OTTAWA – The federal government’s chief information officer is leaving the job as the bureaucracy struggles to modernize aging technology systems and bring services into the digital age like Canadians expect.

Catherine Luelo, who became CIO in July 2021, came from the private sector after holding senior jobs at Air Canada and Enbridge, to help accelerate the shift to digital government that was kickstarted by the pandemic.

But she’s leaving a time when the public service, after a series of service crises, is under tremendous pressure to deliver.

One senior bureaucrat, who is not authorized to speak publicly, said Luelo stepped into a tough job with lots of hype and hope that she could lead the government with “big bold moves” into the digital age, getting more departments using the cloud and AI technology.

“And where are we? We haven’t made any of those moves. We’re stalled. Look at our systems. They’re still hobbling. It’s like we spent a lot of money to do the same thing.”

Trust in the public service took a beating last year with long lines and delays at airports and for passports and immigration applications. It also left critics asking why the government struggles so badly to execute and deliver programs and services.

All policies and programs today depend on technology. Poor delivery undermines all policy, no matter how good it is. Canadians expect fast and easy digital services, but the government’s systems are old and many at risk of crashing.

Federal auditor general Karen Hogan drove that home in a recent report that found progress on modernizing IT systems was slow, with two-thirds of the 7,500 applications used by departments and agencies in poor condition. She blamed Treasury Board and Shared Services for not doing enough to lead and support departments to modernize their systems.

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It is unclear why Luelo is leaving. In a letter to colleagues, she said she took the CIO post as a “tour of service” on behalf of Canadians and will be “transitioning out of the public service” Dec. 31, calling the stint “a once in a lifetime ride.”

Private sector executives, unfamiliar with the culture and complexity of operations, have historically had rough time making the adjustment, said Michael Wernick, a former clerk of the privy council and now the Jarislowsky chair of public sector management at the University of Ottawa.

He said the government has never resolved how technology should be managed. Is it a single service with common standards, interoperability and cybersecurity? Or is it a loose federation of 300 departments and agencies where deputy heads and managers have autonomy? It now operates with both philosophies, depending on the agency.

Luelo leaves her mark with the “Digital Ambition,” laying out the government’s plan to manage services, information, data and cybersecurity, which she hopes becomes a “blueprint for how we move to a government that can deliver key services in the digital age.”

IT workers credit Luelo for getting them exempted from the return-to-office order. It was done to ensure tech talent remained in government but it created howls of protest among other workers and managers alike. It didn’t stop IT workers from leaving as the number of empty positions continued to grow.

Ryan Androsoff, CEO of Think Digital, said the slow pace of change has left many global experts thinking that “Canada is stuck in the mud right now” in the move to digital.

He said the governance of digital technology is fractured at all levels of government. The Trudeau government gave the CIO, who has deputy minister rank, more authority, but the job “doesn’t have all the levers needed to drive change in the system on its own.”

The Liberals also bumped up service delivery as a priority when it appointed Terry Beech, the first ever Citizens’ Services minister. His recently related mandate letter calls for him to work closely with Treasury Board President Anita Anand who oversees all the policies governing digital, service, people management and information.

Luelo recently spoke at FWD50, one of the world’s biggest digital technology conferences hosted in Ottawa, about the challenges in shifting to digital.

She said departments are anxious to charge ahead with new and improved digital services, but the government has to do the “hard work” modernizing core and underlying systems, some of which are 50 years old.

She said these modernizing large projects can be like a “well of despair,” adding they require “a lot of hard, but perhaps not so sexy work.”

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“You can always put lipstick on a website and make it look prettier, but the reality is that we have got some hard things ahead of us as a country,” she said.

“I am thrilled in the work that we’re doing in Canadian digital services. I’m excited about the work we’re doing on passport modernization, but that only will take us to a point that is so far, if we don’t deal with the large platform issues we’ve got.”

She said her biggest concern was to “stabilize the talent environment.” She faces a huge shortage of skilled IT staff, who are in demand globally. She estimated the government is 30 per cent short of filling its 30,000 IT positions.

On top of that, the government is shrinking operations budgets and pressing to reduce reliance on IT consultants and contractors. She said they are “critical” to “how we get out of where we are.” She said the government needs them and must have strong controls to manage their use.

She said as anxious as public servants are to show they can improve services they first have to build credibility and win back the trust of Canadians by getting projects done on time and budget.

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Kathryn May is a reporter and 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 covering 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. She is also the winner of a National Newspaper Award and a Canadian Online Publishing Award. Follow Kathryn on Twitter: @kathryn_may.

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