Alex Benay is the Chief Information Officer Government of Canada and an open and relentless advocate for digital government innovation.
Benay is also the author of the new book, “Government Digital: The Quest to Regain Public Trust,” so we asked him to share his thoughts on the role of the CIO, Canada’s proactive move to technology modernization, and what it means for government to go digital.
What’s your role as Canada’s chief information officer?
The Office of the Chief Information Officer provides strategic direction and leadership in information management, information technology, security, privacy and access to information across the Government of Canada.
We provide support, guidance and oversight for all digital initiatives within the Government of Canada, and are working to a more cohesive digital strategy for Canada, including an enterprise vision for technology in the GoC, as well as supporting a digital-first service delivery strategy to meet citizens’ needs on any platform or device.
Both nationally and internationally, Canada is emerging as a global leader in digital government? Where are stand out examples we should be paying attention to?
From the My Alberta Digital Identity project (the Province of Alberta, Service Canada and TBS are working together to provide services via a digital identity to residents in Alberta), to the Canada Food Inspection Agency teaming up with Samsung to deliver food recall notices through their smart fridges, there are numerous examples of how government departments are working with partners to seamlessly deliver services to citizens.
In broad strokes, there are a few key policy areas we are looking to affect. These are:
We are working to make procurement practices more agile, by shortening timelines, exploring the implementation of a tech spending cap, and connecting small and medium-sized enterprises and startups to government departments to leverage operational spending to support innovation.
The digital economy has changed the nature of work. Government HR policies will need to adapt to better accommodate the ‘gig’ economy, while maintaining rights and benefits accorded to the traditional ‘full time’ employees. We’re working to make it easier for workers to move between the public and private sector, broadening their experience and bringing new perspectives and skills to public sector work.
The entire Government of Canada system must get better at working in the open in order to do more with less, partner with sectors that possess expertise that we don’t have as a civil service and deliver services where people reside: online. Working in the open means more collaboration, more data shared via the Government of Canada’s open data portal, as well as relying on open source software when possible to deliver greater efficiencies.
Artificial Intelligence- Standards and Ethics
As mentioned previously, the government is currently working with public and private sector stakeholders on the development of ethical AI standards for Canada (both public and private sector) which will ensure that Canadian values are upheld and respected in all AI applications.
Why is ‘Government Digital’ important right now, and who should read it?
The digital revolution has affected every aspect of people’s lives, and governments need to keep up or risk becoming obsolete.
As Canada’s Minister for Digital Government, Scott Brison has said, “…governments cannot be content providing Blockbuster service in a Netflix world.”
Governments must look at leveraging technology to provide seamless services to citizens online, through multiple channels- be it their phone, social media platforms, digital assistance, or even the smart appliances in their home.
Digital service delivery does not care about systems, our hierarchies or our departments. The “Public Service” must learn to work together to succeed in serving citizens who are digital citizens themselves.
This book is for anyone working in the public sector, or any citizen who would like to see how governments can change and adapt to embrace the opportunities of the digital economy. It’s for anyone who’s tired of filling out forms in triplicate, and signing in to multiple user accounts to access government services from different departments.
Change is coming, and this book explores what the future of government will look like.
You differentiate between the old way and the new way. What’s the old way?
The world has problems, and governments have departments. This analogue, linear approach to service delivery needs to change.
The old way is having a citizen visit a service desk to apply in person for employment insurance, or to line up for hours at a passport office to apply for a new passport. The technology now exists for a citizen to use one login to access online services at a municipal, provincial and federal level. Various levels of government must now work together remove legislative barriers to information sharing, in order to provide seamless services to citizens.
And the new?
Governments are moving away from linear, analogue models for service delivery and embracing digital, exponential solutions.
As a nation, we need to think bigger and act quicker. In the startup community, a great deal of emphasis is placed on time to market. Similar thinking must now be adopted by governments.
We can no longer rely on policies and practices from an analogue era that mean it takes four to five years for change to happen. The digital revolution has drastically changed the pace of change, and governments need to adapt. Procurement timelines need to shift from three to five years to six to twelve months, and governments as a whole need to be more agile in their approach.
Internationally, Estonia is a great example of a country that quickly changed their legislation in order to prepare for the digital economy. From a national digital ID program, to encouraging global startups to make Estonia their place of business via e-citizenship, Estonia has established itself as a world leader in digital government. The economic benefits of this approach are easy to see- the small country with a population of 1.3 million currently boasts four ‘unicorns’ (tech companies valued over $1 billion dollars).
You’ve talked a lot about failure and even wrote a book on it? How and when is it O.K. for government to fail?
It’s become a bit of a cliché, but I do think it’s important to emphasize that failure should happen quickly and often.
Public servants who are quick to acknowledge and learn from failure are more likely to produce a higher quality product than workers who live in fear of failure, trying to cover up or airbrush mistakes, rather than frankly acknowledging when something isn’t working and changing it.
When you look at large-scale IT failures in the public service, it is often because problems should have been acknowledged very early in the planning stages, which would have mitigated some of the damage. By embracing a culture where failure is accepted as a part of innovation, the public sector can move away from linear, waterfall approaches to project management, and towards a more agile, and iterative model of product delivery.
You’ve established yourself as a cheerleader of sorts, but also openly and authentically talking about government innovation. What’s your advice to other technology leaders and, in general, an industry that’s typically reserved, behind the scenes and reticent to be as publicly vocal as you are?
As mentioned above, I advocate for a lot more transparency in the public sector. This means adopting a ‘user first’ approach to service delivery- designing services in the open, working with citizens to get their feedback throughout the design process, and relentlessly testing products and services before they are rolled out.
Leaders in government need to encourage their teams to collaborate with other departments, jurisdictions, the private sector and academia in order to ensure all perspectives are included to deliver the best service to citizens.
Government Digital: The Quest to Regain Public Trust