Last month I stepped down as CEO of the Canadian Digital Service. Canada was in election mode, and there are restrictions on what is and isn’t appropriate for public servants to talk about in public during such periods. But the election is in the rear view mirror now, and a new cabinet will soon be appointed. This seems like a good moment to reflect openly on the last three and a half years, and to express my gratitude for an unforgettable experience.

CDS’s first four years

CDS was created in 2017 with a mandate “to change the way the federal government designs and delivers digital services” using best practices and best-in-class tools to improve people’s lives, by putting their needs and concerns front and centre, make services more adaptable and resilient, ensure users’ privacy and system security, and reduce the risk, frequency, and scope of project and service failures. This tall order, in short, is: Change government to serve people better.

I’m proud of what CDS has accomplished in its short lifetime. The easiest measure of CDS’s success is the catalogue of what the team has delivered and the impact those projects have had. Most recently, in response to the pandemic, and with its partners at Health Canada, the Ontario Digital Service, and Shopify, CDS rapidly shipped a secure, privacy-protective, award-winning COVID-19 exposure notification service, downloaded by more than six million users; it arguably saved lives. With Service Canada, in just one month, CDS launched the Find Financial Help During COVID-19 service, which Canadians have used more than two million times. Find Veterans’ Benefits and Services, developed with Veterans Affairs Canada, has made it easier for many thousands of Veterans to discover benefits available to them. CDS has worked with the Canada Revenue Agency to help Canadians with low income file taxes and claim benefits, with Natural Resources Canada on an home energy usage API, and with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada on a citizenship test appointment rescheduler that in early deployments reduced phone follow-ups by 70% and was called by one user “one of the easiest parts of the whole citizenship process.” CDS has helped government offer over half a billion dollars’ worth of government innovation challenges for Canadians and Canadian businesses to apply for, tracked government websites’ adherence to digital security best practices, prototyped ways to help Canadians more easily and quickly access the CPP Disability benefit, and helped RCMP start to make it easier to report and get help with online scams and cybercrimes. It has helped dozens of departments and programs with various forms of partner consultations and exploration engagements, working with NRCan on their flood mapping program and with IRCC on meeting refugees’ information needs.

As CDS grew and learned, it also began to build out important elements of a digital platform for the Government of Canada. It launched GC Notify, which has set the bar for easy-to-use, easy-to-integrate government digital platform services. Two years in, it has sent more than 20 million messages for more than 160 clients — including, recently, a department that needed, and got, overnight feature enhancements to Notify to help it communicate effectively with Canadians in Afghanistan. With newly available resources, the Platform unit has started to roll out its nascent GC Forms service, to make it possible for departments to do away with the thousands of PDF forms that are inaccessible, inflexible, and hard or impossible for people to complete on their smartphones. They’re on their way to shipping an MVP of a page-publishing service using open source technology already in use by millions of people. More is in the works.

But the hardest work of digital transformation is more how than what. CDS was established not to build digital services all by itself, but “to change the way the federal government designs and delivers digital services.” And CDS has worked hard both to drive that change and to lead by example. It led with operational cybersecurity by example, onboarding its entire staff to both physical (FIDO) security keys and a password manager — a trend I hope every government organization, both in the civil service and in Parliament, will soon follow. It helped enable design research across government by landing important changes in federal public opinion research (“POR”) guidance. It conducted the GC’s first design research with that compensated participants for their time, per international best practice. It wrote the government’s first approved job descriptions for hiring product managers, design researchers, and content designers. It helped departments get the right (even if non-standard) tools for the job. It worked with the Chief Human Resources Officer and departmental partners to improve how the government hires and supports digitally skilled employees. It helped make government design research more inclusive. It helped many departments stand up their first multidisciplinary digital delivery teams, conduct their first ever design research, and procure and deploy their first cloud-hosted services. And as it has developed guidance for its own teams, CDS has published those documents openly for anyone to reuse and contribute, including its design research handbook, technical playbook, software development guides, guide for product teams, guide to research interviewing, guide to usability testing, accessibility handbook, product evaluation framework, how to set up and run a digital services exploration, and a digital government delivery and modernization reading list.

