Canada's Post-COVID Digital Future Canada's Post-COVID Digital Future

Canada’s Post-COVID Digital Future Panel

Published on
  • Alex Benay CIO Strategy KPMG Canada Headshot 300x300 Alex Benay Partner in Digital and Government Solutions - KPMG Canada & Co-Founder - CIO Strategy Council
  • Keith Jansa, CIO Strategy Council Keith Jansa Executive Director - CIO Strategy Council


  1. If Canada wants to be a digital nation, the first delivery method of choice needs to be digital for health care and education.
  2. Canada’s federation is holding it back from implementing a national digital strategy and making progress on digital ID because things quickly become political.
  3. Consensus-based standards underpin all economies; keep products safe and reliable; are a strategic tool used to establish digital processes; and enable ecosystem-wide collaboration and interoperability.
  4. Procurement is an essential route through which Canada can grow its tech and cybersecurity companies, and it will be increasingly important if and when global markets begin to close.
  5. Canada has tremendous talent in tech, but we need a new approach to talent acquisition in the digital age where people can work online from anywhere in the world and do not necessarily need to immigrate to Canada.


Canada needs a modern, national blueprint for digital identity; secure data sharing and legislation that supports it; agile procurement to grow our tech ecosystem; and finally, a cybersecure infrastructure that protects our citizens. These five, actionable items will help Canada become a digital-first nation that is globally competitive. Looking at both the public and private sectors, where are we now in terms of digital capacity and resilience?

Keith Jansa: What we have witnessed as a result of the pandemic is a refocusing of priorities, both within the public and private sector. It has become clear that there is a need for digital transformation regardless of what organization or what sector you come from.

“There is a need for digital transformation regardless of what organization or what sector you come from.”

Keith Jansa

The pandemic has created an urgency to move from transformations that would take years to what is required in sheer months as a result of moving toward remote work and to continuing to realize a business and competitive advantages even though we are sort of locked down during this current crisis.

Alex Benay: I agree with Keith. The thing I would add is that there has been a realization, I am not sure there has been a pivot, necessarily—at  least in the public sector.

You are still seeing a lot of service counters, for example, rely on the old analog mechanism of standing in line and going to go get a service when, if you think about it, there is no reason that your insurance company could not renew your driver’s license for you. It has the exact same information as the government.

So we have not changed the underlying business model, we have realized that maybe we need to get more connected. You are seeing investments in Nova Scotia, in Ontario, in other provinces—but [we cannot] say we have changed the underlying business model of government or even other industries.

I am not quite sure we have, unfortunately, leveraged the pandemic to the fullest extent possible.

Keith Jansa: I think one of the key dynamics or shifts that we have seen is collaboration between the public and private sector. I think during this current crisis, it has been clear that there has been a willingness and openness of working together, of solving for some critical issues to ensure that Canadians not only are safe but can continue to rely on the infrastructure that is in place to go to work, to watch over their children—all those critical services that we quite often take for granted. Alex, from your perspective, has COVID-19 really changed a lot of what we are discussing right now in terms of Canada’s digital position or has it only magnified it, accelerated it or in some sense weakened our position?

Alex Benay: I think it has helped to highlight deficiencies in certain areas. There are still regions of the country that are not connected and that is being resolved and being accelerated.

It has helped, to Keith’s earlier comment, bring sectors together in a way that possibly we had never thought of—if you think about feds, working through the banks to issue relief. There has been a lot of positive on that front.

It has highlighted deep, deep issues in our country around federation. We do not have a national contact tracing app like most other countries do because it has to be voluntary, depending on the province you are in. I do not know if I feel super good about that as a Canadian. Or, being able to move supply chains so that a plastic producer in Alberta knows that he or she can send his plastic to a mask production company in Quebec that has a shortage of materials. That interprovincial trade stuff is still there.

“If  we are going to be talking about a digital nation—there  is a lot of old world, industrial age economic legacies that we still have to tackle.”

Alex Benay

 [The pandemic] has accelerated [and] highlighted things—there have been good actions. I still think that there is a lot—if  we are going to be talking about a digital nation—there  is a lot of old world, industrial age economic legacies that we still have to tackle and frankly, that is the hard stuff. Otherwise, it is kind of like a nice book cover, and so we still have to tackle the hard stuff. Canada is a very democratic, decentralized country and so changing that in terms of a data strategy or digital strategy—just like for an energy strategy or a health strategy—is a huge endeavour, is it not? Is it even realistic to consider that we could change that?

Alex Benay: Listen, I am a bit of a cynic, I am cynical. Just to be clear, A) I am a proud Canadian, B) I do think that the current model has value in it. We have some of the best healthcare in the world, our education system is pretty good, but what [the pandemic] has highlighted is—short of enacting wartime measures, which we did not—in  the case of the pandemic, you cannot really do a Canada thing really easily.

To not throw out the baby with the bathwater here—we are not talking about a unified education system—but think about it. If provinces are going online faster on the education front than other provinces, will we not have parts of our country that, all of a sudden—if there is a second or a third wave—are completely not providing the same level of education from one part of the country to the next?

Because digital and data does not care about some of our industrial age complexes like borders—and think of the cloud and these other things—we do have to have some really serious conversations. I think it is probably time for a different discussion around federal-provincial relationships in some of these areas but that is a touchy subject when there are minority governments, nationally and provincially. Frankly, it becomes a political thing quite quickly. Well, Keith, you are not in the government or political realm yourself, perhaps you could share your external input.

Keith Jansa: From my perspective, I think what the pandemic has done is as much as we have had to accelerate deployments of some critical infrastructure so that we are able to get subsidies or support to Canadians, I think at the same time, what it has demonstrated is that the ability to do this quickly and to iterate on to improve—this notion of continuous improvement—is not a bad a thing.

I think for our country, oftentimes and [with] many strategies, you are  brainstorming, you are going through this strategic cycle—you are trying to essentially solve for everything, you are trying to make things perfect, and oftentimes you are so focused on strategy you do not actually implement anything.

So for me, whether within the public or private sector, I think what this has done is there has been an urgent need to do something now. And regardless of the bureaucracy, regardless of our current institutions, and in the way in which we govern ourselves, there has been a clear shift that we can do it quickly and we can iterate on, and it may not necessarily be perfect but there is this opportunity to continuously improve on it.

I would not shy away from having these sorts of discussions, I would not shy away from making this iterative change and improvements because quite frankly, if we do not, we are simply pedalling, and we are not going anywhere. You are talking about entrepreneurialism here or entrepreneurship, which of course, for the government—Alex maybe this one is for you—are we saying here that the government needs to be a bit more entrepreneurial and perhaps not be afraid to fail because we need to try and not be stuck in our ways?

Keith Jansa: Listen, governments across the country have shown a willingness to take risks in the last six months, even at the risk of making mistakes.

There is enough in the papers without me highlighting a couple of the big ones around making mistakes. Frankly, media like to pick on the stuff that is negative because it sells papers better but think of Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB)—put up in four weeks. Yes, it is not a perfect program, but you know what, it got the job done—and  so kudos from a political leadership perspective to our national and provincial governments because they have all rolled up their sleeves.

The bureaucracy, or the public services, responded as well as they could. The problem is now they need to tackle large, underlying, systemic, decades-old issues in order to not just be peddling and sort of standing still.

If we are going to be serious about being a digital country, we need virtual education, we need telehealth in the regions—because you are not going to send a doctor to a 100-person village. You are not going to open a new government service counter in a 100-person village in Nunavut—it is just not going to happen.

The first delivery mechanism of choice of any service, whether you are public or private sector has to be digital and this country has to make the pivot. In order to do that, there are some really big key components that are missing, [and] that is the next step.

“The first delivery mechanism of choice of any service, whether you are public or private sector has to be digital and this country has to make the pivot.”

Keith Jansa

Otherwise, we have responded well and the elastic will snap back and we will go back to what it was, and we will make a whole bunch of excuses and reasons why we cannot change the business model.

In other countries, just to be clear, the list is Estonia, Denmark, Israel, South Korea, New Zealand, there is a pattern there; they are all small and they are all nimble and agile in how they are executing things, whether that is changing regulations to create economic opportunities, [or] changing service delivery models. There is some stuff there we need to learn from [them] in order to progress.

DIGITAL ID Let us get into the meat of it all: some of those key elements, or pillars, of a strategy. And Keith, I am going to ask you to start here, and we are going to talk about digital identification (ID). Why is digital ID so important?

Keith Jansa: Quite simply it is, are you who you say you are? How do you represent that digitally? How do I know that the interaction I am having with someone through the internet, through any sort of means of communication that is digital, how do I know you are who you say you are?

Then, when you start to apply that across different sectors, whether it is the delivery of healthcare services or about somebody’s immigration status or any of these other interactions that you have, it becomes crucial that as an entity consuming or interacting with an individual, that you are dealing with the right person.

When it comes to being a digital-first nation, the foundation of all of this is digital identity. You need to get that right for all the other economic and social benefits that can be gained—from sharing data to the way in which we procure devices to how we go about ensuring cybersecurity. What underpins all of this is digital identity.

“When it comes to being a digital-first nation, the foundation of all of this is digital identity. You need to get that right for all the other economic and social benefits that can be gained.”

Keith Jansa

[Digital ID] is the notion that you, as an individual, can have access to services that not only are between one specific organization but across an ecosystem where I can effectively interact in a way that is secure [and] safe. And as the entity taking in that information and doing business with you, I have the assurance attached that I am working or servicing the right person. Alex, what would be the impact for key stakeholders—Canadians, governments and the private sector—if we get this right? Is there a realization at the highest level in Canada—and I am of course referring to the government first—of this potential impact?

Alex Benay: I do not think there is a realization. If I am being honest, I failed for three years in a row to get this at the level of awareness that it requires—so that is on me. But in fairness to me and in fairness to political and bureaucratic leadership in our country at all levels of government, it is not a really easy, tangible thing to fund.

The best way to describe it is if you want your services to be delivered anywhere safely around the world or around the country, or if you want more banks to offer more government services, or your insurance company to renew your driver’s license, or your digital fridge to issue food recalls one day—you need identity.

You are not going to get to seamless service delivery as a citizen or know your customer in the banking world or public service delivery in government if you do not have that one piece of core identity that could actually glue all of these services together.

If government is serious about changing, one of the things they will look at is digital identity because then they could become a platform. They no longer need to have the monopoly on citizen services, they could distribute that to an ecosystem like an Amazon. People will call me crazy for saying these things, but what better platform than government to create jobs through changing how we do service delivery? In order to do that, you need digital identity because that is the glue that holds everything together—and data exchange platforms—but the importance cannot be understated.

“If government is serious about changing, one of the things they will look at is digital identity because then they could become a platform.”

Alex Benay

The one thing I would say is our country’s federation, this is where it has hurt [our digital identity strategy] for the last four or five years, because a lot of other countries have just executed. We say we cannot do things like Estonia—because they are the leaders globally in this—because it is too small. Well, India is deploying 1.25 billion digital identities as we speak. If they could do it, we should be able to do it as well.

But because every region is looking at this differently and we have had two or three different associations try to figure it out—and we have just recently had a national standard on digital identity like Keith’s put forward, in partnership with the Digital ID & Authentication Council of Canada, to leverage their work—it has been a hard, hard road for us. This is an area where we needed a strong national leadership, and we still need to see that happen right now. Is the opportunity to have government take the lead right now enhanced by COVID-19? It seems like the economy today is driven by the government, so is that just one other thing that the government should do and now is the best time to do it?

Alex Benay: Listen, I think if not now, then in my lifetime. I mean I hope this is accurate what I am about to say next. I hope in my lifetime we have no better opportunity than right now because if we have another in my lifetime it means there was another big problem down the road. Frankly, we will be the COVID-19 generation and I do not want there to be a second kick at the can at this. But if not right now, then when?

You need identity to do virtual education; you need identity to do telehealth; you need identity to get your bank services; you need identity for a driver’s license. You need identity for everything. If providing a single identity to Canadians citizens is not in the cards for the federal government because of our federation, then regulation should be. We need to regulate this space and we need regulate it pretty fast, and so the first step to that is some of the work that Keith and his team have been doing at the CIO Strategy Council. Keith, the CIO Strategy Council is the collaborative hub for some of the chief information officers across the country to act on a digital identity strategy. What kind of partnerships need to be formed to drive adoption of digital identity?

Keith Jansa: Essentially, this is where standards come in. They are the foundation that underpins any economy, they are what keep products and services safe and reliable when you look at performance. They are the direct result of why Canadians and citizens across the world take things for granted is because things work.

When it comes to digital identity, the foundation to any sort of future regulation or helping to inform any public policy, consensus-based standards are a strategic tool to set and help to inform those processes. By having a consensus-based standard, it provides a signal to the marketplace as to the expectations of products and services, and an opportunity where you can effectively collaborate across an ecosystem to deliver services. From a standardization point of view, this is a critical piece to the puzzle to ensure not only interoperability but collaboration between different entities to be in a position to effectively deliver better services to customers, clients or in the case of government, to citizens. To wrap up this part on the first pillar, digital identity, I’m going to ask each of you to give us a few quick, actionable steps Canada can take. Alex, why don’t you start with the private sector, given you’ve spent a lot of time in the public sector.

Alex Benay: I will take the easy route on this one. I think the standards that have been done at the CIO Strategy Council are national, cross-cutting standards. In the identity space, deploy that standard.

In parallel with that, you need to actually keep in mind, that if you are a big bank for example, you need to operate in every province and territory. If you are not applying those standards, you are going to have to reinvent the wheel every time you are going to engage in a different province or territory, or with another subsector or anything else. The only way to do this is to apply the CIO Strategy Council standard. Keith, your turn, and why can you tell us what you think are some of those same actionable steps for the public sector.

Keith Jansa: The public sector has a number of different levers that can be pulled to accelerate the acceptance and the adoption of a national standard.

We talked about regulation but as we all very well know, legislation and regulation takes time and as a result, we are saying the time is now. And so there are other opportunities and other levers governments pull to effectively create an ecosystem whereby you are accelerating the adoption of a national standard.

Consider things like incorporating the standard in your procurement—incorporating the standard in your procurement proposal or the need for organizations to effectively adopt the standard and to deliver the service. You could look at things like grants and contribution agreements, and those types of mechanisms where you can effectively embed the national standard to create not only the signal to the marketplace but to in fact change the behaviors in the marketplace where we are all moving toward this national standard.

There are a number of levers that exist for government, it is not all regulation. Government has a real strong voice when it comes to the expectation and the signals that the government puts within the marketplace. There are levers that oftentimes are put to the wayside or not taken into consideration. Let us say you have a grant program and as part of the weighted criteria you use, you ask the question of whether or not the solution or the project or the research is embedding any of the requirements of the national standard or how it relates, and then weighting it accordingly in whether or not you provide a grant to an organization or not for research or for any R&D or otherwise—so there is tremendous opportunity.

The other aspect that governments can work on is around certification. Governments can effectively create a mechanism where the onus is not necessarily on the government as an enforcer to regulation—to ensure that it is implemented—but they could actually leverage certification programs and schemes whereby third party organizations go about auditing and assessing organizations on whether they are adhering to various standards that exist in the marketplace. So again, there are tremendous amounts of mechanisms that exists and different levers that can be pulled to not only incentivize change in behavior but to also move us now, versus waiting for any sort of regulation to come.

DATA SHARING Tell us a little bit about the importance of data sharing between the public and private sector in the digital economy, but more importantly, tell us about the benefits we as a country would get from getting it right in terms of collaboration, innovation and the development of new economic opportunities.

Alex Benay: There are so many different roadblocks to this. We still manage privacy in a lot of ways across the country as if you cannot do anything because of privacy. We manage privacy like we were still in the industrial age, and this is regardless of sector.

“We approach the opportunity of digital service delivery of economic development opportunities in a pre-digital age way.”

Alex Benay

Our Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) work is not complete yet. We have privacy regulations and legislation I should say in the federal government that predates the computers, and we approach the opportunity of digital service delivery of economic development opportunities in a pre-digital age way.

I will give you an example, in the federal government alone, there ae 187 pieces of legislation. We did a study that had to change to permit data sharing within the federal government. We did a public survey and just under 70% of Canadians believed that it was okay for government departments to share data amongst themselves, and that was with very little public education that that survey was conducted.

It is much safer in today’s day and age to actually limit data distribution than  having a thousand different silos in the federal government, let alone across sectors, as opposed to having a few really secure places where you are not sharing data anymore, you are just authenticating. For example, does John Doe live in Alberta, and make $80,000 a year? Yes. Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), thank you, mortgage approved, it is done. It should take a nanosecond. But instead, what we do is we continue proliferating the fax industry because some of our legislation is outdated and some legislation has the word ‘fax machine’ in there, so I do not what human thought that the fax machine was going to be the pinnacle of human development in the existence of our species but thank you for that because as Keith pointed out, it is super hard to change legislation.

I do think we need to figure out a different approach—a safer approach—one that still respects privacy and increases service delivery, and increases the speed of our economy frankly, because we cannot have a digital economy at the pace of the fax machine. A fax machine is no more secure, frankly, than a piece of data floating around on the internet—so it is different protocols, different measures—but it is such an opportunity.

Again, it is an area where we need to see public sector leadership and private sector leadership, because if you look at things like open banking and better data sharing in that space, everybody should want that, public and private. But again, because it is different, it kind of challenges our comfort levels a little bit, and there is some public education that is required. The countries that are doing this—for example, Uruguay—have educated their entire population on how to do digital government services. They are saying: this is how we want you to interact with government and here is how you do it, and they have had tremendous success as a result of that.

Essentially, the countries that are doing this well—like Finland and Uruguay, educating resident son how to do government services online—have spent the time educating their population, and that is something we do not do very well in Canada so we need to accelerate that particular area for sure. What is current ability to share data in Canada between provinces, different organizations and the private sector?

Keith Jansa: Alex noted a very good example of the federal government and how difficult it can be just to share between departments. When it comes to the education piece—and maybe if I could leverage this as an opportunity to sort of look more citizen-centric or consumer-centric—just think of all the interactions you have with an organization. Let us say you call into a call centre, and you want to address something regarding the services, how many times have you in turn talked to one person and then be directed to another person only to repeat the whole story again, to then do it again and again and again?

From a citizen-centric or a consumer-centric view here, there are interactions we are having on a day-to-day basis as individuals where we get extremely frustrated and quite frankly, it can be easily solved, and what solves it is the data sharing piece. This is why when we talk about data sharing, it is not even data sharing across different organizations or between organizations, it is within the same organization, and Alex highlights that well.

When you think about the Government of Canada, individuals are not thinking about individual departments that they need to interact with, they are thinking I am interacting with the Government of Canada. And so the need to have to continually repeat information or to disclose information to multiple departments or even to multiple individuals within an organization or across different organizations, you can start thinking as a citizen or as an individual of the vulnerabilities that that causes. The fact that your information is in multiple places, in multiple different silos that can effectively be subject to bad actors whereby it gets exposed.

We are all very well aware of data breaches that occur and we are hearing it in the news on a weekly basis. So when I think of the education piece, I think just think about your day-to-day interactions with organizations and how often you are needing to inform a person or another person of the same thing you already articulated to them in the first place. So for me, that is the crux of this.

“We need to create the digital equivalent of the railroad.”

Keith Jansa

In addition to that, I think when we look at data sharing, the analogy I like is we need to create the digital equivalent of the railroad. You have a railroad system in Canada where you can put products and services and have that go from one part of the country to another. Multiple organizations benefit from the use of that infrastructure, to be able to deliver products and services to their customers, to their clients, and in the case of government to citizens. We need that equivalent for data in the digital world where we are creating that digital infrastructure necessary to effectively exchange data between organizations and across organizations so that we can be more effective and efficient in our service delivery to customers, clients and citizens. In the current COVID-19 reality, do we have unique opportunities to capitalize on and ultimately accelerate data sharing in the recovery economy?

Keith Jansa: The opportunities are quite real and right in front of organizations and individuals for the picking. There are lots of low hanging fruit, I think there are pockets within the country that are doing an enormous and a great amount of work to realize on those opportunities, whether in healthcare, agriculture of government.

What becomes crucial in any of these, and this is something that I find extremely important, is as much as we have these pockets of activity and there is innovation occurring, we need a way to effectively replicate it across other parts of the country and to benefit from it. Those strategic investments that are going into solving for some of these problems, whether it is British Columbia, Ontario or Nova Scotia, we need a way and a mechanism to effectively replicate them. And this where standardization is a critical strategic tool of doing that.

Standardization creates an opportunity to set requirements to leverage based on use cases and success stories to be able to provide that guidance and those tools to other parts of the country and to other sectors, so that they can then also go about codifying within their internal practices, technologies, and deployments to transform their businesses. This, again, is that we are a country often referred to as a country of pilots, and it is not necessarily a bad thing if you leverage the strategic investment of the pilot to have it replicated for the success and benefit across the country. And the tool to do that is through standardization. Alex, as a former government leader, the CIO of the Government of Canada, perhaps your hands are a little freer to speak and perhaps to issue recommendations. What role do you expect the government to play in terms of policy, investment or other means to improve Canada’s data sharing ecosystem in the coming years?

Alex Benay: First of all, the statement you made in saying that I am freer to make recommendations, I guess I went into the job just so that I would make recommendations one way or another—come hell or high water—because I just thought they were the right thing to do and so I am going to continue making those recommendations. I think we need a much more aggressive legislative agenda from our political leaders at all levels of government.

If you look at Denmark, they have a team of about 10 legislators, all they do is review every piece of legislation that goes into their political system against the digital economy. Everything from education to health, to economic development—everything gets a digital lens. We do not get any of that. We do not even get policy integration at the highest levels necessarily either. We need a much, much more aggressive legislative reform.

“We need a much more aggressive legislative agenda from our political leaders at all levels of government.”

Alex Benay

Our privacy acts federally are outdated, and we have been trying to bring them up to speed for years. We do not have the right regulations in the right sectors, and some of our regulations are roadblocks. Think about all of the regulations that have to get a COVID-19 lens and how long that would take us if we do not use AI, for example, to look at the impact of our regulations and we could do predictive modeling against the changes. We are not fighting fire with fire, so when you are asking on the data sharing front, we just need a much, much broader, ambitious digital legislative reform.

Again, the problem is that is hard to explain politically and win votes because data is so ambiguous. If you do it well, it should be invisible. Well, that does not get you a vote. Clearly it is working in countries like in Estonia and the United Kingdom and other countries where they put public policy debates on digital at the forefront. We are not doing that at all, so we just need to get a much, much more aggressive legislative agenda.

DIGITAL TOOLS & TALENT Pillar three is digital tools and talent. In the current environment, we know that the private sector—especially small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and startups—is very vulnerable. This is a real problem as we are trying to grow our economy in general and to grow some of our innovations into global success stories. This is an endemic problem Canada has.

What can be done in your opinion, whether by the government or others, to better support the growth of Canada’s tech companies?

Alex Benay: If you look at the United States, they use fintech and open banking as a way of getting some of the stimulus and support funding out the door. We chose our big banks—and I am not criticizing big banks by the way, they did an amazing job—but you could have chosen a different path. On the one hand, we have governments, federally and provincially, investing in innovation and AI, and we have created a great ecosystem and then when push comes to shove, we do not use them to build capacity.

This is not meant to be a nationalistic undertone, but I was in Paris when they were shutting down, we were trying to make our way back to Canada and I was shocked at hearing Macron’s speech talking about the French national economy and like bringing some of the things that have been European-based back into France. I think you are going to see more of that as a trend. We have a really good sector, and we should use it for every single time push comes to shove.

I am not saying just use Canadian companies—it does not matter because the ecosystem is there. IBM uses partners that are Canadian, for example, and partners form other countries. There is such an opportunity to actually use the tech sector for problem-solving not just grants and money and investing but actual problem-solving that would help those companies grow through contracts.

Procurement to me is the most direct route where we could start leveraging some of our SMEs, because the feds spend $300 billion to $400 billion a year. Take 5% of that and give it to the innovation sector as contracts like the Americans do—maybe not that percentage—but there are clear programs that they provide like America First.

“Procurement to me is the most direct route where we could start leveraging some of our SMEs, because the feds spend $300 billion to $400 billion a year. Take 5% of that and give it to the innovation sector as contracts.”

Alex Benay

We need to get really serious about this if we are going to be competitive globally because you may start seeing markets start to close off a little bit or prefer national solutions. Well, we have to do the same thing. If that starts, then it could help continue to support our SMEs and innovation sector without issuing grants or handouts.

Keith Jansa: What is key to recognize is that if you look at the amount of retooling that the private sector has done to meet the needs and the demand, whether it is personal protective equipment (PPE) or otherwise, that is because we did not have the resilience in our own country. We were dependent on a number of foreign actors to be able to ensure our country continues to run and continues to be safe. This pandemic has shed a huge spotlight on a real challenge and problem for the country, and we need to create the type of resilience where we can sustain ourselves.

When it comes to how to effectively do that, one of the critical tools is procurement. When it comes to government procurement, we are all very cognizant that it can take a lot of time. Now, there have been great pockets of work that have been taking place in federal and provincial governments to be more agile and iterative—to really look at what the problem is they are trying to solve, versus saying, “here is what I need.” They are really having the private sector innovate and provide solutions that effectively address and solve for those problems.

“This pandemic has shed a huge spotlight on a real challenge and problem for the country, and we need to create the type of resilience where we can sustain ourselves.”

Keith Jansa

There is an opportunity here to look at how we procure digital products and services, but again, it cannot take years. By the time you procure the solution in digital, it has changed so significantly. We need to be open and transparent in a process and the governments associated to procurement practices, but we need to get real when it comes to the longevity of these investments and how effectively those solutions will be three years from now, if we are not procuring it today but in three years.

“By the time you procure the solution in digital, it has changed so significantly.”

Keith Jansa

Again, providing very practical guidance, advice and requirements that can help inform procurement processes across the country is something the CIO Strategy Council is very active in. Just recently, we approved, our Standards Policy Committee, representing a subset of our council members, and approved the new work to develop a standard for agile procurement of digital products and services.

The aim is all about adding in the flexibility and providing an open process, but also providing the tools in the marketplace to do this right and to help inform procurement officers across the country—whether in the public or private sector—on a way of doing business where we can leverage the strategic investments while ensuring that economic development opportunities and social benefits we can gain from procurement opportunities are realized. This pillar is called digital tools and talent, so we are going to finish on talent, which of course is absolutely essential and from my perspective, Canada has improved at training, attracting, and retaining talent. We have actually become quite competitive.

How can we continue building on this strength? What roles must key stakeholders, including the private sector and academia play in building our talent pool? 

Alex Benay: Yes, I think we have done an amazing job. This is the kind of thing that is never done though, there are opportunities south of the border to attract Canadians. There are a lot of American companies that are now looking to spread their talent pool across the world, not just in the US.

The one thing I would challenge us to do is think differently about tech talent. I will look to Estonia as an example. They now have an e-Estonia business program where you could launch your business, register it as an Estonian business from anywhere in the world, and never set foot in the country.

They would be the first people to say why would you want to move to Tallinn anyways. It is dark and cold, our neighbors are rowdy, you may not want to come here, but we would love you to be an e-business in Estonia. That gives you access to the EU, for example, and if you are country in Africa or South America that does not have an EU free trade agreement, that is of great benefit to you.  The concept that you have to attract people into a country is now outdated. The old model used to be resources plus people equals production, now it is people plus ideas and data equals production. You do not need to be physically in a country to manipulate the resource anymore.

“The old model used to be resources plus people equals production, now it is people plus ideas and data equals production.”

Alex Benay

Here we are saying come to Canada, we want you to immigrate to Canada. If we just focus on that as a model, it is a bit old school, and you are starting to see it. Barbados now has a 12-month work visa program, where you can go and work from a beach. Frankly, we are not all going to be facing that decision hopefully.

We have to think about talent attraction in a digital age and not apply an industrial age construct to this anymore. This also applies if you are a Canadian company that hires outside of the country, that helps increase inclusivity and diversity and lessen the gender gaps. It helps everything else if you could hire from pretty much where the talent resides, and that does not have to be in a country.

We have done great work, we have done good thinking, but we need to think way outside the box. Our policymakers need to think way outside the box on this one because COVID-19 has blown the whole model up frankly. That is a great point and it is a very clear image when you say we are applying industrial age approaches to 21st century, especially when we are talking about moving into the future economy. Keith, do you have anything to add on talent?

Keith Jansa: I do. When you look at wat happened with COVID-19 and folks working from home—and the whole idea around upscaling or rescaling to be able to continue to remain productive in a different environment—it becomes again very telling in this current environment that we can be just as productive so long as we are providing the necessary tools and training to individuals to effectively do their job.

This is where it becomes interesting—when you talk about an ideas economy. Where the notion of what a four-year degree program provides versus micro-credentialling and these other avenues that can be explored for effectively upscaling and reskilling your workforce; to deliver on the productivity and the solutions for our country to continue to be as prosperous at it can be.

Alex hits the nail on the head when it comes to not actually needing to be in Canada to benefit the Canadian economy by virtue of the way in which you can work in a digital environment.

There are opportunities here. The very constructs of the way we educate and we are seeing it in just school age children now, parents are making the decision on distance learning—this is something novel, that is new but necessary—and when it comes to talent acquisition, there is also a great opportunity.

“We have a real opportunity right now that I would say in many ways is a once in a lifetime.”

