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OTTAWA – Catherine Luelo left the public service because she saw it as too undisciplined to bring government into the digital age. Now she’s taken a job advising Canada’s top bureaucrat how to get it there.

When she left as chief information officer last month, she laid out her concerns and advice in a Dec. 28 letter to Privy Council Clerk John Hannaford. She said she had no plans but was open to helping the government however she could.

On Friday, she was appointed as a senior official in the Privy Council Office to advise the clerk on digital transformation, technology and managing tech talent. The move is part of a broader deputy minister shakeup.

Hannaford has been laser-focused on the future of the public service and whether it is fit for purpose. In her letter, Luelo flagged five issues, which together foster a lagging discipline slowing progress in moving government from the analogue to digital age.

“We have a significant level of technical debt that in some cases is decades in the making,” she wrote in the letter. “A significant number of systems are in poor health, and a decentralized approach to how we prioritize, fund and lead modernization is not producing the results we need.”

Some of the issues she flagged for Hannaford include:

A lack of priorities. Stop trying to fix everything. Focus instead on the top high-risk systems. She says the top priorities should be: 1. The Benefits Delivery Modernization program, which is the biggest IT overhaul ever, revamping delivery of OAS, EI and CPP. 2. A long-promised human resource and pay system. 3. Replacement of the 25-year-old Global Case Management System, which processes passports and citizenship and immigration services.

Not operating like an enterprise. For services they all use, don’t let departments go their own way. This includes human resources and the cloud. Introduce a digital identity platform giving Canadians one front door to securely use online services.

A lack of standardized processes and systems. This has driven up cost and complexity. Standardize first before modernizing.

A culture of “over-governance and low personal risk-taking.” It has blurred the accountability of leaders and slowing down decision-making.

The government should revamp how it funds IT, Luelo said. It should also find new ways to recruit tech talent and rethink how to reward leaders and deal with non-performers.

The government spends about $10 billion a year on technology, which is central to everything the government does, from policy-making to delivering services to Canadians.

Luelo told Hannaford delays in modernizing have nothing to do with money. Instead, departments need “firm, credible and sticky prioritization that chooses the top things we need to advance quickly, and discipline to stop the rest – moving funding and resources to highest-value work for Canadians.”

Luelo is a former CIO at Air Canada and Enbridge. She took the job two and half years ago because she thrives on what she calls the gritty work of big-technology transformations, she said in an interview. And many say the government is the poster child for this kind of transformation. But she saw little appetite for needed changes.

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“No organization gets to do what government does …That’s why I left the private sector to come and work in the public sector. But I think I’ve taken it as far as it can go right now,” she said.

“I wish I could have accomplished more.” But: “Part of being a seasoned executive is just knowing when the tables are not set in a way for success to happen.”

Or as she later put it: “The patient needs to know it needs to take the medicine.”

Luelo’s plan is laid out in the government’s Digital Ambition blueprint for managing services, information, data and cybersecurity. Old systems need replacing before shifting to digital. Departments are saddled with decades-old technology. About 65 per cent of systems are in poor health and are expensive to run, and they risk failing, including those delivering benefits like CPP, EI and OAS.

Auditor-General Karen Hogan assailed the government in a recent report for dragging its feet 25 years ago, when aging IT systems were flagged as a major problem.

Canada was once a leader in e-government. Today it is ranked 28th by the UN in digital government, a drop from 23rd place in 2018. About 23 per cent of services are available digitally.

Pick your priorities, and standardize

Luelo is most adamant about picking priorities and standardizing processes.

In the letter, she said departments “have not met an idea they don’t like,” and are always creating new standalone programs that old systems can’t handle. (Public servants have been swamped with new programs to implement about 700 commitments in ministers’ mandate letters.)

She said departments have thousands of IT projects on the go. But the money and effort should first be spent on critical services.

“My thesis has always been: cut the spend in half. Spend less money. Do higher-quality work and tell people ‘no.’ You can can’t do everything where 65 per cent of the systems are unhealthy.”

The CIO needs a bigger say in approving IT projects and funding, she told Hannaford. That could help.

The CIO should do a horizontal review of all projects, sign off on priorities, and work with Finance and Treasury Board on spending plans, she said.

The office should publish an internal list of work that will stop, with the funding and people re-directed to high-risk systems. It should also track and measure progress on pushing priorities and stopping other work.

The Phoenix pay-system debacle is a perfect example of what happens when processes aren’t simplified. It began as project to integrate pay and human-resources systems. Seven years and $3.6 billion later, there is one pay system and still more than 30 separate HR systems, which is behind many of the problems.

“If we can’t do the process of simplification, tech is not going to fix the problem,” she said in an interview.

Government has to move faster, leaders have to take risks, be accountable and not shift blame to junior employees or executives “who are fighting through the bureaucracy to get things done,” Luelo said. Employees will only make bold and hard decisions if they have cover from bosses when something goes awry.

But the public service is overloaded with governance measures. Committees and consensus rule. There is little stomach for risk. No one is responsible, decisions are delayed and projects slide, she said.

IT staffing shortage

Another big concern is a shortage of digital talent. For several years, the government has been falling short of filling its 30,000 IT positions by up to 30 per cent.

The public service needs new and non-traditional ways of recruiting, Luelo said in the letter, adding: “good digital is when those building it reflect those who use it.”

She said the government should be flexible, let tech talent work from where they want across the country.  She urges hiring people for “tours of service ” coming in for a couple of years rather than taking full-time jobs or through exchanges with the private sector. She said the newly launched Indigenous Apprenticeship Program is a model to recruit other under-represented groups.

And she said a big bonus of prioritizing and standardizing is less work, which means hiring fewer consultants, contractors and workers.

But Luelo argues there’s “zero possibility” the government can stop using consultants and contractors, especially the highly specialized skills that it can’t afford to keep on staff.

“No organization in Canada or the world could tackle the problems we have without using third parties,” she said.

The performance of executives should be managed more like in the private sector, she said. In the government, people rarely get fired for non-performance. They tend to move to other jobs.

Stability is critical. Luelo pointed out that she worked under three Treasury Board presidents, a minister of digital government and newly created minister of citizens’ services.

The magnitude of the work to replace old systems and move to digital is a team effort, not the job of one or two ministers and deputy ministers, she wrote. The CIO should be a “broadly used resource” for all ministers in a way to avoid the “friction” of departments squabbling over turf.

Luelo says she hopes other private-sector leaders take on the job to “keep pushing and shocking” the system. One of those shocks, however, could be further spending reviews because cost-cutting is often when “the most creative work happens.”

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