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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