Keith Jansa

The border is closed to the US, so recent Canadian graduates that were destined for Silicon Valley are now staying here. We have a real opportunity right now that I would say in many ways is a once in a lifetime. I hope we do not have another major pandemic or some other situation that results in the kind of restrictions and closures that we have experienced, but the time is now. There is tremendous talent in the country that can benefit from great employment within both the public and private sector to keep our country competitive and prosperous moving forward.

CYBERSECURITY We are going to talk about cybersecurity now, the fourth pillar. What I am curious to know is what is Canada’s specific cyber risk? Is it any different than anywhere else, and based on our current capacity, digital infrastructure and assets, what do we need to do to defend ourselves?

Keith Jansa: In the federal government, in the budget from 2018, made huge investments in cybersecurity, and as part of those investments it was looking the small- and medium-sized enterprise. It resulted in the spinoff of a new CyberSecure Canada program, for the certification of small- and medium-sized enterprises, and within that program, a list of controls to improve your cyber posture et cetera.

It is crucial to recognize that as much as you can look at the business—in terms of their practices, their protocols, their controls that they have in place—what has not been solved is the device itself.

As much as there are regional, national and international standards that touch on various products and services and solutions, when it comes to cybersecurity, the discussion has been central around the management—the way in which we put controls in place and how we manage the risk.

From my perspective and from members of the council, what we have converged on when it comes to cybersecurity is the need to talk about the cybersecurity of the devices and the systems themselves; and the level of assurance or the need for confidence when it comes to whether or not these devices are in fact designed with security in mind.

If you think of all the internet of things (IoT) devices out in the marketplace, you have situations where you do not even have a real interface with the IoT device. It is a sensor, it is collecting data; it is a huge vulnerability in terms of access to the whole entire system. These are devices that do not call on you to ensure you have a username and a password. Yet again, that is us defining these requirements in a vacuum and it’s how we dealt with cybersecurity before there was this proliferation of devices in the marketplace. There are huge vulnerabilities. It is attacking those vectors that will consume us all with the way these privacy or data breaches we are experiencing on a weekly basis. Alex, you might have some inside information—I do not know how much you can share—but how vulnerable is Canada’s digital infrastructure, our data networks, and our digital assets in a general sense?

Alex Benay: Every country is vulnerable, so maybe we start with that. If Canada’s position is not we are vulnerable, then we are being ignorant because we are putting our head in the sand. The Government of Canada is attacked tens of thousands of times a day—as are the banks and our energy infrastructure—we are talking millions of hits a day across critical infrastructure both physical and digital. I do think that we are vulnerable, I think that every country is vulnerable. It needs to start from that position.

As a result of COVID-19, if we are here, Keith and I, preaching that  we need to make everything digital, that assumes that there is ample security protocols in place and that we have to continuously fight the good fight on cyber and continuously invest in it. One round of investment is not enough; growing talent is not enough. If you go work for a security agency in Ottawa, and Google picks you up in California and offers you four times the salary, you are not going to say no to that. We need to have a talent strategy, a training strategy and an investment strategy. And we do this in partnership with a lot of partners globally, other countries around the world.

We have actually positioned ourselves to be properly equipped to be a player in this space internationally, but then there is state sponsored cyber, there are individual actors and there are kids in their basement—and everything in between. This is a space where you are never going to be finished. It would be kind of like saying in today’s world, we have invested enough on our roads. Well, if we stop investing in our roads they are going fail, and they are going to crack, and it is going to be horrible. Cyber is as critical to a country now as road infrastructure. Is cybersecurity and building defense systems a matter of just defense? Basically, protecting what we have? Or does that actually also give us advantages? And does it empower us to be more competitive in the future economy?

Alex Benay: One bad incident hurts your competitiveness as a country or as a business. Look at what happened with Desjardins in Montreal, that was a big incident, and that has hurt them.

When countries get hacked, that is a problem and it hurts, and then the industry suffers. I do think that is a matter of national competitiveness as far as the digital economy is concerned. In fact, as far as the analog and industrial age economy is concerned, you could hypothetically blow up a power plant using a cyberattack. These things are all super critical. It is fun and sexy to talk about this stuff, but the stuff that is less sexy is the cyber. But if you do not have that good hygiene, you are not doing any of the other things we’ve talked about. It is not a precondition, but you have to do it in parallel.

Keith Jansa: I like the analogy of the roads. Again, we are taking something from industrial age—you keep investing in those roads, and there is no reason why from a digital point of view you would not continue to invest in cybersecurity.

“Canada has tremendous talent in cybersecurity and great companies that are doing this work.”

Keith Jansa

Regarding your question around competitiveness, absolutely, there is an opportunity for innovative companies with cyber secure solutions that will be able to demonstrate that in the marketplace to differentiate themselves. And there are critical tools that could certify against national standards that had been developed or international standards to, again, differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

Canada has tremendous talent in cybersecurity and great companies that are doing this work. Again, you connect that between the procurement conversations we were having, and in addition to that, have this trust and assurance attached to or certification associated to the devices—it is a win-win. It is a real ability for Canada to demonstrate on a global stage that we are serious when it comes to us becoming a digital nation.

