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When Evolution Isn’t Enough (with Sean Boots)
Episode 121st December 2023 • Let's Think Digital • Think Digital
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We're back for Season 2! This week, we have Sean Boots, an open government manager and a veteran of digital transformation efforts in the Canadian federal government. In this conversation we talk about how we seem to be stuck in the mud on our digital transformation journey, and Sean's recent presentation at the FWD50 conference and open letter to the Clerk of the Privy Council that lays out his radical (but implementable) ideas that would make the public service better equipped to handle the challenges of today and tomorrow.

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https://youtu.be/9qI1R9Z2ouM

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00:05 Introduction and Season One Recap

01:31 Ryan's Thoughts on the Current State of Digital Government

06:23 Introducing this Week's Guest: Sean Boots

07:46 Interview with Sean Boots

24:00 Why Leaders Need to Have Digital Competency

31:18 Sean's Wildest Ideas

34:49 Reflections on the Canadian Digital Service

43:23 Staying Optimistic

45:09 Conclusion

Transcripts

Ryan 0:04

s of the Internet back in the:

Sean Boots 8:06

Thanks so much, Ryan. Great to be here.

Ryan 8:07

Great to have you with us. We are here at Forward 50, live in Ottawa, big digital tech conference.

Sean Boots 8:13

Very exciting.

Ryan 8:14

You were one of the keynote speakers yesterday. And in a minute, I want to get into a little bit of what you talked about. You had what I kind of described as a very spicy and crunchy speech to other people. But I want to just, you know, talk a little bit about actually your career journey first.

Sean Boots 8:30

Yeah.

Ryan 8:30

And I have been honored to be part of that with you.

Sean Boots 8:32

In a big way.

Ryan 8:33

k not too long ago, it was in:

Sean Boots 8:43

I think so. Yeah.

Ryan 8:44

And I was, you know, starting the process of trying to bring the Canadian Digital Service to life, even if we probably didn't have that name for quite yet. And somehow managed to convince you to like, join government and be like employee number one for CDS.

Sean Boots 8:59

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So I think you sent me a Twitter message, and you know, Ryan, and you're like, you know, let's grab a coffee and Heather, my now wife, she was like, He's gonna offer you a job. And I was like, I'm just going for coffee. This is like, you know, I have a job and then long story short, you know, here we are, off Twitter.

Ryan 9:15

Yeah. I was doing a lot of headhunting in those days. I think one of my coffee meetings I think in that period turned into job offers eventually.

Sean Boots 9:21

It feels very full circle because I'm now staying at the Lord Elgin Hotel while I'm here for the conference. And it's like that Starbucks right there. That little sort of lounge on the side of it, that's, that's where we first chatted and yeah, it was like a great go to spot for coffees with cool digital government folks.

Ryan 9:34

So for people who don't know Ottawa geography, the Lord Elgin Hotel is like across the street from Treasury Board's offices where I was working at the time, and it became my little secret coffee place because there was a Starbucks there. And you could take the Starbucks and just hanging out in the lobby by the fireplace.

Sean Boots 9:48

It had nice couches, yeah, it was really good.

Ryan 9:50

Sadly, I discovered that Starbucks is closed. And so yeah, so it is no longer an option.

Sean Boots 9:55

Oh my gosh, I should have like, turned 20 feet to the side when I left this morning and I'm like, Oh, no more Starbucks.

Ryan:

Exactly.

Sean Boots:

Good to know.

Ryan:

So you know, you were at the Canadian Digital Service for, you know, essentially from the beginning until just very recently, and I'll come back to talk about that. But you've made a big change in life. So a couple of years ago, you know, for family reasons, you move to Whitehorse. And now for professional reasons, you've switched to working for the territorial government after many years with the feds. So I'm, I'm curious, your reflection, maybe you can talk a little bit about the new role you're doing. But also I know, it's early days, but kind of initial impressions on the difference working for, you know, relatively small government working at a territorial level versus being in a big federal bureaucracy?

Sean Boots:

Yeah, for sure. So, so yeah, so in August, I wrapped up with the Canadian Digital Service, I think it was, was a couple months shy of what would have been seven years, which in hindsight it's a long time, and started work in a new role as the Open Government Program Manager for the Government of the Yukon. And for me, it's really exciting. It's always been a huge, like, open data fan with different, you know, civic tech, like side projects and sort of different data kind of things. And this is sort of like a one person role inside of their bigger eservices team focused on open government programs and open data. And it's just like, it's just like, it feels so lovely to be working in a full time job that's open data related. But it's also really wild because sort of, you know, when I say a bigger team, it's about eight people who also run the Yukon dot ca government wide website, who run different online services, really talented folks. And coming from a team, you know, CDS I thought of as a small team in the federal government kind of context that has about 100 and, had about 130 people when I left, which is just small by federal standards. And now switching from that to an eight person team is like, Oh, yes, we fit in like a room and another room and another little office. And it's, you know, that's the whole crew. But the work that they're doing is really impressive. The amount of projects that they have in flights all at the same time really blew my mind when I first arrived. And yeah, just like the sort of like the smaller jurisdiction, the different ways of working, you know, the relationships that they have with small IT companies that do a lot of this sort of delivery and development work for them. It's really impressive to see, so.

