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Change and Innovation in the public sector

Change and Innovation in the public sector

Equipping the largest Canadian enterprise to thrive in a digitally disrupted world is complex and challenging. In this episode, Jon Finkelstein and Alex Benay CIO of the Government of Canada talk about the steps to create a digital government and fundamentally change how the government operates balancing technology, policy, and legislation, with the need to be more collaborative and more open to the innovation ecosystem.

Duration: 17:44

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Episode 06: Change and Innovation in the public sector (audio only)
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Transcript: Change and Innovation in the public sector

Jon Finkelstein: Hi, welcome to Shift, PwC Canada's Podcast series, and we're digging into key digital trends and topics that can make your business transformation a reality. I’m your host Jon Finklestein, and I’m also the creative director of PwC Canada.   

Welcome to another edition of Shift. Oh man, I'm excited today. Today, we're talking about enabling change in digital innovation in the public sector. I'm here with Alex Benay, who is the CIO, that's Chief Information Officer of the Government of Canada, that's huge. Welcome to Shift.

Alex: Thanks.

Jon Finkelstein: I feel like I'm in the presence of royalty. Tell us a little bit about what's going on with you.

Alex: So personally I've ... I'm in the role for about seven months, it's an interesting job because we have quite a few public failures in our execution in the paper these days, and there's ... You may as well talk about that early on in this interview, this discussion that's resulted in people not getting paid, or not deploying email systems, or ... So on the one hand we've got these terrible things going on, and on the other hand, there's an entire wind of change thing goin' on where we could look at executing differently where there's an appetite to do procurement differently that we've done, hire people differently and there's a realization I think unfortunately through Winston Churchill, "Never waste a good crisis," that maybe it's time to do something a little bit different, so yeah, it's bit of a world of polar extremes a little bit if you will for us. For me personally, the last seven months, but there's a huge, huge appetite to do things differently in the public sector in Ottawa and the federal government, that I could certainly attest to.

Jon Finkelstein: Maybe I'm speaking on behalf of all citizens, but how do you do it? How do you drive a change agenda? How do you look for innovation in a context of government where it's slow to adopt or there's reticence?

Alex: Yeah, so a couple diametrically oppo ... Or when some people can think as diametrically opposed concepts, we need our plan for us is to add way more discipline. That doesn't mean bureaucracy, it doesn't mean layers, it just means we have 400 case management systems for example, in the government of Canada, that's about an average of nine per department. If we think we have consistent service standard by having nine different cases per department, that's probably a falsehood that we're creating for ourselves.

World's way more collaborative, more open innovation ecosystem, and we still do very linear and closed. That's the fundamental shift that has to happen. So there's the discipline side of it that will permit us to be a little bit more agile in how we execute, and it means fundamentally changing how we do government. The reason I took the job is because of that.

We try to promote working in the open for all of our staff, which means talk about what you're working on, don't spend three years developing a policy behind closed doors and then ta-da, because you've probably missed the market, the pace at which things are moving right now.

So it also means that traditional areas that have never had to deal with tech in the government, who still see technology as a back office enabling function, haven't quite realized that there has not been a new business in the world in the last few years that's not digital by design and nature. So our policies are not just about just policies, the whole world is digital now, and if we don't adjust our thinking, we are gonna get things done to us. So that means changing the tool set, changing how we engage, changing how we develop programs and services, doing it out in the open with more people, not just ourselves. We're no longer experts in anything.

I think the days where we thought the government was the voice of authority on things are probably gone now because things are just moving too quickly and we're having a hard time keeping up with it, so we have to be a player in a much bigger pawn game-

Jon Finkelstein: Do you find that you guys are spending time ... One of the things we love to focus on here at PwC is really being human centered, yeah?

Alex: Yeah.

Jon Finkelstein: And making sure that the consumers, the citizens, the people are at the heart of what it is we're trying to innovate, or what it is we're trying to transform. Can you talk a little bit about ... 'Cause you mentioned, 'Oh we're gonna be in a more open environment, developing policy behind closed doors for three years and then coming out to the other side doesn't make sense.'

Alex: Even what we see as a consultation period with a beginning and an end, and then we do right into an age where you can engage with politicians, movie stars, people online. People are accessible all the time, like we have a beginning and an end to our consultation period, but no ... So there's definitely for us a need to move to I think a more collaborative space overall, I think it's an exciting time. I think we get to a place where we're able to do more with less, and I wanna make the distinction between a digital government is a different way of working versus digitizing government and the way it exists as well is important delineation to make.

Jon Finkelstein: That's really cool. Talk to me a little bit more about the difference between digitizing government and being a digital government.

Alex: Yeah, so governments around the world, I had the pleasure of being an OpenText for about five years where I was runnin' ... Lucky enough to run through a whole bunch of different eGoverment projects around the world, and at that time we were trying to ... It was all about let's digitize the process.

So a lot of processing technology, a lot of infrastructure technology, which was linear, A to B to C to D move this thing and turn it into bits and a bite and then move it quickly. That doesn't change the process, that just makes the process faster, which in itself is a noble cause, but in today's interconnected society where internet of things is becoming a reality, we're talking about billions upon billions of devices where the voices of the crowd are astronomically more powerful than trying to sit at your desk to write a research thesis paper. The model has shifted, right?

