Government isn't a tech startup — but it's trying to learn to code like one

At Facebook, employees "move fast and break things," or so the saying goes. But governments don't move fast, and the last thing they want to do is break things — especially if that thing is critical service.

But a new not-for-profit called Code for Canada is hoping governments across Canada might be willing to meet them half way. The organization launched last week with the goal of connecting designers and software developers from the tech community with teams in government who are interested in modernizing their digital services.

The idea is that everything from paying a parking ticket to changing your address might be easier, more accessible — and maybe even enjoyable — if transformed by some of the tech community's digital know-how.

The idea of approaching government services more like the way tech companies design and develop a website or app has been gathering steam in other countries, including Germany, Pakistan, and the U.S. But an ongoing challenge is finding the right balance between tech and government cultures, which are inherently at odds. 

"The thing with government is... you don't want to disrupt it too much," says Paul Ford, the co-founder and managing partner of the New York-based digital product studio Postlight, and a former adviser to the Obama administration on development and design.

"The private sector ethos of build it and see if it breaks — the risks are very different. You can't have people stay in jail an extra day because there's a stupid bug in the how-long-do-they-stay-in-jail code."

Services need to be easier to use

Starting this autumn, three Code for Canada fellows, coders or designers coming from the industry, will be embedded in the Ontario government for 10 months with the intent of designing services that are simpler and easier to use. Canadian tech company Shopify will help recruit talent, while the province will contribute $700,000 in funding. 

The City of Edmonton is a municipal partner, too.

The underlying problem is that governments aren't known for building great websites or apps, and technology isn't typically one of its strengths (just look at the saga of Healthcare.gov in the U.S., the website created to support Obamacare, or the Canadian federal government's new email system, perpetually delayed).

Perhaps the most egregious example in recent memory is the Canadian government's IBM Phoenix payment system, which has underpaid and overpaid some public servants, and failed to pay others at all.

Governments have complex and lengthy procurement processes — the very antithesis of the agile development cycles and data products favoured in tech. There are myriad rules and requirements unique to governments that digital services must meet.

And to top it all off, design and development is happening within sprawling, bureaucratic organizations that are highly resistant to change, and reluctant to take big risks when critical services are involved.

But that is starting to change. Ford points to the U.S. organization 18F, a digital services agency within the U.S. government, as "the closest to progress" he's seen to bridging the gap. The group teaches techniques such as agile development, emphasizes the use of free open-source software where possible, and works directly with departments to understand their needs.

Their intent isn't to change the way that governments work in one fell swoop, but rather say "'Hey, there's a better way,' and assume that it might take a while" to get a change implemented, says Ford. "And a while here might be 20, 30, 40 years, because that's just how long it takes to move something that big to something more modern."

You can't just turn it off

The immediate challenge for the Ontario government will be identifying where modern technology can have the most impact — and who in government is most willing to work with coders and designers who think differently.

"Implementing new things in government is often very challenging," said Gabe Sawhney, Code for Canada's executive director, at a launch event last week.

Sawhney said his organization is also in discussions with other levels of government, but declined to name where.

For his part, Ford would like to see U.S. governments release more data, open source more of their code, and make the procurement process more transparent and easier to navigate for smaller firms — all goals echoed by speakers at Code for Canada's launch event. 

But it won't happen overnight. Deb Matthews, Ontario's minister of advanced education and skills development, told the audience that her government has programs and services that have been around for decades — and the systems supporting those services can sometimes be just as old. She used social services as an example.

"We can't just turn off that system and do it better and turn it back on again, because people are counting on us to do the transformation well while we continue to deliver those services," Matthews said. "But what we can do is make those services a lot simpler for people."