Canadian Digital Service takes startup approach to building better IT for government

The Canadian Digital Service is recruiting tech brains from across the country and around the world in an effort to do IT differently inside the federal government.

Could CDS usher in a culture to prevent tech failures like Phoenix?

Jason White is taking a sabbatical from Shopify for three months to work down the street at Canadian Digital Services, a new federal government unit. (Julie Ireton/CBC )

Jason White heads off on his tour of duty in early January.

He's not going into danger, not joining the military — he's actually just going down the street. 

Canada needs his brain.

"I absolutely feel like this is an opportunity for me to give back to the country," said the Ottawa resident.

This 39-year-old data programmer and engineer has the skills the federal government is trying to attract right now as it creates its very own startup, the Canadian Digital Service (CDS).

CDS has a mandate to help federal departments create better online connections to Canadians, whether they're veterans looking into their eligibility for services or immigrants trying to book a citizenship exam.

Programmer and engineer Jason White is taking a leave from tech darling Shopify to do some work for the new Canadian Digital Service, where he hopes to share tech sector wisdom with federal departments. 1:58

White is among the people who helped Canada's e-commerce darling, Shopify, go public and reach the multibillion-dollar valuation it boasts today.

But Amanda Clarke, a professor at Carleton University's School of Public Policy, isn't so sure the hip, agile unit at CDS will have an impact on the government's overall IT development.

"We still have a lot of IT decision makers in the government of Canada that follow the old model, and that are really beholden to these large-scale contracts, and that's kind of where I'm not convinced yet that we're not going to see a Phoenix," she said, a reference to the Phoenix pay system debacle.

Federal government sabbatical

CDS is not quite six months old, but it aims to grow fast.

"This is mission-driven work," said Anatole Papadopoulos, executive director of CDS. "We're not looking for people to sign up for life. We're looking for people to do a tour of duty."

White has worked at Shopify for five years.
Anatole Papadopoulos is the executive director of Canadian Digital Services. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

"I've spent some long hours here," he said on a recent day at the company's Ottawa headquarters, where hallways have cork floors and the office contains a yoga room and a cafe. "I make sure, along with my teammates, that all the data keeps flowing, that the ones and zeros add up properly."

Next month, he'll leave his colleagues and Shopify's perks behind to take a three-month sabbatical with the federal government.

"Going from Shopify to the government is about as diametrically opposed as you can get," said White. It's a transition "from a business in which process is a bad word to government, where it's entirely the opposite."

'Bureaucracy hackers'

The CDS staff of about 30 is currently stuffed elbow to elbow into two small rooms in a non-descript federal government building on Elgin St. (just down the road from Shopify). Depending on recruitment, the CDS workforce is set to more than triple.
The CDS team currently takes up two small rooms in a government building in downtown Ottawa, but as staff grows, it will likely move into bigger digs. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

Recruiters are finding "flexibility" in the federal hiring process to bring in data analysts, design and product managers — even a CEO — from across the country or overseas as quickly as possible.

"We just have some of the best kind of bureaucracy hackers from around our system who really know how to take advantage," said Papadopoulos.

Borrowing methods from startup culture, this group aims to work in "quick sprints," tackling projects quickly and changing direction as needed rather than getting bogged down in red tape.

"We're a very flat, non-hierarchical organization, and we give our team a lot of leeway and room to do their best work," said Papadopoulos. Unlike many other government offices, CDS has an open wifi network, uses open source software and publishes its computer coding for all to see.

"Using open source allowed us to tap into the expertise of the IT community around us," said Pascale Elvas, the director at CDS. "So we published our website in open source and we openly blog about our work, with candid reflections."

That said, CDS also anticipates pushback from others inside government. In fact, Papadopoulos said they've seen some already. But he said his team must do things differently.

"That's the only way we'll have an impact on the system," said Papadopoulos.

The Obama model

They're following a government model tested south of the border. In October 2013, U.S. president Barack Obama's new health care program, Healthcare.gov, was brought down by serious technical glitches.
Former U.S. president Barack Obama set up the U.S. Digital Service to help fix and develop new IT services inside government. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Obama called on Silicon Valley to help, and out of that, a skilled technical team was set up.

"We could potentially build a SWAT team," said Obama in a March 2016 interview about the U.S. Digital Service. "We've got some of the top people from Google, from Facebook, from all the top tech companies coming in in some cases, for six months, in some cases for two years."

For Canada, the most recent IT failure is the federal government's Phoenix pay fiasco. It took seven years to develop and has left roughly half the government workforce improperly paid.

Phoenix is one of the reasons Shopify's Jason White wants to help find a new way forward.

Phoenix is an example of "where the traditional approach to developing software is kind of falling down," said White. "The tech sector in general has developed different ways of doing things, involving shorter iterations, permission to fail, newer approaches that I'm looking forward to applying."

Some rules sacrosanct

CDS is actually being given "permission to fail" from those at the top.

"What we want to focus on is if something is going to fail, we want to know early, and we want to be able to try something else," said Scott Brison, president of the Treasury Board, during a recent visit to CDS. "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... We need to up our game."
Scott Brison, president of the Treasury Board, drops in to see the CDS team, which falls under the TBS's purview. (Julie Ireton/CBC)
While this seems like a noble goal, Clarke at Carleton University has spent some time researching similar digital services in Great Britain, the U.S. and New Zealand and found some recurring concerns.

"These are rules around privacy legislation and how we handle business data. Rules around what you can share with the public, how you can present yourself, how you can discuss your work. These rules in some cases shouldn't be changed," said Clarke.

She also notes that right now, CDS is choosing small projects that may be quick, easy wins for the fledgling group, and it won't have any control over big IT projects coming out of Shared Services or Public Services and Procurement Canada, the birthplace of the Phoenix pay system.

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca