Shared Service Canada was launched just over two years ago with a mandate to “fundamentally transform how the government manages its information technology (IT) infrastructure.” Liseanne Forand is the deputy minister. She answered questions from editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe.

What do you see as your greatest accomplishment?

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been two years. Since August 2011, we have established a new department, attracted great talent, and assumed the day-to-day challenges of operating the IT infrastructure that keeps a modern government running. And we are already moving forward with the transformation of the government-wide email, data centre and network services. We have come a long way. It has been a true team effort and I am deeply grateful for the contributions from the employees and partners who have been so supportive.

Just to highlight a few examples, we welcomed more than 6,000 employees from our 43 partner departments and agencies; developed an integrated approach to operations that keeps services running 24/7; and launched the Information Technology Infrastructure Roundtable (ITIR), a forum for the ICT sector and key government partners to discuss our transformation agenda. We have also begun to consolidate contracts, where it makes good business sense to do so, and we’ll do more of that in the future. And we are also making progress on our IT transformation initiatives.

After the completion of a collaborative procurement process, we are poised to replace 63 different email systems across government with a single, secure, government-wide solution. We have also developed our plan to consolidate data centres and networks, and to increase the protection of government systems and data by improving cyber security enterprise-wide.

Looking to the future, all the experts we have talked to have emphasized that our success will be inextricably linked to the support we receive from our partners. We are therefore undertaking both formal and informal consultations and engagement with partners across government and in the private sector. Collectively we have a lot to deliver on over the next few years, and to do so we will need to plan and manage our IT and other change initiatives together, on an integrated basis.

And most importantly, we always have to remember that IT transformation is not only about servers and switches – it’s people who make the real difference. From the beginning we have invested in employee engagement and we will continue to do so throughout our transformation journey.

You once said that building an organization like the SSC was an opportunity to create an entity unlike the typical government department: what progress have you made in this area?

Our objective has been to do everything we can to make SSC a department for the 21st century, leveraging technology and our enterprise-wide mandate to be “new and different.” We created operational portfolios that linked employees serving different departments, to draw on a deeper bench of talent and expertise; we organized the department according to a “Plan-Build-Operate-Manage” model that reflected the fact that we are in the business of large scale, sustained project management; we committed ourselves to a lean internal services model that relies on sharing back office systems like SAP and PeopleSoft, rather than building our own capacity; and we made it a practice never to assume we needed to do things the way they had been done before.

Having said that, we know there is still much more we can do. As we move forward with our transformation agenda, the challenge will be to shift from vertical service delivery – department by department, portfolio by portfolio – to horizontal business lines, delivering email, data centre and network services on an enterprise basis, across all 44 departments. Our transformation plan is built on that vision, and we know that it will deliver benefits: better service, greater capacity, lower costs, and improved security and reliability.

SSC resulted in a huge culture change for the federal government IT community: how have you been able to lead that change throughout the system? What lessons have you learned, and what advice would you have on change management on this scale?

There is no question that bringing employees from 43 different departments together around a single mandate and vision has been challenging. What has really made the difference for SSC is the quality and commitment of our people. We have been extremely fortunate to be able to rely on the skills and experience of a broad community of IT and other experts. Notwithstanding all the uncertainty and change that surrounded the transfers of people and functions in November 2011, our employees identified with our objective to deliver “Service, Innovation and Value” both through our operations and our transformation agenda, and made it a priority to provide the best possible IT infrastructure support to the programs and services on which Canadians depend. In return, we have made a commitment to keep them and their bargaining agents informed of our plans and progress, and to support and engage them as we move forward.

Continuing to build a single, unifying culture for SSC will be critical to our success in working as a single enterprise as we begin to implement our transformation plan. We have built our integrated business plan around the theme of “one SSC” and will use every opportunity to reinforce what that means for our people, for our processes and for the services we have been created to deliver.

How will the CIO community itself need to adapt in order to meet future challenges?

This is an exciting time for the IT community as a whole and for CIOs in particular. The creation of SSC has given CIOs a strong partner on the IT infrastructure side, even as it has freed them up to focus on the core businesses of the departments they serve. It will be critical for us to find the most effective ways to work together, to share our objectives and our plans, to optimize our investments and to make the most of the opportunities that transformation and renewal can offer.

To succeed in this new environment, and to be good partners for us at SSC, CIOs will need to fully understand the value that information technology and information management can contribute to program and service delivery, and the benefits that standardized, consolidated and modern infrastructure can offer them as an integral part of those business solutions. Obviously, skills like strategic thinking, communication and engagement will be key to establishing the effective relationships they will need to maintain with their business colleagues and with their counterparts at SSC, and will ensure they are able to play a vital role at the senior management table.

Shared services is a manifestation of how IT needs to be managed across government: what is your vision for SSC down the road?

SSC was created with a mandate for change, innovation and transformation, and I believe we are only starting to appreciate the potential and the promise that this new model can deliver. We have had to spend some time putting together the basic building blocks to stand up a new department, but now that that is largely done we can focus on leveraging technology and talent to deliver unprecedented service and security at a more affordable cost. That will mean more capacity to seize the benefits of big data; more bandwidth to support virtual solutions like videoconferencing and webinars, in meeting rooms and at the desktop; a secret network that will enable secure electronic communications between departments and agencies; workplaces that will offer wireless capability as a matter of course; and a single email address for each public servant, to keep no matter where they work and what they do. And these are just the concrete benefits that we can see today – the model that we are building is designed to be an adaptable, flexible platform on which departments will be able to build innovative, modern solutions and services, as both technology and their needs evolve.

In fact, the future of SSC is closely aligned with the vision of the future of the public service, as it is set out in Blueprint 2020: enterprise-wide, open and networked, modern, flexible, adaptable and relevant. And the best part is that that future is not just wishful thinking, and is not that far away – we are doing the hard work and the planning today to make it a reality. I mentioned it earlier, and I’ll say it again: it’s an exciting time to be in IT in the government of Canada.