- COVID-19 has helped accelerate the speed of technology adoption and innovation in government services.
- Partnerships between government and the private sector are crucial to innovation and governmental tech adoption.
- The digital transformation of government is critical not only to Canada’s economic recovery, but also to long-term economic growth.
For the acceleration of tech adoption in the government to be successful, government needs to be able to launch services faster and have the agility to pivot if issues arise. This approach will prove more impactful rather than taking time to implement solutions for problems that need addressing now.
How would you describe Canada’s public service and government tech adoption?
Traditionally, tech adoption in the public sector has been slower compared to that of the private sector. Accenture conducted a global survey in 2019 that found that Canada ranks ninth out of 12 countries in public sector digital innovation. A lot of public sector leaders felt they have improved on performance over the last three years and 60% of them have felt they have improved on innovation, but only 25% of Canadian citizens felt they have received higher quality services and experiences from the government.
However, COVID-19 has completely changed the game, making public sector organizations adopt technology and set up new digital services and models at unprecedented speeds. Accenture helped the Canadian government launch the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) that provides financial support to Canadians impacted by COVID-19. In four days, Accenture set up a call centre of 2,600 Canada-based agents, 2,500 dual-language process documents, and did hours of training to handle remote calls. Through April of last year, the agents were successfully managing over 40,000 calls a day.
COVID-19 has completely changed the game, making public sector organizations adopt technology and set up new digital services and models at unprecedented speeds.
Another example is from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), where they recently launched a new platform for online citizenship testing. Public sector agencies have recognized through COVID-19 that they can be nimbler and that they can solve their business challenges faster. We must build upon this momentum so that it becomes the new normal for government tech adoption.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of tech adoption in the Canadian government?
One of our strengths is how the Canadian government made clear commitments to embrace digital government transformation. They have set a few different strategies at the federal level to do this, including setting a cloud-first adoption strategy, recognizing that the cloud is the preferred option for information technology (IT) delivery. This helps balance the supply of IT services with demand, risks, and preparing the workforce. Many of the programs the Canadian government launched through COVID-19 are cloud-based and that has allowed them to provide speedier delivery.
Another piece would be around the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), which has been very valuable in modernizing the way the Canadian government thinks about digital services and growing the digital capacity of government. An example would be the COVID Alert app the CDS developed. There is also Shared Services Canada with their enterprise approach to setting digital standards and operational plans for leveraging digital technologies.
Finally, the government also has significant purchasing power to adopt these technologies. Accenture did a 2019 survey which found that almost 90% of Canadian organizations believe the Canadian government has the investment capacity to advance core digital services.
In terms of opportunities for our government, our government clients do not always know the full scope of what is possible. We need to look at other jurisdictions and learn from them on solutions and approaches that have worked and apply them here in Canada. In the UK and Australia, they have implemented digital services for their immigration clients. We are seeing that being applied in the Canadian immigration landscape now.
Ninety percent of Canadian organizations believe the Canadian government has the investment capacity to advance core digital services.
The other opportunity I see is how to leverage industry better in this process. Canada needs to think about industry as a strategic partner rather than just vendors. A good example of this is Accenture’s long-standing relationship with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. We have worked together as partners to create a new digital strategy and undergo a complete business and technology transformation, which has allowed them to meet their overall aspiration of having everyone in Canada have a home that they can afford and that meets their needs.
The last point I will make is around the complexities of the procurement system for our government. COVID-19 has shown that there is an opportunity to be more agile in procurement. We have seen partners like TECHNATION working with the government, industry, and the CIO Strategy Council to develop more agile and accessible procurements. Agility in procurement is critical to allow Canada to be more cutting-edge in its innovation adoption and fuel economic growth.
What can the government learn from the private sector in terms of innovation and technology adoption?
I work both in public and private sector organizations so I can see both viewpoints. My experience from the private sector has shown the benefits of what I call the componentizing of organizations. When you work in small, agile, and collaborative teams rather than in one large unit, you have a greater ability to adapt and you can tap into more resilient ecosystems. There is a lot of ability to scale innovations rapidly when you have that type of collaboration. However, sometimes that pace can come at a price. This is what the private sector can learn from the public sector, which is when you scale innovation too fast, sometimes you miss unintended consequences in broader society.
