Driving Citizen Centricity and Efficiency in Government through Operational Transformation
- Andre Shojaie, Chief of Agile Practices and Continuous Improvement, City of Montreal
- Lyne Lacroix, Process Improvement Lead, Major Projects, OCIO, Shared Services Canada
- Pia Andrews, Director General, Digital Experience and Client Data, Service Canada
- Steve Witt, Director, Public Sector, Nintex
Improving processes and challenging the status quo
For many large public sector institutions, the notion of process improvement is something that is a ‘nice-to-have. Improvements are often necessary since many agencies continue to operate with legacy technology and outdated processes, but there is rarely time or impetus to make the improvements and to ensure efficiency. The pandemic of course provided the unexpected push that some organizations were craving, whilst others began their process improvement journeys organically before the pandemic hit.
Lyne Lacroix, the Process Improvement Lead for Major Projects within the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) at Shared Services Canada, says that though COVID-19 was one of the major spurs, their “process improvement division was created in late 2020.” Putting the pandemic to one side, the division was created because some employees noticed that “there are serious problems with the process” within the organization, thus “our vision is to really enable and empower employees through the improvement of the challenging processes that stop them from doing their work.” Since they are at the start of their journey, this will take some time, but it will be achieved through the “creation of a center of excellence. We want to hear from our staff about the good, the bad and the ugly. The process improvements will come from sharing the stories with others, and learning from them.”
Andre Shojaie, the Chief of Agile Practices and Continuous Improvement at the City of Montreal, says that as a municipality, they’ve had to “reinvent our business model digitally because of the pandemic,” but in terms of process improvements generally, they are focused on two areas. The first is “taking a more holistic systems view” so that they are able to map out all of their processes and see things in a different light. This will help them to be “more citizen-centric, and to maximize our time and value.” The second area of focus is in “the evolution of data practices.” This is about having “speed and agility in end-to-end data practices so that there is the greater value placed on citizen processes from conception to delivery.”
Pia Andrews, the Director-General of Digital Experience and Client Data at Service Canada, says that process improvements need to have a purpose. “Sometimes we create automation to existing processes, but we need to look not just how to improve or fix processes, but whether this process is needed at all?” For instance, if a process is automated in one department but remains manual in another department that citizens use, “they don’t differentiate between departments or services. They just see it as a good or a bad experience with government.” Therefore, processes need to be “better integrated,” and “it’s about re-centering our focus to actually look at things from the context of the citizen in a more holistic way.” Most processes in government these days are “quite slow, quite broken and reactive. We rarely think about the policy intent.” Process improvement should be about “meeting the needs of not just our citizens today, but meeting their needs in a highly changeable world with rolling crises.”
Continuing on the same theme, Steve Witt, the Director for the Public Sector at Nintex, a software service vendor, says that many government agencies “attack the high-impact processes with vigor to try to leverage huge improvements.” Often this is the wrong approach because momentum passes, resources fade and then few long-term improvements remain. “There’s often a huge cliff between where they are and where they want to or need to be.” The only way to overcome this is “for people in the organization to take ownership of their processes, and to map out those processes. That however requires a cultural change, and everyone needs to be on board.”
Pia Andrews says that part of the reason for the chasm between the need to fix immediate problems and the desire for wide-scale process improvements is that “problems are exponentially increasing, and every time we just fix a problem, we’re not actually changing the system that created the problem in the first place.” This means that the backlog of problems continues to grow, whilst “our capacity to respond to them either stagnates or reduces.” In some private sector settings, this is not the case, but it will remain the case “if we’re only responding to problems one at a time.” One way to address this is to have a “protected proportion of the workforce” – say 10%, 20% or more – “actually focused on the long-term gains, not just on symptomatic relief.”
Another way to address this, according to Andre Shojaie, is to have workflow delineations. Ultimately “in the public sector, every flow of value begins and ends with the citizen,” so to address the issues of the citizens, “we put in place a value lifecycle through our processes.”
There are three such values:
- User planned value – “What the City has planned to deliver in terms of services to the citizen.”
- Realized value – “What we are effectively providing in terms of actual services to the citizen.”
- Consumed value – “What services are really consumed or used by the citizen.”
“We measure the value at different steps through our processes to ensure we are responding to the problems, and continually providing value to our citizens.”
The pandemic as a catalyst
For the last year or so, as much as COVID-19 may not have consciously been a catalyst for everything, it was definitely at least in the background of every decision, especially around process improvement. Lyne Lacroix says that their journey began when the president of Shared Services Canada toured the facilities of their organization a few months before the pandemic hit to get “a feel of what people were saying about the organization.” A report was then drawn up, people were appointed and a plan for improvements was hatched. Like everyone, “as an organization, we were very siloed.” Then COVID-19 hit and everything changed. “We started to collaborate,” particularly with “Health Canada because we’re all in the same spot right now. We’re all doing process improvements and we can all learn from each other.”
From the moment the president of the organization toured the facilities, the intention was always to make improvements, but “now we were forced into these changes because of COVID-19.” Shared Services Canada supports “43 partner departments, as we call them.” It was clear before the pandemic that not all of them used the same systems and that changes needed to happen to facilitate better communication. When remote work became mandatory, “we deployed telework practices and Microsoft 365 as a means to collaborate amongst all of us. But this wasn’t supposed to happen so quickly. We had people working day and night to make sure that we could allow people to work from home to support the Government of Canada.” To achieve this, they had to quickly and efficiently “modify some of our security practices, and introduce virtual onboarding processes.” On-boarding was previously always face-to-face in a location.