Ryan:

Yeah, because you made this comment in your, in your keynote yesterday, that there's kind of this like, interesting ecosystem, you know, in the Yukon around like IT vendors, which surprised me a little bit.

Sean Boots:

Oh, yeah.

Ryan:

Because on one hand, I would have probably maybe assumed that small jurisdictions become even that much more beholden to, you know, external, big vendors.

Sean Boots:

Yeah.

Ryan:

But it seems like there has been an ecosystem that's popped up out there.

Sean Boots:

Yeah, and I mean, I'm still new. So I'm kind of still learning how that sort of grew. But there's a lot of really good, you know, small IT and development shops in town, not all of the vendors that we work with are based in Whitehorse, there's some from across Canada. But I think just because it's such a small jurisdiction, you can do work on smaller levels. Some of the procurement processes aren't as you know, clunky and challenging as another government's procurement and RFP kind of processes. And so I think that opens the door to smaller companies, who can kind of spend more time focusing on doing the work instead of focusing on, you know, having a whole team to get through the federal government's RFP process.

Sean Boots:

Right.

Sean Boots:

So that is, that is clearly translated into a lot of capacity that the team can bring in on short and small projects. And yeah, as a longtime procurement cynic, it's been really eye opening to be like, Oh, this, isn't it procurement that went well. I don't think I've seen this before. This is a huge surprise. And so it's sort of had to you know, that's, that's challenged some of my own thinking on what is the good relationship between, you know, the public sector and the private sector work.

Ryan:

Yeah, it's interesting. I mean, yeah, because for listeners of the podcast, you might remember in Season One, we had Amanda Clarke on the show.

Sean Boots:

Yeah,.

Ryan:

To talk about the study that you and her had done together.

Sean Boots:

Yeah.

Ryan:

Looking at procurement at the federal side, and some of the challenges around that. And so that's really interesting to hear that notion of kind of small scale, right?

Sean Boots:

Yeah.

Ryan:

I mean, I feel this too, as, you know, a small business, you know, you know, trying to kind of come into the big procurement machine. Sometimes you get kind of lumped in with those, you know, big, you know, 10,000 person companies who have, as you said, you know, whole teams who are dedicated to filling out these RFP things.

Sean Boots:

Exactly.

Ryan:

And I've been thinking a lot too, about this notion of how do you make kind of modular contracting, you know, that lets smaller players and, frankly, can be a catalyst for small business in Canada.

Sean Boots:

Yeah, and a lot of the research that Professor Clark and I did, you know, learning from other countries, like the work that Waldo Jaquith and people did in the States is just like, time and time again, it's the big projects that go way off rails, and it's a small projects that are really tightly focused, you know, done in house and with vendors. Either way, those are the ones that actually work.

Ryan:

Yeah. Well, speaking of size, I also kind of wonder, on the flip side that with your team now with the Yukon government, I mean, being an eight person team. Like, there might be some advantages to size scale, right. I mean, I think you're the one who introduced to me this concept of the two pizza.

Sean Boots:

Yeah, totally. Yeah.

Ryan:

Maybe talk about that.

Sean Boots:

Yeah, I'm sure it's from, you know, it's not mine, I'm sure it's from like some tech startup or maybe Amazon or who knows, but it's, it's sort of this idea that, you know, if you have a team working, usually it's sort of in the context of like a team working on a digital product. It's like if you can feed the whole team, you know, you're working late with two pizzas, it's a good size of a team, because it's like, maybe that's like six to eight people. Depends how big the pizzas are.

Ryan:

Depends how big the appetites are.

Sean Boots:

Depends how hungry everyone is, yeah it's true, they're really hungry because they're working hard. But as the team gets bigger than that, you then spend way more time kind of doing all the coordination of trying to keep everyone on the same page, sort of everyone kind of splintered off into different directions, it's hard to keep things focused. So for a product team, you know, you can feed them the two pizzas, that's small enough that everyone kind of knows that everyone else is working on, everyone feels comfortable asking questions from other people. And yeah, I hadn't really thought of the fact that the Yukon eservices team is a two pizza team. But it basically is, and I've really benefited from, you know, in these first few months, there just like being able to enter my chair and be like, Jodi, I don't understand why this works like it does. And she's like, oh, this happened like eight months ago. So this is why we do it this way. And that's really helpful context that you can't always get when in your, your work station.

Ryan:

Absolutely. Yeah. I'm expecting a photo from you on Mastodon in the near future of your team with two pizzas, I think that would be cool.

Sean Boots:

They watched, they watched, it was really sweet of them, they watched my presentation yesterday morning, which I thought was at seven in the morning. But fortunately, was only at nine in the morning. And they sent a photo from the boardroom where they all fit watching it on the screen. So, so yeah.

