Service Transformation Branch — Kevin’s year-end reflections 2022

In the spirit of transparency and candour, Kevin and Kelsey publish weeknotes reflecting on the what and why for their team — except this time, it’s Kevin’s reflections on 2022 and musings on what’s to come.

Upfront disclaimers: this post likely suffers from a recency bias. I have been compiling notes for about a month but am almost certainly neglecting key learnings and events from early 2022. Time is weird in the pandemic era and my ability to access substantive insight from even 6–12 months ago feels negligible at best. This should not be considered remotely comprehensive, but rather a patchwork of thoughts that may indicate where my head is at as the year comes to a close. And of course, opinions here are exclusively my own and in no way represent the views of my employer.

All that said, I thought it most responsible to first look back at our reflections from 2021 before going deep on the fragments I’ll attempt to string together through this post. In no particular order:

Building relationships as a foundation for complex work. I feel that we’ve made great strides embedding ourselves in the ministry (as well as the natural resource sector at large). This is primarily a time-based exercise but that’s not to discount the nuance and navigation of interpersonal dynamics to really make it stick. The Service Transformation Branch (STB) has been around for almost 2 years now, and myself for 21 months. I humbly submit that our collaborators — from exec, to the program areas, to fellow civic tech actors — have come to trust us, value our expertise, and know that we seek to balance competing priorities to deliver on the idea of better.

The strategy is still delivery. This felt like a year of further foundation building in the long delivery arcs for our ministry, namely for Environmental Protection and Compliance & Enforcement. I’ll save a longer deconstruction of our capital funding process but we went through the stages at relative warp speed — concept and business cases, foundational service design research, procurement of development teams, and cross-functional team building. We’ve been told we moved fast — it still feels like a jog sometimes, but I can zoom out and feel satisfied that we helped create a sound, evidence-based footing for these multi-year service transformations to move forward from.

Some exercises never end. Nor should they. I’ve thoughts in last year’s post about designing the organization and questions about how to work more effectively across the entire BC Public Service. Building fit-for-purpose teams that might transition from building to sustainment, creating true multi-disciplinary units that might more seamlessly transform the program from policy to delivery, refining collaboration across gov, establishing good practices, and reducing redundancy in how we build digital things— these are less endpoints than persistent journeys we’re on as a holistic org (more on this later).

An image we shared frequently as we index towards the ideal scenario [via the UK Policy Lab]

Now on to 2022-specific reflections. First, noting key branch deliveries with a bit of narrative support.

The CleanBC digital experience. We use this phrase to describe the ecosystem of CleanBC services, from the main platform to the discrete services of GoElectric, Better Homes, and Better Buildings. Here are some highlights from this novel product team’s journey over the last year:

BC Parks camping reservations. Hard to believe this was actually a 2022 lift. We were a small contributing force to a much larger team-of-teams effort at BC Parks but it’s super satisfying nonetheless, coming out of years of a failing reservations system, a challenging vendor relationship, and an under-resouced Parks team. The new system, built on the Camis platform, is the direct result of user-centered design, using a design system to bring coherence across all Parks digital services, and an inspired organization collaborating across sticky challenges like streamlining complex policy rules so the user’s experience might be more intuitive and the transactional aspects of journey might be easier to complete. There’s much further to go on integrating Parks digital services but stabilizing camping reservations was an absolutely mission critical cornerstone.

BC Parks information services. Currently in beta, the full service is slated to be launched (and the current site decommissioned, thank goodness) very early in the new year. Once deployed this experience warrants a long, exacting reflection of its own — it hasn’t exactly been an easy road. But I’m over the moon watching how Parks Info Services has gelled as a team (in collaboration with OXD) to push the new site over the finish line.

Building teams. As mentioned above, this job is never done because teams are never fixed — the context and need is always changing so it follows that resourcing should too. However, with two major capital projects in flight, building teams with the wide array of skills necessary to deliver at a high level was a very concrete task this year. I feel that we did a good job architecting teams-of-teams, working in the open, and finding efficiencies whenever possible across the sector.

Growing the ministry’s digital maturity. We continued to deliver ‘training’ to our collaborators with the intent of raising the overall aptitude for what it takes to deliver great products and services. But it’s not training per se— we’re not looking to create practitioners. It’s more awareness and a level of understanding — why do we work in these ways, to what ends? Why is it a service and not a website? And who can you work with to deliver better outcomes?

A slide from our Digital Era Leadership training curriculum.

