Alpha, beta, live, lobster

A sticker saying "Alpha, beta, live, lobster"

A week or so ago, you might have seen some of the Public Digital team getting excited on Twitter following the publication of this blog post by our friend Natasha Clarke, Chief Digital Officer for the province of Nova Scotia.

There’s good reason for our excitement: Natasha was announcing the newly-created Nova Scotia Digital Service (NSDS):

“We have a mandate to apply internet-era ways of working to service delivery in the province. Very soon, we’re going to need to hire more people to help us do that.”

We’ve had a hand in helping the Nova Scotia team reach this point. We’ve been working with them for the last 2 years, and we’ve visited them in Halifax 4 times. It’s been a lot of fun.

This isn’t just an announcement for the sake of announcing things, and even though it says a lot about new jobs, it’s not just about recruitment either. It’s the culmination of a vast amount of hard work behind the scenes, some of which we have helped with, and some of which we cheered on from the sidelines.

Unlike many places with a Digital Service team, Nova Scotia didn’t start with a blank sheet of paper. It had a large, separate central IT department already up and running.

A sticker saying "Alpha, beta, live, lobster"

So a lot of that hard work was the quiet, difficult business that most governments don’t face up to: making the case for changing organisational structures and then implementing it, creating new senior leadership roles like Chief Digital Officer, and learning about what makes shipping new digital services hard by actually trying to deliver them.

Getting to this point takes bold leadership, and lots of it – from Deputy Ministers (the Canadian equivalent of Permanent Secretaries in the UK) right through to product teams. On every trip we’ve made to Halifax, we’ve found experienced public servants who care deeply about making services work better for the citizens of Nova Scotia, and want to do more than just talk about it.

A sticker saying "Alpha, beta, live, lobster"
NSDS assemble

While the NSDS itself might be new, the team already have some great insights and ideas. One of our favourite stories is how they added an “It’s complicated” button to one of their digital services, because the user research showed that was a good idea. Natasha tells that story in this video (less than 2 minutes long):

That’s how you meet user needs.

Setting up NSDS is very much the end of the beginning. This is the time when our constant advice to “show the thing” becomes hard to follow, because the “thing” in question is that there’s a team, with senior support, funding, and a mandate to do things differently. It’s like the years of training an athlete must do before standing at the starting line of their first race. Nova Scotia are there now. They’re ready to run.

We haven’t got our tickets booked yet, but we’re already looking forward to our next trip. The lobster is tasty, and the stickers are strong. See you soon, Halifax.

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