Ryan:

Great bridge to talk about your presentation yesterday. So I kind of described your keynote as Sean Boots unleashed. You know, you had you had, I mean, still in your very, you know, humble Saskatchewan, you know, nice manner. For those who don't know if Sean and I both come from Saskatchewan originally. So we've got that connection as well. But you know, I think your title of your presentation was revolution, not evolution. Be curious, you know, for folks who weren't here at Forward 50 to give kind of the short precis of you know, what's your, what your talk was about and kind of what your call to action was?

Sean Boots:

Yeah, for sure. I mean, I guess the sort of the starting point. And I think in sort of a community like this kind of goes without saying, it's like, things aren't working super great. We've had a lot of really notable IT failures, we've had some, like recent news around IT procurements that are a little bit sort of like things, strange things are going on. We've had a lot of really, really huge government, IT projects that even if they haven't failed, yet, I'm not super optimistic about what the future looks like, just because they're so big. And with all of that, you know, there's this gap between how it's really obvious that things should change, but our own kind of in the federal government, you know, our internal processes, and our sort of ways of working and our organizational culture and structures are all really, really sort of locked into the status quo. Which is like big projects, slow hiring times, not a lot of opportunity to do things differently, really outdated policies, that sort of locking in how people work. And, you know, it was sort of like a really gentle kind of call to arms, that's like, we have these clear problems out there. And there's sort of like a bigger framing that people are talking now about state capacity, which is like, you know, whether it's Canada, whether it's the US, whether it's other countries around the world, there's clearly a need for public sector organizations, and a need for them to be nimble and responsive, creative and fast paced, because those sorts of social challenges, whether it's climate change, wildfires, infrastructure, housing affordability, like those issues ramp up so quickly, that if it takes the government another year and a half to be like, Oh, we should actually think about this problem, like you're too late, and you'll lose, you know, social capital, you know, you'll lose people's trust in like democratic institutions, if the government and the public service can't keep up with what's going on. It just gets faster and faster. And so it's, you know, the thread that I sort of tried to weave in the presentation, which is maybe a little bit of a stretch is like public service capacity writ large, you know, is something that we're seeing as a challenge. My own sort of, like little microcosm of that is government technology work. But that has a lot of downstream effects where, you know, being able to organized data, being able to build good tech systems, that's also how you deliver services to the public. It's how you gather data to know what's going on. And those are things that we're really struggling with. And so, you know, the first half was like, here's the sort of premise and the second half was like, since I have just left the federal government. My wife is calling this Sean's hot takes presentation, which is like, here's some hot takes. But it was like, here's the things that I've seen over the last six or seven years, that most of them are fairly small changes. Some of them are like, slightly outlandish changes. But the whole goal was to say, you know, we often get stuck in a really small things like we're gonna spend three years thinking about changing two sentences in this policy. And it's like, that is small potatoes. Look at the world. It's time for some big potatoes and like, you know, look at ways that we can change things in really dramatic ways to better be ready to solve problems.

Ryan:

Well, and I thought that was one of the things that was great about the presentation, was you had some very tangible actions that you kind of threw out there for the world to look at, to respond to, including I saw you published as well an open letter to the relatively new clerk of the Privy Council with some recommendations in there. I know there's a lot, we don't have to go through them all. But I'm curious if you want to maybe just give a sampling of, you know, some of maybe the small changes and some of the, like outlandish ones, as you put it that you might kind of throw on the table.

Sean Boots:

Yeah, totally. Well, it's, it's hard now to sort of remember what's you know, what's big, and what's small, but I think the, like, the gist of it is there's, there's things that we can do to better empower people. Some of those are things like having individual contributor positions that are not managers, all the way up to the sort of very top of whether it's the like IT classification, or the E classification, or whatever it is just, you're really talented people that if they want to keep on moving their careers, are kind of forced into management roles when they'd actually be doing better just, you know, cranking out awesome code on their keyboards or like writing really great ideas down. And our HR structures don't allow that. So that's, that's sort of one bucket.

Ryan:

And just on this one, just before, before we move on, like you and I have lived this both being in the public service trying to navigate it, what like what frustrates me, frankly, is because like I was there, and you were there, seven years ago, when there was actually the refresh happening to the IT classification. And for those who were in the federal government to kind of know, the CS formerly, now it's it classification goes up to IT-5, which are actually designed in many ways. I mean, we actually pushed to make sure that that could be an individual contributor, who's being paid a kind of an EX-2, EX, you know, equivalent. But I think the reality is like, even though in theory it's allowed, in practice most HR teams won't let you do it.

Sean Boots:

And there are, there specific structures that TBS' Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer, or OCHRO publishes that basis, say if you're in IT-5 you must be a manager managing other people and teams have worked around that in weird ways. Like, here's their IT-5 position, here's some pretend IT-4 positions that will report to them so that we can get this to the HR approval process, which is, you know, if it works, great, but it's sort of an indication that the systems that we have aren't working to hire people to be able to actually just do their craft, you know, at the top of their game.

