Ottawa

Embedding tech brains in government offices

Tech brains are being recruited from the private sector to work on fellowships inside the public sector, but some say the federal government shouldn't just be borrowing talent — it needs to figure out a way to hang on to it.

Non-profit places young tech workers in public service jobs

Andee Pittman (left) and Fatima Khalid (right) are Code For Canada fellows working at Transport Canada in Ottawa. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

Tech brains are being recruited from the private sector to work on fellowships inside the public sector, but some say the federal government shouldn't just be borrowing talent — it needs to figure out a way to hang on to it. 

Code for Canada, a national non-profit group, embeds IT workers inside federal, provincial and municipal governments to offer young developers and designers an opportunity to work and get paid for ten months.

Since last fall, six Code for Canada fellows have been embedded in federal departments in Ottawa. Three others are working with the City of Toronto.

The fellowship helps direct young talent into jobs they may not have considered. 

Developer Fatima Khalid says Code for Canada fellows have worked with teams across several different disciplines, but that arrangement is not a typical federal government experience. 1:06

Andee Pittman, a 25-year-old user experience designer, has been working with a team at Transport Canada building an educational tool to help drone pilots better understand new regulations.

"The fellowship is about bringing the civic tech movement to life," said Pittman. "I really think that's a piece of democracy because we're opening up the process and we're solving things with citizens." 

She notes the challenges the teams are tasked with solving are complex, but so is the government environment.

"I think what is the main attraction for staying here is the hunger that people have for change, for being more inclusive, being more holistic and being more open about how we're delivering products and services," said Pittman

She'll consider staying on in government — for a bit.
  
"I definitely don't imagine I'll be here forever and eventually will want to go back out into the private sector," said Pittman. 

Helps meet technology needs

Amanda Clarke, a professor in the school of public policy at Carleton University, studies how the federal government is attempting to adapt to the digital age and what role private technology firms are playing.

Amanda Clarke, a professor at Carleton University, studies how the federal government is adapting to the digital age and the role private technology firms are playing.  

Clarke notes the Code for Canada fellows help inject new ideas into government, and in the short term help meet technology needs.

"I don't think anyone's ever framed it as a long-term solution," said Clarke.

Amanda Clarke studies how the federal government is adapting to the digital age. 8:20

These brief "tours of duty" need to happen in conjunction with more a sustained effort to recruit full-time digital talent into their ranks, according to Clarke. 

"Which might mean creating new pay categories and offering more lucrative benefits," said Clarke.  

Culture shift needed

According to one fellow, a shift in culture and thinking could go a long way to help with tech design and development. 

One of Pittman's partners on the Transport Canada project is 26-year-old developer, Fatima Khalid. 

She might stay in the federal government once her fellowship is over, but she said it may take some time to find a job that is the right fit for her.

"I can do a lot more than write code. I can give presentations. I can do collaborative work with my teammates on design challenges," said Khalid.

But the fellowship has opened Khalid's eyes to government operation and roles that are more rigid than she'd expected.

"The reality is you have all the right people [in government] maybe they're not in the right place, maybe you're not giving them the right tools, you're not giving them access, you're not trusting them the way that you trust me," said Khalid. 

During her term, she said she hasn't been shy to go to the bosses or to champion other projects for bureaucrats who were afraid to speak out. 

"I'm hoping that when we leave they will learn to recognize that there are champions in their departments that can do the work that we did."

On Wednesday, the fellows will present their design projects at an event at Shopify's Ottawa headquarters.

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