Sean Boots

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

Interfaces, data, and math

It’s often hard to have conversations about public policy and technology where people on both sides of the discussion understand each other. Computer software – the programming code that makes software programs and systems work – can seem impossibly complicated and intimidating to people outside the tech industry. This post gives an introduction to ideas like interfaces, data, and math. These categories can help make computer software simpler and easier to understand, and as a result, help public servants make better technology decisions. Read more →

“It’s more an approval of an approach” for the win

A few weeks ago, there was a great profile in Maclean’s of the person behind the CAFinUS Twitter account. CAFinUS is the official account for the Canadian Armed Forces working in the United States, and the account is run by Capt. Kirk Sullivan, based at the Canadian embassy in Washington DC. It’s worth a read, especially given how much of an anomaly the CAFinUS account is in comparison to practically any other Government of Canada social media account. Read more →

Public service tech tip: Paste without fonts and formatting

We’ve all been there, fellow public servants. You’re copying and pasting something, you hit “Paste”, and your Microsoft Word proceeds to turn the entire rest of your Word document into a bewildering mix of fonts and colours from whatever you just pasted. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to prevent this from happening, by changing the default paste settings in Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Word. Read more →

“Fake COTS” and the one-day rule

One of the long-held norms of government IT is the perceived benefit of “commercial, off the shelf” software solutions. In government environments, being able to buy ready-to-go software products to meet government IT needs is appealing. In many cases, though, extensive customization requirements means that COTS purchases don’t live up to their promise. They’re marketed as a car and they turn out to be boxes of car parts: lots of time-consuming assembly required. Here’s a rule of thumb to tell the difference between genuine and fake COTS. Read more →

Make things open source, it makes things better

The apps and services that underpin government programs should practically always be open source. Public trust in things like the EI system, filing taxes, or as a public servant, getting paid, would be higher if people could see the inner workings and understand that software is working as it should. Open source code reduces vendor lock-in, improves the quality and interoperability of software, and increases public trust. What’s not to love? Read more →

A busy couple months

Since the start of the year, one of my goals was to write a new blog post every few weeks. Although the blog here has been quiet, it turns out there’s been a lot going on over the past couple months! Getting back into a regular blogging routine is something I’m really looking forward to. Read more →

A short introduction to building digital services in the Canadian government

Building digital services and IT systems in a government environment is complicated. The federal government in particular has a lot of rules to navigate, and it’s easy for these to overwhelm people and siphon their time away from designing and building user-friendly software. This short guide was written for an audience that’s used to building digital products in the private sector, to better understand what’s new and different in a government context. Enjoy! Read more →

Listen, read, donate, give space

The past couple weeks have seen an outpouring of grief, protests, and calls for change following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Floyd’s murder, by police, is not a one-off. For Black Americans – and Black Canadians – police violence and systemic racism is an everyday and ongoing problem. Learning how to recognize and confront racism in our own actions, our everyday lives, and in our work as public servants, is incredibly important. Read more →

Blockers versus enablers

As a public servant trying to get something approved up the hierarchy, the simplest definition of blockers versus enablers might be a “no” or “yes” at each level. In practice, however, the time it takes to receive these – and the quantity of approvals required – are bigger structural factors, regardless of how positive or supportive individual approvals are. This post dives into organizational blockers as a concept, with some potential strategies to mitigate them. Read more →

Why are there so few senior developers in government?

Delivering good services to the public, in the internet era, depends on designing and developing good software. Although there are about 17,000 IT professionals in the Canadian government (and an estimated 60,000 contractors and consultants), there are very few senior developers within the public service. Here are a few reasons why. Read more →

Crisis, bureaucracies, and change

It’s been two months and a bit since the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically adjusted life in Canada. Amid the social and economic upheaval that took place, government responses – public health activities, emergency benefit programs, and more – have played an essential role. The urgency and constraints of working in a crisis force us to reconsider assumptions and processes that are long-established, and they also remind us of why our work matters. Read more →

The cycle of bad government software

Leah Lockhart captures in a profound way why government systems and software tend to be so bad. Bad government software – the user-hostile, complicated, enterprise systems that public servants everywhere are accustomed to – trains public servants to have low expectations of government software systems. Then, as they progress over time into leadership roles, they make IT decisions based on the low expectations they were trained to expect. Read more →

Corporate networks are not the future

It’s been about a month now since federal government employees have been asked to work from home. The sudden shift to a fully remote workforce quickly overwhelmed the IT infrastructure used to access corporate networks from home. The future fix to this problem is to move away from having corporate networks entirely. Read more →

Sharing is caring

As governments and organizations around the world have grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, their efforts to reuse and remix others’ work have stood out as a bright spot. Within Canada and around the world, there’s a lot of neat ways that people and teams have been learning from and sharing with each other. This should become the norm, not the exception. Read more →

Data residency is security theatre

One of the most persistent myths in Canadian government IT is that storing your data in Canada protects it against eavesdropping or interception by foreign governments. If someone on your government team has asked to use a new online tool and your reaction is, “no, you can’t, because it’s hosted in the United States,” this article is for you. Read more →

Look out for one another

It’s been a strange, unfamiliar, and in a lot of ways distressing past few weeks for people. My default approach is to try to find the silver linings in any situation; now doesn’t feel like the moment. Read more →

Find the truth. Tell the truth.

I read a great post this week from Robin Rendle, about design systems and about the mismatch between how people describe their work publicly and how it’s really going on the inside: “My hunch is this: folks can’t talk about real design systems problems because it will show their company as being dysfunctional and broken in some way. But hiding those mistakes and shortcomings by glossing over everything doesn’t just make it harder for us personally, it hinders progress within the field itself.” This couldn’t be a better description of public service modernization efforts as well. Read more →

User needs, not government needs

When you’re prioritizing what activities to work on, it’s usually not that hard to tell if something is responding to a user need or a government need. Does the activity help understand an actual person and how they’d use the service you’re building? Does it let particular users more effectively interact with your website or online services? Does it generate data that can help inform future improvements? If it’s not doing any of those things, it’s probably solving for a government need. Read more →

Our services aren’t working

The government’s legacy IT systems have been in the news recently. Within the government, there’s a growing concern that these systems – software code and mainframe computers that underpin critical services and benefit programs for millions of Canadians – could fail unexpectedly at any moment. The complicating factor in discussions around legacy IT systems (and their need for replacement) is that many of the services that these systems support don’t work well as-is. Read more →

Perils of standardization

If you work in government IT, you’ve probably heard this before: “We’ve got one standard database product.” “We’ve standardized on this programming language.” “This software is our standard for case management systems,” and so on. There are a number of important downsides, though, to standardization efforts: one size all ends up fitting nothing well, they act as a placeholder for more informed technical discussions, and they end up being a barrier to continual change. Read more →