The Current

Government's new startup aims to create better services for Canadians

If tech companies around the world can invent ground-breaking programs, apps and services every day — why can't the government?
The newly-created Canadian Digital Service (CDS) are a mix of digital developers, designers and some career bureaucrats. (Shutterstock)
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Imagine if dealing with the government was as user-friendly as buying from Amazon, or streaming from Netflix.

That's the goal for the newly-created Canadian Digital Service (CDS). The fledgling team of a couple dozen employees are a mix of digital developers, designers and some career bureaucrats.

Their mandate is to help federal departments create better digital services for Canadians.

If tech companies around the world can invent ground-breaking programs, apps and services every day— why can't the government? 

Anatole Papadopoulos is the executive director of Canadian Digital Services. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

"We're a very flat, non-hierarchical organization and we give our team a lot of leeway and room to do their best work," says Anatole Papadopoulos, executive director of CDS. He's proud of the fact that CDS operates differently than other government departments.

Unlike other government offices, CDS has an open wifi network, uses open source software and publishes its computer code for everyone to see.

Some of the digital initiatives that the CDS team are working on include developing an online app with Veterans Affairs Canada. The app aims to make it easier for veterans to sort out eligible benefits.

Another project is looking at digitizing the process for scheduling citizenship ceremonies for immigrants.

How failure can be key to success

The government's chief information officer, Alex Benay, who authored Canadian Failures, believes without failure, you can't find success.

Benay is pushing for a different way of doing things — not just at the CDS. He wants to see a cultural change across the government.

"You order a shirt from Amazon through your car now, and we have to look at how we do service delivery in that context. As a citizen myself, I am expecting that," Benay says.

Members of the team at the Canadian Digital Service currently take up two small rooms in a government building in downtown Ottawa, but as staff grows it will move into bigger digs. (Julie Ireton/CBC)
We cannot continue to be a Blockbuster service in a Netflix world. We need to up our game.- Scott Brison

"I think one of the reasons that we absolutely, fundamentally needed a Canadian Digital Service is we've lost a little bit of connectivity with Canadians when we design a service ... sometimes we forget there's a person at the end of this, right?" he adds.

That connection with a real person is something many Canadians have felt when dealing with certain government departments. Even the president of the Treasury Board, Scott Brison, recognizes this.

"Canadians don't understand why when they go to renew their passport, they don't get the same quality of service they get from Amazon when they buy something," Brison says.

"We cannot continue to be a Blockbuster service in a Netflix world. We need to up our game."


Listen to the full conversation above.


This segment was produced by the CBC's Julie Ireton and The Current's Lara O'Brien.