A digital government is one where your contents available by default, so unless it's personal, or private, or national security that it's released to the public so everybody can see you're working out in the open. The reason for that is if you're a researcher, for example, you have no idea in other countries what people are working on, the internet is a very powerful and vast place, so what if somebody can augment your research in India, and in Australia, and in Botswana, and all of a sudden you're leveraging the power of tens of thousands of people for your one research piece.

The other facet of that is I would say in a government wastes 99% of its capital, which is content and information and data that never gets released, you never know one person's trash is another person's treasure. Like who would've thought that Ancestry. com or Flight Tracker would be close to a billion dollar entities today with content that people thought was irrelevant?

So the fuel, the chip that we have in this digital economy, digital world of us as public sector is our content. So a digital government is one that puts it out there by default, by design that enables way more third parties to interact with it.

So in Canada, we have The Weather Network, we have Turbo Tax Intuit, and other taxation's software tools. What if we took that and we amplified that? What if we let more third parties to lower services on behalf of the government of Canada because maybe they can do it more quickly and more efficiently. It doesn't mean that we don't offer the service, the CRA still offers the tax service, they always will, but they've created an ecosystem for themselves.

So a digital government is a service that's anywhere on any device, on any platform, why can't renew your passport for you. When you book your trip it tells you your passports expired, I'm sure doesn't like losing a sale, 'cause you gotta go spend a month renewing your passport, and then you may not go back there. So if you're booking your trip off and it tells you your passports about to expire, we have the technologies to authenticate now, why couldn't it renew your passport for you?

Jon Finkelstein: It's a wicked idea.

Alex: Right, then why can't you do it from your car, or your watch or anywhere else. We have to become ubiquitous as government. We have to make sure people don't even know we're there in a lot of cases because it's a little bit presumptuous of us to think that in a digital world, where you're used to getting things on your phone and your watch, that we are going to make you come to us is actually very pompous in a way. We have to find a way to get to where people are and that is increasingly online, so very different way of developing policies out in the open with people, and engaging. Very different way of developing services with others.

We've just launched an agile procurement for the first time federally, where we bought a tech thing in two months, but we didn't put out all our requirements and prescribed the solution, we just said here's the challenge, you guys are expert, help us. So you get to co-create with people way more and you get to be taken to places that are way more innovative as opposed to you spending three years talking to vendors that will tell you your solution is based on their product, you're actually telling the world here's my problem. Xprize has shown that they can do some really cool stuff. We've launched that for the first time. So it's just changing how you do government, it's not digitizing an old process for a paper environment that was designed pre-car, it's literally doing things different based on how things are done today.

Jon Finkelstein: I think that's a total beacon ... I wish more people were thinking the way you're thinking about how to change the environment, or the model that you're working on because I think we deal with a lot of big organizations, right? Obviously not as large in a scale as government, but you get into ... It's so easy to say, 'We can't do that, that's not possible, that'll take too long, we don't have the resources or the whatever,' these turn the whole thing on it's end and I go, 'I love that.' It's like ... This is our problem, and go out to experts whether its co-creation, or collaboration, and go, 'What's the best way to do this?'

Alex: If you look at artificial intelligence, the federal governments invested hundreds of millions in the last budget in AI, if we do things the traditional way that we've done, pre-digital, we will spend three, four ... 'Cause we wanna do AI stuff in government, we have to. I think it's part of ensuring our survival as a service provider, as a policy center for the country, as a whole bunch of things. If we were to do it the traditional way, we'd spend three years trying to define requirements.

Whereas in me going out to the market and saying here is the things that we're considering that are issues, I may get a university responding to me, I may get the province of Ontario responding. Why am I limiting it to vendors? If you really think about it, right?

A story I like to tell is NASA spent 20-30 years trying to predict solar flares, right? Spend millions of dollars, best scientists all the time, trying to predict solar flares. We all agree that if we're on a plane ride and a solar flare happens, it's not a fun day for you. So couldn't do it, couldn't predict it to a level of accuracy that they were looking for, they released all the content a couple of weeks later, a retired professor ... A retired radio operator from Massachusetts predicted, was able to use the data, developed a model that predicted solar flares up to 85% accuracy. So it's not that they wasted tens of millions of dollars trying to do it, it's that they were able to leverage that body of knowledge and that data and somebody somewhere that they didn't pay was able to figure it out.

That's the value government needs to bring I think moving forward. I don't think there's a piece of public science that should be done behind closed doors or firewalls moving forward. Other countries are moving towards that, the EU is looking to make it law.

Estonia is a model that ... Is a country that has transcended the physical realm so you can be an eCitizen of Estonia and never set foot in the country. You can launch your business in Estonia and never set foot in the country. They're looking at cryptocurrency as their new national currency. They have elevated themselves from the physical and the funny part of that is because we're the government of Canada, we use to think that small couldn't deal with the government of Canada, we're too big, we need big companies to deal with us, right? But it's all the small folks that are actually setting the pace now. Singapore, UAE, Catalonia hasn't even officially removed themselves from Spain and the day after the vote, they were looking at a cryptocurrency for the country.

