Can building the right partnerships help restore trust in the public sector?

Published On May 18, 2022

Guest post by Dorothy Eng.


The pandemic has shown us that well-designed digital products and services can help rebuild trust in public institutions, while less successful ones can do just the opposite.

The public expects more from governments today than ever before — they want to interact with government services online in the seamless way they have come to expect from the private sector. 

Faced with mounting pressure to meet these standards, governments often completely outsource their digital projects, which can lead to hefty price tags, a lack of in-house involvement and, most concerningly, a failure to meet people’s actual needs.

What’s the alternative? At Code for Canada, we believe that governments should partner with organizations that put the needs of the public first by designing with, not for, them. Those same projects must also be built in true partnership with government teams, allowing digital capacity to grow within the public service.

At C4C, this is at the heart of what we do. We’d like to share a little more about that belief and what it looks like in practice.


Choosing the right partners

Anyone working in government has had to confront a lack of in-house digital talent and capacity.

Working with a partner can be the first step in closing this gap. But choosing the right one is essential. The current public-private partnership pool is limited, but governments can instead look to build public-interest partnerships; finding and evaluating partners that share their values of working for the public good. 

Public-interest partners won’t always look the same — private companies, non-profits, and even local civic tech organizers all have a lot to offer, depending on the problem space. But a focus on inclusive design, agile principles and a price point that respects the taxpayer is key.


Building with, not for, communities

So, what do those partnerships look like in practice? Working with organizations that prioritize building with, not for, communities.

One concrete example of this is inclusive user testing, where the end-users of a product or service are actively engaged in its design to ensure it meets their needs.

At Code for Canada, we do this with our inclusive user research and testing service, GRIT, which connects digital product and service developers with diverse and underrepresented communities across Canada. 

Last year, we worked with the City of Toronto’s Shelter system to develop a new intake form for shelter clients and staff. An updated form was tested with a diverse group of shelter staff that  included questions about clients’ demographic data, mental health and support needs, along with prompting questions to guide staff through the intake process.

Based on feedback from staff, the form was adjusted to improve user experience and ease of use. Staff are now testing the form with shelter clients and will continue to adjust the form based on their feedback.

“We’re embedding user research into our plans so every change we make is informed not only by policy or funding … but … by the user’s perspective,” shared Stephanie Malcher, Manager of Strategic Programs with the City’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration team. 

This project is just one example of what building products and services with communities can look like. We believe this work sits at the heart of restoring trust in government — asking people what they need, and working together to provide it.


Building digital capacity

Our work with the City’s shelter system also demonstrates the benefits of co-developing a solution with a partner — government teams learn the strategies and skills alongside their  partner, so they can continue to drive the iteration of their solution once the partnership has ended. 

Too often, budget goes towards asking a vendor to develop a solution without also investing in-house for the skills essential to its long-term success. At Code for Canada, we’ve found that co-creating digital solutions with governments is an excellent way to address this issue.

For the past five years, we’ve embedded dozens of digital professionals in government teams to build digital products and services while increasing internal digital capacity.

Instead of throwing code over the fence for teams to maintain and sustain, our C4C collaborators build their host team’s internal knowledge and skills so they can better direct future digital solutions.

Increased public trust will come when governments who exist to help people are empowered to do exactly that — directing, designing, and developing digital solutions that meet folks where they are, without having to outsource every piece to a group that doesn’t put the public first.


What comes next

So how can governments put this into practice — building with (not for) the public, finding the right partners, and increasing in-house digital capacity?

Often, finding the right partner can encompass all three. At Code for Canada, we’ve been inspired by the range of organizations we meet through FWD50, who share our vision to create inclusive digital solutions that improve people’s lives.

On our end, we’re moving this work forward by continuing to co-develop products and services with our government partners, offering inclusive testing and user research services, and making ourselves available for custom coaching and consultation. 

We’re excited to dig into this more at FWD50 this year. If you want to get in touch about our approach to this work in the meantime, please say hello!