Conversations for the year ahead

Guest post by Sean Boots.

Last week the FWD50 team launched their annual survey on the future of digital government. If you haven’t already filled it out, don’t miss sharing your perspective. It’s something I look forward to each year, partly since I genuinely love filling out surveys (hello, fellow public servants) and partly since the results are always fascinating. They’re a deep look at how we all see and imagine the future of the public service – both how we work, and what issues we’ll be working on. The FWD50 team uses the survey results to plan the content for this year’s conference.

Thinking ahead to this year (“how is it 2022 already”), there’s a few big topics that I think will come up a lot. Whether you look at the state of the world, at public health, at Canadian society and the economy, or just out your window (if you live in Ottawa or in a provincial capital) it’s clear that an effective and adaptive public service is really important to help respond to the issues we’re being confronted with. From inside the public service, here’s what I think will be big this year:

Talent and the fight for it

The past two years took the longstanding view that public servants need to work from their office cubicles and threw it out the window. Hundreds of thousands of public servants quickly shifted to working from their kitchen tables and bedrooms and basements. There were bumps along the way, but, as a whole, it worked, and it proved that working from home is viable for the vast majority of public sector jobs. (Health professionals, border guards, search and rescue operators, food inspectors, and a few other in-person roles are an important exception.) 

As public health protections are incrementally being wound down, the big question is: are we all going back to the office? What does that look like? If you live in Ottawa or Gatineau (or provincial capitals), that might mean getting used to commutes and packed lunches again. But for many public servants, the switch to remote or distributed work opened the door to much bigger life questions. 

By now I’m guessing that all of us have heard similar anecdotes, of friends across the public service that have moved across the country to be closer to family, to get out of (or into) the big city, to buy an affordable house, and so on. (In my case, my wife got a job with the Yukon government about half a year before COVID hit; I felt really lucky to work for a federal government team that supported distributed and remote work before it was really normal.) 

Not everyone has been so lucky. Other public servants have put plans to move on hold, anxious that they might be called back into their old in-person office down the road. The uneven distribution of support or enthusiasm for remote work (even as employees are still all working from home) from department to department, and team to team, is stressful for public servants that are considering these kinds of major changes. 

There’s two important angles on this: the first is that – especially for the federal government – more support for remote employees increases the potential diversity and representativeness of the public service. Given the complex issues facing Canada today, having a public service that better reflects our geographic and cultural diversity (not just the “Ottawa-Gatineau bubble”) is really important. The second is that, particularly for digital government-related professions like software developers, designers, and product managers, competition for talent is wildly intense. Departments and organizations that publicly commit to “work anywhere” policies are going to have a massive competitive advantage over ones that don’t. 

Modern tooling, as always

My public service career is secretly dedicated to getting modern technology and tools into the hands of my fellow public servants. Or at least, it’s a secret until 30 seconds into any conversation about working as a public servant. 

Much like being able to work anywhere in Canada, the pandemic has really shifted the conversation about the tools we use in government. Online tools like Slack, Miro, Trello, and Figma have become critical ways for working-from-home public servants to collaborate together. Many of these tools also provided essential, improvised communication systems when government VPNs and networks struggled under the load of an unexpectedly remote workforce. 

Using all these unvetted, consumer-oriented tools gives IT staff a lot of heartburn. Despite a TBS directive that access to these tools should be openly allowed, there’s a lot of variation from one department to the next as to whether they can be accessed through the corporate network. (Each year, I track how things have changed on “Is this blocked in my department” – some federal departments do an excellent job of providing modern tools to their staff; others …not so much.)

For public servants working from home, access to these tools is actually easier, since you can turn off your VPN (or use a personal computer) to access them if they’re unreliable, slow, or blocked on the corporate network. As public servants go back into the office, we’ll likely see a lot of frustration with the speed and reliability of online collaboration tools that are hampered by corporate network limitations. 

Meanwhile, other governments – notably the US federal government – are moving away from corporate networks and VPNs in a significant way (something I’m very excited about). This “zero trust” cybersecurity approach – securing applications and using them over regular Internet connections, first adopted by Google almost a decade ago – is something I’d love to see Canadian governments adopt as well. Zero trust computing increases speed and reliability, opens the door to “Bring your own device” policies, and reduces single points of failure. I’m here for it.

Data: timely, trustworthy, and (yes) imperfect

In a lot of different ways, the past two years have demonstrated the important role that public sector organizations play in providing reliable and trustworthy data to the public and to political decision-makers. As public health protections start being wound down, continuing to provide the public with timely and accurate health data will become even more critical. 

Over the course of the pandemic, provincial and federal open data and public health teams have done a brilliant job in difficult circumstances (the PHAC Infobase team and the Ontario open data team both deserve particular shout-outs). Canada’s federal structure makes producing and sharing consistent data all the more challenging

The biggest challenge we face, I think, is getting trustworthy data out to the public quickly enough to keep pace with misinformation campaigns. That “need for speed” is in tension with traditional government comms approaches that strive for perfect, polished, and ironclad public communications. Getting high-quality, carefully scrutinized data published six months or a year too late to make a difference is something I see governments do all the time

Data is never perfect – all the more so when it’s based on human behaviour and processes. We need to collectively get used to that, and to learn how to communicate the limitations and gaps in any dataset while still demonstrating the trustworthiness and integrity of the institutions we’re part of. Governments need to understand that getting data out proactively both helps others help them, and reduces late-game controversies that could have been easily avoided with more transparency. Imperfections and all: publish it anyway.

What’s next?

Those are the three things I see on the frontburner in the year ahead: 

  • massive fights for tech-savvy talent between government organizations, where “work anywhere” organizations will easily dominate,
  • an ongoing push for access to modern tools, made more complicated by the return to in-person offices,
  • and the ongoing importance of producing and publishing data with as much speed and quality as we possibly can.

These are all focused on how we work within the public service. Without a doubt, what we work on will be just as fascinating: continued public health efforts, climate change adaptation, fighting misinformation and threats to national security, competition policy, and so much more. What do you think the year ahead will look like, for digital government work and beyond? FWD50’s survey is a great place to put forward your perspective. Looking forward to it!