The unique challenges of regional digital government

Alistair Croll
12 min readNov 1, 2019

For the first time, we’re running a Regional Digital Government Summit as part of FWD50. It’s chaired by Hillary Hartley (Ontario’s Chief Digital Officer), Catherine Desgagnes-Belzil (Secrétaire adjointe à la transformation numérique et Responsable du Centre Québécois de l’Excellence Numérique(CQEN)), and Nikhil Deshpande (Chief Digital Officer, State of Georgia.) Aimed at public sector audiences, it’ll bring together dozens of municipal, provincial, and state-level digital innovators to discuss the unique challenges and opportunities in digital government.

(If you want to join them—and hundreds of other speakers, experts, and public sector teams—you can grab one of the few remaining FWD50 tickets here.)

Ahead of the event, we asked our chairs—in their own languages—to give us an insight into what their jobs are like.

What’s the biggest difference?

FWD50: What is the biggest difference between making change happen at the national and regional levels? / Quelle est la plus grande différence entre faire changer les choses au niveau national par rapport au niveau régional ?

Catherine Desgagnes-Belzil:

Catherine Desgagnes-Belzil: Que nous travaillions au niveau régional ou national, les changements amenés doivent se faire dans le respect des besoins des citoyens. Or, la principale difficulté réside dans notre capacité d’unifier la vision du citoyen à travers la multitude de profils et de particularités des individus.

Conséquemment, plus petite est l’échelle à laquelle on travaille, plus facilement réalisable est le défi d’identifier un point commun permettant d’établir une vision unifiée dans une perspective citoyenne.

Hillary Hartley:

Hillary: All digital teams exist to re-orient their organizations around the user, and deliver better, more convenient and joined up services to people. The level of government is not as important as understanding who it serves. The common link is that governments don’t have a target market. We serve everyone.

Scale is a differentiator — population sizes vary and needs shift, depending on local context. Sometimes, geography is a factor. Other times, the diversity of user communities, the economic climate, organizational skills and capacity, and lived experience in a particular part of a city, province or country impacts design and delivery approaches and eventual outcomes.

Collaboration is critical. Because needs are diverse across governments, we’re continuously looking for ways to learn from one another. If something has worked in one place, let’s fork it and try it here. It’s part of experimenting together, replicating successes and scaling delivery, to serve more people.

National teams have a leg up regarding the adoption of methods or practices, as long as they are communicating about them. There’s an inherent “trickle-down” effect from the federal government to provinces, states, or municipalities. Often, regional governments use the cover of something a federal team has done to show what’s possible to their stakeholders.
At the sub-national level, provinces, states, and municipalities need to be diligent about communicating and collaborating so that we aren’t reinventing the wheel.

Nikhil Deshpande:

Nikhil: There are probably more common challenges than differences but amongst several factors, the key ones seem to be budget, scale, time to implement, and outreach. Change influencers at a regional level may have a shorter process to push change through but harsher budget conditions to implement. Depends on the type of change, organization and the scale one is trying to implement.

Where do we interface?

FWD50: Where do regional governments need to interface with national/global standards, and where is it OK for them to act without considering other groups? / Dans quels contextes les gouvernements régionaux doivent-ils interagir avec les normes nationales/mondiales et quand peuvent-ils agir sans tenir compte des autres groupes ?

Nikhil Deshpande:

Nikhil: Regional governments benefit from research-based policies and standards published at the national/global levels. It is best practice to interface with national/global standards unless any isolated regional use case/cause justifies solitary action.

Hillary Hartley:

Hillary: There’s no central standard in the world that points to how teams must work. But making common choices can help us scale digital approaches, practices and tools faster and more effectively.

For example, if one team in place A has gone through the effort of creating, testing and launching a new standard for building and using Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), how might other teams in places B, C and D be able to adapt it for their needs?

Being smart about how we scale accelerates change. It’s not about a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, we want to continuously share our work and collaborate across the growing network of digital teams in Canada, across North America and right around the world, so that we leapfrog forward, together.

It’s always OK for digital teams to experiment, learn and continuously improve ideas, standards and approaches. Discoveries in one place can help advance work in another place. Leaders need to encourage their teams to form hypotheses and just get started.

Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash

Catherine Desgagnes-Belzil:

Catherine: Nous devons placer le numérique au service des citoyens dans le but de faciliter leurs interactions avec le gouvernement. Ainsi, l’administration publique vise à adapter ses relations avec les citoyens en fonction de leur réalité.

