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How much paperwork does it take to approve a (small) government website? 39,230 words


A federal public servant revealed that when his team wanted to launch a simple website with 4,305 words, he had to submit internal documents almost 10 times as long

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OTTAWA – The internet age has brought us an app for meeting the love of your life and a website for finding a mortgage on the home of your dreams.

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Why is it then that when Canadians interact with their federal government, they’re often forced to deal with a litany of paper forms, outdated or primitive websites and even fax machines instead of apps and sleek online forms and sites?

One federal public servant who works for the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) — the department charged with creating innovative online solutions for the rest of government — may have the answer to that: paperwork.

In a revealing blog post titled “ Paperweight, a cautionary tale of onerous oversight ,” CDS lead developer Paul Craig detailed the harrowing amount of internal paperwork necessary to create a single, 12-page citizen engagement website called Service Canada Labs .

“To a casual visitor, it has four pages and it does two things: you can see a list of upcoming new services, and you can volunteer to test them out. In large part due to its inherent simplicity, our small but determined team was able to launch it on time,” Craig wrote.

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“Did it feel good to finally release it? Heck yes. Was it easy to get there? F—k no.”

He says the main obstacle to quickly creating and releasing any form of new government website is excessive levels of oversight and internal paperwork.

In this case, as in most others, the compliance activities (meaning the internal documentation required to get all the green lights to launch the project) took more time to produce than the actual website itself.

His experience is far from unique, says Carleton University associate professor Amanda Clarke, author of the 2019 book Opening the Government of Canada: The Federal Bureaucracy in the Digital Age.

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She says that a series of scandals over the decades (such as the Sponsorship Scandal or the grands and contributions “boondoggle”) created an “overly aggressive accountability culture” in the federal bureaucracy that led to new “overly onerous and ineffective” oversight rules.

“For the most part, these rules and oversight mechanisms do not actually make the government more accountable, and they certainly don’t make it more effective (or a pleasant place to work a lot of the time),” she said in an email.

In his blog post, Craig did the math to eloquently illustrate that point. His team’s website consists of a total of 4,305 words on 12 individual pages (some are public, others are only visible to developers).

But to be allowed to publish the website, Craig’s team ended up producing a total of 45 documents containing a whopping 39,230 words of original text (meaning he excluded any copy and pasted or templated content).

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These rules and oversight mechanisms do not actually make the government more accountable, and they certainly don’t make it more effective

In comparison, C.S. Lewis’ famed fantasy novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is 3,000 words shorter (36,363 words) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby , by no means considered a short book, is barely 8,000 words longer (47,094), Craig notes.

“To put that another way, for every 10 words we write on this team, one word is for the site itself — the actual thing we are trying to release — and nine words are for internal governance, to be read once or twice (if ever), and then filed away somewhere,” reads his post.

“Unfortunately, actually launching (the Labs website) meant slogging through a morass of meetings and meddlers,” Craig added. “It’s all well and good to champion tomorrow’s leaner and faster ways of working, but in our present context, we were firmly trapped in the past.”

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Ultimately, Craig recommends that government adopt a “less is better” approach when adopting new technology or digital methods.

Instead of adding compliance and oversight measures or applying procedures designed decades ago each time a government team wants to try an innovative solution, Craig argues that the public service needs to take a good hard look at how much oversight is necessary and useful before it starts stifling innovation.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t have any compliance processes — of course we need security reviews and internal documentation of some kind. But above all we need procedures that are proportional to the outcomes, that adapt to changing situations,” he argued.

His thoughts were recently echoed by another CDS colleague, Sean Boots, in a separate blog post titled “ A bleak outlook for public sector tech .”

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“Public sector tech work (in Canada, at the federal level) is not in great shape,” Boots argues from the get-go.

Liberal MP Joyce Murray was the last person to hold the role of digital government minister, a position that no longer exists.
Liberal MP Joyce Murray was the last person to hold the role of digital government minister, a position that no longer exists. Photo by Justin Tang/The Canadian Press/File

His article lays out three key issues that are significantly hampering the federal government’s ability to adapt to the digital era.

Firstly, an executive class of bureaucrats that is “ill-equipped” to lead technology initiatives.

Secondly, many IT departments that claim to be “agile” on paper but are not at all in practice. He says many have widely adopted the terminology fast-paced private sector tech teams use, but have shied away from actually changing their old ways of working.

Thirdly, a “pervasive lack of urgency” at the political and executive level when it comes to tackling the numerous issues hampering digital innovation.

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Experts also fear that the necessary change will be slower still to come since the Trudeau government dropped the role of digital government minister during the last cabinet shuffle.

The role was last held by Joyce Murray, who was the fourth person to hold the title before being shuffled to Fisheries and Oceans after the last election.

“Until something substantial changes — or a Phoenix-level crisis hits a public-facing service — we’ll all keep spending our time on performative IT paperwork instead of building better services,” Boots concluded.

Neither Craig nor Boots responded to interview requests.

• Email: cnardi@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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