A Year (and a half) of Learnings

There’s nothing easy about standing up an organization. Or about striving to effect actual, meaningful, and lasting change inside some of our country’s oldest and largest institutions. In fact, we do ourselves a disservice, as well as our colleagues and everyone we seek to inspire, if we pretend Code for Canada’s work is simple.


Instead, we acknowledge that our work can be difficult, feel unfamiliar, or even fail the first time we try it. Doing so encourages us to approach what we do with intention, to document it, and to learn from it so that it will be easier the next time, and so we can use that knowledge to assist others.


So here are some moments from our first year and a half when things didn’t work out, or felt challenging. And most importantly, here’s what we learned from those moments and what we’re doing to put those learnings into practice.


Not everyone understands or buys in to what we do. Even 18 months after our launch, after our first fellowship cohort, and after our showcase, we still meet people who assume Code for Canada is a vendor, an organization that builds digital products for governments, rather than with them.


This tells us that we haven’t adequately conveyed the unique value proposition of our organization, or the value of the collaborative civic tech process more broadly. We have to work harder to show others the value of a partnership-based approach to building digital capacity in the public service. In 2019, we’re going to do the research and have the tough conversations necessary to refine our value proposition. And we’re going to do the communications work to make sure that value is heard — and understood — by those outside our core audience of government innovators and entrepreneurs.


Working out loud can be scary. We believe making things open makes things better, and we strive to communicate about our work in an agile and open way. However, we struggled to meet this goal during our first round of fellowships. Fellows didn’t blog or post about their products and processes as much as we hoped, and government partners were reluctant to shift away from a traditional, tightly controlled approach to public sector communications.


We have more work to do, not only in terms of demonstrating the value of working out loud, but also in making it more accessible easy for our colleagues and partners to do it. We’re working towards this with the fellowship program: we’ve added language about communications to our fellowship charters with government partners, and included agile communications training in our onboarding for new fellowship teams. We also recognize that communicating in the open is an area where we can lead by example; we’ll be working throughout 2019 to better share our own challenges and learnings.


We need to be Code for all of Canada. We don’t always like to admit it, but most of our work so far has been concentrated in Ontario. There are valid reasons for this: the Government of Ontario was our founding partner, the federal government is headquartered in Ottawa, and proximity matters in terms of building relationships.


Still, we’re immensely proud of our national mandate. Whether it’s connecting with civic tech groups, pursuing fellowship projects or delivering training workshops, we’ll be prioritizing opportunities that extend our geographic reach in 2019. It’s easy to think that place doesn’t matter when so much of our work is online. But technology is not the hardest or even most important part of our work. Connecting with people is.