Pour faciliter les échanges et les interrelations entre les différents paliers gouvernementaux, il est primordial que ceux-ci adoptent un langage commun basé sur le respect de règles et de standards nationaux et mondiaux. Car plus les différents paliers gouvernementaux pourront se rallier et offrir une cohérence d’ensemble, plus grands seront les bénéfices pour les citoyens.

How do make design more local?

FWD50: How do you change design and problem discovery to a more local population? / Comment faire évoluer la conception et la découverte de problème vers une population plus locale ?

Hillary Hartley:

Hillary: At root, it’s about users. Having a strong mechanism to recruit the right users for research, and being able to tap into a diversity of users, helps identify specific needs.

The location might matter, but it might not. We don’t know until we ask people about their needs. A general principle of our design philosophy is that when we design for the edges (the most marginalized users), we’ll be more successful for everyone.

It’s essential to be inclusive in user research practices. When we engage people with diverse lived experiences, and especially those individuals who have been historically excluded, we uncover richer insights that enable us to deliver better outcomes.

In Ontario, the Simpler, Faster, Better Services Act was enacted in August, enshrining user-centred service design into law. Essentially, the Act will help us deliver user-centred practices across our organization, so that we can better respond to the changing needs of the 14 million people who live in the province.

Ask a Mayor

FWD50: “If you want something done, ask a mayor,” as the saying goes. Why is there a perception that smaller scopes and organizations are more responsive? / Comme le dit le proverbe anglais : « If you want something done, ask a mayor ». Pourquoi les structures et les groupes de plus petite taille semblent plus réactifs ?

Hillary Hartley:

Hillary: At the local level, governments are responsible for services that most people use, see and touch. For example, people notice if their garbage doesn’t get picked up, or if the system crashes when you try and sign up your kid for swimming lessons.

At the provincial or regional level, governments fund a lot of other organizations who deliver services directly to citizens. Health and education are two major provincial responsibilities, and sectors where provincial policies and processes have impact, but the experience happens in schools, at doctor’s offices, and in clinics and hospitals.

Provincial governments need to collaborate with the Broader Public Sector on digital, and vice versa. Our reach can’t end at our doors — it needs to extend through theirs. The scope of the organization can be big or small — Ontario is bigger than some countries, so what matters more is that the organization is designed to meet the needs of the people it serves.

You have to look inside the culture of an organization. Examine the systems, processes, practices and tools in place. Are they designed for the speed and convenience of the internet era? Or have we become the best dinosaur? To stay relevant, public service organizations of all sizes must continually respond to the changing needs of their populations.

Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash

Catherine Desgagnes-Belzil:

Catherine: La complexité d’une structure de gestion croit généralement en fonction de la taille de l’organisation. Dans une structure de gestion complexe, les paliers à franchir pour obtenir une décision ou transmettre une orientation sont plus nombreux et cela a un impact négatif sur la capacité d’une organisation à être réactive. Voici une des raisons qui explique pourquoi les structures et les groupes de plus petite taille semblent plus réactifs.

Nikhil Deshpande:

Nikhil: There is no doubt that local governments are at the forefront of service delivery. As we move up levels within government, the bodies are tasked with invisible services such as infrastructure and policies. So, the perception of implementing an instant visible change may seem more relevant at the local level; like reporting and fixing potholes or crime reporting. However, regional and state organizations are working towards changing this perception.

By offering multiple channels to understand constituent friction, state governments are prioritizing citizen experience and constituent services.

What about political upheaval?

FWD50: How does a civil servant continue to deliver against their mandate in times of political upheaval or regime change? / Comment un fonctionnaire peut-il continuer à s’acquitter de son mandat en période de bouleversement politique ou de changement de régime ?

Catherine Desgagnes-Belzil:

Catherine: En adoptant une approche et une démarche agile qui permet à l’organisation de s’adapter au fur et à mesure aux divers changements, y compris des changements d’orientation inhérents à des bouleversements politiques.

Photo by Ricardo Frantz on Unsplash

Hillary Hartley:

Hillary: Good service isn’t partisan.

Delivering user-centred, more convenient and efficient government services is universally important to modern public service teams, around the world

Digital government is just good government. New tools and practices have created new opportunities to meet people where they are. Our role, as public servants, is to use our knowledge of these tools and practices to show what’s possible, enable and empower others to work in new ways, and continue delivering together with users.

As leaders, it’s also important to recognize that change isn’t always easy. It can be tough to shift organizational culture, build capacity, and deliver better services while living through change. If you’re leading a team, it becomes even more essential to listen, support people, remove blockers to delivery and over-communicate inside the organization. The team should always feel that you’ve got their backs.