Ryan:

Yeah. And even at that same time, there was a whole debate going on around people wanted to re- or add in a mandatory education requirements are the IT stream, like formal education, you have to have a bachelor's degree. And you might remember this, there was a whole bunch of discussion and myself and others kind of pushed back pretty hard to say, like, you know, in this world, a lot of people have non traditional education paths are self taught. I remember being in a meeting, I think my line was essentially, like, if we have a policy for HR that says that we couldn't hire Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg to come in and be a developer, I think we've got a fundamental issue there.

Sean Boots:

Totally. And like Shopify, here in Ottawa, they've got programs that if you're a really talented high schooler who's into coding, like, they'll put you through an education path, and they'll like, they'll hire you without a degree like no problem. And so really great people get snapped up by other, you know, the tech industry or other other groups that don't have the hiring limitations. So as the tech industry has moved to be way more permissive of who they bring in, because they just really need talented people, the government seems to have taken this trend of becoming more restrictive, right at the worst possible time.

Ryan:

Right? Okay. So talent, recruitment, recruitment, big thing.

Sean Boots:

Yep.

Ryan:

Some other ones?

Sean Boots:

Another one was basically just like, as a general principle, putting digital practitioners at the very top of organizations, and this is basically like, you've got really talented digital leaders in the federal government, you know, at every level, but they're always reporting through, you know, from them to like the DG, to the ADM to the DM, and the jurisdictions that have done the very best job in Canada, in my opinion, at Digital Government are people, you know, governments that have hired really townspeople, like Hillary Hartley in Ontario, and brought her in as a deputy minister, where it's like, she doesn't have to convince two or three layers of you know, 20 plus year long, public service leaders to change things and do things differently. She was just given the mandate to be like, you're Hillary Hartley, you know your stuff, rock and roll. And I'm sure there's, you know, I'm sure she had a lot of challenges, you know, to work through with, like, helping bring along traditional organizations that she works with. So it's probably not just like a walk in the park by any stretch, but you can hit the ground running in a way, when you don't have to spend a lot of time convincing your senior management to convince their senior management colleagues. And you can just say, like, you know, if you're hiring people at that level, they're way better positioned to make broader change to government, right. Natasha Clark in Nova Scotia, same thing, like Deputy Minister doing awesome work.

Ryan:

Yep.

Sean Boots:

And just like a little bit more, like runway to run with stuff.

Ryan:

Yeah. And I might even kind of add, like you know, so elevating those digital leaders, but then also for kind of what I might call like, traditional leadership roles.

Sean Boots:

Oh, yeah.

Ryan:

Having digital competencies as part of that selection and hiring process.

Sean Boots:

Yeah. And I think that's like a really important part of the work that you do is that I think there's always been this sort of impression, you know, across government that it's like, oh, yeah, if you're like a Senior Public Service leader, you know, you need to know like, a solid grounding of like accounting and like of like government HR, and of like policy and legislative sort of processes. And it's like, you can't become a DM and know nothing about HR. Like, that just won't happen. But, you know, you can become a deputy minister or any DM with very little tech savvy. And kind of like a lot of the presenters that had onstage here at Forward 50. It's like, you don't need to be like I did a coding boot camp like, I know Python. It's like that's not required. But you need to understand like, how to learn from your users, you need to know that like, design research is important. You need to learn that like, you know, this kind of tech thing is likely to be simple and easy. This kind of tech thing is likely to be really complicated. Jen Pahlka in her book has really good examples. I think it's like, a quote from Dave Guarino. He's like an awesome tech, just like legend in the in the US civic tech community. And it's like, you know, someone who's like, hey, I want an app that tells me, you know, for my GPS location, if I'm in a national park or not, and it's like, no problem, like, we'll just, you know, do a GPS lookup and like, trade that against a map and like, like an afternoon, great. And they're like, Oh, and if I take a photo, I want it to tell me if there's a bird in the photo, of course, it's like, five, six years ago, and he was like, oh, yeah, they'll take a team of like, 20 researchers, five years. And so it's like, Am I in a park or not? Super easy, is a bird, super challenging. And like, the tech implementation of those things, it might sound kind of similar.

Ryan:

Yeah.

Sean Boots:

But people who have enough of a tech grounding to say, oh, yeah, that is a simple and easy problem. That is a dramatically complicated problem. That's really useful, because I think often in you know, planning giant IT projects or even small IT projects, people who are often making decisions about how a project should work, or what the priorities should be, if they can't tell the difference between, you know, this list of features, this feature is super easy, and also really important to users. And this feature is super hard, and, you know, may make a big difference, or may make a small difference to users doing that kind of like triaging, you know, if you've got zero background in tech, but you're the decision maker, that's a recipe for just disaster.

Ryan:

Yeah, yeah, that's a great point. So I think that was that's, you know, interesting kind of thread on this. You mentioned in that design user research and user centricity. One of the recommendations you had is one that was near and dear to my heart, this notion of getting senior leaders to actually participate in user research. Can you talk about thata little bit?

