The limits of simplicity – Canadian Government Executive

NEWS

SEARCH

Digital Governance with Jeffrey RoyICT
May 7, 2012

The limits of simplicity

In recent months, the launching of Shared Services Canada, the new entity established to devise a whole-of-government approach to federal IT infrastructure, personifies public sector traditionalism: a press conference in August with few specifics leading to predictable reactions by key stakeholders, notably labour unions and small businesses. A few “invite only” sessions and conference keynotes through the fall, and the world now awaits a much heralded transformation to be unleashed.

If only it were so. While Shared Services Canada promises simplicity – annual savings of hundreds of millions of dollars via consolidation and centralization – it instead faces enormous complexity. Add to that legitimate questions about the feasibility and desirability of such government-wide perspectives, and pitfalls define the path ahead.

Take Service Canada, its federal cousin delivering services externally. Despite laudable strides in service improvement it was never able to foster holistic integration beyond its home department, which is less a criticism than realism. Today, a single portal and call centre underpin what remains a federated approach of delivery channels and partnerships across a range of massive and largely autonomous organizations with unique missions and clienteles.

On the internal front – the focus of Shared Services Canada – a recent high-level review by private sector experts of a likeminded and ill-fated government-wide scheme in the Australian State of Queensland concluded that the state (i.e., akin to a province) was just too large and diverse for such internal centralization. PricewaterhouseCoopers thus recommended a three-pronged (and rather complex) framework of integrated governance mechanisms while stressing that short-term financial savings were nowhere in the cards.

Make no mistake: the Government of Canada truly needs a new IT catalyst to foster systemic innovation across silos and indeed across jurisdictions. Yet what is required is a cultural of collaboration and openness rather than the sort of command and control operation we have come to expect from within the confines of Treasury Board and Public Works. The government’s insistence in framing Shared Services Canada as a cost-cutting measure greatly accentuates this mismatch, limiting the potential for novel thinking and new approaches.

The necessity and makings of a fresh approach are well known across the IT community. A recent 2011 report by a British Parliamentary Committee aptly entitled, Recipe for Rip-Offs, laments a generation of failures stemming largely from inward mismanagement and excessive outsourcing to an oligopolistic IT sector complicit in secretive dealings. The report calls upon government to become more agile via new internal capabilities and a wider range of external partnerships predicated more on open source and open standards than in the past.

While one limitation of the Australian and British reviews is after-the-fact inquisition, both reports nonetheless strive to look ahead. A key recommendation of the British Committee, for instance, is that “government should make public information about how much its IT costs, and how its systems run. This would allow external experts to challenge current practices and identify ways services could be delivered differently as well as more economically.”

It bears noting that wide segments of the private sector support a new approach in Britain, one predicated on new forms of openness and collaboration that are now familiar themes across a landscape of Web 2.0 and cloud computing. In such an environment, traditional command and control models predicated on proprietary ownership and risk avoidance, seeking to ordain rather than unleash change are, well, a recipe for rip-off.

The resulting lessons for the Canadian government are threefold. First and foremost, political leaders must embrace a more nuanced language when it comes to IT management and public sector reform, seeking to embrace and address complexity rather than mask it through misleading promises that cannot possibly come to fruition. The early discussions about Shared Services Canada’s financial savings – and leaked memos casting judgment on such savings – are sadly indicative of how not to begin.

Second, centralization must give way to collaboration. While some consolidation may well prove necessary, departments and agencies must find new ways to innovate and collaborate with one another as well as with other governments and other sectors. The resulting mosaic of governance arrangements requires high-level political direction along with a mentality of empowerment and openness. New administrative capacities are thus required.

Third, and most broadly, majority government may be welcome in some quarters as an impetus for overdue reform. Yet unless open and sustained dialogues among elected officials, public servants, industry and the public at large accompany such an impetus, traditionalism can only disappoint.

 

Jeffrey Roy is a professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (roy@dal.ca).

