EXCLUSIVE The president of the Treasury Board of Canada sits down with IT World to outline his vision on shared services, the role of social media in government, and going paperless
IT World Canada: As president of the Treasury Board, you have a mandate to drive cost-savings across government. How much is Shared Services Canada about identifying cost-savings, and how much is it about improving IT service delivery and process?
Tony Clement: I don’t think it’s an either/or phenomenon. I think obviously different parts of government have different aspirations for this. As IT continues to evolve, we want to male sure we have efficient processes, that our public servants are productive, that the interface is a positive one, not a frustrating one. All these things are part of the genesis for Shared Services Canada. At the same time, we’ve asked every major department and agency to come up with a five per cent and a 10 per cent savings plan as part of our efforts to get back to a balanced budget. Shared Services Canada will be responsible for that same kind of analysis as 66 other departments and agencies have had to go through.
ITWC: One criticism leveled by public sector unions and the private sector has been the lack of details around the plans for IT report. When will we see a business plan?
Clement: I think work is ongoing. Obviously the first part of a business plan is you’ve got to set a goal, and we’ve already done that. We’re talking about going from 100 e-mail system to one, going from 300 data centres to maybe 15 or 20, allowing the 3,000 networks to have a better capability to communicate with one another. We’re on our way that way. In terms of the implementation of these plans, it will start with the 2012 budget because Shared Services Canada will be then able to implement its part of our savings strategies.
ITWC: This isn’t the first time the government has embarked down this road, both your government and governments past, and there’s a certain degree of skepticism from the IT community. How are you convincing them that you’re serious this time?
Clement: I think we’ve done something that has never happened before; we’ve actually created the organization. There’s been a lot of talk about this, as I’m told, for over a decade, and nothing ever seemed to happen. I think the very fact we’ve been able to create Shared Services Canada, it has a chief executive, its starting to consolidate people and moving now from individual stove-piped IT services into the Shared Services Canada family, these things are happening now. We’ve gotten far beyond where anyone has been able to go in the last decade at least. It’s always good to have skeptics, and people challenging the system a bit, and that will perhaps lead to better systems in the future when it comes to how Shared Services Canada will implement its mandate. But we are making great progress.
ITWC: Yours isn’t the first government to adopt shared services. There are number of examples at the provincial level within Canada as well as internationally, some positive and some not. What lessons have you learned and what models are you following from other governments?
Clement: We did obviously look at the Canadian scene and the international scene. In Canada, British Columbia as an example. Internationally, I’ve personally been in contact with more or less my counterparts in the UK and the United States; I met with the CIO of the United States government in Washington, DC a few weeks ago. Definitely some lessons to be learned. In some areas, we’re ahead of them, and there’s some professional jealously of how we’ve come further. In other areas, I think we’ve got some things to learn. That’s always good, there’s always some lessons to be learned. We’ve developed a roadmap but if there are improvements that can be made based on other institutions’ experiences we’re absolutely open to that.
ITWC: While you’re looking to drive savings, obviously there will continue to be IT investment. Where will government still be looking to engage with the private sector around new IT investment?
Clement: We continue to spend on IT, that hasn’t stopped. And there are various government departments, many of which have an interface with the Canadian public, that are anxious to upgrade their systems or even replace their systems that have been created over the last 30 years and are not robust enough for the legitimate demands of the Canadian public in terms of service. I can say generally there will continue to be investments.
ITWC: We hear a lot of talk these days abut citizen engagement, and the potential to bring citizens and government closer together through IT, both for service delivery and policy development. What’s your vision here?
Clement: We have a fairly well-developed open government plan and platform now. It involves open data, open information and open dialogue with citizens. Open data, my vision is to push more data out to citizenry from the government so they can utilize this data for information purposes and for the entrepreneurial sector, developing new apps. I always use the example of the public transport icon on Google Maps as a good example of using publicly-available information, from municipalities in that case to create a wonderful tool for routing your trip. I think there’s a whole business culture than can be created when we get more open data out there. I’ll be relying on Statistics Canada, as an example, for some of this information. Open information is about making sure Access to Information requests are more freely available to a broader audience. And the open dialogue; I’m interested in how we use the social because, the IT world, to help us not only have a dialogue with the public, but also help in decision-making. It could be either decision-making that governments have to decide, or through using crowd-sourcing technologies to actually push decisions away from government so the public can make these decisions for themselves. These are some of the concepts I’d like to make some improvement and progress in the near future.
