January 21, 2019

Government in a Digital Era: Course Overview

From January to April 2019, I’m teaching the Government in a Digital Era course as part of the Masters of Public Service program at the University of Waterloo.

I’ve had a few people ask me about the course—what we’re learning, what we’re reading, how the classes are going—so I thought I’d share some information about each module that we cover in the class. Today, you’ll find some high-level information about the class: what we’re learning, how we approach instruction, and how grades our assigned. In future weeks, I’ll share the actual content of the modules, the reflections (at least, the ones posted publicly or that I have permission to share) created by students, and a few photos, if I was able to take any.

Course Description

The ushering in of the internet over the past two decades created change in every industry and every aspect of our lives; governments were not immune to that change, and have been working hard to understand what the changing digital landscape means to the way they serve the public.

Like almost every organization in every sector, governments at all levels around the world are trying to figure out how to adapt to this digital disruption, and the changing public expectations that come with it, while still making sure critically-important systems—including social services, public infrastructure, financial operations, and democratic governance—are still stable and solid for the people, communities and businesses that rely on them every day.

The future of the public service is one that acknowledges that these systems need change, but that change can only come from new ways of working, of approaching challenges, and of understanding the relationship between public and public service. The digital era has not only ushered in new public expectations of government, but an ever-present need for the public service to renew itself to meet those expectations.

This course will explore what government can and should look like in a digital era, while also examining how this digital transformation is already being done, but inside the public sector and beyond.

At the end of this course, you will:

  • Understand the current context of government service delivery and how digitization is changing citizen and business interactions, expectations, and needs.
  • Understand the changes to service delivery that have come from the advent of digital communication tools and the application-based service delivery.
  • Understand how new data sources and types are changing the way evidence is collected, analyzed, and acted upon in government.
  • Gain awareness of the interplay between technology, service delivery, policy analysis, communications, business, government contracting, and civil society.
  • Gain awareness of the tools, techniques, and practices that allow public service to engage in user-focused design for policy and services.
  • Critically examine the current policy-making and service delivery environment and determine how a focus on user needs and an approach based on design thinking can rapidly change that environment for a digital era.
  • Critically examine opportunities for transformation in the way technology is deployed and operationalized currently in government, particularly around the governance model, the procurement process, and human resources.
  • Critically examine the idea of the digital economy, who it benefits, who it leaves behind, and how government needs to be involved.

Course Delivery

The course will be delivered in a mix of direct instructional time (through lecturing, videos, and guest speakers), as well as hands-on activities—both individual and group—that will encourage the application of course materials into real-world case situations.

Students are not expected to be technologists, but are expected to have a basic knowledge and general awareness of recent trends in digital technology and of the broader government decision-making processes and governance models.

As the idea of retrospection, iteration, and reflection is core to the service design process, students will be expected to engage in active reflection after every activity and module.

Readings and resources for each module include academic research but also include on real cases and examples from governments around the world. You’ll notice that there aren’t many required readings or viewings for each module: you are expected to find relevant resources to supplement your own research as you produce your reflections.

All students are recommended to read Digital Transformation at Scale: Why the Strategy Is Delivery for this course. While it is not required reading, students are strongly encouraged to understand the concepts in this book as it will form the backbone of many of the concepts discussed in the course. (Students are allowed and encouraged to share copies if they can not procure their own for any reason; the timing of reading the book is not dependent on any part of the course. Where getting a copy is impossible due to financial constraints, please speak to the course instructor.)

Assignments and Evaluation

Students will receive an evaluation at the end of the semester. This evaluation will be based on their participation in the course activities, as well as reflections to be delivered to the instructor at the end of every module.

Participation and Engagement

Barring exceptional circumstances, students are expected to attend all class sessions, come prepared to make active contributions to class discussions during the instructional time. (In the case of exceptional circumstances, students are requested to speak to the instructor prior to the beginning of the semester or as soon as the circumstances arise.)

Group Activity and Peer Review

Barring exceptional circumstances, students are expected to participate in all group activities during class and make active contributions to their group. The instructor will assign a group mark after class based on the outputs from that activity. Additionally, each student will be asked to perform a short peer review for the members of their group; this peer review will inform the final mark given to each individual in this section.

Module Reflections

All students must submit a short reflection after every module. This reflection will include a personal assessment of their knowledge of the subject matter prior to the module, their personal learnings from the module, a personal assessment of their knowledge of the subject matter after the module, two areas of exploration for further research, and one commitment to how they will apply the learnings from that module in their other classes or co-op placements. The medium of the reflection—text, video, audio, graphic story, etc.—will be up to the student.

Final Assignment

The final assignment consists of a critical examination of a current digital policy or digital service; it will be due one week after the final module has been completed. In this examination, students will pick one current, live policy at the municipal, provincial, or federal level where they live, and conduct a review of how it is currently being developed/delivered, and posit recommendations for new approaches based on a digital government context.

Along with literature sources, course knowledge, and background information on the policy or service, students are expected to reach out to public servants currently working on those policies or services, as well as users who are affected by the policy or use the service, in order to inform their critical examination.

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