About this author

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy is Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Management. He is a widely published observer and critic of the impacts of digital technologies on government and democracy. He has worked with the United Nations, the OECD, multinational corporations, and all levels of government in Canada. He has produced more than eighty peer-reviewed articles and chapters and his most recent book was published in 2013 by Springer: From Machinery to Mobility: Government and Democracy in a Participative Age. Among other bodies, his research has been funded by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He may be reached at: roy@dal.ca

0 comments

There are no comments for this post yet.

Be the first to comment. Click here.

Digital Governance with Jeffrey Roy
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
The arrival of President Trump in the White House marks a...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
In January, the BBC and BuzzFeed jointly released an exposé on...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
That the new Liberal Government has embraced ‘open government’ is hardly...
 
In 2011, the World Economic Forum presented its vision of a...
 
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...
 
With a seemingly ubiquitous Internet and mobile devices at every turn,...
 
At the end of November, the Council of Europe hosted the...
 
For the casual observer, openness and transparency are terms that can...
 
At stake is the evolving apparatus enjoining Canadians with the information...
 
Faced with the Newtown tragedy, President Obama has sought to make...
 
The now, seemingly distant 2012 holiday season proved to be fertile...
 
In 2008, President Obama refashioned American politics for a more digital...
 
As governments seek transformational change to shift from austerity to agility,...
 
In recent months, Apple and Samsung have been clobbering one another...
 
During the month of October tens of millions of viewers will...
 
For Egyptians and Mexicans, this past summer showcased the imperfections of...
 
With the federal public service in a state of budgetary retrenchment,...
 
Do we read books anymore? Travel on airplanes or trains these...
 
In February, President Obama and Prime Minister Harper announced the formation...
 
Is there reason to hope? Once again, the federal government has...
 
Au moment où s’amorce la présidence d’Obama, les spéculations vont bon...
 
As the Obama Presidency begins, there is much speculation as to...
 
A strange paradox has emerged in the quest for Gov 2.0....
 
One of the peculiarities of the 21st century is the correlation...
 
When President Barack Obama campaigns during the coming months for re-election,...
 
As the iCloud takes hold – along with numerous other private,...
 
A new year is a good time to reflect on the...
 
If only it were so. While Shared Services Canada promises simplicity...
 
The securing of a much-coveted majority by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives surely...
 
The federal election campaign has not been particularly kind to cities...
 
Despite the occasional ministerial tweet and public banter about the federal...
 
More than a decade ago, some enterprising folks at Industry Canada...
 
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are one of Canada’s most critical...
 
Toronto’s new mayor, Rob Ford, has pledged to cut city council...
 
As BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion negotiates with many governments around the...
 
To start with a timeless question: what do woman want? Presumably,...
 
One important consequence of climate change is rising ocean levels. The...
 
Shortly after the Quebec referendum of October 1995 that brought the...
 
As this column goes to print (literally or online as the...
 
Full disclosure – the Conservative government has serious problems with the...
 
Students of public administration struggle with an important contradiction of Westminster...
 
L’opération de promotion à laquelle l’Alberta s’est récemment livrée souligne les...
 
Alberta’s recent branding exercise underscores the tensions and risks inherent in...
 
La plupart des organismes se voient affecter des « directeurs des...
 
With Parliament once again open and a new federal budget in...
 
Two important global events are garnering much attention: the upcoming Winter...
 
The recent scandals plaguing Ontario’s e-health agency carry important lessons for...
 
The Obama administration is appointing “Directors of New Media” for most...
 
Y a-t-il de l’espoir? Une fois de plus, le gouvernement fédéral...
 
Dans le numéro de janvier, Ruth Hubbard et David Zussman nous...
 
In the January issue, Ruth Hubbard and David Zussman discussed the...
 
The past decade has given rise to tremendous experimentation in public...
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
Please to view this Content. (Not a member? Join Today! )...

Member Login

Forgot Password?

Join Us

Password Reset
Please enter your e-mail address. You will receive a new password via e-mail.