Sean Boots

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

Digital Accelerator Demo Day

Last week I was invited to be a panelist for the Canada School of Public Service’s Spring 2022 Digital Accelerator Demo Day, along with Manu Kabahizi, Nadine Davis, and Kathy Graham. It was a really fascinating and inspiring event!

Each of the teams that were part of the Digital Accelerator program had spent the previous 10 weeks working on a digital initiative; across the teams they represented a really interesting range of topic areas, from public facing services to data aggregation and visualization to potential career development programs. The teams all did a great job of describing the issue or problem space they were working to address, and had put together some really interesting proposals and prototypes.

You can watch a livestream of the full event here (1 hour 54 minutes):

One of the presentations that stood out the most was a project to provide dangerous goods inspectors with safer reporting tools (namely, fireproof and spark-proof “intrinsically safe” smartphones, and an online reporting interface, rather than paper notes). The project team had an inspector who normally works at industrial sites across Ontario as part of their team, and hearing his firsthand perspective was a real mic-drop moment. It was a great reminder both of the wide range of work that the federal government does, and of the value of having a multidisciplinary team putting users’ perspective at the heart of their thinking.

Another common theme throughout the presentations was better ways to handle, aggregate, and communicate data. One team had a slide titled “Data is available, but not user friendly” which sums up a lot of my own experiences with federal government data (!). Seeing these presentations was particularly exciting. Often, discussions on data in the public service tend to stay in the very theoretical “data strategy” and “data governance” worlds, divorced from more tangible, practical considerations like: Can we actually access and use the data we need? Can we link and compare it to other datasets we have? Can we improve our tooling, and can we develop automated pipelines? The Demo Day presentations that focused on data were very concrete and operational, which made them all the more inspiring.

As Taki Sarantakis, the president of CSPS, said at the beginning of the event: “digital” in 2022 is just another way of saying modern, effective, and efficient. That, as public servants, we have to get faster at the things we do – the world is not going to get any slower.

The Demo Day presentations gave me a renewed sense of hope in the public service, and in how we’re doing at getting faster at the things we do. (I had… not been feeling very optimistic lately!) The other panelists were a joy to work with, and the CSPS team did a great job of organizing the event.

Two questions stayed in my head as the event wrapped up. The first was: how do these teams get their projects to stick, when their Digital Accelerator session concludes and they return to their previous roles? It’s a huge challenge in the federal government to go from a prototype to an actively-used product. (Paul Craig’s post last week talks about some of these systemic challenges.) The second was: for the people that have been part of these Digital Accelerator teams, will they be supported in their regular roles and responsibilities to keep on doing cutting-edge work? Or will it be back to a typical status quo of slow progress, burdensome processes, and a lack of willingness to change?

It reminded me of past anecdotes about Code for America’s early Fellowship program, which would train up municipal governments staff in modern digital and data techniques. More often than not, the story goes, after staff who participated in the program became more digitally-savvy, they’d realize how slow and frustrating their day-to-day work environment was, and they’d leave their municipal government employers shortly afterwards to go work in a more modern, fast-paced workplace (usually outside the public sector). It wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see a similar experience take place on the part of some of the Digital Accelerator participants.

Fortunately, that doesn’t completely seem to be the case here; my colleague Manu (one of the Demo Day panelists) has actually worked with past Digital Accelerator participants in other departments as part of his partnership consulting work at CDS, and he spoke very highly of them. If the Digital Accelerator is beefing up the skills and confidence of public servants, and they’re able to keep practicing their newly acquired skills in their home departments, that’s really amazing to see.

The CSPS Digital Accelerator folks are looking right now at how they can improve the program in the future; if you have any thoughts or feedback you can give them a shout at