Honey Dacanay is a digital government legend in Canada – part of the founding team at the Ontario Digital Service, and an early leader of the CSPS Digital Academy. She currently works on Service Canada’s Digital & Client Data team and teaches at McMaster’s Public Policy in Digital Society program. Honey is a longtime inspiration both for her digital policy and legislation work, and for her writing and speaking on digital government. We chatted on April 25.
Sean: For introductions, tell us who you are and where you work these days!
You were at the Ontario Digital Service in the early days, can you tell us what that was like?
I feel like my time in the Ontario Public Service got defined by my time at the Ontario Digital Service. Meaning that, all the other places I worked at were almost, preparation for the time there, or lead-ups to, or waiting for the ODS to exist.
I was one of the founding members in the Ontario Digital Service. We started as a team of seven or eight people in that inaugural form – trying to reimagine what government would look like, and coming up with a plan to expand. Joining us shortly thereafter was the Ontario.ca product team, which was our precursor for a larger digital government mandate.
Those early days were at once exciting but also tough. There were a lot of important decisions around what work we took on, what work we had to turn away, and then also defining who we were and what digital government was going to mean – like, digitization versus modernization or large-scale transformation. Also where the Ontario Digital Service was going to sit in the organization.
And then hiring our Chief Digital Officer and making sure that it wasn’t another executive “as usual”, and that we didn’t follow the playbook of a lot of the public service reform initiatives or change management initiatives that had happened just before ODS existed. The playbook was usually, well, part one, have the big announcement; part two, have a roadshow deck, do the road show with the gold-plated pilot; and part three, run the compliance exercise. Meaning, send a spreadsheet of some kind or a tracking thing across to all departments and ask them to report on how well they’d complied. We knew that was not going to be the thing that we needed to scale up or communicate our change.
Was there something particular that was like, here’s how we’re going to be different?
I think so – the first was that the type of executive that we brought on was somebody who was very committed to setting the tone for how we were going to operate. The biggest theory of change was that – for the ODS as far back at 2016 – if we could get government to care about the user experience, about how people experience government services and policies, we will change government. And so, coming from that place of wanting to be inclusive and accessible from the get-go, and serving everybody. I think that was a big part of our logic model, and how we staffed and how our organizations grew at the time.
Around our team, how else were we different? When we started implementing digital service standards, I think we knew that the quickest way would have been just to enforce it, create some kind of rule or policy document, but we wanted to make sure we had a lot of institutional supports in place. We also took our own medicine and did the user research on our own standards.
We really wanted to make the good path easy, so it wasn’t just about enforcement levers.
Even stepping back before your ODS days – how did you originally get started in the public service? What was the start of your public service journey?
From university, I worked at a community services organization called Findhelp Information Services, in Toronto. It was originally called “Community Information Toronto”, it was a precursor to 211. Then from there, I responded to an ad for a job called “New media coordinator” as a lot of digital jobs were called at the time. It was to manage the Government of Ontario’s digital presence for youth. This was back in 2006, when the going theory was that you needed a separate web presence for youth.
It was a very strange time; that first job challenged the way I understood government. It was for Cabinet Office communications, so the job was part of the communications team that was supporting the Premier of Ontario. It was really a bit of everything at the time. I had to do a lot of photography, videography, post photos and videos online and then analyze all the web analytics data. Alongside that, I was setting up a photography internship program with universities and colleges for Ontario’s first stock photo library – a supply of stock photography that reflected real Ontarians on all of the province’s official communications materials.
In a niche way I’m really impressed because, one of my pet peeves is the incredibly generic stock photography on most government websites, clearly from some random stock photo provider and it just does not look like real people. That’s awesome.
It was really fun, and I learned so much about Ontario and about setting up common resources for public servants.
Nowadays, you’re teaching a course at McMaster’s Masters in Public Policy program, to students who are interested in digital government. Are you seeing more of an interest in that intersection of government and technology work, from public admin or public policy students?
This was the first cohort that went through the Public Policy in a Digital Society program from McMaster. The course actually just wrapped up.
I found with this group, there’s still a much heavier interest in public policy versus public admin. However, there was this palpable recognition – that not understanding digital, and not understanding data, was not going to fly no matter where they ended up after the program. Whether they ended up in government, whether they ended up working for the private sector or elsewhere.
That’s cool to hear. That’s something that I don’t think I quite realized at the time, but in my own public policy program, the absence of technology or data knowledge and understanding – in hindsight, it’s noteworthy, when it’s something that’s an important part of any public service job.
