How to simplify public services: our exchange with Chris Govias from the Canadian Digital Service

Chris Govias

Designing simpler services for citizens — this is the main goal of Chris Govias, Chief of Design for the Canadian Digital Service. In a conversation with the staatslabor and Andreas Amsler, Facilitator for Open Data at the Canton of Zurich, he talks about his experience, change fatigue in government and, above all, the importance of collaboration.

Chris, we had the pleasure to meet you at the British Government Digital Service (GDS) conference. Your presentation there covered the history, work and vision of the Canadian Digital Service (CDS). How did you get to do what you do now?

After working as a website designer and with tech sector start-ups and smaller companies, I became a design lead at the travel technology company Expedia, which gave me an amazing view of how large enterprises and design at scale work. No one had considered the end-to-end-service of what travel could be, and that sparked my interest: What if we don’t just get people to go to our website but create an entire experience and serve them properly? Later, I had the opportunity as Head of Design at the Ministry of Justice to apply that thinking to addressing the big, ugly problems that society faces. Then the Canadian government launched its digital service as I was just moving back to Canada, and I joined.

What is a service designer, and what are the profiles of your team members?  

Service designers understand the entirety of service and can approach it properly to try and optimize it or, better yet, improve and transform it. They examine different products used by different users and can see how together they deliver a service.

Our team integrates service designers, interaction designers — who focus on using digital tools, code and design to create user interfaces — and visual designers working together. We complement this structure with integration of data at all points. Research operates as its own discipline, and the head of user research ensures that the research team functions at its best ability within the agile methodology and performs with our delivery teams.

What are you currently working on?

We just wrapped up two major service initiatives, one of which was developing a product that allows Veterans Affairs Canada to deliver better services. The key in this project was the language being used. For example, veterans may need services related to finding a job, getting career advice or updating their CVs as they transition from armed forces service to civilian life. But the government term for this transition was rehabilitation, which carries very different connotations. Veterans who visited the website were skipping the rehabilitation services section because they didn't think it applied. Working with veterans, we built a tool that allows people to understand what benefits they are qualified for.

Another recent launch relates to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and temporary residency. This followed an earlier project focused on the experience and challenges of becoming a citizen. The new project built on that earlier success and allowed us to progress to more extensive, bigger problems. In my conference presentation, I said we move at the speed of trust. Each success allows us to advance to a tougher problem, which is very exciting.

You acknowledged in your speech how your work faithfully replicates that of GDS UK. How much was copied, and how much had to be adapted to Canada?

Having worked with GDS and the Ministry of Justice made me a good candidate for this job, and our first IRCC service borrows extensively from work I have done in the past — particularly from the design patterns that GDS built. For example, a modern web service must work effectively on a mobile phone. So, little things must be adapted. We borrowed visual elements and larger design patterns, such as asking only one pertinent question per page so the user doesn’t find it intimidating or too complex. We tried to simplify extensively from other digital agencies.

How is the Canadian DS different from the UK one?

CDS is a slightly different beast to GDS, which has spend controls and can prevent people from building new technologies. We don’t have that option. If we don’t think a project is a good idea, the departments can still get their money. But when they consult with us, we take that collaborative approach. For example, Natural Resources Canada wanted to build a portal with data visualization that shows people how much energy they are using. User research revealed that they actually needed an API: an open data set that people could access. An API costs less, can be created more quickly, and allows the provinces to solve their own problems. This solution emerged because we must be more collaborative and use the carrot, because we don’t really have a stick.

Given differences in the nature of federal and local government services, does your work inspire provinces, or must they reinvent better-suited solutions? In Switzerland, we’re interested in learning to build something in several languages and in giving provinces their say.

Canada is a massive country, and there’s a delicate balance between what is done at the federal or provincial level. Services such as benefits to veterans, immigration, and passports are delivered federally. But the provinces provide many services that are required on a daily basis, and they’re now investing heavily in their own digital service teams, which facilitates our ability to collaborate and cooperate at that level. This marks a turnaround from what we have seen in the last years. Canada used to be a digital leader in 2006 and then slowly fell behind. By working together at every level of government, we can speed ahead as quickly as possible and catch up.

Do you give provinces advice about what their digital service unit could look like?

