In the great hall of OCAD University to celebrate his book launch for Government Digital, Government of Canada CIO Alex Benay can’t quite remember the name of Netflix hit series Black Mirror.
“What’s the name of that show on Netflix, Dark Mirror?” he asks the assembled crowd, standing gathered around the microphone. A helpful response is shouted back at him with the correct title.
Benay is aware of the potential dark side of modern technologies and the negative consequences of advanced systems used irresponsibly. It’s a theme that he’s spoken to both in his keynote address at our Digital Transformation Awards and in an interview for our podcast 5 Lessons from New Technology Leaders. We’re back for our second season, exploring the stories of some of our CanadianCIO of the Year finalists. This season will include some of the top technology executives from Canada’s oldest and most-recognized institutions and brands. On Nov. 7, we’ll have the stories of both the CanadianCIO of the Year in the private sector and in the public sector to share with you.
5 lessons learned from Alex Benay
1) Build an ethical framework that will protect users before you set about designing technology to serve them
Benay is the co-founder of the CIO Strategy Council alongside former BlackBerry CEO Jim Balsillie. It features a mix of public sector and private sector CIOs that are working together to shape Canada’s innovation eco-system.
At a meeting earlier this year, the council discussed an ethical framework for AI. Benay wants to develop a framework that will be used as the standards of AI services implemented by the government in the future. With the recent launch of an RFP to create a short-list of pre-approved vendors for AI, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent stated interest in using AI to help deliver government services, the framework will be much more than theoretical.
“I’d like to think we’re one of the most organized governments in the world when it comes to this,” Benay says. “We have an algorithmic impact assessment tool that we will be showing the world in November… which is a world first.”
2) With the right motivation and the right leader, you can change even the largest and most rigid of legacy organizations to work in an agile way
Shared Services Canada was created in 2011 with a mandate to consolidate the IT operations of every government department. It was a big project that politicians designed to save money. The project aimed to move from 600 data centres to 20 and reduce department staff in favour of a centralized service approach. Unfortunately the reality of operations at Shared Services hasn’t matched aspirations.
Benay is honest about what causes problems like this. It’s related to how the government buys technology.
“In government, we take three years to do requirements,” he said at ITWC’s Digital Transformation Awards in August. “Then it takes us two years to buy it because we’ve added every kind of risk aversion we could think on the procurement side of it… the fact is we can’t compete in that kind of way of thinking.”
So Benay is changing the entire model of governance at the government. That includes a new procurement system, which many stakeholders have been asking for. The new approach will be to define the problem the government is trying to solve and invite suppliers to create a solution.
Benay describes it an agile approach to procurement. It is already being used to drive the process to replace Phoenix, and on AI solutions.
3) Releasing free and open source data can create big value
Benay is proud to point to the World Wide Web foundation’s Open Data Barometer, which now ranks Canada as tied for first with the U.K. Scores are based on factors like open data readiness, implementation, and emerging impact. Canada received a score of 99 out of 100 for the “government action” metric.
Benay has led that effort after a positive experience with open source during his time at the Canadian Science and Technology Museum, where he was the president. The museum released its data sets as part of the Ingenium project.
Because of this approach, the museum was able to find a documentary filmmaking partner in Ottawa that produced 4K documentaries based on the available data, using federal tax grants to fund it.
Now Benay sees open source as a fundamental principle for all government institutions to put in place.
“Just from a purely democratic access to information perspective… there are benefits of doing this,” he says. “There’s also an economic opportunity.”
4) Avoid loss aversion thinking, consider potential gains of a new strategy
Another open source story from his time at the museum, Benay remembers that a librarian that didn’t want to release data publicly because of $17,000 in annual revenue generated by licences. When it was released to open source, a videograme company used it to crate a game that received hundreds of millions of downloads. It shared the revenues with the museum.
5) If you don’t take action to shape your organization’s future, external forces will shape it for you
At the Digital Transformation Awards, Benay recalled the reaction of some of his colleagues when he went to visit Amazon and came back with a free Alexa developer’s kit. Some were worried about the optics of the government taking something for free – but the kit was simply available to any developer that requested it. Others quibbled about not including Google Assistant – but Amazon had proven easier to work with for Benay’s team.
As a result of his willingness to try something new, Transport Canada has a beta Alexa Skill that contains vehicle recall information. Here’s a video of it in action:
It was a simple action, but it’s one that is shaping how the government delivers services over digital channels. Benay thinks the legacy of operations at government isn’t compatible with the modern age.
“Things have to change and we’re in the middle of change those and reviewing laws and policies to make sure that we can share that data with you, with others, and with ourselves in a way that is respectful of privacy,” he said.
Be sure to listen to the podcast episode embedded above to get the full story behind Benay’s five lessons. Next week we’ll have two more episodes, featuring the winners of the CanadianCIO of the Year awards.