ITWC: You’re a pretty active user of technology yourself. You have an iPad and a BlackBerry, and you’re a prolific tweeter. How has technology changed how you do your job, both as a minister and a member of parliament?
Clement: I had the good fortune of being industry minister for two-and-a-half-years before going to Treasury Board, and then being at Treasury Board having a role with open government, so it’s been good for me to be in this milieu, understand some of the issues and frustrations, some of the challenges, but also some of the opportunities, and it has animated some of the public policy I’ve been championing as a minister. As a politician, and an individual, it’s part of my life. I say to my kids, there are two states of being now, asleep and online. I use the online world as a news source, as aggregation, for being able to communicate my message, showing dimensionality about who I am, my likes and dislikes broader than just politics, my passions, whether it’s in sports or music, and also to carry on that dialogue. As we’re having this conservation tweets are coming in to my tweet-box because I started a dialogue on the use of social media for public servants. I’m getting a lot of feedback on that. These are the kinds of things it can be utilized for. Really we’re at the beginning of how this can positively affect society. I think government and the public service can’t be apart from that, they have to be part of it, and we’ll learn as we go. We might make some mistakes as well, that’s all part of new technology and how society reacts to that.
ITWC: You mentioned social media use in the public service. Right now it’s pretty restricted, with sites such a Facebook blocked on government offices. Are you looking to make changes there?
Clement: We’ve got to update the guidelines. The guidelines on the use of social media predate most of social media. The guidelines in place now are 2008 guidelines. My officials are in the midst of updating those guidelines. There have to be some rules, but at the end of the day, as I said to the Senate committee recently looking into some of these issues, it’s just bizarre to me that you have a situation, let’s given an example of a bright, young new employee of the public service, let’s stay they’re in their mid-20s, used to being online 24/7, at Timmy’s or wherever, using their iPad or PlayBook being on Twitter, and then they cross into the public service and none of that, the wall comes up and very little of that is available. To them it would be bizarre. I think we’ve got to break down that wall. There do have to be rules. Professional sports teams have rules about social media, companies have rules about social media. There have to be rules. But we can be less restrictive than we are now.
ITWC: You’ve talked about a pilot project in the cabinet committee you chair to replace briefing books with tablets. What’s your goal there?
Clement: I think Treasury Board can lead the way on this and get us closer to paperless. It almost seems strange we’re talking about this in 2011and it couldn’t have been done 20 years ago, but here we are. To me, I can lead the way by the number of reports that are available by memory key rather than (on paper). I’ll give you an example. Many reports I do involve thousands of pages of reporting in accountability for government, whether it’s supplementary estimates or reports of departmental priorities, and they go to 308 MPs and it lands with a thud on their desk. I’d like to go to memory sticks on all of this with hyperlinks to make it much more accessible and manipulatable. This isn’t something new, it’s actually old technology, but getting it into government and getting it to be matter of fact I what I’m aspiring to.
ITWC: Finally, as you go down the road of shared services and IT reform, what’s your message to the vendor community? What should they be doing to get ready and engage with you on this?
Clement: I think it’s an exciting time for vendors. We’re asking for their assistance, we’re asking for their participation, their ingenuity, their innovation and creativity, we’re asking for all those things and we want them to be partners with us as we move the goalposts. In that sense this is a partnership, it’s a joint effort, and I and we encourage them to continue to interact with us so we can get to some pretty exciting places together. I think Canada can be a leader in these areas, and it will benefit society. It will benefit the citizens, their friends, their neighbours and family members, as much as us directly involved. We certainly are looking forward to their take on things and their suggestions, and indeed their proposals.