Of collaboration and conundrums

Reflecting on transformation and e-government in the wake of this year’s Lac Carling Congress, I was struck by the number of conundrums — even contradictions — that are the context for further progress on this agenda. The existence of conundrums is not in itself a surprise; after all, they confound many aspects of our lives. For example:

a) As a country, we have legislated that large and small provincial jurisdictions have “equal” voices — yet tacitly acknowledge that their impact and importance are quite different. b) As users of public services we expect “sameness” in national outcomes while insisting on “tailoring” to local/regional needs. c) Finally, we recognize the requirement for common infrastructure — by definition mandatory — but then frequently treat it as optional or preferred. While contradictions — even ironic contradictions – seem to be a part of the human condition, there are three conundrums that directly affect collaboration and the transformation of service delivery.

Let me illustrate: Can stringent individual privacy requirements co-exist with personalized services or the notion of “my government account?” A convenient, portable, holistic view of citizens (or businesses) requires information management across departmental and jurisdictional boundaries, which has legal and legislative implications. On a positive note, the resulting person-specific database can enable active service offerings not currently visualized.

However, what seems unavoidable is a unique identification number for individuals as well as a dependence on consent by citizens for information re-use and sharing — both of which have a privacy impact. The Privacy Commissioner’s exhortation that we make privacy “a design objective and not an obstacle” is indeed difficult as citizens clamour for more, better, faster, comprehensive public sector services while also demanding personal privacy. Perhaps a hierarchy of privacy requirements by sectors can be identified to address this conundrum. For example, in the area of health, privacy expectations may range from the innocuous (e.g. a dental/optometrist appointment) to highly sensitive (a drug dependency or communicable disease). Another e-service conundrum, particularly for multi-year initiatives, is building individual trust and credibility in projects when staff continuity is volatile. At the Lac Carling Congress, former Ontario Cabinet Secretary Peter Barnes and John Langford of the University of Victoria both identified “relationships” as vital for successful inter-jurisdictional collaboration. But turnover — both planned (demographic realities) and unexpected (promotion) — can create gaps that are difficult to replace.

Effective teams need to understand each other’s environment, to share risks, accomplishments and defeats, in effect establishing personal “glue” that binds the project and the people. So the e-agenda conundrum of trust relationships and turnover necessitates long-term thinking about reasonable project outcomes (points of exit) and about succession planning and incentives (financial and career) that minimize the turbulence of staff departures. A third contradiction in the pursuit of service transformation relates to the role of CIOs and business knowledge. If the e-agenda is incremental automation of current service processes, then knowledge of the business can be reasonably superficial.

However, if business transformation is the real objective — quantum leaps in performance, totally new service outcomes — then CIOs (with program colleagues) must understand today’s business so as to visualize for tomorrow. Business competency demands time and executive attention. A CIO, unless “homegrown” within the organization, cannot devote the intensive time required to comprehensively know the business because he or she is buffeted by technical/infrastructure requirements, administrivia and client demands. The conundrum of establishing real business competency might be addressed by a planned CIO sabbatical in the front line trenches, or by splitting the CIO function into two separate orbits — technical and business. Both are expensive approaches; nonetheless, they may be prerequisites to ensuring substantive business redesign.

These few reflections on e-government conundrums are meant to illustrate the ironies of public sector service delivery. We need to be mindful of these tensions in the pursuit of e-government and transformation. They are an important part of the context in which we work and will require creative mitigation strategies.

John Riddle is a former CIO of Health Canada and a long-time participant in the Lac Carling Congress.

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