There’s a report in iPolitics that is headlined “Feds launch new digital service after years of IT failures” and says that “The Trudeau government is investing $25.5 million on a new in-house digital ‘swat team’ to modernize federal services and make them easier for Canadians to use … [and] … The Canadian Digital Service officially got off the ground this week. It’s being housed within Treasury Board with a staff of about 20 bureaucrats; there are plans to hire more from outside government and the service is funded for three years.“
The “years of IT failures” refers, of course, to:
- The problem plagued Phoenix pay system … which, thanks be to all the gods, is not used to pay the military; and
- Shared Services Canada’s many (failed) attempts to modernize, simplify, centralize and whatever else government data services.
Treasury Board President Scott Brison may be on the right track if, and it’s a Big, BIG IF, he can keep the “tiger team” of bureaucrats and consultants small, focused and private. My impressions, as a real “outsider looking in” (through the eyes of a few friends in the IT industry (not in government)) is that the impetus behind Phoenix and Shared Services was, generally, too political, too heavily publicized and not clearly thought through. There are, especially in political offices and in parts of the bureaucracy, a lot of people who are fascinated by the potential of IT to save time and money but, at the same time, those people are, generally, quite ignorant about the costs and complexities of IT. There is a well established tendency in governments (and in some large corporate bureaucracies, too) to centralize because it appears that centralization must be cheaper and, I suspect, because centralization is perceived to add to the power of the central agency managers. (The military analogue is the apparent, lemming like, urge to create more and more headquarters ~ even when there’s no need for them.) The upshot is that we get lots of new bureaucrats in nice new office buildings but they are unable to actually do what their political masters dreamed about. In fact, in the recent budget, the Trudeau regime appears to be allowing some government departments to “opt out” of Shared Services Canada’s
fiascos projects and I’m guessing the DND and e.g. the RCMP and CBSA will be amongst those who do so …
… if so, that might be another step in the right direction: some departments and agencies have, quite clearly, problems and priorities and responsibilities that are very different from e.g. sending out pension cheques or maintaining navigational buoys or collecting taxes. One size doesn’t always fit all, all the time or all that well, either.
Anecdotally, I can say that a very senior executive of a giant multi-national technology firm told me, directly, that governments, especially the military ~ he was referring, mainly, to the Pentagon as I recall ~ are, generally, “bad” customers: they are, often, not sure about what they want, much less what they need, and are not “disciplined” by the realities of the marketplace (profits and losses) so they are prone to buy things that are’t really necessary and to focus on first level (capital) costs rather than on the complete life-cycle costs of a system. That tended to mirror my (limited I hasted to admit) experience with government procurement … I’m guessing not much has changed.
My own experience with management and innovation in the public sector ~ and both happen: there are some really good managers in the public sector, including in the military, and some of them are able to dodge the bureaucratic slings and arrows and innovate ~ is that small (smallish) “tiger teams” can work, if, and it’s another Giant IF, the person directing the effort (usually the minister, a deputy minister or an assistant deputy minister) understands and enunciates a clear, achievable AIM. If people actually know what they are supposed to be trying to do the chances of success are higher than if they are ~ as is too often the case in government ~ just flailing about mindlessly while trying to create the illusion of progress.
I am reminded that Prime Minister Harper, when faced with some difficult problems, like shipbuilding and jet fighters, turned to high level bureaucratic “tiger teams” to guide the process ~ it, no doubt, put several bureaucratic noses out of joint but it worked. (My recollection is that the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy resulted from the (quite quick) work of one such team.) Maybe Treasury Board President Brison has had enough of bureaucratic process and wants action, instead. Maybe a smallish team is the way to go … IF he gets the AIM right.
I wish him every success.