CANADA’S DIGITAL FUTURE I want to ask you both about the future. We are called, and I am going to ask you to predict the future as much as you can.

Please share your vision for Canada’s digital future if we act on all of the things we have talked about today, and perhaps the risk if we do not.

Keith Jansa:  When it comes to a modern, national blueprint, we need to solve for the five things we discussed.

We need trusted digital identity; we need secure data sharing; we need agile procurement; we need to focus on talent acquisition; and we need cybersecurity.

If we, collectively, and this is both public and private sector, invest in these areas—with the pandemic being an opportunity to refocus our priorities—if we solve for these things we are talking billions and billions of dollars from efficiencies to opportunities that would be unrealized if we do not address them. These are core to any digital nation. We see it.

Alex has mentioned a number of countries that are there and these are core to what they have. When it comes to vision of a digital nation, there are tremendous examples out there that we have touched on in this interview that exist. So when it comes to Canada, we have an opportunity here to replicate them and to advance our economy. We can truly realize a service delivery model that is digital first in this country, across all sectors of the Canadian economy, full stop. Alex, would your vision be fundamentally different?

Alex Benay: The things that Keith mentioned are spot on. I am going to just focus my answer more on the “how.”

If boards in Canada continue to be filled with people that have no idea about tech, how do you expect your corporations to shift? If your executives are not digital-first, whether you are a chief financial officer or a human resources officer, how do you expect your industry to make a pivot?

If you are a senior government person in the elected side of that equation and your policies do not go through a digital-first lens like other countries, how do you expect to make the pivot?

If your bureaucracy is not used to doing things with the levers they have to favor digital innovation and digital-first, and you do not change your thinking or equip yourselves with the right process or senior level lens and the right challenge function, of course these big systems will not change—because it is just a big system.

Keith has the “what” but I think the “how” comes down to leadership.

I am going to say something that I am probably going to regret, but you are seeing a lot of these leading countries that are making this digital pivot, their leadership is from a newer generation. I will challenge anybody on this podcast to tell me that that is wrong because you look at Finland, New Zealand and Estonia—it is a new generation of leadership there that is taking the country down a new path.

This is not an ageism comment, but if you do not bring the inclusion and you do expand the inclusion lens of what is possible and bring in a digital-first approach, then it is an ageism comment.

But if you are one of those leaders that is expanding that scope and letting that transformation, then this comment does not apply to you—but otherwise it does.

“I would just like to see different leadership approaches or different leaders if the different leadership approaches do not work.”

Alex Benay

We need to give ourselves a really hard look on how we are executing against this stuff. It is more than an Economist article, because we are smart people, we get it—but nobody is doing the “what” and the “how” and the nitty-gritty to make that shift.

Keith’s list is spot on, now I would just like to see different leadership approaches or different leaders if the different leadership approaches do not work.

Related Content Spotlight Video Spotlight on Digital Skills for Canada’s Future Economy
Digital TransformationSkillsTech Adoption
Mark Lambert Improving Canada’s Digital Public Services: Simplicity, Humanity and Security Op-Ed Improving Canada’s Digital Public Services: Simplicity, Humanity and Security Mark Lambert Canada’s Federal Public Service Lead - Accenture
Digital TransformationInnovationTech
Jean-Charles Fahmy Canada Must Digitize Traditional Industries to Bridge Economic Divide Op-Ed Canada Must Digitize Traditional Industries to Bridge Economic Divide Jean-Charles Fahmy Jean-Charles Fahmy - CENGN, Canada's Centre of Excellence in Next Generation Networks
Digital TransformationInnovationTech
Mark Lambert and Ryan Oakes Headshots Op-Ed Future-Proofing Canada’s Public Services with Digital Skilling Mark Lambert and Ryan Oakes Canada’s Federal Public Service Lead - Accenture & Managing Director for Global Public Sector - Accenture
Digital TransformationPolicyStrategy
Alex Benay CIO Strategy KPMG Canada Headshot 300x300
Alex Benay
Partner in Digital and Government Solutions - KPMG Canada & Co-Founder - CIO Strategy Council

Bio: Alex Benay is Partner, Digital and Government Solutions at KPMG Canada. Alex has a deep understanding of evolving digital needs, having served as the Chief Information Officer of Canada and as the Deputy Minister of the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.

Organization: KPMG Canada delivers audit, tax and advisory services and addresses complex business challenges around the country and the world. KPMG takes an industry approach to business by having a thorough understanding of complex and varied industries to best serve its clients.

Keith Jansa, CIO Strategy Council
Keith Jansa
Executive Director - CIO Strategy Council

Bio: Keith Jansa is the Executive Director of CIO Strategy Council, where he previously served as Vice President, Standards and Operation. He has formerly worked at the Standards Council of Canada (SCC) and as a Manager at the Canadian Electricity Association.


Organization: CIO Strategy Council convenes CIO’s from across Canada to address the digital transformation of the Canadian economy. It also conducts research and provides guidance on digital strategies and pilots innovative and disruptive technologies.