Q&A: Ken Cochrane

Ken Cochrane became chief executive officer, Information Technology at Public Works and Government Services Canada in December, on executive interchange from the Information Technology Association of Canada. As head of information management and information technology for the department, he is responsible for providing IM and IT infrastructure and common services to federal government departments and agencies. He also ensures IM and IT support to all areas of PWGSC as well as executive oversight for the department’s chief information officer.

Cochrane spoke with Richard Bray, veteran columnist with CIO Government Review, at the Lac Carling Congress in May. Excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q. You’ve stepped into one of the hottest jobs in the federal government. So: How’s it going?

A. This would be, I guess, month four. I started on the assignment at the beginning of January. The first month was really a focus on coming up with an action plan for how we, Public Works, as an IT organization could create a shared services capability for government, so we spent the month doing the action plan. We’ve spent the last couple of months communicating with people. The big challenge, really, is coming up with an action plan that’s feasible.

Q. Are you searching for business cases at this stage? When do you approach program people?

A. All of the work around IT shared services is under the umbrella of the expenditure reviews. As you know, there is an expenditure review focused on IT specifically, which is infrastructure-based, and there is also an expenditure review that’s focused on the corporate administrative capabilities and solutions. Our business cases will be harmonized with the outcome of the expenditure reviews, so as the work on the expenditures wraps up, we’ll be developing supporting business cases for the rationale behind moving forward with shared services in those areas.

Q. Because this is in the context of expenditure review, how important are the dollars?

A. It’s interesting, because when you look at the expenditure reviews, it’s about more than money. It certainly is a factor, but so is management. At the highest level, the expenditure reviews are about looking at allocation to the right things, and reallocation to higher priority items and so on. A certain element of the IT expenditure review would look at how can we do things better if we did them together.

The outcome of that would potentially be savings, and you would expect savings, but we’re also looking at how we could do it better than we do it today. As much as we are efficient, can we manage our environments more effectively? If you were responsible for the Government of Canada and all of its operations, you would want to be able to answer the question: Are we secure enough? Are we safe? And by bringing this under the umbrella of the expenditure reviews, we can answer those types of questions, which to me really focus on how we manage. Are we managing as effectively as we could be?

Q. Will you be investing now to save later?

A. There is no doubt that in order to proceed, there is development work to be done, but regardless of how we move towards shared services, we have to establish a base that is able to accommodate a larger number of clients than we have today. There is the need to perhaps enhance our operations to do them, so there is a requirement to spend dollars up front in order to gain the benefits of the different initiatives. Once again, some of those benefits may be savings. The benefits may be better management. The benefits may be more effective operations and better service to clients, so I always worry about just focusing on the savings. We’re focusing on many aspects. More confidence in our capability as an enterprise is another aspect. There is always a balance.

Q. Clearly departments are interested in your work. What questions are they asking you?

A. Probably the bulk of the 30 largest departments have come and had bilateral discussions with us. Most of them already have a good sense that we are looking at creating a shared services capability in the IT domain, so there’s not a lot of education from that perspective. The question really is, how are they going to be involved? What role can they play, and what steps are we going to define that will allow them to move towards shared services? Many are looking for practical “how to’s” – how to get there. What is the road map to take us from where we are today to where you want to go?

Our response to that generally is, we are in the process of creating the road map that we can put in front of departments for discussion, and I think that is giving them a sense of confidence that there is room for discussion, room for understanding, room to come up with practical approaches to getting to where we want to go. That’s the primary thing that comes from departments.

Q. How about loss of autonomy? Is that a concern?

A. We’re not necessarily asked that question directly, but at this point in time, until we come up with our solutions, it’s hard to say how we’re going to manage these shared services. Will we continue to engage many of our people in the same type of work they’re doing today, but do it in a more harmonized way? That could be one model. Are we going to redeploy people to other activities? A lot of departments need more attention in terms of moving their own programs forward, so will some of those people be reprofiled and redeployed to other program work? There are a lot of questions.

Loss of autonomy is interesting because I think a number of departments are beginning to say, “Well , if you’re talking about some of the infrastructure services, those are things that we would be happy to potentially acquire somewhere else, and if you’re going to act as the agent for obtaining the services, or providing them, then we’re interested in talking to you,” whether it’s networks or some of the fundamentals around data centres or desktops. I’m not sure that departments see those as the critical elements of delivery of the program. They need them to deliver those programs but they don’t need to own them. They want to focus heavily on their specific programs.

At this stage, I’m not seeing a lot of pushback in terms of autonomy. I’m seeing people who are very curious about how do they get on board, and will it work for them. I think it has been said by a number of deputies, if we move forward with these shared services, we would be providing to them core capability to deliver their own programs. The real response from them is, “Do a good job, because it’s really critical to our capability to deliver programs.” So from that sense, they are very anxious to see a solid program they can understand, one they can plan for and understand its impacts. Those are the kinds of discussions we have had so far. Until we get really specific about what the steps are to get from where we are today to where we want to be, I don’t think we will see any serious resistance.

Q. How is the day-to-day work going?

A. We have a lot of responsibilities today managing existing operations in terms of central systems, like the compensation system for government, the pension system, the major procurement systems for government and so on. We still run those. As well, we do provide some shared services to departments in voice telephony and some of the data network areas, and environments like data centres.

But I would still say the vast majority of those are managed by departments themselves. We have acquired a few additional people, people with the necessary leadership skills to help us build the transitional plan towards shared services. So we’re spending our time now getting ready for the expenditure review wrap-ups in the fall, building our business cases. The people who are on board will lead the development of the business cases, the stakeholder engagement, work with our various departments and suppliers and so on, to help us build the necessary plans and business cases.

Q. Government managers are very interested in your work, but I’m sure the supplier community is, as well.

A. I have met with groups like ITAC to brief them. They are interested in how they can participate as a stakeholder, and what we have said is, we are looking at ways of doing that. We want their insights and feedback about what the best approaches might be, and how their enterprises can become involved.

To some degree I look at the supplier community and ask, how can we apply any successes you have enjoyed to our circumstances? Are the services you have applied to your enterprise models for us? Show us how it fits in our world. We’re not dramatically different from them, but everyone is a little different, so give us your ideas as we approach this challenge. I think they want to be part of supporting the concept.

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