Sean Boots:

Totally. Yeah. I mean, it's sort of like, used to say as sort of like a trite suggestion. But the idea is, if you're an ADM, or a Deputy Minister, that has a service delivery department, you should spend an hour a month answering tech support phone calls, or like, you know, the client support line, tech support is maybe not the right words for this. And, you know, again, companies like Shopify, like Tobi Lutke, who's the CEO, he does his shift, apparently, you know, he was talking about it publicly, like, yeah, we you know, every month, you know, listening to you people calling in and saying, like, I'm trying to log into Shopify, and it's not working. And that's really good feedback for him as the most senior decision maker in the company to say, maybe we can improve that process. Here's where people are getting stuck, because it's, it's one thing for your teams to say, this is an issue. But you know, if you're in a decision making kind of role, everything's always on fire. There's definitely priorities, you know, it's it's hard to sort of make sense of what's really important. But if you're on the phone, and someone is like, I tried to apply for my service candidate account, I got stuck five minutes in, can you help me? It's like, if it's the Deputy Minister who's on the phone trying to solve for that, that is a totally different dynamic. And, you know, from, you know, stories that people have posted on Reddit, like doing that work, you know, as a frontline call center staffer for Service Canada, like the EI program, wherever it is, you know, there's a massive level of complexity there. There's hundreds of pages of regulations, like the training process is really important, and like really time consuming. And I think that would make it easy to dismiss this idea of having senior leaders to, you know, like, call center, for like frontline client support, and people just say, the rules are just complicated. You know, our senior management doesn't have time to learn how to do this. And it's like, that in itself is really illustrative. If your system is so complicated that the senior decision makers that are deciding how the program works, you know, can't learn how the program works because it's too complicated. Like, there's your problem itself. Like get right on it.

Sean Boots:

It was, you know, I reflect on the fact that the UK Government, when they had their very first digital service standards back in 2011, they had 18 points, and point 18 was any new digital service, the minister had to actually test it.

Sean Boots:

Yeah, totally.

Ryan:

You know, before it, before it went live. And I thought that was brilliant. No, and I love that suggestion from you. Because it's like, for me, it's a top of my list, right? Kind of like, you know, small changes we could make, and whether it's once a month, even though I would take once every six months.

Sean Boots:

Oh, totally. Yeah. Start somewhere

Ryan:

You know, to get a deputy minister and like ADMs to be on the front lines, seeing real people, interacting with their department in some way. I think the impact that would have on people's kind of internal incentive structures would be huge.

Sean Boots:

Yeah. And you could do it you could do it different ways. Like you could have them like shadow a frontline support person of Service Canada office, like there's a lot of ways, even or like, you know, RCC office, whatever it is, doesn't have to be Service Canada. There's, there's different ways that you could do it that don't require them to sort of spend months training first, but like the goal is you want them to see the frontline interaction in a non staged environment, you don't want them just to like, we're gonna do a walkthrough at the regional office and everyone shakes their hand and then they leave. It's like, no, no. You want them to see what it's like for people to interact with the services that they're ultimately responsible for.

Ryan:

Yeah, yeah, I was, I was involved in a, in a project years ago with IRCC, that actually kind of got publicly shared quite a bit and actually had a lot of buzz around it. There's a Toronto Star article about it, which we can put a link to in the notes. And one of the things that was part of that, which was really fascinating, was the fact that, you know, we had people who had been in the department for decades, but had never actually experienced like frontline service delivery, watching, you know, potential new Canadians trying to navigate the systems. And the number of just like lightbulbs go off for people when they get to experience that is incredible.

Sean Boots:

Yeah. And I remember one of the, one of the, like, lifelong highlights for me, at CDS was when we were doing research with the Veterans Affairs Department. And to be able to come along as a note taker for design research with veterans at one of the regional offices in Gatineau, and it was just like, to this day, just like, you know, you learned so much from hearing firsthand from people how they're interacting with client services, you know, really challenging, like positions. And, you know, that is something that if you read it, like in a giant Word document, it's not the same as if you experience it firsthand.

Ryan:

Or even, you know, if you look at statistics, or you're looking at call center data, like I think we get very in government, people are drawn towards like quantitative data.

Sean Boots:

Is the number going up? Is the number going down? And it's like, those numbers are people.

Ryan:

They are.

Sean Boots:

With lives that are complex, and that really depend on government services. And if we're not doing a good job of delivering that, that changes their lives in big ways.

Ryan:

Absolutely. Okay. So we've talked about a few of your recommendations, I want you to tell me what you think is your most outlandish, you said you had a couple of like, you know, out there ideas.

Sean Boots:

Oh, yeah.

Ryan:

Which one is the top of your like, you know, more aspirational ones?

Sean Boots:

Yeah, I mean, like, part of this is sort of, you know, the negotiation strategy of like, if I put out some crazy ideas, then the other ones will hopefully seem more, because it should be achievable.

Ryan:

Yeah.

