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 (firstname.lastname@example.org).