Small is better, so we have to stop thinking bigger is better and linear is better. Small exponential can do way more, and we're seeing it with these small countries that are now leading the digital agenda for the world. It's not the States, it's not China, it's not us, it's these other small countries, so I think there's a lot to be learned there that we need to change our culture from a public sector perspective and actually the mandate of government is actually way more fun now than it's ever been. We just haven't been really able to shift the thinking I think.

Jon Finkelstein: That's wicked. As a CIO, I'm really curious, how do you protect the government and citizens from cyber risk? This is all over the news right now, there's hacks everywhere, there's all kinds of Mr. Robot out there. I'm really curious, that's gotta be top of mind.

Alex: It is, we spent the last, I don't know, half hour talking about digital services and transformation, and one of the things we have to keep in mind is if you're spending a dollar on a digital service, you should spend a dollar on cyber security. I had a chance to meet a lot of the COs of the banks at Waterloo at an event, and asked them what some of their top priorities were and to a tee, they all responded cyber security. One breach and the business is dead, right? Essentially, and the ... this is gonna sound bad, but the one luxury that the government has is the business wouldn't die, but it would be another nail in the coffin towards trust of citizens in its government, if something happened at that scale.

Luckily we've been putting a lot of investments in our cyber security, we're globally ... Like shared service Canada is a big beast that we created to manage infrastructure, but it's not just a series of things that you read in the newspapers that are horrible. We've got some of the best cyber defenses in the world now because of it, so that's great because that's where a lot of our data resides.

I think you ... To get to your question, you address that through legislation and policy, and then you address it through technology. The challenge on legislation and policy front 'cause there's one on each front, on the policy and legislation front, is we did an assessment of 11 departments not to get to a digital service platform for [inaudible 00:14:20]. We had to ... We would've had to of changed 189 pieces of legislation to share data. That means it's also 189 different ways of getting to the data, and that could be good or bad depending on your risks, or do you like having it all in one place super secure, or spread out and distributed.

These are all conversations, and with the cyber thing on the policy front is that it's ever changing. It takes us a year, year and a half to do a policy for government of Canada just because of the scale of the consultations and the dialogue. While cyber changes on a dime, right? So now what? So how do you create the right policy environment within the right standards underneath them, and the right controls, which could be more easily changed than a policy.

So we gotta figure out how we operate really quickly, really nimbly, and the other key challenge legislatively and policy wise is that a cyber-attack on a bank could easily turn into an infection at CRA, could easily hit every single citizen in the country, right? So we ... The world has problems, and often government, not just Ottawa has departments. So we look at things vertically but cyber one of those things that it doesn't care, right? Who you are, what sector you're in, so we again have to shift the thinking away from vertical silos of government to oh crap, now what if for energy infrastructure ... There's a lot of bright people that are thinking about that at C-Sec, so policy and legislation an issue, technology an issue.

To be honest with you, a lot of the cyber-attacks are so sophisticated and they sit in your environment for six to 12 months could be dormant ... There will always be a risk of cyber, and that's a constant risk that we have to figure out, so a dollar in digital services in modernization, you gotta put a dollar in cyber. I'm not quite sure we're there yet, public sector went large around the world in understanding that.

If you look at our new defense policy, cyber's a big part of it. Our national defense strategy and policy for what we use to be tanks and airplanes and boats and other things has cyber in there at the core. So things have really shifted, right? So this is something in the next two to five years are just going to continue taking a boat load of importance.

Jon Finkelstein: Yeah, kinda has to, especially as things become more digital-

Alex: 100%.

Jon Finkelstein: More ubiquitous in IOT, and all those things, it's just yeah. It's probably a dollar for services, two dollars for-

Alex: Perhaps.

Jon Finkelstein: Cyber security.

Jon Finkelstein: Alex thank you so much for taking time to talk about this stuff. It's super interesting and I think it's on everybody's mind, not only how is a government gonna evolve, how is it gonna modernize, how are we gonna be secure, how do we deliver services, more ... Not only more transparently, but more ... I'll use the word Omni-channel, that's not really the right word, but to be ubiquitous. I think that's-

Alex: I want the world to forget that we are there, and some people will take that very negatively, but from a services' perspective, we need to disappear. How do we disappear, right? That'll be cool.

Jon: Frictionless? Well that's what they say, it's the best experience is one that you never even really notice.

Alex: It's a pretty crappy job to aspire to disappear to as your ultimate goal, but if you wanted to look at it that way, but that would mean we have gotten to a state where we are having maximum impact on Canadians lives for minimal ... With minimal friction as you say-

Jon Finkelstein: One inch punch.

Alex: Yup.

Jon Finkelstein: Thanks for listening to this episode of Shift. You can get more details at If you enjoy this episode, and wanna hear more, subscribe to our podcast series. You could find us on iTunes, Google Play, or your preferred podcast platform. Just so you know, this podcast has been prepared by Pricewaterhouse Coopers LLP, and Ontario limited liability partnership for general guidance on matters of interest only, and does not constitute professional advice, until next time.

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