Minister of Digital Government briefing book: Canadian Digital Service (CDS)

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This document contains information which has been redacted in accordance with provisions of Part 1 of the Access to Information Act

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Delivering better services for people

Our mission

Change government to serve people better

Inspired by those who have come before us

We’re a made-in-Canada model based on the precedent set by peers in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Ontario, and elsewhere.

GOV.UK logo, 18F logo, US Digital Service logo, Ontario Digital Service logo, Australian Digital Transformation Agency logo

“Digital” defined by a founder of the UK’s Government Digital Service…

Tweet from Tom Loosemore that says: Digital: Applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.

Digital government success stories, from Canada and around the world


Photo: Code for America

California made their 100-question application for food stamps system that used to take 45 minutes into an 8 minute mobile phone experience

A screenshot of the new Environmental Registry of Ontario website.

Photo: Government of Ontario

Ontario launched a new online environmental registry in just a few months


Photo: [Redacted]

Argentina made driving licences digital in just 65 days, made possible through its national digital ID program


  • Mandate
  • State of the team
  • What we do
  • Ongoing and completed work
  • Scaling practices across government
  • Lessons learned


  • 2017: CDS was established to help address the gap between Canadians’ expectations and federal services — and a growing track record of failed projects
  • Budget 2019: CDS’s initial 3-year mandate extended to 2021-22

What we do

  • Deliver services
  • Build capacity
  • Provide advice

State of the team

  • ~80 team members
  • 60% serving on product teams
  • 80% on “tours of service” (term, interchange, etc.)
  • 80% from outside federal government
  • 10% international hires (U.S., U.K., France)
  • 30% distributed (outside NCR)
Google logo, Mozilla logo, Shopify logo, Automattic logo, Rogers logo, United States Digital Service logo, Government of the United Kingdom logo, 18F logo


map showing the location of CDS staff across the country. Text version below:
Text version

A map showing the location of CDS staff across the country: [Redacted], Ottawa, [Redacted], and [Redacted] — and (arriving January 2020) [Redacted], with employees teleworking from [Redacted].

Piloting “civic leave”

  • Based on successful models in the U.S.
  • Companies give employees the opportunity to make a contribution in the public or nonprofit sectors
  • CDS piloted with a Shopify employee in 2018
  • [Redacted] joined CDS in summer 2019
  • Currently in discussions with Shopify and Google for further rounds
A CBC News article headlined, Canadian Digital Service takes startup approach to building better IT for government. Could CDS usher in a culture to prevent tech failures like Phoenix? I absolutely feel like this is an opportunity for me to give back to the country, said the Ottawa resident.

Photo: CBC

Five members of the CDS team looking up at little lightbulb icons.

We work in small, independent, multidisciplinary teams that break down traditional silos.

Putting people first

Engaging directly with the people who will use the service at every stage, focusing on measurable outcomes.

Putting people at the heart of services

A portrait of a Veteran, Simon, in profile.

“If volunteering and doing [usability testing] is going to help somebody, then I’m all for it. If I can help make your website better, then I’m all for it.”

Simon Logan,
Retired Warrant Officer

Testing with the public

A portrait of a Veteran, Suzie, in front of a set of flags.

Also, software tester. Suzie Bouchard’s expertise was the perfect fit for our work with Veterans. Thanks to her advice and guidance, we’ll deliver a simpler, better service.

Veteran. Served in NATO.
Former Aide-de-Camp to the Governor General.

Ongoing and completed work

Continuous, iterative delivery

We improve services through frequent code releases, on secure, reliable cloud infrastructure.

  • Through frequent code releases, our appointment rescheduling tool changed hundreds of times over the course of six months.
  • These changes were informed by 25+ rounds of research and testing, with the people who would use the service across Canada.

We make small, incremental changes to our products, continuously. This tool changed hundreds of times within 6 months. Here’s what that can look like:

Screenshots of the Reschedule your Canadian Citizenship appointment service. Text version below:
Text version

Screenshots of the Reschedule your Canadian Citizenship appointment service, in three different stages. Each stage simplifies the calendar interface, making it easier to understand and use.

We make accessible, inclusive services that work on any device or screen.

Phases of delivery

Each phase is multifaceted, but does have a primary focus:

is about research into user needs.
is about prototyping ways of meeting those needs.
is about rolling out the minimum viable product to the public.
is about continuously improving a stable product.
is about closing down a product without disruption to users.
Phases of delivery. Text version below:
Text version

Phases of delivery from Discovery, to Alpha, to Beta, to Live, with iteration cycles at each subsequent phase. Icons along the bottom show how a service reaches a larger number of users at each stage. The first phase, Discovery, typically lasts 8 weeks. The second phase, Alpha, typically lasts 12 weeks. The third phase, Beta, typically lasts 24 weeks. The last phase, Live, continues past 48+ weeks.

