The fact that Shared Services Canada (SSC) has struggled mightily under the weight of its immense agenda is hardly news: press reports and a recent Auditor General report weigh heavily in this regard. In this outlet, Patrice Dutil’s recent and insightful interview with the President of SSC, Ron Parker underscored the breadth of the challenges at hand.
What, then, are the prospects that a new Government will provide a renewed impetus for SSC and its mission? At first glance, the Minister responsible for the agency has defended it in the House and the recent federal budget committed some modest funding to ‘support the transformation of government IT systems, data centres and telecommunications networks….in order to achieve savings from economies of scale.’
Writing in the Globe and Mail, Barrie McKenna observes that the ‘view of the new Liberal government is that Shared Services was set up to fail by the Conservatives. The agency was hit with severe budget cuts soon after its creation, leaving it starved of the resources it needed.’ McKenna quotes the Head of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance in lamenting procurement as a critical aspect of the struggles to date. In his discussion with Dutil, Parker concurs that procurement has been a problem.
In fact, there are two major constraints plaguing SSC – both a reflection of the inertia of traditionalism that continues to plague efforts to digitize the federal government. The first is indeed the procurement model – and more specifically, its propensity for secrecy and an ongoing tendency to embrace proprietary solutions over open source alternatives.
Refreshingly, this point was at least discussed at a Parliament Committee in March when Liberal MP David Graham (a former technology journalist) quizzed SSC officials about present infrastructure. SSC managers acknowledged that maybe fifteen percent of all servers at present run on open source, adding that more open source solutions are always under exploration. Nonetheless, the debacle of the single email platform and the shared failures of Bell Canada and CGI are a typical case study of proprietary traditionalism gone awry.
This is hardly news. Back in 2011, a British Parliamentary Committee published its own comprehensive indictment of traditional procurement and proprietary vendor solutions. The report aptly titled, Recipe for Rip-off, calls for a renewed procurement model predicated upon openness and portability rather customization and secrecy.
The British Government has since created a G-Cloud marketplace of pre-approved options providing interoperable choices for various government entities. In some instances, central agencies step in to encourage shared agreements; in many cases they do not, preferring facilitation to ordainment. Such an approach is in keeping with the characterization of a ‘tight-loose’ philosophy of IT governance to quote the British Cabinet Minister Francis Maude.
Parker acknowledges, in his interview, the value of more openness and the necessity of better partnering. SSC cannot act alone in reshaping government culture, of course, as other central actors, notably the CIO Office within Treasury Board also matter. The mindset of control that pervades central agencies unfortunately aligns all too well with many attributes of proprietary traditionalism in industry – and by extension the procurement mechanisms that enjoin both sectors.
While many traditionalists invoke secrecy as the ultimate justification for proprietary solutions, it is simply not the case that open source is inferior. A healthy mix of both approaches allows for the collective openness of the latter to spur innovation and competition. In a recent study of shared services in the US federal government, Accenture underscores this importance of ‘market fluidity’ in enabling strong planning and performance.
The second major problem facing SSC is the dearth of political collaboration within the Westminster model. A single Minister responsible for a government-wide transformation that is itself predicated upon intense collaboration across boundaries is unworkable and counter-productive. In a perverse way, Ralph Goodale’s public critique of SSC and its struggles to provide adequate support for the RCMP at least shines light on the underlying political horizontality at play.
Naturally, SSC has all sorts of inter-departmental working committees with Deputies and others engaged to varying degrees. Yet until a group of Ministers is charged with the means and the mandate to oversee the Government’s entire digital transformation – and openly held to account for integrative results, SSC’s prospects remain bleak.
Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).