Sean Boots:

Probably the wildest one is just suggesting to remove a layer of public service executive management hierarchy.

Ryan:

Oh, that one got a round of applause yesterday.

Sean Boots:

Which was surprising. Maybe that also says, you know, maybe we need more executives in the room here at Forward 50 who would be like, Hey, my role is important, which it is. But, you know, working in a jurisdiction that just has one less layer of hierarchy, it's, it's clear that that speeds things up.

Ryan:

Yeah.

Sean Boots:

And you see, I forget who it was from, it was probably a comment on Reddit somewhere, that their sort of diagnosis that one of the challenges structurally with the public service is that the same conversations happen twice, once at the sort of working level of, you know, non-executive public servants who have conversations talk about sort of trade offs, you know, find out some recommendations. And then the exact same conversation happens over again, at the executive layer, because there's three or four layers of it that can sustain an independent conversation with much less frontline knowledge that either delays the first conversation from being able to have an impact, or just sort of overwrites it completely. And so we have enough layers, that for executives in government, you know, it's easy to get kind of caught in this circle of conversations that ideally, you just say, my team has thought about this and I trust them, rock and roll. Like, we don't need to litigate this over and over again.

Ryan:

I've, like I've often thought and for my lived experience, going through the public service and living there, like in the federal public service for people who were in the Feds and will know kind of classification structure, that space between what they call an EX-1, so maybe like a senior advisor or a manager on a team to like the EX-2 layer. So you have like, often you'll have a manager or a senior advisor. You know, who kind of plays a team lead role. You've got a director, and then you have a senior director. Clearly in that, in those three, you could collapse at least one layer? Arguably, you can maybe collapse two.

Sean Boots:

Oh, yeah, for sure. Yeah.

Ryan:

Like I think there's actually an argument, I remember years ago having sketched this out, to actually say on like, like you should have like kind of team leads who are subject matter experts, that effectively should just report to the DG on most things, because the director general level in my experience is really the kind of the folks in the middle of the executive hierarchy, who have signing authority and kind of really get things done.

Sean Boots:

They can make decisions, they can spend money.

Ryan:

Yeah.

Sean Boots:

They're still slightly attached to like specific problem areas.

Ryan:

And maybe there's a case to say they need like a 2-IC director level because there's not you know, they have a big enough team they don't have enough space to kind of do it all themselves.

Ryan:

Totally, yeah.

Ryan:

But I think that like I think clearly in there, there's some room to collapse at least a layer.

Sean Boots:

And I have, you know, speaking as someone who has friends that are in those positions, it's often really thankless work where you're sort of stuck acting as kind of like a little bit of like a postal service person carrying sort of information from layer down to layer up without much influence to change things. And that's just, and yeah, and you're just like in meetings all day without much sort of much autonomy that yeah, you know, you want to be able to make a difference, but you're stuck just sort of too squished between other layers.

Ryan:

I love it. I mean, so I'd recommend people, we'll put the link in the chat or in the in the notes of the episode for your letter to the clerk and the link to your presentation, I think some great food for thought in there, really enjoyed it, I want to ask you about one last thing, which, you know, you and I were there at the beginning of the Canadian Digital Service, you know, we both help to birth it, along with some of our other colleagues. And you were there, you know, I left shortly afterwards, but you've stayed on for, as you said, almost seven years. I'm curious, a little bit of your reflections of like the arc of the Canadian Digital Service, like in particular, and as some people may be aware, but may not be, some dramatic changes in recent years, you know, where we kind of created at Treasury Board Secretariat to play kind of a whole government role. It has now been kind of rolled into ESDC, as part of the Service Canada portfolio reporting to the new minister of Citizen Services, so big chain structurally. But I'm just, I'm curious to your sense of kind of the arc of it, and maybe more broadly, like, I think globally, from like, 2010 to 2020. There was this, like, proliferation of these government digital teams, you know, started in the UK, but around the world, you know, like, there's dozens and dozens of them.

Sean Boots:

Yeah.

Ryan:

And I think there was a lot of excitement about this model.

Sean Boots:

Yeah.

Ryan:

I would argue that in 2023, we're in a little bit of a low. There's a feeling certainly here in Canada, that we're a little stuck in the mud, and that these teams can play a useful role, but they're certainly not enough in and of themselves. But I'm curious, your take on this. And like your sense of the arc of this kind of digital government movement through in the last 15 years.