When you scale innovation too fast, sometimes you miss unintended consequences in broader society.
Public service organizations are duty-bound to take into account these societal impacts. Growth of revenue is not the singular option for the public sector; they have to consider the societal impacts of their innovation. The public sector should leverage the speed and focus of the private sector while blending it with consideration and accountability for longer-term societal implications. That kind of hybrid approach will generate innovation that makes sense in the public sector. We have seen examples of open collaboration with government bodies like in Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), where they are creating mechanisms for the interprovincial sharing of best practices on open innovation and policies. They are also providing funding for open innovation conferences where citizens and residents can engage in dialogue with government on innovation. We have seen examples of that, but we need more of that balance of speed and focus while understanding the wider societal impacts of our innovation.
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How will the Canadian government’s tech adoption and digital transformation impact the Canadian economy?
Digital transformation is critical to the economy. A thriving economy requires policy solutions and services that are designed for the century we live in now, the 21st century. Scott Brison, the former Treasury Board president, said we cannot have a Blockbuster government serving Netflix citizens. We need a digital-first innovative government that can deliver services to people wherever they are, whatever device they are on, and whatever circumstances they are in. This is where we see some of the government’s digital services lagging behind that of the private sector.
A thriving economy requires policy solutions and services that are designed for the century we live in now, the 21st century.
COVID-19 has shown us the importance of digital transformation for the economy. Financial benefits going into the hands of citizens and businesses have been so critical in COVID-19 and been so important for our economy. Another example would be immigration. Immigration is such a strategic asset for Canada and it is an integral driver of our economic and social growth. We need the digital transformation of our immigration landscape so that we can tap into its benefits quickly to fuel our recovery. If the government has plans to increase our immigration levels, we need to transform our services.
Another example that hits close to home is the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Pre-pandemic, we worked closely with them to transform their whole technology landscape to support them in launching 13 new housing programs through the National Housing Strategy, which seeks to strengthen the middle class and reduce chronic homelessness. That also fuels the economy. Digital transformation is critical to recovery coming out of COVID-19, and also for our long-term economic growth.
What are the top three priorities for helping the public sector innovate?
The three priorities are around cloud and digital transformation, partnerships, and recruitment and reskilling.
The adoption of cloud technologies is critical to our Canadian government at all levels, provincial, federal, and municipal, to become world class. It is foundational for us to implement and scale new technologies to truly innovate. The benefits of cloud technologies span costs, risks, flexibility, and speed implications, and that has proven itself throughout COVID-19.
The adoption of cloud technologies is critical to our Canadian government at all levels, provincial, federal, and municipal, to become world class.
In terms of partnerships, we need collaborations across the entirety of government with the entirety of the private sector, including startups, tech firms, consulting firms, and academia. I have seen the power of bringing an ecosystem or a consortium of different organizations together to succeed at solving a problem. A recent survey told us that 80% of Canadians said that the Canadian government should be working with the private sector on foundational digital transformation to truly be successful in their efforts. It goes beyond just the private sector to academia and other levels of government.
Third, we need a workforce for the 21st century. This is not only in the IT departments of our governments and organizations; every government department and organization needs to be a digital organization. We need to think of new ways to attract talent and upskill their current talents. In the federal government, recruits have access to a wide variety of upskilling courses through the Canadian School of Public Service to refresh their skills, and we are starting to see the benefits of that. People are refreshing their skills and that is so critical in terms of helping the public service innovate.
We have to evolve our government’s risk appetite around digitization as we have through COVID-19 to move at speed and launch new services that have impact instead of taking years to evolve. This comes down to a culture change. To accelerate digital transformation and cloud adoption for government, we must be willing to embrace imperfections and accept that as we go along the journey, pivots will happen. It is not always going to be perfect but to truly make an impact, we have to be willing to launch services at speed and pivot along the journey. COVID-19 has proven that we can do this. We need to take the learnings from what we accomplished through COVID-19 and apply them to broader digital transformation across government. Now is the time to build on this momentum. This is an unprecedented opportunity and a once-in-a-generation opportunity to meet the needs of citizens, businesses, and government by harvesting the power of technology.