policy and service capacity, but instead, looking inwards, building their own digital skills and capabilities within elite digital units at the centre of government. Clarke concludes by reflecting on these various phases of thinking on digital era public administration, parsing their implications for public management theory, state-citizen relations, and, at a practical level, the lessons they offer those within and outside the state working to bolster collective problem solving capacity in the digital age. 

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Call for Papers for 1st Annual Toronto Public Policy and Governance Workshop

Jonathan Craft and I have launched an annual workshop that will provide a new and unique venue for disseminating research on public policy and governance. The call for papers is below, with submissions due December 1st. Please share widely and consider applying.

We've already had a lot of interest from senior and emerging scholars, so we're looking forward to a solid two days of discussion and a good opportunity for participants to get strong feedback on ongoing research.


We are pleased to announce a call for papers for the 1st annual Toronto Public Policy and Governance Workshop to be held in Toronto March 23rd and 24th, 2017.

The goal of the workshop is to offer a new space to disseminate and discuss rigorous and cutting edge public policy and governance research. The workshop will follow the ECPR joint-sessions format and be limited to a small number of paper givers (~10) with one hour dedicated to each paper. Papers will be circulated in advance and attendees are invited to come ready to discuss, debate, and help strengthen the work of colleagues.

There is no registration fee and the organizers will provide light refreshments throughout the workshop along with a workshop dinner.

We welcome papers that deal with public policy and administration theory, methods, or empirical matters, with a Canadian or international focus. Please submit an abstract of no more than 250 words to Jonathan Craft at the coordinates below by December 1, 2016. Authors of successful proposals will be notified by December 20th, 2016.

Submissions are invited from both emerging scholars and senior leaders in the field. Two spaces will be reserved for doctoral students.

Please direct expressions of interest or questions to workshop organizers: Jonathan Craft (jonathan.craft@utoronto.ca) and Amanda Clarke (Amanda.clarke@carleton.ca).


Nous sommes heureux d'annoncer un appel à communications pour le premier atelier annuel sur la politique publique et la gouvernance qui se tiendra à Toronto les 23 et 24 mars 2017. Le but de l'atelier est de promouvoir un nouvel espace pour diffuser et discuter des recherches de pointe en matière de politiques publiques et de gouvernance.

L'atelier suivra le format des sessions conjointes ECPR et sera limité à un petit nombre de présentation (~ 10) avec une heure consacrée à chacun. Les communications seront diffusées à l'avance et les participants sont invités à venir prêts à discuter, à débattre, et à soutenir le travail de leurs collègues. Il n'y a pas de frais d'inscription et les organisateurs fourniront des rafraîchissements pendant tout l'atelier ainsi qu'un dîner.

Nous accueillons des communications portant sur la théorie des politiques publiques et de l'administration, sur des méthodes ou sur des questions empiriques, au Canada ou à l'étranger. Veuillez soumettre un résumé d'au plus 250 mots à Jonathan Craft aux coordonnées ci-dessous d'ici le 1 er décembre 2016. Les auteurs des propositions retenues seront avisés d'ici le 20 décembre 2016.

Nous invitons les chercheurs émergents et les hauts responsables du domaine à faire des présentations. Deux places seront réservées aux doctorants. 

Veuillez adresser vos communications ou vos questions aux organisateurs de l'atelier: Jonathan Craft (jonathan.craft@utoronto.ca) et Amanda Clarke (Amanda.clarke@carleton.ca).

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Two new articles in Policy Options

After moderating a panel on public sector innovation at the Trudeau Foundation's annual public policy conference last November I joined a group of fellow Trudeau community members in writing a brief article for Policy Options based on the conference discussions. My article looks at the tension between the need for innovation in the public sector and public servants' well-entrenched fear of failure.

A few days after this was published, another silly article decrying public servants' Wikipedia edits was published. I wrote this in response.

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Analysis in UBC Press & Samara Election Series - We’ve Got Some Catching Up to Do: The Public Service and the 2015 Federal Election

Twenty days after the 2015 Federal Election, UBC Press and Samara Canada have released 57 expert election analyses, written by 66 academics. This was an impressive feat that involved great leadership from the editors (Alex Marland and Thierry Giasson), the Press and Samara.

I contributed an analysis of the treatment - or rather lack of treatment - of the issue of public service renewal in the election. You can find my analysis on page 92 of the pdf, available here.

The gist: in this election, the public service was largely ignored, except where the parties fought for votes in Ottawa ridings and where public servants stepped into murky partisan territory. Oh right, and during that time when former PM Stephen Harper talked about banning niqabs in the public service. Not much of a robust conversation, a problem, I argue, given the reduced policy capacity in our federal public service and the essential role the public service plays in our democracy.


Forced to tweet in both languages, ministers lose their impact

Fellow OII-er Elizabeth Dubois and I published an op-ed in the Globe today analyzing the Official Languages Commissioner's decision that all Ministers should tweet equally in French and English. We argue that in their official capacity as Minister, that is, speaking for their department, bilingualism is both sensible and required under Canada's Official Languages Act. But as an individual MP, there may be good reasons to tweet unilingually (if say, your constituents are predominantly French, tweets in English may be odd and pointless), and there are no legal restrictions demanding the MP does otherwise. The issue: Minister's accounts are often a mix of "ministerial tweets" and "individual MP tweets". The neat and tidy categories of communication that were at play when the Official Languages Act was created have collapsed in the digital age. The Commissioner's ruling doesn't account for this, but rather attempts to apply old rules to a new context. This op-ed outlines why this approach is a problem, and suggests that a hybrid approach to regulating a Minister's tweets would better account for the new, digital media environment.

Check it out here.

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New article with Helen Margetts in Policy & Internet: Governments and Citizens Getting to Know Each Other? Open, Closed, and Big Data in Public Management Reform

Citizens and governments live increasingly digital lives, leaving trails of digital data that have the potential to support unprecedented levels of mutual government–citizen understanding, and in turn, vast improvements to public policies and services. Open data and open government initiatives promise to “open up” government operations to citizens. New forms of “big data” analysis can be used by government itself to understand citizens' behavior and reveal the strengths and weaknesses of policy and service delivery. In practice, however, open data emerges as a reform development directed to a range of goals, including the stimulation of economic development, and not strictly transparency or public service improvement. Meanwhile, governments have been slow to capitalize on the potential of big data, while the largest data they do collect remain “closed” and under-exploited within the confines of intelligence agencies. Drawing on interviews with civil servants and researchers in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States between 2011 and 2014, this article argues that a big data approach could offer the greatest potential as a vehicle for improving mutual government–citizen understanding, thus embodying the core tenets of Digital Era Governance, argued by some authors to be the most viable public management model for the digital age (Dunleavy, Margetts, Bastow, & Tinkler, 2005, 2006; Margetts & Dunleavy, 2013).

Available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/1944-2866.POI377/abstract 

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