Delivering services

  • Our Partnerships Business Unit teams up with departments to provide hands-on help to deliver better services
  • Our Platforms Business Unit provides common services and components that make it easier for all departments to deliver better and more consistent services
  • In its first 2+ years of operations, CDS has worked with 8 departments and developed 11 products and services to help Veterans, entrepreneurs, Canadians with low income, and others.
  • There has been significant demand for CDS’s services, with over 200 potential partners coming forward since launch.
  • CDS has moved incrementally into deeper, more complex service design partnerships with large departments in core service areas (e.g., tax filing with CRA; disability benefits delivery with ESDC).
  • CDS has begun building platform services that address common needs across the GC (e.g., notifications for services).
Partnership Products in flight
Product Department Phase
Help Canadians with low income claim tax benefits Canada Revenue Agency Beta
Report a cybercrime Royal Canadian Mounted Police Beta
Make it easier to access the CPP Disability Benefit Employment and Social Development Canada Alpha

Beta phase | [Redacted]

Helping Canadians with low income claim tax benefits (CRA)

  • Service to help over 1M Canadians improve their standard of living by making it easy to access the benefits and income they’re entitled to
  • Currently building a product to test with a small public group filing their taxes
Screenshot of the CRA prototype that shows the product and test information about a user

Beta phase | [Redacted]

Help people and businesses report cybercrime, fraud (RCMP)

  • RCMP can help address the growing $14B of damages in fraud and cybercrime impacting the Canadian public and businesses
  • Prototypes that address victims’ emotional needs are proving more usable, with higher  completion rates
Screenshot of the RCMP Report a Cybercrime prototype, with “Report a scam” as the title

Alpha phase | [Redacted]

Make it easier to apply for the Canada Pension Plan Disability Benefit (ESDC)

  • A service to help the over 400,000 annual benefit recipients, who wait on average 120 days for a response and for whom 42% of applications are sent back due to missing or erroneous information
  • Starting new research and prototyping in second phase of project

The original version of this document contains an error that states: “A service to help the over 400,000 annual benefit recipients, who wait on average 120 days for a response and for whom 42% of applications are sent back due to missing or erroneous information”

The document should state: “ A service to help the over 75,000 annual benefits applicants, who wait on average 120 days for a response and for whom over half of applications require additional information to be processed.”

Screenshot of a page of the prototype entitled Information about you


CDS Accelerator to test incremental investment

  • A fund to finance, test, and help deliver on products or services that show the potential to make a significant impact on Canadians’ lives
  • Private sector delivery with a focus on ensuring smaller companies are included — which is usually not the case in IT procurement
  • Exploring initial discovery opportunities with DND (to help cadets and their families access information and services) and Parks Canada (to help park visitors with bookings and purchases)
Screenshot of the CDS blog post introducing the Accelerator
Platform services in flight
Product Phase
Make it easier for government to send notifications Alpha
Make it simple to create a government website Beta
Automating security assessments Alpha

Alpha phase

Send notifications (CDS)

  • This first significant platform service makes it easier for any service to send emails, text messages, and letters to its users
  • Leveraging source code released by the UK’s Government Digital Service to streamline delivery
  • Currently in discussions with ESDC on several use cases
A screenshot of the CDS Notify platform that says Send emails, text messages and letters to your users

Beta phase | [Redacted]

Website starter app

  • Make it simple for any GC service to create a policy compliant web site
  • Offer developers a set of simple defaults, with CDS community support
  • Enable teams to rapidly prototype in a safe, secure and cost-effective manner
A screenshot of the website starter app.

Alpha phase | [Redacted]

Automate security assessments (CDS)

  • Create fast feedback loops for teams by continuously measuring their security posture against [Redacted] security controls
  • Received interest from both development and security communities at multiple departments
A screenshot of the prototype Security Goals platform.
Products Delivered
Product Department Phase
Find relevant benefits for Veterans Veterans Affairs Canada Beta
Check security of government websites Treasury Board Secretariat Beta
Issue a challenge to innovators Privy Council Office Live
Accessing home energy data Natural Resources Canada Alpha
Briefing app Treasury Board Secretariat and Canada School of Public Service Alpha
Run regulatory consultations online Treasury Board Secretariat Discovery
Make it easier for suppliers to identify contracts Public Services and Procurement Canada Discovery
Reschedule a citizenship test Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada Retired

Beta phase

Find benefits for Veterans (VAC)

  • Makes it easier for 650,000 Veterans and their families to determine which benefits and services are relevant to them, and make it clear how to apply
  • Tested with Veterans and their families:
    • 79% found benefits relevant to their needs
    • 74% reported confidence in the results of the search
  • Service available on the Veterans Affairs home page since April 2019, and more than 7,000 people have used the tool since launch
  • CDS helped establish and empower the multidisciplinary team at Veterans Affairs that now runs the service and has released updates on average 7 times a month since
Screenshot of live Veterans benefits tool Results page

“Oh wow! I didn’t know I was eligible to apply for all these benefits.”

Beta phase | [Redacted]

Check whether federal websites are secure (TBS)

  • Monitors 5,220+ federal websites
  • Helps departments identify those that need to adopt modern security practices to better protect Canadians accessing information and services online
  • Site is currently internal to government, but compliance has doubled
  • GC Chief Information Office is using the tool as a performance indicator
A screenshot of the Track with security compliance tool and a chart that shows [this information has been redacted] of government websites are security compliant.

