Sean Boots

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

To the Clerk, and friends

To John Hannaford, your team, and colleagues across the federal public service:

Below are a set of radical (but implementable) ideas that would make the public service better equipped to handle the challenges of today and tomorrow. We need to invest in state capacity in Canada, and that starts with changing our public service structures, processes, and organizational culture for the better.

I presented these today at FWD50, an Ottawa conference dedicated to using technology to improve society for everyone. The most important of these ideas don’t involve technology at all; they involve changing how we work to better empower front-line staff and experts, to remove burdensome processes, and to change or eliminate structures that lead to negative outcomes.

I’d be happy to chat about these anytime, you can get in touch by email.

Empowering public servants

Better structures for digital capability

Simplify our administrative processes and improve government transparency

Learn more from everyday people, and use this to improve our services

  • Create dedicated funding for departments to do design research. Normalize going out and talking to everyday people before you start building or procuring things. Eliminate policy provisions restricting public opinion research or, at minimum, set a floor of several thousand respondents below which these no longer apply.

  • Build better feedback loops. Require senior management and deputy ministers to spend an hour a month working front-line help desk support, answering call centre phones and client support tickets. If processes and eligibility rules are too complex for this to be doable, urgently begin work to simplify these.

  • Create your own critics. Fund a Canadian version of Citizens Advice that helps people access government services, and also holds us to account when things don’t work. Fund it through a long-term trust mechanism that prevents us from withdrawing its funding when it gives us advice we don’t like.

Protect the future of the public service

Public service effectiveness matters. Implementation matters. Too often, our services and our processes let down the people who need our help the most. We can change that, by changing ourselves and our organizations for the better. Most of all, we need to get accustomed to regularly changing how we work for the better, to make decisions that increase our future capability to change, and to have the creativity and open-mindedness to make this possible.

Here’s to the future of the public service, and here’s to the people that we serve. Thanks for reading.