Metrics drive change

FWD50: What are the most important metrics you ask for when trying to understand how your organization is running? What’s on your dashboard? / Quelles sont les mesures les plus importantes que vous exigez lorsque vous essayez de comprendre comment fonctionne votre organisation ? Qu’y a-t-il sur votre tableau de bord ?

Hillary Hartley:

Hillary: H. James Harrington said, “If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.”

Photo by Mitchel Boot on Unsplash

One of our core principles is “Show, don’t tell”, so let the numbers speak for
themselves. The data serves us in two ways:

  1. Data is absolutely critical when it comes to telling the story of change. Are we seeing a difference in the number of projects being built following the Digital Service Standard? Are teams progressing at each sprint review or show-and-tell, or are they constantly stuck or dealing with the same blockers? Are executives doing enough “blocking and tackling” to enable teams to deliver? Are we closing out projects, or are they turning into “recommendations” that don’t actually get implemented?
  2. Data helps us understand if we’re on the right track with our products, and actually meeting people’s needs. Are people using what we build? Are we saving people time?

We look to the metrics to show change in real time. How do we know that what we’re doing is working? Well, we see anecdotal evidence of visible shifts — when an Assistant Deputy Minister sits down alongside a team to whiteboard a journey map. Or, when a Deputy Minister observes the user research on a service. But here-and-there examples alone are not enough. So, we’re also working on KPIs to consistently quantify and measure culture change, such as measuring the number of multidisciplinary teams doing digital service design. This is new ground in the Ontario Public Service, and we’re very excited.

Nikhil Deshpande:

Nikhil: It is important to understand the impact and outcome of activities carried by any organization. Any metrics that show outcomes rather than just outputs, are critical to gauge the success of an organization.

Catherine Desgagnes-Belzil:

Catherine: Dans une approche centrée sur le citoyen, notre indicateur le plus significatif est celui mesurant la création de valeur. Celui-ci nous incite à favoriser les actions ayant un potentiel d’utilisation élevé et procurant une valeur ajoutée. Les autres indicateurs importants sont ceux liés aux bloquants ainsi qu’aux risques et enjeux.

Recruiting and talent

FWD50: How have you changed recruiting and the search for talent in a tech-centric world?/ Comment avez-vous changé le processus de recrutement et de recherche de talents dans un monde centré sur la technologie ?

Catherine Desgagnes-Belzil:

Catherine: Nous travaillons sur ce point !

Hillary Hartley:

Hillary: Government presents a unique opportunity to bring together a love for technology and a desire to make a difference. Whether you’re a designer, engineer, communicator or policymaker, you want to leave things better than you found them. You’re intensely obsessed with two things—humans and problems. In fact, the bigger the problem, the more technologists want to dive into it. We’re always experimenting with “how might we” scenarios. And guess what? That’s exactly what great public service teams are all about, too.

Great technologists want to solve big, complicated problems. Government, is full of gnarly problems across sectors, at scale. In Ontario, we serve a population of about 14 million people. When I was with 18F in the United States, the federal government served a population of over 327 million people. It’s the mission of public service that calls people, and it’s not hard to find great people who want to contribute.

In Ontario, our focus has been on targeting recruitment around the skills that are needed most across the public sector — product management, design and
development. We also look for people with the aptitude for change — those with a desire to work in new ways and reimagine service delivery.
In tandem, and equally as important, is building skills capacity within the public service. There’s a lot of hidden talent across ministries. How might we find it, nurture and unleash it?

Our talent strategy must address digital skills development, training programs, incentive structures and new pathways for growth for both the current cohort, and the next generation of public servants. What roles are emerging and what roles are transforming as a result of working in the internet era? If government isn’t looking to the future of work, we’ll fall behind in the global grab for talented people who understand tech and how to solve problems using internet-era skills. Sitting still is not an option.

Nikhil Deshpande:

Nikhil: Talent search is always a challenge at regional levels. USDS and 18F have established a civic-tech duty model that most regional governments are looking to implement.

The future of talent within tech-centric government organizations seems to be short-term engagements by specialists than the proverbial life term bureaucrats. Similarly at a regional level, we have embraced contract resourcing for short to mid-term engagements.

Diving into regional government

The Regional Digital Government Summit is open to all conference attendees, who have to sign in at the entrance.

Inside the Horticulture building—which won’t look like this when we’re done with it (from

It’s running in the Horticultural building from 11:50 AM to 5:00 PM on November 6, 2019. Grab a ticket now.



Alistair Croll

Writer, speaker, accelerant. Intersection of tech & society. Strata, Startupfest, Bitnorth, FWD50. Lean Analytics, Tilt the Windmill, HBS, Just Evil Enough.