Q&A: Greg Lusk

Like so many public sector IT veterans, Greg Lusk didn’t start his career in the technology field.

“My original training was as a micro economist,” said Lusk, the executive director of procurement for the Department of Transportation and Public Works in Nova Scotia.

Lusk first came into contact with the IT side of government in 1979 while working for the Province of Alberta, where he was responsible for the procurement of IT services and hardware. In 1995, Lusk spotted an ad in the Globe and Mail that would lead him to the East Coast and his current occupation.

“At the time the economy was a lot better,” Lusk recalled. “They had a number of applicants and it was a very interesting hiring process to be a part of. In the end, I felt quite honoured to be offered the job.”

In a recent interview with Assistant Editor Blair McQuillan, Lusk discussed the challenges he faces, his greatest accomplishment and his vision of e-government in the future. Excerpts from their conversation follow.

Q. Could you outline a couple of the critical IT projects you’re currently working on?

A. We’re now going through a whole data centre strategy. It’s about how to provide support to the corporate systems and make them run well. How do you make sure people have access to the right technology at the right time? That’s coming along quite nicely.

A second recent project we’ve just completed – and that I’m very pleased with – is that we ran a competition for all of our telecommunications. We ran a tender for our voice, data, long distance and local telecommunications. It represented a major shift in public sector thinking. We really went through a process of thinking about what it was we needed to be doing and what it meant to be providing these telecommunication services. These things tended to be treated in silos, which made it very difficult to respond to changing technologies.

We’re now at a stage where a digital bit is a digital bit. Whether it is a voice digital bit or a data digital bit, the machine cares not. In the past, what happened was we contracted separately for each technology. But we went through a process where we developed our requirements, met with players in the industry and got their feedback. It’s worked very well. It’s rolling out now.

We’ve also got a joint committee – chaired by myself – made up of the [vendor] and ourselves for dealing with any sort of bumps along the road. We will resolve any sort of contract or service issues that way. It’s anticipated to be a process that allows you to work through these things quickly, efficiently and in the interest of both parties.

Q. Is it like the move to the P3 partnership ideas discussed at Lac Carling this year?

A. To some degree, yes. We have in this case a close working relationship with the vendor. So far it’s worked really well.

Q. What are some of the major e-government challenges you face in Nova Scotia?

A. This is not specific to Nova Scotia, but one is the corporate approach to technology management. In larger organizations it is really difficult to get people to think corporately. People tend often times to be so busy looking at their piece of the service puzzle or technological infrastructure, they fail to realize it is in fact part of a larger whole.

Second of all, there’s spam and security. I put them together because while admittedly, security is a more major issue than spam, they both represent intrusions into your environment. One’s more benign than the other, but I see them both as being problems of the same nature because they are both unwelcome.

The other one has to be the overselling of technologies. I’ve seen it time and time again where [a vendor] has a piece of hardware or software and [they say] it will do everything including fill the bottle with fresh pop and cap it for you, but it doesn’t do that.

Q. What is the solution to the final challenge you mentioned? Does some one on the government side need to step back and ask more questions? Should the vendors tone down their sales pitch?

A. Well, it’s both. There’s no substitute for an informed consumer and frankly, if you’re not an informed consumer, then you’re not satisfying your obligations. Vendors have an obligation as well to provide accurate, realistic and honest information. I think most do that, but where the worst of these things occur is where a public body hasn’t really thought about the business problem they’re trying to solve. When you’re vague about what you’re trying to accomplish, then naturally, the company responding will be throwing the kitchen sink at it and hoping that some of it is compatible. I’m not saying they’re trying to be dishonest. But when you’re trying to differentiate yourself from your competition, you’re going to present the best possible case.

Q. So in the end, it’s up to the public sector to present a solid business case then?

A. I think so. It’s unrealistic to expect the business community to be mind readers.

Q. What has been your greatest accomplishment during your time in Nova Scotia?

A. This one may sound odd, but the thing I’m happiest about in terms of the technology piece has nothing to do with technology. It has to do with hiring our director of information technology operations. The strategy I adopted when we went to competition was to find someone who understood service, business management and how to set priorities. I also decided if they maybe knew something about technology that would be good too. But overall, in this particular case, I felt knowledge of technology was more of an optional feature.

Some people thought this was crazy because it was the most senior technical person in government. But I explained that if being a technical expert was the answer then we – and most organizations – would be performing brilliantly because we have lots of technical people. What was important in this case was to have a good manager. That represented a shift in thinking and the individual we hired for the job has been performing superbly.

Q. What’s the best part of your job?

A. Without a doubt, it’s helping people solve problems. That’s a big part of what I do. Either problems are presented to me on an organizational basis or individuals come to me with a challenge. Working it through with them is an immense amount of fun.

Q. In terms of e-government in general, where do you see it going in the next five years?

A. To some degree I think people are going to have to step back from it a bit and ask, ‘What are we trying to accomplish?’ Just because you can do something electronically, does it mean you should do it electronically? I’m a fan of e-government. It is a very powerful tool, but the questions we need to be sure we’re addressing are: ‘A tool for who? For what? And why?’

Is that particular tool a more appropriate tool than other mechanisms? If you can spend a dollar on a manual process that has a more powerful impact in terms of society and public policy results, well then you should be looking at what’s got the biggest bang for the policy buck.

If you look at a lot of the e-government stuff that has been done across the country at all levels, much of it hasn’t gone that far. You’ve got to ask why. Is it that we haven’t put enough money into it? Is it that there hasn’t been enough focus on what is to be accomplished with it? Is it more complex than we’ve imagined? It’s probably all of those things.

Blair McQuillan (bmcquillan@itworldcanada.com) is assistant editor of CIO Governments’ Review.

Find more information on: The Province of Nova Scotia at www.gov.ns.ca. The Department of Transportation and Public Works www.gov.ns.ca/tran/home/index.stm

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