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How Code for Canada fellows are helping the Public Service Commission of Canada modernize their digital services

By Vita Sgardello on July 15, 2019


Vita Sgardello is one of Apt613’s correspondents at Impact Hub Ottawa, writing about the many innovators that call Hub home. Hub is a co-working space at 123 Slater Street for projects with a positive local and global impact.

Digital innovation is not a phrase usually associated with Ottawa. And yet a project being carried out by a Code for Canada fellowship team with the Public Service Commission of Canada, right here in the nation’s capital, is doing just that. What’s more, this 10-month project could impact the face of public service recruitment across the nation for years to come.

Code for Canada is a non-profit organization that connects government innovators with the tech and design community. Through its fellowship program, private sector technologists like Siobhan Özege, Caley Brock, and Joey Hua are assigned to work on short-term assignments within the public service in order to design and deliver digital products that better serve the Canadian public.

The goal of this team of three within the PSC was to build a modern testing platform to replace the paper “in basket” tests given to those applying for federal management positions. Most people who work in federal jobs are probably familiar with them because they’ve done a second language evaluation. But the PSC also offers a host of other tests, including the managerial test that Siobhan, Caley, and Joey are working on that was in need of a severe revamp, both in its content and its delivery.

The Code for Canada fellowship team at a Brown Bag Lunch at Impact Hub Ottawa.

“I had never really considered a government career,” explains Caley, who is the team’s developer. “One of the reasons I love computer science is that your job is basically to solve problems for a lot of people, because that’s what computers are good at doing. What I’ve learned during the past nine months working in public service is that your work there has a really big impact. It’s an exciting thing to see happen and be part of.”

Siobhan, the team’s product manager, says that the PSC’s goal as an organization is “to ensure an equitable, merit-based public service. And their assessments are partially what shapes what the public service looks like across the nation—so the potential for impact is actually huge.”

This kind of work is not without its challenges. Effecting change within institutions is hard and takes time, even when there is a willingness to innovate. “When you’re in private industry you don’t really think about risk in the same way,” says Joey, the team’s designer. “Here, there is a higher standard you have to hold yourself to, because the risk is much higher. You have to be really conscious of what you’re developing and how you’re doing it. We got a taste of that over the past nine months and I think we’re all going to be better at our jobs because of it.”

“We never quite expected the excitement and interest we’ve been getting when we present the project publicly—and not just from those who work in government.”

None of the team members are Ottawa natives, so they were surprised to discover a city surprisingly open to the kind of digital innovation they are spearheading with their work for Code for Canada. “There is actually a decent-sized tech community here,” remarks Joey, “which I didn’t realize before moving, and we never quite expected the excitement and interest we’ve been getting when we present the project publicly—and not just from those who work in government.” The team puts it down to a combination of things. For one, there is a lot of crossover between private sector and public sector technologists, thanks also to meetup groups like Civic Tech Ottawa. Also, people genuinely care about the impact of the work they are doing.

A workshop for Algonquin College’s SLiDE program.

With just over a month left to finish their part of the project, Siobhan, Caley, and Joey are beginning to think about next steps. And while they won’t see the launch of the new digital products they have helped develop until 2020, they are confident that the PSC is better-equipped than ever to embrace digital innovation.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Code for Canada Fellowship, the organization is hosting a showcase event at Shopify (150 Elgin Street) on July 24 from 5.30–7.30pm. Tickets are $40–$50.