Sean Boots:

For sure. Yeah. I mean, like, I feel, I feel very lucky, having had the chance to be part of it, sort of, especially at the stage where we're sort of moving from working as a soft developer back into a government role, which I was really excited to do back in 2016. And I had, I'd written, you know, one of my first sort of last grad school papers a few years before that, sort of like the early years of GDS as it was really taking flight. And it was just like, how, how lucky am I like, how inspiring just to be able to work on a thing and it's just like, you know, this is my grad school research. And now we're starting a Canadian version, like, could not believe that this is what was happening. And, yeah, I think I mean, for both of us, and for the team, like a lot of high hopes, a lot of sort of, like aspirations of becoming sort of like the change... the change makers that we saw, and that we look up to you and, and looked up to since like, since the start in the UK, and in the states with the US Digital Service, and with 18F, the idea that, you know, could we make the same change happen in Canada? And looking back, I mean, I think it's safe to say especially sort of, like you said, right, a bit of a lull where it's like, did we have the impact that we hope for? No. Did we have the level of impact that the UK GDS had? Nope. Like, we really, we really wanted to. And maybe it sounds too fatalist to be like, we tried, because, like, there's awesome people at CDS they're doing amazing stuff. They're like, crushing it.

Ryan:

Yep.

Sean Boots:

In challenging circumstances. So like, moving between departments, and they're like, our Privacy Act authorities are changing, our legal authorities are changing, procurement, it's changing. And, you know, just like the fact that they're running with that is super impressive. I think there's a few, there's a few sort of points in time where, you know, for me, as someone who is, you know, joined the team really early on, and sort of watched it grow from like, five people at the start, when I joined to, like 130 people, you know, you have these moments of realization, that are sort of like, if we had known this at the start, maybe we would have done some things differently. And one of the big ones for me, I think it was Stephane Boisvert who pointed this out to me once, coming from a tech startup and joining, you know, rejoining really the public service, I think I definitely had this sort of assumption in my head that it was like, we're going to build great stuff, we're gonna make awesome products that are really like well designed that are just like, super nice to use. And I had this assumption that that was like, that will be enough to make the case for our work. And, you know, if we build this amazing thing, showed it to some deputy ministers, they're gonna be wowed, and they're gonna be like, let's, you know, let's bring CDS in, let's partner with them on some giant project, let's like, let's change everything. Obviously, that did not happen. And I think was like that assumption rests on already having senior public service leadership that can tell the difference, kind of like we talked about a moment ago, like between good and bad software, between well designed online services and poorly designed ones, between things that are simple and things that are complicated. And if we bought an amazing product that the team put their heart and soul into, and the you know, the decision makers like, you know, I can't tell the difference between this and you know, PeopleSoft which is like the project that Phoenix is built with, and it just like if, if the people making decisions about, you know, how to approach IT projects, by the department or CDS, can't tell the difference between good and bad software, it's like, then we need something more to make the case for our work.

Ryan:

Right.

Sean Boots:

And I think it's taken the team a while to kind of figure out how do you find partners, how do you like stick with them through like leadership changes on the partner side, you know, changes in priority at either like senior public service levels or political levels and we never really figured that, figured that out. And I always think back, I think this was a few months before we joined. We had a call with David Eaves, who for those who we know is a legend in the open data and government technology world. And this is maybe like a few months before CDS launched and David Eaves was on a Zoom call was like, I don't think it's gonna work. And all of us were like, Oh, we're so excited. I can't believe you said that. And his, his argument was that basically, CDS as designed was all carrots, and no sticks. It was like we're here as like, friendly, free help for other government departments, call us if you need us, we're here to help. We didn't want to be a stick on purpose. Because at the time that we launched CDS, everyone was still pretty bitter about the launch of Shared Services Canada, that made a lot of really sort of like...

Ryan:

It was a very top down decision when SSC came in.

Sean Boots:

Oh, yeah. And I think everyone, you know, everyone was worried that, you know, was CDS going to be like the Shared Services, but for frontline service delivery, which we didn't want to be and so we're like, no, no, we don't want sticks. We just want to be the friendly, friendly folks to call if you need help. And of course, then, if people didn't call us, which often is what happened, then that really limited the impact that we can have.

Sean Boots:

Yeah.

Sean Boots:

And David Eaves called that three months before we launched.

Ryan:

You know, what I, it's a, I'm reminded of that conversation, and you're 100% right. And and it's worth, I mean, for context, saying it's not that we kind of said, you know, we would have taken a stick if we could get it. I think when we were putting CDS together, it was kind of this math of figuring out like, what is, what is the optimal path for us to take to actually get it launched?

Sean Boots:

Totally.

Ryan:

Because we know that if you're trying to like change the bigger governance arrangements to get authorities, I mean, my worry at the time was we had that window of opportunity. And the push to do that would have taken so much effort to get over the hill, it just would have never happened.

Sean Boots:

Yeah, exactly. For sure. And I think one of the realities, both when we launched and still today is that the, the ecosystem of IT related and digital service related organizations in the federal government is still a really complicated sort of solar system of all these different players with all these slightly related or slightly overlapping responsibilities. That was actually, that was another one of my provocative suggestions was move Shared Services under the GC CIO, because right now you've got all these sorts of weird parallel structures, and OCIO will tell SSC to do things by updating a published standard on enterprise systems. And you're just like, if you just reported in a more harmonized way, you'd just make decisions faster.

