OTTAWA – The Trudeau government’s decision to drop a digital government minister from the cabinet lineup comes when many argue just about everything on its agenda requires some kind of digital transformation to fix or implement.

Digital technology is central to tackling any policy issue whether it’s fighting the rest of the pandemic and rebuilding a shaken economy, climate change, child care, housing and Indigenous services. Digital tools are used to gather and mine data to develop policies, implement them and deliver services Canadians can use.

In fact, FWD50, an Ottawa conference of the world’s leading digital experts is virtually meeting this week to discuss using technology “to make society better for all.” They argue technology is policy. Can’t have one without the other.

The pandemic that forced thousands of bureaucrats to work remotely created a level of basic digital literacy so quickly that the Treasury Board is now rethinking policies around the future of work and modernizing technology.

So why is the government separating them with two ministers, one responsible for policy and the other in charge of technology?

Joyce Murray, Canada’s fourth digital government minister, was shuffled to Fisheries and Oceans with no one appointed to replace her. Her job appears to have been carved up between Treasury Board President Mona Fortier and Public Services and Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi.

The loss of digital cabinet clout is being criticized as a significant setback. It takes away much-needed political leadership, a single voice at the cabinet table and a focus to navigate a responsibility that is already fractured among too many players.

“We’re now living in a world where every policy issue is a digital issue,” said Ryan Androsoff, director of digital leadership programs at the Institute in Governance.

“Government can have the greatest policy ideas in the world, but if they can’t execute on them, it gets them nowhere,” he said. “Today, good delivery and execution inevitably means digital. It’s tough to imagine any area of government activity that won’t have some kind of technological underpinning to how policy is delivered and implemented.”

The pandemic upended the federal workplace. What comes next?

The decision came out of the blue for the technology industry, setting off concerns that the government is backing off from its digital strategy as progress toward a co-ordinated approach was being made. The government spends more than $7 billion a year on technology.

“A digital minister at least brought it to the forefront,” said Michele Lajeunesse, senior vice-president of government relations and policy at industry association TECHNATION.

“It showed government recognized a need to focus on its digital transformation… and I would say it progressed somewhat. The fear is this is taking a potentially major step back, and if the decision is to split it between TBS and PSPC (Public Services and Procurement Canada) will we be better off? We don’t think so.”

It also comes when the world is scrambling for tech talent in the face of a global shortage.

Countries like the U.S. and U.K. are bolstering the role of tech to better manage remote work, attract more tech workers and make sure citizens have easy online access to government services.

The head of the U.S. General Services Administration recently summed up the shift: “It’s super clear that bad delivery sinks good policy. To be able to deliver anything, we have to have the tech talent in the room at the beginning of the discussion, not bolted on at the end.”

Digital experts boil digital transformation down to technology, data, process and organizational change – and people with the skills in each are the lynchpins to make it work.

Murray, who was also the first standalone digital minister, launched a digital strategy with four overarching goals that the government isn’t close to achieving:

    • Modernize the way government replaces, builds and manages IT systems;
    • Provide services to people when and where they need them;
    • Co-ordinate the approach to digital operations;
    • Transform the way public servants work.

From the start, however, many argued the kind of big, transformational change that digital can bring requires a fundamental rethinking of the government’s rules and policies underpinning how public servants work – from human resources, staffing and hiring to budgeting and procurement.

Former treasury board president Scott Brison was the first to throw the spotlight on digital in the aftermath of the disastrous Phoenix pay system, which brought urgency to changing the way government does business and provides service to Canadians.

He successfully pressed to have digital minister included in his title, pitching a digital strategy as a way to improve the lives of Canadians and restore the trust and confidence they have lost in all governments.

But the success of the digital minister has been much debated.

Amanda Clarke, a digital and public management expert and associate professor at Carleton University, said the job had little clout, no effective carrot-and-stick to force change. The minister didn’t control contracting decisions on major modernization projects. And most of the powers to push needed reforms rest with Treasury Board.

“I don’t actually think it’s a strategic loss for the bigger movement,” said Clarke.

As digital minister, Murray had some key pieces of the government machinery. The biggest was Shared Services Canada, the giant IT agency that operates with a $2-billion budget and more than 7,000 employees.

The long-troubled agency redeemed itself with an almost overnight rollout of equipment, network access and digital tools so public servants could work remotely during the pandemic. It is being folded into PSPC, which some worry could shift its focus to procurement and compliance rather advancing the digital strategy.

She oversaw the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO), which provides direction to departments on information management and technology. She also had the Canadian Digital Services, the U.S.-inspired swat team of tech geeks to tackle IT problems and harness digital to help departments design and build better services.