It makes me hopeful for the future. And – I’m not going to lie – there is a bit of a therapy, there’s a bit of subversiveness that’s part of the activity of teaching.
It’s one of the things that I hope becomes templated – the privilege that I get to have a half-day a week spending teaching – can very easily be part of somebody else’s performance plan, like a variation of the Public Servant-in-Residence program, where it’s typically an opportunity that’s not well known, usually given to people who are closer to retirement, and not mid-career public servants. And also not as widely available; it’s usually the case where not a lot of people could afford to take six months or a whole year to participate. I hope that this is another variation of it that could be offered.
You’ve worked in a lot of places, a lot of different teams and programs. If you had to choose just one moment in your career that really stands out or was really inspiring, what would that be? A moment when you really felt, “this is what being a public servant is about”.
Please, can I pick two?
The first, from Ontario, is our team enshrining our standards in legislation in Ontario, because at the time that was sort of impossible, or next to impossible. It was a moonshot on our side. It was one of the ideas that we pitched that we knew we weren’t sure what was going to happen, how far we could have proposed that type of change.
That was something that I think surprised even our own team, and also changed the nature of the ODS and put it on a very different kind of footing. The legislation also signaled on the decision-making side that we weren’t going to shy away from institutional change and machinery of government reform at scale. But beyond legislation, the standards are embedded in our policy and Treasury Board decision making processes. And the ODS also stood up proactive supports: setting up the discovery and alpha service vendors of record, in-house discovery and alpha as a service labs in Kitchener and Toronto, providing foundational staff and leadership training at a time when learning budgets were frozen.
And, if there were policy barriers, helping coordinate getting a bunch of omnibus bills in place. Like: bring us your policy barriers, we would actually work with you to get these through. Usually there’s no appetite for tiny changes in legislation, and all of a sudden we had that as a mechanism to do so.
That’s the first one. The second one that comes to mind has to do with my current work at Service Canada.
You’ll recall I wrote some year-end reflections on digital government mostly in response to your post and Paul’s.
I remember that!
Not long afterwards, our team had a reorg, and now we are embarking on year one of a two-year agile governance pilot.
That is, take everything we have been preaching about when it comes to setting up teams to succeed and stand up the requisite supports and remove institutional blockers so that our digital team at Service Canada could deliver.
To receive a mandate to do this is no small thing, and I know that this requires a significant amount of work on our part to change existing defaults. This is about establishing a new status quo, after all, and it’s not the type of thing that will happen overnight.
I have begun reaching out to partners across Canada to get their support with standing up digital assessments – so that they’re done by assessors with digital delivery experience and expertise who can provide hands-on advice to help us improve products – to partners at Treasury Board to ensure that we report on learnings, not just how well we are following a process, and to external partners who might want to objectively document what we’re learning about how to make digital governance work in large, complex organizations like ours. In addition, we anticipate having an accompanying digital talent strategy.
As with all inspirational stories, it’s with the recognition that we’re not the first and we definitely won’t be the last. There were generations of public servants before us that have tried to make government work better, and there will be others after us that will do so as well.
If there was one thing you could change about the government or the public service – and this could be, any level of government, governments in general, a specific government, whichever you’d like – if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing, what would it be?
Probably closer to my current Interchange assignment – I think a mindset that values learning versus planning is probably the thing I would love to see change most.
The current thinking still is: almost everything in our processes, our incentives, our traditions all value sticking very rigidly and unquestioningly to a plan, and don’t account for uncertainty and how we methodically work through it. We need to be able to adapt. The last two going on three years have taught us that uncertainty is more pervasive than we’d like to think it is.
That’s a good way of putting it.
We need to create that ability, to invest in the capacity to cope with uncertainty, and to learn from it. We haven’t reckoned with lessons from the pandemic; we’ve yet to do a giant, government-wide, multi-government retro about what happened.
That’s a great point.
And then again, learning with that sense of compassion. All of our analogies are still mechanistic. If we adopt the attitude that there’s still so much to learn, and there’s always every opportunity to learn – not just by taking a course but by having that as an attitude of how to go about doing the work of public service – we would be so much further ahead than we currently are.
Really awesome of you to take the time to chat. Any last closing thoughts?
Agreed with Rumon that it’s less about heroics, more about: let’s create the conditions for this to work. We still don’t collaborate enough. And oh my gosh, the inertia is real. Any way that we can join up efforts to break that, I’m all for it.