Catherine Luelo, Canada’s chief information officer, has announced her resignation, two years after taking up the job to modernize the technology systems of the federal government.
Shortly after the news broke, Luelo appeared by videoconference as a previously scheduled witness before the House of Commons Ethics Committee’s hearings into the use of social media by foreign entities for unethical or illicit sharing of personal information.
She was called on because of her recommendation in February to forbid federal employees from using China-based TikTok on federally-issued internet-connected devices.
Luelo confirmed she will be leaving her post at the end of December, although she did not specify her reasons for leaving. However, she discussed the state of the federal IT systems, starting by referencing the recent report of the Auditor General on the progress of its IT modernization program.
In that report, the Auditor General said that the Treasury Board, which oversees the shared IT systems most departments use, “did not do enough to lead and support partner departments and agencies to modernize outdated information technology systems. It has been more than 24 years since the government first identified aging systems as a significant issue and the secretariat still does not have a strategy to drive modernization.”
Two thirds of the departments’ and agencies’ applications were reported as being in poor health and in critical need of modernization, that report said.
Luelo made clear that the former head of Treasury Board was supportive of her work.
But, she added, “I think [the Auditor General’s report] is a good and accurate reflection of where we find ourselves in terms of our current state of technology. We’ve not advanced in the last 13 years, and I don’t think that is a win for Canadians. In terms of my tour of service, it was always intended to be that [a term, rather than a career], and I hope that other private sector leaders will do the same. It is an incredible opportunity.”
She became Canada’s CIO in July 2021, at the height of the pandemic, which greatly shed light on the dire need for the government to modernize its IT systems and deliver efficient and secure services to citizens.
A year into her appointment, she spearheaded the Digital Ambition, a government-wide strategy focusing on several digital transformation priorities, including ensuring operations are safe, progress is measurable, service is consistent and personalized for citizens, and a digital-first mindset reigned in the government.
However, speaking at technology conference FWD50 recently, Luelo addressed the numerous challenges that the various levels of government face in their digital transformation journey.
She said, “The government has to do the “hard work” of modernizing core and underlying systems, some of which are 50 years old.” Modernizing large projects, she added can be like a “well of despair,” adding they require “a lot of hard, but perhaps not so sexy work.”
Recent research by IDC, in fact, showed that 92 per cent of government agencies recognize that there is the need for a digital first strategy. Despite that, only 33 per cent are actively moving to it, while another 40 per cent are getting lost in the complexity and multiplicity of digital channels.
The same research points to roadblocks like growing cyber threats, struggles with combining old and new technology systems, resulting in technical debt, and the lack of talent, an issue also acknowledged by Luelo.
“That role has to be one of the toughest CIO jobs in the country,” said David Shipley, chief executive of New Brunswick’s Beauceron Security. “She led during some of the most intense years where online government was more important than ever to Canadians.”
He added, “The technology debt at the federal government level is Herculean and requires much more support and attention at the political level and more scrutiny and interest by everyday Canadians. Neither of which I think are forthcoming.”
Luelo affirmed at FWD50 that public servants have to build credibility and win back the trust of Canadians by getting projects done on time and budget.
She said during the House of Commons Committee meeting today, “I wish we could go more quickly on things. We need to go more quickly on things. I think there is an overhead dealing with all of the different layers around government, past and present.”
This story will be updated.