Making digital a joint venture in Nova Scotia

    Last week Emma and I went to Halifax to visit the Government of Nova Scotia.

    Public Digital has been working with Service Nova Scotia for about a year, helping them to develop a digital strategy.

    Like all digital strategies worth having, Nova Scotia didn’t start by trying to fill a blank page with hopeful guesses about what they would like to happen. Lots of work had already been done: starting to roll out a new beta version of, for example, and launching an online service for a heating rebate programme (HARP).

    HARP is one of those quiet success stories. In 2016, when the programme was run on paper, just 1 application was processed in the first week of the program. In the first year of a new digital service built according to user needs, 600 applications were processed in the first week. The value of a new way of working is pretty clear for all to see.

    The real challenge for Nova Scotia’s digital strategy is to take what has been learned about making public services simpler, quicker and faster, and scale that across government.

    Good things can often be done in relative isolation, by independent small teams working very hard. Figuring out how to do more good things, in more places, more quickly, is a team sport.

    As it is in a lot of governments, responsibility for digital in Nova Scotia is split between different departments. On our trip we spent time with people from separate teams responsible for IT, communications and services. Between them, they have the skills, knowhow and organisational levers to deliver better public services at scale. But combining them is easier said than done. Having different political bosses, responsibilities, and offices all conspires to make it harder.

    In government, a standard greeting from one official to another is “I’m the Grade x from the Department of y.” Rank and ministry are classic identifiers; they define where you belong internally. But they aren’t that important. The public – your users – couldn’t care less. Interestingly, governments also occasionally realise they don’t matter that much. Those exceptions tend to be crises. When it really counts, everyone pitches in without a thought to whose turf they’re playing on. Sadly, the walls usually go back up when everything calms down.

    But a crisis isn’t necessary to work in this way. The best moments of our trip were those where the identifiers that really mattered were what service you’re working on, and what your role was in making it better. The ways of working Nova Scotia are starting to adopt – both in their teams and as leaders – are those where you shouldn’t see the usual joins of government. And if you can’t see the joins inside government, there’s a much better chance that your users won’t trip over them either.

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