Why the Nova Scotia Safe Check-in is exemplary

Public Digital has been lucky enough to work with the Government of Nova Scotia since 2018, and has seen a lot change in a short time. For over a year, its digital strategy has been put to the ultimate test faced by every government around the world – responding to the pandemic.

Like many places, Nova Scotia’s response to covid-19 was to manage movement to control the spread of the virus. However, the authorities were quick to acknowledge that locking-down could only ever be a temporary response before it started to have a negative effect on the economic and social wellbeing of citizens. The Nova Scotia covid-19 Border Management Response – better known as the ‘Safe Check-in’ programme – was established so that families could be reunited, people could travel for work, students could continue their university education and goods could cross borders in a way that protected the safety of Nova Scotians.

We spoke to Josh Lee, Executive Director at the Nova Scotia Digital Service (NSDS), who explained what helped make Safe Check-in a success.

The Nova Scotia Safe Check-in service

Working across departments and communicating well

Safe Check-in is a large-scale collaboration between many provincial and federal government departments. It exists because of – and owes its success to – a range of expertise from across government, covering at least 6 different ministries, coming together with a shared outcome and in one team.

Launching early: ‘ready’ does not mean ‘perfect’

Nobody has faced a pandemic before so a precedent hadn’t been set for this kind of work. An absence of a playbook alongside an overwhelming sense of urgency forced the teams involved to commit to experimenting and taking informed risks to learn and iterate quickly. Although this way of working was well-established within parts of the NSDS team, it was something that many of the other teams involved would have been uncomfortable with in normal circumstances. The agility to pivot and respond to emerging user needs and changing government health guidelines was integral to getting the first iteration of the service into the hands of citizens within 20 days of starting. Of course, the service was not perfect, but it was adding value to users and collecting data to feed back into the next iterations.

Starting small using paper and telephone calls

At the start of the first wave in Canada, the process of recording the information of those travelling into Nova Scotia was a completely manual process. At the point of entry, travellers were issued with paper forms to complete by hand. It was time intensive. Colleagues at the borders would then manually scan paper forms and provide those files to colleagues from 811 (the province’s health information phone line) as well as the Department of Service Nova Scotia and Internal Services who were making ‘isolation verification’ phone calls. At the beginning, those daily check-in calls to people crossing the border were each around 2 minutes long.

As the team learnt more about its users and verified its assumptions, it began to pivot to a digital approach. A digital check-in service allowed for better data collection and tracking, which meant that colleagues’ time was freed up to follow up where contact tracing showed covid-19 cases.

Platforms, patterns and existing infrastructure

The digital parts of the Safe Check-in programme were built on the ethos of scalable, reusable components, code, and platforms that were already in use elsewhere in government. For example, the team leveraged the federal government’s GCNotify platform (built by the Canadian Digital Service) which allowed the programme to digitally perform quarantine compliance checks more efficiently.

The Safe Check-in team also made the most of existing infrastructure within Nova Scotia. The codebases of existing services that worked well for users, like the Newly Licensed Driver Eligibility service, were adapted and built on. Teams could go further, faster by using patterns that had already been tested with real users; applying useful shortcuts when there wasn’t the luxury of time to start with a blank sheet of paper.

What helped was not just the fact these reusable components existed, but that teams knew about them; they were easy to copy. They didn’t waste time solving old problems, because they were aware of answers to those questions that were already at least ‘good enough’ to start from.

Here’s what success looks like

Between 22 August 2020 and 6 April 2021, Nova Scotia Safe Check-in sent 909,308 emails and reported over a 90% compliance rate. Like almost everywhere, Nova Scotia has experienced great pain during the pandemic. But relative to other jurisdictions, it has been successful in mitigating the damage and has suffered fewer deaths per capita than most other parts of North America.

The Nova Scotia Digital Service, alongside colleagues from right across Nova Scotia, should take great pride from the part they played in that.

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