"Why don't you just": Why gov doesn't need tech saviourism (but we do need you)

Keyboard showing green solutions key

In a conversation about civic tech, I commented: "Truth is, we don't need a tech panacea; government needs more service design. Honest-to-goodness end-to-end omni-channel 'big D' Design, aimed at serving citizens."

After 15 years working inside government (plus another 7 working in the private sector), one of the things that brings me no end of frustration is tech solutionism: the idea that technology will solve a problem, usually recommended without a clear analysis or understanding of the problem. This is usually accompanied by a condescending "why don't you just" attitude to "solving government".

I have worked on policy development, have documented the requirements and subsequently procured large enterprise solutions (including the first enterprise SaaS for the Canadian government), and have designed a number of websites and apps used to deliver services and information to citizens. My background is tech. I am a tech fangirl.

What I don't support is tech solutionism. I start every project by asking (way too many) questions, and using a service design approach to understand what we are trying to solve. I keep asking questions until I feel that we have a solid understanding of the client, the context, and - most importantly - the problem. However, I often find myself doing this in the face of resistance from executives who want momentum and to "show progress" (usually an alternate way of saying, delivery is the focus, regardless of the impact).

My work is usually derailed by buzzwords (user centered!), fads (agile!) and new technologies (let's use AI!). And over the past few years, also the desire to partner short-term with the private sector or citizens through civic tech initiatives to produce "innovative" solutions quickly. Again, I love tech and I've done my time in startups. But the government is not a startup. 

I've seen external folks come in and try to throw solutions at problems without first taking the time to understand the government landscape; the dichotomy of the political silo balanced by the bureaucratic silo, connected at the top by the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister's Office. The silos are intentional; they are part of the Westminster system of government and they aren't going anywhere. Busting down silos isn't how work gets done in gov; working among and within them is the key to success.

When external folks immediately try get to work, more often than not they get frustrated. They minimize the issues. They start making assumptions about the context: they call government archaic, slow, and behind the times. They call public servants lazy. They refer to bureaucracy as red tape, regardless whether that bureaucracy serves an intention of checks and balances, or if it really is just a long-standing barrier. Everything gets painted with a negative brush. And more often than not, they start "just"-ing. Why don't you just do X? Why don't you just use X technology? Why don't you just break down silos? None of this is helpful. 

Tech saviourism is tiring when you're on the receiving side.

As a govvie, I'll be honest: I'm sick of tech trends because BIG IDEAS usually amount to nothing more than buzzwords, given the turnover at the top and the unpredictability election to election. New ideas have to be educated through the public service and the executive layers, then planned for, implemented and sustained. Often they are misunderstood, or worse, oversimplified for general consumption. They might be put into guidelines long after they are initially introduced, boiled down for simplicity and compliance measurement, assigned to a role in a department (usually referred to as the SDO - Senior Departmental Officer - who likely becomes accountable with no formal training). And confusion ensues.

In 15 years, I've seen trends and governments come and go, and as a lifer, I will see many more. Sure, I am optimistic that we can do interesting things within this reality. If I wasn't an optimist and if I didn't know how to work within this reality, I'd have quit a long time ago. But big "let's change how all of gov does X by introducing Y" is not how long term change really works in government. Public servants grinding despite all of this is how stuff gets done. And if change doesn't trickle down in how they operate day-to-day, it's just a fad, a buzzword, a PR announcement.

So to all the private sector tech saviours, if you are interested in working with government, please bring your ideas and your energy, and then spend some time learning about how we operate. Remember how I started this piece talking about end-to-end service 'big D' design? That's what we need: people to come in and take the time to look at the entire context around delivering a service, not just the external-facing citizen-centric part. Approach us like a research project and with a service design mentality: study us top to bottom so you can understand the context of the issues we are trying to solve. Learn why we work how we work. Explore what we can influence and what we can't. 

Understand that sustained change requires both studying the external-facing side of a service and the myriad efforts behind the scenes to deliver a service to citizens. Help us work within our reality to make small changes, and focus on incremental improvement. Remember that we have a lot of corporate memory and that tapping into it will help you more quickly understand the bigger picture that surrounds the app or site that you have been brought in to help build. 

And consider really immersing yourself. Don't come in for 3 months and think you'll understand government. I've been here a decade and a half and I learn something new about process, approvals, authority and responsibility every day. If you are coming for 3 months, then do a lot of listening. Coming in with assumptions and trying to save us with tech will only mean that your work might not have the lasting impact you were hoping for. Listen, collaborate, then build. If you can, come for a year or two to really understand what goes into delivering a government service. Consider it a tour of duty. Then go back outside and share what you've learned. 

Government needs smart people with fresh ideas. But what outsiders seem not to understand is that government employees are also smart people with fresh ideas. We're grinding, making incremental changes as we go. That's how we get stuff done. That's how we influence government over time. That's what motivates us to keep working at it. We're going to continue for as long as we're here. And we'd love your help. 

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Update: In September 2020, Cyd Harrell published a great book on this topic. If you're interested in finding out more, check out: A Civic Technologist's Practice Guide.