Legible practices

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the famous Greg LeMond quote rattling around in my head:

It never gets easier, you just go faster.

As our branch provides an exemplar for what digital-era competencies look like embedded at the ministry level, it’s important folks know we aren’t on cruise control. I’m routinely reminded that working in public service is (at best) firmly in Snowden’s complexity domain. Deep experience as change agents helps hone our instincts and allows for better response, but there’s no playbook. Everything is contextual and it’s impossible to predict what variable or externality might come about at a late stage. But: we work from patterns, we lean on our networks, and we manage risk with a bias to action. So while the work never gets easier, our velocity is higher and we’re able to spin more plates at ones. Looping back to the relationships piece, trust is a critical accelerant in enabling teams to move quick and expand the realm of the possible.

A logical segue to one of my key to-do’s for 2023: rendering the ENV design practice legible. We have a progressive and mature embedded design practice with highly experienced staff going deep across the ministry, from policy to data and, of course, the service experience. However, we’ve yet to come together and hold space for reflection, synthesis, and codification. Some questions I’ve been turning over include:

Our goal of efficacy and value is never constrained to our discrete space, defined by org charts and reporting relationships; by making our practices tactile, coherent, and repeatable, we might help the overall process of scaling design across government. No one team ‘owns’ design in the BCPS and practice leadership is diffused. I look forward to our first workshop (a retrospective on collective efforts over the past ~18 months) and our ongoing monthly meetups in 2023. It’s no small privilege to have the air cover to actually flex design in complex problem spaces, and I feel an accountability to surface and document the learnings to share more broadly.

Governance: what even is it?

Arguably the topic I’ve thought about most in 2022. Governance means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. At the highest level, it’s the culture of information sharing and decision authority in an organization, through rituals and interactions built on dominant norms, underpinned by hierarchies of power. It’s generally experienced as meetings and slide decks, and tends to get more bureaucratic and inert as it scales. Crucially, who decides can become muddier as the system expands and actors with competing priorities come to share ownership of a thing.

Let me back it up: establishing effective, timely, sufficient, and delivery-focused governance on CleanBC was a challenge. I used the phrase minimum viable governance a lot this year, for good reason: the traditional steering committee-style governance model is not a one-size-fits all solution for managing work at scale in the public sector. CleanBC was cross-organizational in more than just its design and delivery texture; there was also the epistemological disconnect of service vis a vis communications.

I’ve tried to represent my mental model of the governance experience in the graphic above. We sought to implement agile governance strategies through open demos and working groups rather than ‘briefings’ either for-information or for-decision (although senior exec briefings are always required). I feel that we ran into the ingrained organizational reflex to progressively upward ‘sign offs’ rather than the production-level autonomy and agency to move things forward. Ideally, in a product delivery environment, those doing the work should know what good/done looks like, and there should be a single final approvals gate through which the thing passes before going live. However, in a opaque multi-stakeholder environment, it’s never quite this easy — different parties seek different reviews, revisions, and approvals for different reasons. Balancing this (in a timely manner) as a product team is very challenging, especially when working in agile with prescribed delivery milestones (although there were wagile phases to this initiative for sure).

I won’t attempt to solve the governance conundrum in this reflection and reviewing the latest MOU between ministries, I’m glad to see a legible model included to push delivery decisions forward in a more effective manner. Through grad school I worked on theory and conceptual modelling for how organizations might work with stakeholders on collaborative, inclusive governance, creating shared value and aligned outcomes. And yet, the internal exercise remains a tough nut to crack! The lessons from this experience are of high value and have grown my skillset as both a designer and public servant.

Roadmapping, prioritization, and cultural readiness

Lately, as our product teams begin pushing code and MVPs come to life, questions logically arise about where to next? When working through transformations in a legacy service ecosystem, finding the ‘right’ rubric for prioritization in building an overall roadmap becomes paramount. Shoutout to Andrea from the Forestry team for a great debrief on how they’ve been threading the needle on roadmapping, using a primarily qualitative approach. Measures they score include:

Critically, they also consider cultural readiness. This is much more a qualitative metric and omnipresent through all the work we do. It’s why we engage in ‘training’ with our colleagues. It’s a desirable effect for producing legible practices. And it’s arguably the most critical datapoint in wayfinding toward impactful and sticky interventions (exec air cover and money also being of high importance).