Live phase

Issue challenges to innovators (PCO)

  • Allows departments to issue challenges to innovators and entrepreneurs, to incentivize the market to solve public problems
  • Platform has hosted over half a billion dollars of prizes and challenges across multiple departments and priority policy areas
  • Continuous iteration by PCO post-partnership, including redesign (shown) and replatforming
Screenshot of the Impact Canada platform, which says Help us solve Canada's biggest challenges

“The cost savings in having CDS build this for us helped us invest in other areas of our operation to help establish the Impact Canada Centre of Expertise.”

Alpha phase

Get energy data for households (NRCan)

  • Application Programming Interface (API) opens up home energy data for entrepreneurs, researchers, and other governments
  • NRCan uses the work as a model across the department, developing new APIs and continuing to enhance the functionality of the data portal
  • Ongoing engagement with interested parties at the federal, provincial and municipal levels to leverage the tool
A screenshot of the EnerGuide API prototype’s landing page.

“We have gotten a big thumbs-up from Metro Vancouver. Upon learning about the API that had been built, they realized that it would completely solve this problem.”

Alpha phase

Access briefings online (TBS and CSPS)

  • Briefing app prototype that replaces paper binders; was tested with senior officials and released as open source
  • CDS prototype decommissioned due to focus on public-facing products
  • Repurposed by the Canada School of Public Service – with CDS support – to deliver learning programs
A screenshot from within the e-briefing app, showing details for an example ministerial visit to Paraguay.

Discovery phase

Make it easier for businesses to find public procurement opportunities (PSPC)

  • Discovery phase completed in October 2019 that researched the needs of businesses across Canada for tender opportunities with governments for the CETA
  • The user research is now providing opportunities for PSPC to inform improvements to GC-wide procurement initiatives
Screenshot of the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement

“All the notices of intended procurement shall be directly accessible by electronic means free of charge through a single point of access subject to paragraph 2.”


Reschedule a citizenship test (IRCC)

  • Service to help up to 60,000 newcomers who reschedule their citizenship test each year
  • Replaced 70% of paper-based requests, plus 70% drop in phone follow-ups to fix incorrect information, in early deployments
  • In fall 2019, IRCC chose to retire the service
  • However, the completely redesigned notification letter and email for applicants have been scaled nationwide
A screenshot of the live scheduling service, depicting a calendar and service options.

“This whole process has been so simple and easy. This has been one of the easiest things in the whole citizenship process.”

Scaling practices across government

Building Capacity

We’re empowering public servants by providing hands-on training, publishing tools and resources, and building communities.

Hands-on development opportunities to equip departments

  • All partners co-locate staff with CDS product teams
  • Helped departments stand up their first multidisciplinary digital delivery teams
  • Helped multiple partners procure and deploy some of their first cloud services

Supporting new professions and functional communities

  • Established the first community of practice for design research
  • Hosted dozens of community meet-ups to show work and exchange knowledge and practices
  • Researched digital training needs with thousands of public servants with Dalhousie University, and delivered several courses through the Digital Academy and others
Aaron Snow, CEO of the Canadian Digital Service, presenting at the 2019 FWD50 conference.

Working in the open

  • Published 90 blog posts and a monthly newsletter to share expertise and lessons learned
  • Published 12 tools and guides for design research, talent recruitment, product evaluation, and software development
  • All code is deployed in the open and available for reuse


Providing delivery-informed advice

Clearing the path to scale modern methods across all of government.

Our roadmap to how we might begin to meet industry’s challenge of digitizing government services by 2025

“Digitize all public-facing government services so they are accessible by web and mobile phone and available behind a unified login system by 2025.”

CDS provides advice to departments to help them adopt practices, skills, and tools, including:

  • Navigating processes to get cloud infrastructure and services
  • Hiring, onboarding, and supporting private sector talent
  • Obtaining non-standard hardware, software, and unfiltered Wi-Fi

Also conducted the first three service assessments measured against the Government of Canada Digital Standards.

Changing policy and guidance based on lessons from bureaucracy-hacking for delivery

  • CDS drove changes to public opinion research guidance to make it easier for all departments to do user research
  • CDS hired the first ever federal Code for Canada fellows, then helped scale a policy exemption that made it easier for others; five departments have hired Code for Canada teams

Lessons learned

  • The conditions to enable successful digital services – and put users first – are not widely established across government.
  • Lack of digital expertise “in the room” for decision-making
  • Skill gap, processes, rules, organizational structures, and investments are key barriers
  • Central funding and oversight mechanisms incentivize large projects and compliance over outcomes

What’s next

  • Continuing to grow depth of partnership delivery in core, high-impact service areas
  • Expanding Government-as-a-Platform work that provides departments with easy to use building blocks
  • Testing new ways to help departments, including an Accelerator to experiment with incremental investment and private sector delivery and a dedicated consulting team to provide delivery-informed advice

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