Sean Boots

Technology, public services, and people. But mostly people.

Is this blocked in my department: 2021 year in review

Using online collaboration tools has been a big part of making it possible for federal public servants to work from home during the pandemic. That’s a big change for Government of Canada departments, who have historically been very reluctant to allow access to these tools. Since 2019, I’ve tracked where online services are allowed or blocked at “Is this blocked in my department.ca”, with anonymous submission forms that let people report which sites they can access in each department. Here, for the second year running, is the 2021 “Is this blocked in my department” year in review. Read more →

Public service tech tip: If you create “vanity URLs”, expect people to spell them wrong

If you’re working in government communications, you’ve probably come across “vanity URLs” before. These are easily-written-out shortcuts to webpages that typically have longer, more complex web addresses. You’ll often see them in TV or online advertisements, spoken out on radio ads, or included on billboards, posters, and other printed communications. With vanity URLs, people are frequently typing them in “by hand”, in the address bar of their web browser. That’s partly why they’re so useful, but it also means that people are likely to type them incorrectly. Read more →

A bleak outlook for public sector tech

Paul Craig recently wrote a blog post on the massive amount of compliance documentation his team produced to launch a small public website in a Canadian government department. It’s a must-read lens into the current shape of public sector tech work in Canada. We have a public service executive class that isn’t equipped to lead technology initiatives. We’ve got widespread adoption of digital government words, but not digital government implementation. And we’ve got a political class that is too busy with other things to care about the public service’s tech capacity. Let’s talk about it. Read more →

The “missing middle” in software procurement

This year’s FWD50 conference was a couple weeks ago. It’s home to a lot of interesting conversations on technology, governments, and society. One new event this year was a game show-inspired “pitch competition”, where public servants pitched ideas for policy changes that could better enable digital work in government. My pitch was about procurement. And also about urban planning, as a way of combining two of my favourite topics. Here’s a recap of the presentation. Read more →

Rebranding “shadow IT”

“Shadow IT” is one of those terms that you hear tossed around by government IT executives on a regular basis. It’s an anxiety-ridden phrase filled with fear and insecurities. Public servants using shadow IT isn’t the actual problem, though – instead, it’s a symptom that people aren’t being equipped with the tools they need to work effectively. I think we should embrace shadow IT instead of trying to squash it. Here are some fun re-branding efforts to help with that. Read more →

If it’s not public, does it even matter?

In a society and world where misinformation is a large-scale problem, public service habits that default to secrecy are not great. Generally speaking, public service work is only valuable based on the degree to which it interacts with the public and world at large. Fighting secrecy culture – and working as much in the open as possible – is a really important part of making the public service relevant and effective. Read more →

How many Government of Canada services are online from start to finish?

Getting accurate data on how many government services can be completed online is challenging. Even determining how many government services exist across a range of departments and agencies is often a struggle. Fortunately, in 2020, the Office of the CIO published a comprehensive update to the GC Service Inventory open data set – it’s really excellent. As a recent civic tech project, I put together an analysis website that dives into how many of those services can currently be completed online from end-to-end. Read more →

“If your technology leadership is more into blockchain than user needs, you’re doomed.”

Matthew Cain in the UK published a great blog post recently titled “Leadership in a digital age”. It outlines a series of leadership attributes for digital leaders and organizations, and makes the great point that having a deeper understanding of technology solutions may not actually lead to a more effective digital-era organization. Technology expertise is not the same as “running a user needs-focused organization that works well” expertise, which is ultimately what public sector organizations need. Read more →

Suggestions for the next Minister of Digital Government

Monday is election day! Back in December 2019, I wrote a set of suggestions for the next GC Chief Information Officer. In the same tradition, here are some suggestions for the next Minister of Digital Government. Digital government work – and public service reform, which is what it ultimately is – isn’t really a newsworthy election topic. It’s near and dear to my heart, though, and I’d love to see more conversations about it from public servants, politicians, and the public alike. What would you like to see the next Minister of Digital Government take on? Read more →

Installing Jekyll locally on MacOS Big Sur

Our team often uses Jekyll and GitHub Pages to build micro-sites for project documentation. I recently set up Jekyll for the first time in a while on a new computer, which involves getting Ruby and the Bundler package manager to work happily. Here are the steps I used. Read more →

Paying for low-cost cloud services on a departmental credit card

One of the themes of this blog is that access to modern tools has a huge impact on public servants’ productivity and effectiveness. There are a lot of online tools available today – for team collaboration, for communications, for data analysis, for software development – that historically haven’t been easy for public servants to access. Paying for paid tiers of these tools has been even more difficult, but thanks to last week’s new Directive on Management of Procurement, it just got easier. Read more →

Rule number one: Avoid vendor lock-in

If you’re working on IT or service delivery projects in public sector organizations, I have one very specific rule for you to follow: avoid vendor lock-in. To do that, you should own your data, own your front-end interfaces, own your software source code, and avoid long-term contracts. This post dives into why vendor lock-in is a problem, and how those strategies can help prevent it. Read more →

If you want enterprise services to be good, make them optional

Enterprise IT systems in government are often enforced as mandatory solutions that other teams and departments are required to use. In comparison, leading tech companies turn their internal systems into external products, to see if they are commercially viable. Making enterprise services optional creates feedback loops, generates adoption-rate data, and incentivizes continuous improvement. Read more →

A year’s worth of IBM ads

Beginning right around the time that Heather and I moved to Whitehorse, I noticed that almost all of the ads I saw on Twitter were from the same company. Anecdotally around 19 out of every 20 ads that I saw on Twitter were IBM ads, for more than a year. Below is a series of screenshots of these ads, collected between October 2019 and October 2020. Read more →

“Onerous levels of oversight”

Lee Berthiaume from the Canadian Press wrote a fascinating article last week, based on an internal Department of National Defence report on IT support. The report describes DND’s IT processes and systems as “out-of-date and poorly supported”, and blamed “onerous levels of oversight”. This is a persistent problem across federal government departments. Read more →

Is this blocked in my department: a year in review

Over the past year, departments have made a lot of progress in improving access to online collaboration tools and other services. But, there’s still a pretty dramatic gap between departments that are more restrictive, and departments that are more forward-looking. “Is this blocked in my department?” is a crowd-sourced effort to track that gap, and this post looks at how the website and the departments reflected on it have evolved over the course of 2020. Read more →

Tools that work

Cyd Harrell posted a great Twitter thread last week, resolving that “all government offices need fast broadband, fast wi-fi, productivity and collaboration software suites that play well with others, and the building blocks of modern website building and digital communication. Just like they need walls, a roof, and HVAC.” Public servants do critical, life-changing work with the most rudimentary tools. Equipping them with better tools is a big part of own public service mission. Read more →

“Government is actually a big tech company, they just don’t know it yet.”

A couple weeks ago, I was able to tune in to FWD50, an annual Canadian digital government conference. One of the themes from the first day onwards was this concept, that government institutions are tech companies without realizing it. Just like “every company is a software company”, public sector institutions need to think differently about how they work, and what leadership they have, in order to be successful today. Read more →

“Working in the open” firsts for COVID Alert

Working on COVID Alert has definitely been a career highlight, in a lot of unexpected ways. As of this week more than 4.8 million people have downloaded the app, and 2,600 people have used it to alert people close to them about their COVID exposure. For everyone that has worked on COVID Alert, it’s humbling and daunting to be part of something at this scale. COVID Alert also included some extra geeky “firsts” in the Canadian government that I was really thrilled to see, all related to working in the open. Read more →