We don’t have the authority to tell them how to build their service. Rather, we want to make sure that we are talking to the provinces as much as possible. The goal is to promote a collaborative approach, ensure that people understand what we are doing, and encourage them to consult with us. When a team from Eastern Canada visited our offices, the chief information officer was very interested in seeing how our teams are set up, what our organization structure looked like, what kind of tools we are using. Sometimes it is still very surprising to people that we are using Macs instead of PCs and that we have whiteboards and sticky notes. Agile isn’t something we are learning from a book but something we are doing and practicing every day.

Assuming that collaboration is key to improved services, what incentives do you recommend to encourage government departments or business units to collaborate across organizational borders and silos?

One of the biggest incentives is that you can get things done. Often public servants want to make a difference and change things but don’t have the power. Collaborating with a central agency like CDS — because we are within the treasury board and we have developers, researchers — facilitates doing the actual work. So the immediate benefit is they receive something that works and start to solve their problem right away. IRCC’s internal IT provider estimated that it would take eighteen months to create a solution that we delivered in five.

How do you reassure an organization that sees it will benefit from what you offer but also fears losing control?

We alleviate the fear by working directly with the teams in different ways. For example, we adopted open-source operations in our work with the internal tag provider for IRCC. Everything we do is available. I negotiated to have an IRCC programmer work in our office a couple of days a week, so that he saw the product being built up, learnt new ways of working and the new software language, and got to see what modern deployment and development practice looked like. He became a huge advocate for us. It’s not about removing jobs or losing them to technology. Your job will become better. You’ll eliminate monotonous, repetitive tasks and be freed to deal with bigger problems.

You’ve achieved all this even though CDS has existed for just over a year. Which victory stands out, and which moment when the job seemed especially difficult?

Two major victories: One is that CDS exists. The other massive win for me has been working with the immigration people: building a relationship; creating a service design solution that helps people; introducing transparency into the process; and alleviating some of the fear people have of interacting with the government. Becoming a citizen is a very emotional process. That we are able to make this slightly easier and slightly better speaks to me on an emotional level. With regard to thinking this job is hard: I had a lot of those moments and can’t begin to say which was the biggest (laughs). I certainly had to adjust my expectations because the Canadian people had not worked in a digital service for five or six years like those in GDS or the US Digital Service. I made the mistake early on, expecting perfect, incredible work. This is a new service, and I have to be realistic; it’s difficult, and it’s the first time the Canadian government is doing anything like this. Thousands of consultants have promised them before that things will change in this or that way. Hence, I need to spend the time to convince people that we are going to do it properly this time. Change fatigue is very real in government.

There are different ways to gain digital service knowledge in the administration: Consultants, external teams, or embedded teams. What do the people within public service expect from your model in particular? 

I think that it is vital to identify those different teams working within the departments. When we began with the IRCC, we wanted to take a user-centred approach, with user meaning anyone who interacts with the service. The client experience branch had identified the problem and we had to work very closely with them to make sure they weren’t alienated from the process. But their focus was very much just on the public experience while we brought in a more comprehensive and thorough look at everything. And that allowed us to be successful.

Our federal state, with four national languages, is just getting started in this process. What would be your advice to Switzerland?

I can’t advise an entire country, but I can say I think it’s incredible that so many other countries worked hard to try to fix some of these problems and create digital agencies or service agencies. Look to the community and ask for help. They will tell you how to improve, how to avoid certain mistakes. When CDS was launched, the team starting it spent a significant amount of time consulting with people from GDS, USDS, and the Department for Digital Transformation in Australia. We really looked to the rest of the world to ask and figure out what was going to work in our context. Starting from that place is probably the best way forward. And it is okay to go slow in the beginning. There is a lot of the culture around to move fast and break things. But I would say: Step carefully and fix things.

Chris Govias is currently Chief of Design for the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), a new initiative from the Government of Canada to design and deliver simple, easy to use services. He has worked as a designer for over twenty years and started his career in Western Canada with a general research lab. He then spent ten years in London working in the tech sector, primarily with startups and small companies. After that, he became Design Lead at the world's largest travel company Expedia and Head of Design for the Ministry of Justice with the UK Government.


(Photo: Chris Govias)