”We were forced into a virtual world because of COVID-19. It’s not perfect but we’re building upon it on an ongoing basis and making improvements as we go.Lyne Lacroix, Process Improvement Lead, Major Projects, OCIO, Shared Services Canada
”Ultimately, by taking this process that was highly manual and automating it and focusing on key things, they were able to create a ton of value for their citizens because people could get their COVID hardship benefits much quicker than they could have before. It was really about getting faster benefits for the people. That was the vision and the focus.Steve Witt, Director, Public Sector, Nintex
Steve Witt says that when the pandemic hit, a CIO “we were working with,” said that they had to “fundamentally change the approach to how to get financial benefits to our citizens quicker.” For instance, anyone who couldn’t pay their utility bills was entitled to special funding. But to get that funding, they had to fill in forms, some of which were PDF forms sent by email. It certainly wasn’t efficient or automated, and if any information was missing, it would have to be sent back, causing greater delays. “So the CIO came and said how do we get benefits to citizens quicker?” The first thing was “was the digitization of the form” which took about two weeks to set up initially. The other problem was that if the details on the form didn’t match the details on the utility bill, this would also cause issues and delays. “So they employed optical character recognition (OCR) technology to reduce the manual review process by half the time.”
”Identifying which services citizens find most problematic and measuring the extent of that dissatisfaction is one way governments, and the public sector in general, can prioritize areas for improvement.Andre Shojaie, Chief of Agile Practices and Continuous Improvement, City of Montreal
At the City of Montreal, in light of the pandemic, they did this by “using citizen satisfaction metrics through surveys to determine acceptable service levels.” This allowed them to find “the balance between delivering high quality or responsive services, and managing resources effectively.” The second step, once the priorities were understood, was to launch into “automation and agile transformation.” In their case, this was through the process of “DevOps, to be able to automate our different processes and flows of values.” DevOps is about the agile relationship between Development and IT Operations, and for them, it “ensured that delivery of our products is fast, secure and constantly evolving. It’s important to understand how value flows through your processes and systems,” especially in a time of crisis.
Process improvements, design and engagement
DevOps, like any other process, can be greatly beneficial, but Pia Andrews says that it needs to be implemented by a “multidisciplinary team.” Designers without technologists, or technologists without designers will “rarely come up with the best outcomes. So pairing those disciplines is really critical.” Having the right team in place will also assist with “service delivery and continuous improvement,” since they will see how things are working and what is not working so well. Moreover, part of the team should include “an accelerator – a capacity for continuous innovation,” and that should be at least one person’s role.
Having good measures is also important, “making sure that you measure not just the service performance, but the user metrics as well.” If the driver of the metrics “is just a financial incentive, that’s a lot easier to gauge, but in the in the public sector we tend to have a lot of overarching objectives like the quality of life and the stability of society, so we need to take them into account too.”
In terms of having lots of different competencies in the team, Steve Witt says that the “cross-functional nature of a team is like have different frameworks you can use when need, but the organization still has to unite on a framework.” The people within the teams need to own the processes. “That is a way of uniting the people.” It is not always about the outcome. Sometimes “perfection is the enemy of the good. Being able to come up with a win and execute it quickly is more important.” During the pandemic, it was the little wins that achieved the best results. “It’s not about getting the process perfect. It’s about looking at where we are and then, this is better, this is best.”
”Thinking about continuous improvement gives you the ability to focus on the backlog, looking for opportunities for future-oriented or emerging tech trends. You can then do the experimentation and design work to feed directly into the operating model, rather than the concepts of business-as-usual and innovation being separate.Pia Andrews, Director General, Digital Experience and Client Data, Service Canada
Pia Andrews says that part of the reason why small wins are ideal, is because “over ten years in the public sector, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover that almost everyone is capable of being innovative and of being a highly effective change maker.” The problem is generally with the recipients – the citizens, the public. They’re not “intrinsically averse to change. It’s just that they’ve been through this before and have seen previous attempts all fail.” That is when resistance builds up and people start to question the purpose. One of the ways to combat this at all levels is to get “engagement from everyone, not just the senior staff.” It is necessary to involve everyone in the vision because “when you try to make meaningful change, everyone knows that there’s a problem and everyone wants to solve it because most people intrinsically want to do a good job.” To do that, people will innovate and will try to rack up small wins that hopefully together will become the big change that can make a real difference.
On that note, Lyne Lacroix says that “engagement is all about empowering people.” This of course starts at the top, “because if you don’t have the buy-in from the senior level, it’s going to be really difficult to go forward,” but it doesn’t end there. At Shared Services Canada, it means “we want to hear from everyone through engagement and transparency.” Particularly now as a result of the pandemic, “people have an appetite for change.” As such, they communicate regularly with everyone in their department, “sharing successes as well as failures. It’s all about people.” Andre Shojaie says that the communication should not just be one-way, but “you should enable your teams to provide feedback about what does and doesn’t work for them.” At the City of Montreal for example, it was through communication, engagement, and innovation “that we were able to facilitate the process improvements that we’ve made.” This is a lesson that everyone can learn from.