How much paperwork does it take to approve a (small) government website? 39,230 words worth


Federal official revealed that when his team wanted to launch a simple 4,305 word website, they had to submit internal documents almost 10 times as long

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OTTAWA – The internet age has brought us an app to meet the love of your life and a website to find a mortgage on your dream home.

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Why then, when Canadians interact with their federal government, are they often forced to deal with a litany of paper forms, outdated or primitive websites and even fax machines instead of slick online apps and forms and sites?

A federal official who works for the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) – the department responsible for creating innovative online solutions for the rest of government – may have the answer to that: paperwork.

In a revealing blog post titled “Paperweight, An Uplifting Tale of Expensive Surveillance,” CDS lead developer Paul Craig detailed the appalling amount of internal paperwork required to create a single 12-person citizen engagement website. pages called Service Canada Labs.

“For a casual visitor, it’s four pages and it does two things: you can see a list of new services coming up, and you can volunteer to test them out. In large part because of its inherent simplicity, our small but determined team was able to launch it on time, ”wrote Craig.

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“Did it feel good to finally take it out?” Damn yes. Was it easy to get there? F — k no.

He says the main obstacle to the rapid creation and publication of any form of new government website is “onerous levels of surveillance.”

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In this case, as in most others, the compliance activities (i.e. the internal documentation required to get all the green lights to launch the project) took longer to produce than the website itself. -same.

Her experience is far from unique, says Amanda Clarke, associate professor at Carleton University, who published a book in 2019 on the adaptation of Canada’s federal bureaucracy to the digital age.

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She says that a series of scandals over the decades (such as the sponsorship scandal or the “Bigs and Contributions boondoggle”) created an “overly aggressive culture of accountability” in the federal bureaucracy that led to new rules. “too cumbersome and ineffective” surveillance.

“For the most part, these rules and oversight mechanisms don’t make government more accountable, and they certainly don’t make it more efficient (or a nice place to work most of the time),” she said in a statement. E-mail. .

In his blog post, Craig did the math to illustrate this point eloquently. His team’s website consists of a total of 4,305 words on 12 individual pages (some are public, others are visible only to developers).

But to be allowed to publish the website, Craig’s team ended up producing a total of 45 documents containing 39,230 words of original text (meaning he excluded all copying and pasted or modeled content).

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These rules and oversight mechanisms do not make government more accountable, and they certainly do not make it more efficient.

In comparison, the famous fantasy novel by CS Lewis The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is 3,000 words shorter (36,363 words) and that of F. Scott Fitzgerald Gatsby the magnificent , by no means considered a short book, is barely 8,000 more words (47,094), notes Craig.

“To put it another way, for every 10 words we write on this team, one word is for the site itself – the real thing we are trying to publish – and nine words are for internal governance, to read one or two times (if ever), then filed somewhere, ”we read in his post.

“Unfortunately, launching (the Labs website) meant stepping into a quagmire of meetings and interference,” added Craig. It’s all well and good to stand up for the lighter and faster ways of working of tomorrow, but in our current context, we were firmly trapped in the past.

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Ultimately, Craig recommends that the government take a “less is more” approach when adopting new technologies or digital methods.

Instead of adding compliance and oversight measures or applying procedures designed decades ago every time a government team wants to try an innovative solution, Craig argues that the public service needs to carefully consider how supervision is necessary and useful before you start choking. innovation.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a compliance process – of course we need security reviews and some internal documentation. But above all, we need procedures proportional to results, which adapt to changing situations, ”he argued.

His thoughts were recently echoed by fellow CDS colleague Sean Boots in a separate blog post titled “A bleak outlook for public sector tech”.

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“Tech work in the public sector (in Canada, at the federal level) is not in very good shape,” Boots argues from the start.

Liberal MP Joyce Murray was the last person to serve as Minister of Digital Government, a post that no longer exists.
Liberal MP Joyce Murray was the last person to serve as Minister of Digital Government, a post that no longer exists. Photo by Justin Tang / The Canadian Press / File

His article outlines three key issues that significantly hamper the federal government’s ability to adapt to the digital age.

First, an executive class of bureaucrats who are “ill-equipped” to lead technology initiatives.

Second, there are many IT departments that claim to be “nimble” on paper but are not at all in practice. He says many have broadly adopted the terminology used by fast-paced private sector tech teams, but have been hesitant to actually change their old ways of working.

Third, a ‘widespread lack of urgency’ at the political and executive level when it comes to tackling the many issues that hamper digital innovation.

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Experts also fear the necessary change will be even slower to come as the Trudeau government relinquished the role of digital government minister in the latest cabinet reshuffle.

The latter role was held by Joyce Murray, who was the fourth person to hold the title before being transferred to Fisheries and Oceans after the last election.

“Until something substantial changes – or a Phoenix-level crisis hits a utility – we will all continue to spend our time on performing IT documents instead of creating better services,” Boots concluded. .

Neither Craig nor Boots responded to requests for an interview.

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