The real problem with apps like ArriveCAN and how government can fix it – Toronto Star

The real problem with apps like ArriveCAN and how government can fix it – Toronto Star

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Over the long weekend, two Canadian tech companies released their version of the troubled ArriveCAN app. Their point? That the existing app’s reported $54-million price tag and difficult rollout were a waste of taxpayer dollars.
To the average person, this might seem like a good point. Why was the app so expensive? Why was it so difficult to make? Why didn’t it serve the public the way it was supposed to? It’s almost too easy to see it as another case of government fumbling the bag.
But there are complex reasons why it can be challenging (and yes, expensive) to develop, design and launch digital solutions in government. The app the tech companies developed is hardly comparable to the process of building ArriveCAN in the first place or, as one industry leader put it, “It’s naive to compare apples to orchards.”
As a national non-profit that works with government partners to co-develop digital products and services, we see these challenges every day. And the solutions are not what some might think. Should government do better? Absolutely. But, the path to public excellence isn’t to follow the path of for-profit firms.
To start, while private tech companies tailor their products to their most lucrative users, government products and services need to be accessible to everyone. That means taking into account an endless number of possible users and use cases. For ArriveCAN, that included airport staff, border services, travellers from all over the world, their governments, health regulations, and handling sensitive data from multiple sources.
Then, there’s internal digital capacity — the lack of sky-high salaries offered by private tech makes it extremely difficult to attract and retain digital talent in the public sector. Without it, not only does government need to outsource its digital work, there often isn’t internal digital leadership to manage these partnerships successfully.
Looking at this list of challenges, situations like ArriveCAN start to feel inevitable. And when it comes to finding a path forward, it seems ill-advised to think a coalition of for-profit tech leaders will have the right advice.
At Code for Canada, we’ve worked with dozens of government partners on digital transformation projects, and there are common themes that we’ve found in that work.
First, government needs to invest in its own digital transformation and upskilling. What does that look like? Creating new classifications to hire for roles found in for-profit tech companies like UX designers, product managers and more. Creating communities of practices where digital solutions can be shared and replicated between departments and ministries. Putting budget aside to train existing leaders in digital ways of working. Government needs to embrace the idea that to truly serve its constituents, it needs to be offering high-quality digital services at every level.
Second, understanding when outside help is needed and what that should look like. Is this something that can be done with the existing skills and limitations of the public service? Can a partner be brought in to offer objective guidance, add capacity or co-develop a solution? These are essential questions when it comes to creating digital solutions quickly and efficiently.
Of course, choosing the right people to partner with is key. Government needs to wean itself off of relying on the same big, for-profit firms over and over (even after the results are less than satisfactory.) Procurement rules originally designed to protect taxpayers are now working against them. We need a refresh to allow for partnerships with alternative organizations that not only understand the complexities of the public sector, but believe in its mission — to create accessible, inclusive services that serve all, not just some.
Our last piece of advice isn’t for government, but the public (and the politicians who care to listen to them.) We should ask for high-quality digital services and hold our government to account if it doesn’t provide them. But, true digital transformation can only happen with the conditions and culture that allow for experimentation, iteration, and even failure, so long as it’s done strategically, transparently, and in the interest of the public good.
It’s tempting to look at a private tech company’s output and ask, “Why can’t our government be like that?” But the truth is, we shouldn’t want our governments to act like big tech. If we get digital transformation right in the public sector, we’ll be able to offer more inclusive and far-reaching solutions than a private company ever could.
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