This notion of readiness can be found in the literature on public sector transformation. While the readiness metric should be evaluated laterally across the program area you’ll be working with, leadership is the hinge point. As Public Digital reminds us in Digital Transformation At Scale,

The goal is not to move on people who disagree with you. Dissenting voices based on experience and knowledge of the legacy you’re stepping into are valuable and should be kept at all costs. Constructive skepticism will allow the digital team to identify and address traps they may otherwise miss. The layer you need to remove is those leaders whose view is devoid of curiosity and openness. These are the people who will make every minuscule step forward a battle. [first ed., p. 179]

As we look to leverage capital funding with diligence and efficacy we must hone in on the readiness of the business to lean into change. Otherwise we get caught in the churn cycle of briefings and re-briefings about the jobs to be done and how we propose to do them. Experience helps transformation units feel out how willing their collaborators are to go all-in on the uncertainty and learning-by-doing involved in the work. The suggestion here is that the cultural foundations in the arena of transformation are the paramount measure when deciding where to invest.

Policy to delivery: the promise of service transformation

This is the big one, and maybe someday in the future I’ll start to write the book this topic truly deserves. We have to design for the whole system — end to end, policy to service — if we want to realize the true potential in transforming the thing. What this requires, to borrow from Zizek, is building a ‘3rd culture’ in which change agents create new normative epistemologies that better synthesize what we label ‘cross functional’ or ‘multidisciplinary’ teams. In our current state there is almost always an ontological divide between policy and service practitioners which makes coherent, holistic transformation challenging and unwieldy. This is not to suggest that specific expertise should be abolished (e.g., writing legislation, user interface design) but rather teams built from ingrained practice silos rarely stand the chance of maximizing their potential within their window of opportunity.

How might we build this new public service culture? I won’t hold my breath for a public administration revolution in academia, breeding a new generation of civic change agents ready to think in whole systems. The existing structures are incentivized to reproduce themselves, so it would seem that incrementalism is the path to a more fulsome transformation capacity. As Horkheimer encouraged: pessimism in theory, optimism in practice.

Back to the notion of cross functional teams. Generally we build these to include program area expertise, design, and technology. What we’ve found is persistent disconnect from the policy shops which might change the very material of design. As we have become fond of saying, the policy is the service. The policy (or regulation, etc) is the material of the service. I’ve become acutely aware of my limitations this year when trying to work in the policy space. I do not have the formal training, I do not speak the language. I lack the perception of credibility (imo). We’ve made great strides bringing together policy and service (huge shoutout Jackie Duys here) but it’s a big lift. The cadence of change is wildly different — some Policies (that is, formal, attached to legislation, etc) may take years to update. Some policy (de-facto ways of doing, org norms) may just require a decision by middle executive. And service is delivered in sprints and working code, creating value for the user and building confidence in the exercise.

We must continue to be proactive in stitching together empowered teams that position major policy transformation in the realm of the possible. And we must do this up front, before the work has even begun. All too often the research finds the lever of change to be much earlier in the value chain than simply tinkering with the flow of the service itself. This is unsurprising, but it’s taken me years to really understand how important this bigger undertaking is to the experience of those who interact with the service, be it the public or government staff.

It’s taken a long time for design to get its seat at the table and we’re happy to be here. Heck, positions like mine have only come into existence globally within the last decade, and in Canada within the past few years. We (designers) were satisfied to deliver better services within the constraints of our practice boundaries but we’re itching to do better. Demonstrating a 3rd culture of public problem solving should be our north star, in which policy, design, and technology work together seamlessly to raise the bar on government’s ability to do good and useful things for people in the real world.

I’m resolute and hopeful. Changes this year to our ministry structure brought all strategic services (policy, design, and Indigenous partnerships) together into one division. We had a recent collaborative experiment with our policy colleagues and it was excellent, showing immediate value. The task now is to build on this success and further integrate, dissolving practice silos as we pursue the real promise of service transformation. As I was reminded off the top in this post, some exercises never end; I’m glad to be part of the forward progress, doing the hard work.

Big thanks to everyone I worked alongside in 2022. I truly believe I have one of the best jobs in government and I’m wildly grateful to do work I find personally fulfilling. Happy holidays, wishing you all the best — see you in the new year!

👋🏼 one of my favourite trips in 2022, on the Tom Taylor massif in Strathcona Provincial Park.

--

--

notes and reflections from Kelsey Singbeil (A/Executive Director) and Kevin Ehman (Director, Strategic Design) at the Service Transformation Branch

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Service Transformation @ ENV (BC Gov)

notes and reflections from Kelsey Singbeil (A/Executive Director) and Kevin Ehman (Director, Strategic Design) at the Service Transformation Branch