Sustaining digital services in the natural resource sector


Our Digital Code of Practice blog series highlights ways the 10 practices can help modernize government operations and deliver improved services to citizens. For our second instalment, we’re highlighting a training and development plan in use at the Natural Resources Information and Digital Services division (NRIDS).

Supporting and maintaining digital services is essential in the modern age, and part of a broader shift toward viewing these services as ongoing products rather than point-in-time projects.

Two years ago, NRIDS needed a way to sustain five digital services without standalone teams to support them and keep them available to users.

Jake Morris is the Product Owner of the Sustainment Team, an innovative agile team formed to solve this problem.

“We said: What if we just hire a bunch of junior developers, so it will cost less and we can train them as a way of creating a succession plan for developers within our organization? That kind of became the mission of the team, even more than the sustainment aspect.”

The team’s three-part approach

Plan to sustain

“The first part is to sustain these five apps so users can continue to use them and they’re still getting the new features they need to stay relevant for their users.”

The Sustainment Team supports these services by doing planned maintenance, making upgrades and adding new features as needs evolve or use cases change.

During active development, an agile team usually handles one digital service at a time. Services in the sustainment phase of their life cycle require less time investment, meaning a single agile team can handle several of these apps at once.  

Because junior developers on the Sustainment Team have access to intensive support and mentorship, they can solve problems that might otherwise require the experience of a more senior developer. NRIDS leverages this to provide better user experiences at a lower cost.

Develop junior staff

“The second part is developing junior staff. We bring in classification level 18 developers and they’re on the team for six months to a year before they go to a dedicated product team within our organization.”

During that time, the developers move through a “graduated development plan” to learn a range of skills and progress from level 18 to level 24 without needing to compete again. Jake frequently recruits talented developers directly from post-secondary schools.

While they work through their development plan, the junior developers received targeted support including mentorship from senior developers and dedicated weekly training time. 

They move on from the Sustainment Team already familiar with how the division delivers digital services, meaning they can integrate into other teams more easily than outside hires.

“It’s been really awesome for the organization because people are excited to have these jolts of energy join their team.”

The team also uses what Jake calls a “leadership mesh” where team members’ direct supervisors are senior developers on active development teams elsewhere in the division. This enables a flat team structure where junior developers are comfortable asking questions and speaking their minds, while also helping them build connections in the division.

Make it a mindset

The third part of the team’s approach is to create a sustainment mindset in their organization and beyond.

“Being in the public service, our job is to do things effectively, ideally save taxpayer dollars and still deliver. What these junior staff aim to show is that sustaining an application over its lifetime and evolving it to meet the user’s needs can be cheaper than tearing it down and rebuilding it every time.”

In other words, we can do more with less money by maintaining and improving what we’ve built over time, rather than letting it become obsolete and having to replace it later. 

“That cost savings is direct value delivered to people in the province because that money can be used in other, more helpful ways.”

The key to making this work is planning for sustainment from the beginning of development, when a team has more support to put the necessary resources in place.

“The opportunity to have a good plan for sustainment actually happens around the same time product inception happens.”

Sustaining for the future

Jake and the Sustainment Team demonstrate how creative structuring of roles enables a small group of people to make a big impact. They embody the DCOP’s call to build diverse teams and internal capacity by creating an environment that attracts, upskills and retains developers for their organization.

At the same time, they keep the organization’s live services operating and meeting user needs for longer. The result is that digital delivery at NRIDS is more efficient and sustainable – and more likely to stay that way.

Check out the blog and learn how people across government are following each DCOP practice at work.

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