But there is a constellation of all the other departments and agencies, each of which had their own CIOs who report to their deputy ministers. Several executives from technology firms admit they didn’t even bother with the digital minister and went directly to departments where decisions are made on what to systems to upgrade or buy.

The government has yet to explain the rationale for dropping the cabinet post and the fate of digital strategy is expected to be answered in the ministers’ mandate letters. In a statement, Shared Services Canada said its mandate to accelerate digital transformation and build a more open, people-centric and resilient digital government will continue under PSPC.

Digital transformation requires leadership

Androsoff argues it’s political leadership, not bureaucrats, that has to drive changes in governance and accountability to make such sweeping changes happen.

“I think there has to be a recognition that… the governance structure we have for digital right now is not set up to deliver on results,” he said. “If the government is serious about trying to really change how government works for the digital era, it has to do some real thinking around how to put in place the type of authorities and decision-making structures that’s going to actually let change happen.”

But that takes time, and Clarke argues the talent crisis is the most urgent problem, and some changes could be made during the typical two-year governing window of a minority government.

Some of these reforms could dovetail with the Treasury Board’s planning for the future of work as pandemic restrictions are lifted and public servants can return to in-office work.

The government is widely expected to move to a hybrid workforce – a mix of employees working in office and remotely – to attract and retain talent, which could force a rethink of the hiring and classification policies.

That resonates with former privy council clerk Michael Wernick, who as Canada’s top bureaucrat pushed for a top-to-bottom structural reform – delayering, fewer levels of executives and a massive overhaul of its human resources regime, including reducing the 670 occupational groups and 80,000 rules that affect public servants’ pay.

The limits of the killer app

Wernick argues the government has made improvements to public-facing online services but can’t go much further without a deeper overhaul of back-end systems and how government works.

“The fork-in-the-road question is: are you going to continue to look for cool apps and outward-facing things we can do? Or are you going to deal with some of the deep structural issues in the public service?” he said.

Under the hood of some of those online services and apps are old mainframes and technology, some on the verge of collapse. And under that are the lumbering operational processes and procedures created by outdated rules and policies.

Right off the bat, Clarke argues the government needs new job titles and descriptions so departments can hire and develop the kind of in-house skills needed and wean off the IT consultants it spends billions of dollars on.

Job classifications for IT workers were written before the internet, and jobs like product managers and user-experience specialists didn’t exist. Job listings that describe positions designed for another era – which also scream a dated organization – hold no attraction for tech job seekers. They won’t apply.

“A lot of the problems we see with technology today in government are a people problem. When you don’t have people on staff who know how to design modern services, projects will fail,” said Clarke. “They also have to know how to be smart shoppers when it comes time to select partners and to procure new solutions.”

A multi-disciplinary team working on a new policy, for example, used to be not able to bring in IT workers to help figure out how to deliver the program to users because of an old rule that required IT workers to report only to CIOs. This also forced the team to recruit consultants from outside to advise them. That rule was changed, but the practice is still deeply rooted in departments.

And then there’s the months it takes to fill a job, which sends managers to the private sector, which can fill openings with consultants within days.

“This is how the rigidity of the classification becomes antithetical to good policy work,” said Clarke. “One of the best practices in modern digital government is bringing in experts around technology and implementation early in the policy design process so that you kind of set up the project for success.”

But Clarke said the government also has to get a handle on its over-reliance on outsourcing, which has hollowed out the skills of in-house IT staff. The government should track who gets contracts, how competitive they are and potential conflicts of interest. She said it’s shocking how many companies that worked on bungled or failed projects are then hired back to fix them.

The unions have fought IT contracting as too expensive, locking in the government to specific vendors and atrophying skills among in-house technical workers. A 2020 report found spending on IT consulting more than doubled between 2011 and 2018, when it hit $1.3 billion.

“Big projects are still business as usual. They’re still massive and they still involve these classic players who have their fingers all over every digital failure and yet keep getting hired by government to lead digital projects,” said Clarke. “It’s absolutely baffling.”

This article was produced with support from the Accenture Fellowship on the Future of the Public Service

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Kathryn May
Kathryn May is the Accenture Fellow on the Future of the Public Service, providing coverage and analysis of the complex issues facing Canada’s federal public service for Policy Options. She has spent 25 years writing about the public service – the country’s largest workforce – and has also covered parliamentary affairs and politics for The Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia Network Inc. and iPolitics. The winner of a National Newspaper Award, she has also researched and written about public service issues for the federal government and research institutes. Follow her on Twitter: @kathryn_may.

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