FWDThinking Episode 5: Regional Government

Published On Sep 23, 2020

All opinions expressed in in these episodes are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations for which our guests work.


Our FWDThinking conversations so far have tackled a particular topic—analytics, product management, and so on. For this episode, we decided to change things up a little and dig into regional government.

Part of the reason for this is that in 2019, we launched the first Regional Digital Government Summit (RDGS) to bring together Digital Officers from provinces and states. From that point on, many of those CDOs held regular group calls to continue sharing conversations—which helped coordinate Canada’s national COVID response.

In 2020, we’re reprising RDGS, with a twist: We’re making a pair of passes available to any municipal, state, provincial, or territorial government in the world (details here.) To better understand the unique challenges and different perspectives of regional digital transformation, we invited several of Canada’s regional officers—as well as the Honourable Joyce Murray, Canada’s Minister for Digital Government. We had another conversation with the Minister as well, which we’ll share as a separate episode.

Joining me for this session were Rick Wind, the CIO of the Northwest Territories; Dave Heffernan, the CIO of Newfoundland and Labrador; Dominique Bohn, the CDO for Alberta; Hillary Hartley, CDO of Ontario; and Jamie Boyd, Chief Digital Officer at Government of British Columbia. We also welcomed Aaron Snow, head of the Canadian Digital Service; and the Honourable Joyce Murray, Canada’s Minister for Digital Government.


Fwd Thinking 5 Regional CD Os


We talked about the role elected leaders can play in providing “air cover” for public servants—particularly around critical, time-sensitive deliverables like COVID response. Minister Murray underscored the need to frame digital challenges in “language that [the public] can hear and respond to,” because if the public understands the importance of an initiative, that beats needing air cover. Dominique took that even further, saying she “just wants people to have better experiences and not even notice that we’re here.”

Much of that is rethinking service delivery—taking, for example, child benefits from a PDF to an actual service that works seamlessly.

Rick says much of the current digital effort is simply retooling IT. “I use the analogy of a plant a lot when I’m talking to my own team about how, if we’re going to become more efficient [and] effective, we need to optimize the plant so that we can deliver better widgets, faster, stronger, and more capable for the government.” This sentiment echoes what Kathy Pham and Ayushi Roy said in an earlier episode—there’s so much low-hanging fruit and engine-room work to be done within government that the fancy, next-generation technologies are still far off, but that’s okay, because government can act more deliberately, with greater confidence, than the private sector simply by learning what works.

Aaron pointed out that “saying that we want to make better experiences is not enough to help the folks at the very top, ‘sell it’ and ‘fund it.’” It’s not fun to talk about shrinking budgets—IT needs to do a better job of describing the potential for reducing service costs while improving services. Or as he puts it, “plumbing that pays for itself.”

Hillary and Dave both think we’re at a tipping point for digital services. “Governments, businesses all sent folks home and helped them figure out how to work from home,” said Hillary, ”which brought kind of into focus how people have to interact with the government day to day.” Forcing people to work digitally “opened eyes to everything that does need to be improved.” Dave says we haven’t needed to dive into pan-Canadian identity until now, but “COVID has driven us there and we’re seeing a much greater demand.”

Governing a remote part of the country, Rick is concerned about widening the digital divide. He observed that while much of today’s digital government discussion is external, focused on service delivery to citizens, we tend to understate how much improvement can be “just by kind of optimizing the machinery of government as well. That can’t be ignored, but I think that it just really reinforces the fact that there is a significant digital divide, still within the country. And we certainly feel that in the North.”

Jamie said that much of her collaboration with other governments happens largely within the province. “We’ve got our own challenges, but the cities are absolutely really, really important and strong collaborators. Often—especially in the data space—if people are consuming data, they don’t care really, which order of government that data is coming from. They just want to get their hands on the data.”

BC has integrated the BC Services card with the federal government, allowing people from that province to log in to the Canada Revenue Agency using those credentials, and are now rolling this out for other Federal services such as employment insurance. “People shouldn’t have to navigate the orders of government. They should just be able to have a seamless service experience regardless of who it is that they’re dealing with.”

We also touched on standardization, resilient democracy, public-private co-operation, and becoming product- and service-driven, rather than forcing citizens to navigate the structure of government ministries. To listen to the conversation, check out the recording!

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