Canadian Governance Models are Ripe for Digital Disruption
Chief Information Officer
Government of Canada
Alex Benay was named Chief Information Officer of Canada in April 2017 with the mandate to help shift government towards digital. Prior to this position, he was President and CEO of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, which operates three national museums. Before this, and since 2009, he was Vice-President at Open Text, Canada’s largest software company.
The Office of the Chief Information Officer at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat provides strategic direction and leadership to Government of Canada departments and agencies, in the areas of information management, information technology, security, privacy, and access to information.
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1- Entrenched governance models value stability. But that stability is keeping us from quickly adjusting to the constant and rapid pace of change in our digital world. Countries that change their regulations faster to keep pace with digital change are winning in the digital economy.
2- Digital innovation at all levels of the public sector must be approached in a different way. It must be accelerated, more open and be seen as an opportunity to reduce public sector risks and costs.
3- Canada does not need an extensive digital strategy, but we need to come to a consensus around core tenets around which we build a short-term digital plan of action.
If you are in a position of leadership, take the time to imagine what Canada would look like if you started over. If you were to recreate government services today, what would they look like? If you did not have legacy technology, a legacy economy, legacy immigration policies, legacy economic development policies, how would you design the world?
How is the digital revolution affecting the Canadian economy?
There are two big trends that Canada, and the world, need to be aware of. First, our internet is becoming increasingly fractured, which has created a more difficult global economy. We need to seriously consider the effects of this division, and how we can respond to it.
Secondly, the internet has sparked a debate over human-digital rights, economic platforms and social media platforms. This is a conversation that no one is used to having and every single country in the world is struggling with. Large platforms are being brought in front of congress and parliamentary committees all over the world. On one hand, the internet must remain an open and public place in order for free trade to continue and human rights to be respected. But we must not incentivize the commercialization of an individual’s data.
Is the Government of Canada prepared for digital disruption?
Historically, governments have been a little bit behind the private sector when it comes to the adoption of new technologies; sometimes with good reason. Making a mistake at the border is different than making a mistake in the stock markets, so the magnitude of the stakes is a little higher in the public sector. However, governments today are not all that far behind. For example, the Canadian government is working on delivering services through Amazon Alexa, and working on prototypes with Samsung to deliver information about food recalls directly to Canadians. All of our work is in consideration of the Internet of Things (IoT), exploring what opportunities it can provide government to improve service delivery to Canadians.
But it is not just about individual examples; we need to change the business model around innovation in the public sector. Maybe we need to release more data to the public, do more third-party collaboration work, and develop more application program interfaces (API) so that more people can participate in the service-delivery ecosystem. To do this, we need to empower public service leaders to embrace cultural change, be less risk-averse and, frankly, promote failure a bit more. This does not mean that we want to waste taxpayers’ dollars. We want to make more informed decisions to be the most effective government we can be for Canadians.
From a technical perspective, the Government of Canada is making all the right investments in artificial intelligence. We are also having important discussions about privacy and regulations. Having said that, all levels of government in Canada need to understand and appreciate the concept of “time to market”. This is a private sector term, but countries that change their regulations faster, to keep pace with digital change, are winning in the digital economy. For instance, if a country changes its regulations to permit autonomous vehicles (AVs) sooner, it will attract investments in this industry more quickly. In Phoenix, Arizona, there has been extensive AV testing over the past five to seven years. Meanwhile, in Canada, General Motors has done a lot of research on AVs, however, we are unable to use it within Canada because the laws do not permit the adoption of autonomous vehicles.
There are privacy implications the government must consider as well. Over the last four or five years, the individual has become a central part of the data driven economy. Products are being created that commercialize the individual in a way to which we were not accustomed. So, is the Terms and Conditions page that most of us do not read the right social license for data collection and sharing? That is a difficult conversation to have, especially as a government, which is dealing with multiple stakeholders at different levels.
As an exercise, we should consider the following: if you are in a position of leadership, imagine what Canada would look like if you started over. If you were to recreate government services today, what would they look like? If you did not have legacy technology, a legacy economy, legacy immigration policies, legacy economic development policies, how would you design the world?
What is the future of digital government in Canada?
Governance models were designed over 150 years ago and for good reason: our government structure values stability. While this stability is crucial for our day-to-day operations, it also keeps us from adjusting more quickly to the world around us. Estonia, for example, has changed all of its regulations in a span of six months to attract huge sums in cryptocurrency. Estonia has changed its regulations to allow for the creation of e-businesses such that you can be an Estonian business and not have to set foot in the country. This is incentivizing businesses in countries without a European Free Trade Agreement to register in Estonia.
Maybe most government information should be released to the public because a lot of it is not necessarily confidential. By doing that, government will be able to engage more actors in academia, industry, research and the wider public. We could be creating a much more transparent and digitally enabled democracy in which the government delivers services to citizens where they reside and through the platform of their choice.
“All levels of government in Canada need to understand and appreciate the concept of “time to market”. This is a private sector term, but countries that change their regulations faster, to keep pace with digital change, are winning in the digital economy.”
Canada is already number one in the world in open data. We are tied with the UK in terms of the amount of data we release at all levels of government. We are third in the world in AI adoption readiness. With the work that we have been doing on the policy and procurement side for federal government services, we will rank even higher in the near future. We are on the right track, but we need more openness and transparency from all levels of government to succeed. This kind of change will take a lot of time in our federal structure, with multiple levels of government, so we cannot aim to achieve the same kind of results as countries like Estonia, in such a short period of time.
The way we think about talent also has to change in the digital economy. While Canada has traditional immigration models for acquiring digital talent, Estonia can now get digital talent from all over the world through virtual businesses. Our governance models are ripe for disruption and we should not shy away from it.
Do you think Canada should have a national digital strategy and, if so, what should it look like?
I have never been a huge fan of strategy in the digital space because things change so quickly. If we spend two or three years developing a strategy, the entire digital economy would have changed by the time we are done. We do not need a 50-page digital strategy, we need three or four core tenets, around which we build a plan of action. We were not talking about automating government services even two years ago, now it is a reality. It is, though, definitely worth figuring out how to develop a short-term action plan for the digital economy.
How do you envision Canada’s digital economy in 2050?
I would like to see the Canadian digital model more in line with countries like Estonia, which are removing physical barriers and changing the model of macro governance. I am not questioning immigration by any standard because I think Canada’s strength is its diversity. But, do we need everybody physically in the country or can we propagate Canada’s values through virtual businesses or virtual citizenship models? It will be very interesting to see how we’ll do business here and abroad by the time we hit 2050.