Ryan:

And, and only is there that disconnect. I mean, Service Canada, people may not know are the ones who actually run the Government of Canada websites domain. You know, you've got the new minister of citizen services over there, you've got Treasury Board plays a role. Public Services, and procurement plays a role on the procurement side of that. ISED plays a role when it comes to kind of digital policy as as does Canadian Heritage, like, it's, I think we've got a very fractured governance landscape in Canada compared to a lot of other comparable countries, which tend to have, as you said, a bit more sticks and a bit more of a streamlined governance process.

Sean Boots:

We have a fractured structure, and we have a public service culture that says, Don't rock the boat. Consensus is really important.

Ryan:

Yeah.

Sean Boots:

Don't disagree with other senior leaders. And so no one is equipped to say, hey, this fragmentation, are we sure this is a good idea? And kind of like I talked about in my talk yesterday, it's like the status quo just sticks around. There's no, no single person in those ecosystems is equipped to say, Let's do this differently.

Ryan:

Yeah, I think it's a really important call to action on that. And I'm glad that you kind of brought all that forward. I think the closing question I want to ask you on this is, I mean, you're, you're a very optimistic person by nature, I think. And you know, and I think just even having discussions here at the conference this week, and I would just say in recent years, this notion that people are feeling a little bit stuck, it can be a very tough journey. I mean, I live this too where you kind of feel like you're pushing the boulder up the hill constantly, sometimes by yourself. How do you stay optimistic? And what advice would you have for public servants who are feeling demotivated, feeling like we're not going to get there? What advice would you give to them?

Sean Boots:

Yeah, I mean, I think I think it's true. Like, it feels like a low point, it feels like morale is often a challenge lately. I think for me, it's just the fact that there are so many really amazing people, which has made me sort of like a bit of a stereotypical answer, but just like, all the public servants that I run into, all the public servants that I've worked with, you know both when I was at CDS, and with the Yukon government. Brilliant, inspiring, super thoughtful, super caring people. And I think for me, that's what really keeps me motivated. It's just like, we're all fighting these wild fights. There's always lots of challenges and barriers, but the people that you have, like, on your side are really awesome. And I mean, for Forward 50 here is just like, such a lovely example that we're just like, catching up with old friends, you know, public servants from around the world that are heroes of mine. They're great people that are trying to change public services for the better. And you know, when things are low, you just got to find your friends and find your allies and say like, we're all in this together. And yeah, I'm Marina Nitze who wrote a book Hacking your Bureaucracy. She was here at Forward 50 last year, she talks about that basically like, find your, find your squad, find your people. And yeah, and like stay connected to everyone when, when things are great and when things are tough.

Ryan:

Yeah. Thanks, Sean, for this and for spending some time with us. And thank you for being an ally for so many people on this. I know you know, you are a very community minded person. I think you've done a lot to help inspire fellow public servants. So thank you for everything that you do as well.

Sean Boots:

Thanks so much Ryan, likewise, right back at you, really appreciate it.

Ryan:

Thanks. Thanks, again, so much to Sean for the interview, a really fascinating conversation. And also thanks to the Forward 50 organizers for letting us record and have some really important interviews and discussions at the sidelines of this year's conference. It was particularly appropriate to be at Forward 50 this year recording for the podcast, because at last year's edition and 2022 my podcast producer Wayne Chu and I actually had our first discussions and officially decided to launch the podcast. So it felt full circle for us to be back on site this year and continue some of these really important conversations that we try to drive forward on this podcast. At the beginning of this episode, I said that the conditions for change may be coming and may be coming sooner than we think. I think we need political momentum if we're gonna get beyond evolutionary approaches. We need a political revolution on what good looks like in terms of government in the 21st century, and how to make that happen. And it has to be a political revolution that goes beyond party lines. We need to build a consensus around the idea that government must change in the digital era, if it's to meet the expectations of its citizens. Somebody recently mentioned to me that in some ways, Canada feels like it's at a point where the United Kingdom was back in 2010, a time of political and economic upheaval. And these are always times that are full of great peril, but also great opportunity. If we can leverage it correctly, this can be an accelerator for moving government forward faster than we might have thought possible otherwise. So what do you think? Do you agree that we're stuck in the mud in Canada when it comes to digital? How do you think we can get ourselves moving again? Let us know email us at podcast@thinkdigital.ca or use the #letsthinkdigital on social media. Our next episode of Let's Think Digital is going to be diving into a conversation we had at Forward 50 with Jennifer Pahlka, the author of the recently released book, Recoding America, and a really interesting conversation around Building State Capacity. You won't want to miss it. If you're watching this on YouTube, make sure to like and subscribe. And if you're listening to us on your favorite podcast app, be sure to give us a five star review afterwards. Also, make sure to sign up for our email list at letsthinkdigital.ca So you can get notified in your inbox when our latest episode comes out. And no matter where you're listening, make sure you tell others about the podcast. It's so important for us for that word of mouth to help grow our audience and get these important conversations happening across the digital government community. Today's episode of Let's Think Digital was produced by myself, Wayne Chu and Aislinn Bornais. Thanks so much for listening, and let's keep thinking digitally

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