Nothing CDS has done is perfect, and not every project succeeded. I’m proud that CDS has worked in the open — respectfully, to both people and policy — showing the whole iceberg whenever possible and fully embracing the ethos of “docs or it didn’t happen.” Even when products haven’t launched or have been shuttered, the team has left behind useful artifacts to share what was done and what was learned, clearing a path for future iterations with a transparent, historical record.

But most importantly, I think, CDS’s existence and accomplishments have demonstrated that working differently is possible: that if it chooses to, the public service can build and support teams capable of rapidly shipping secure, user-friendly services to millions of people, retooling overnight to help Canadians halfway around the world, and providing unconflicted expertise to help program offices design and implement their policies and services iteratively with the users of those services. Building these capabilities, not just at CDS, but all across government, is the change we need more of.

The work ahead

CDS is no longer a term-limited experiment. This spring the federal budget included, for the first time, ongoing, increased funding for CDS. This will enable the team to grow and deliver more than ever, adding to its burgeoning digital platform and expanding and diversifying its capacity to help partner departments. We’re at the end of the beginning.

But there’s still a great deal to do. CDS has documented its advice about the GC’s digital transformation journey openly in the “Delivering digital services by 2025” roadmap and other documents. In one sense, all that advice comes down to this: If a government is to deliver on the promise of digital services, its leadership must hold the public service to account for building those capabilities. That’s neither easy nor comfortable. But the goal isn’t “digital adjustment,” it’s “digital transformation,” and that kind of change is never painless. Government and its leaders must work differently if they want better results.

The work to date is a start, but it is not nearly enough. The growth CDS can now undertake will enable them to get more done. But in many important places in government, change has not taken hold. Not enough departments meaningfully design with users. Not enough are making the necessary changes to be able to iterate and improve frequently. Nor do enough work in the open by default, use open standards and solutions, build in accessibility from the start, or, most importantly, empower their teams. The GC Digital Standards are not yet first-class policy citizens. They should be.

To get there, the public service still needs to build unfamiliar types of internal capabilities. And by “build,” I mean hiring and training and learning — not procuring, which undermines the exercise by outsourcing core competencies rather than accumulating them, making government a buyer in woefully asymmetric negotiations. This is not an easy problem to solve, for well documented reasons. But at minimum it requires the most senior leaders to hold their organizations to account for building those capabilities.

Canada, you are lucky to have Catherine Luelo as your new federal CIO, and Anatole Papadopoulos leading CDS. Follow them. And be bold. The work takes time and patience (it is, as Cyd Harrell says, a project measured in decades), but it is incredibly rewarding work, for the worthy mission of changing government to serve people better. The GC public service can get it done, if you choose to do the hard work to make things easier, put people at the heart of services, deliver measurable outcomes, build for learning and iteration, work in the open to help clear a path, and take care of each other along the way.


I enjoyed the heck out of this job, and even more, this team. I learned from them, was humbled and amazed by them over and over, laughed with them, and most of all am grateful for the joy of growing close to them. A group of such dedicated, talented, kind, generous, and fun people is rare and wonderful.

Minister Scott Brison, thank you for bringing CDS to life. Minister Joyce Murray and Parliamentary Secretary Greg Fergus, thank you for your unwavering support as our Minister and Parl Sec of Digital Government these last two years. Yaprak Baltacıoğlu, thank you for offering me this once in a lifetime opportunity. And Peter Wallace, thank you for trusting CDS, and me, to demonstrate the art of the possible.

Most of all, thank you to the many Government of Canada public servants I’ve met along the way, who work every day to improve service delivery and take a chance on doing something differently to change their organizations for the better. You inspire me. Thank you all for making me and my family feel so welcome in Canada throughout our stay.

Four years ago, the Government of Canada asked us to build the CDS ship and push it out into the water. I believe we’ve done that and more. Thank you for allowing me to write Chapter 1 of CDS with you. I still wake up every day excited about what you do, and about what lies ahead. I can’t wait to see how Chapter 2 turns out.

One of my neighbors flies the Maryland and Ontario flags side by side every day. It always makes me smile.