PWGSC defends Secure Channel

Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) has yet to respond to some of the Secure Channel criticism reported in the media. PWGSC doesn’t answer directly, but responds rather by action. sat down with Steven Poole, chief executive officer of PWGSC, and Imran Mirza, senior director of Secure Channel, to get some answers.

Responding to criticism

Being leader of a country, such as commander-in-chief or the prime minister, must rate as one of the most difficult jobs imaginable. Anyone with even half an opinion has at one time or another at least entertained some grandiose and lofty idea about what they might do differently. But there’s fantasy, and then there’s reality.

Similarly, Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) is one the largest departments in the federal government and a leader on many new Government of Canada initiatives. PWGSC is the government’s largest purchasing organization, averaging 60,000 contracts worth $10 billion annually. It is the mandate of PWGSC to procure goods and services for most federal departments, and to take the lead on their implementation.

Recently, PWGSC hit a few bumps with the media regarding its Secure Channel service, the common information technology infrastructure that provides secure and reliable network services for all federal departments.

As a technology service, Secure Channel has been recognized with a number of awards, among them the Canadian Information Productivity Awards (CIPA) for the past two years.

PWGSC was also awarded a second gold medal for “Innovative E-Government Pilot Projects” for collaboration with Statistics Canada on the Census Test. The Census of Population is one of Statistics Canada’s most recognized and extensive surveys, covering approximately 13.5 million households.

Secure Channel technology was used to ensure the security and privacy of Internet responses, which allowed Canadians to fill out and submit their census forms online in 2006.

Auditor General Sheila Fraser cited Secure Channel in her report on mismanaged IT projects, but the real issues may have been clouded.

The Auditor General did not question the reliability or the security of Secure Channel, notes CEO Steven Poole. Nor did Fraser question that PWGSC met all its business objectives, he asserts.

“We don’t accept that we got a failing grade,” says Poole.

“The only issue that was raised was the long-term financial sustainment model. And this takes time to deal with, to ensure the long-term dollars are there. And we’ve [since] dealt with that.”

In December 2003, PWGSC took over project management responsibility for Secure Channel from Treasury Board Secretariat. The IT/IM Management Board (IMB), which Treasury Board chairs, retained the program governance responsibility. Since then, Secure Channel has experienced unprecedented growth.

“We have over 120 departments and agencies that are using the network,” Poole points out.

“Over 50 programs are using the e-pass service, such as CRA and My Service Canada. Over 2 million e-passes have been issued and there are over 50,000 businesses that use the Web record of employment. Secure Channel is growing and it is growing phenomenally.”

Recently, Secure Channel experienced an overwhelming demand in usage due to the sudden surge of Canadians clamouring to apply for their passports online, to meet the new U.S. travel regulations.

Passport Canada was quick to point out that it was Secure Channel which was experiencing technical difficulties due to this demand and the network should only be used at certain times to alleviate its constant crashing.

“The truth is, that demand was not forecast on the network by the passport office, and it did create a very high demand for those using Secure Channel,” says Poole.

“One of the solutions to help them was to limit access to the downloadable file. We did that in concert with them, but the reality was they did not have enough infrastructure capacity themselves to deal with this.”

Poole highlights this joint effort as a solid example of collaboration between two federal government departments.

“Passport Canada was asking PWGSC to throttle the amount of transactions they could process, but this was coordinated with them. PWGSC worked in tandem with Passport Canada and they’re now operating at 100 percent capacity. But they had to do a lot of work internally.

“If anything, this is a great example of collaboration and coming together to solve what was unprecedented demand.”

The way forward

Secure Channel has been part of the Government Online Canada (GoC) program for several years, says Poole.

“This project played an integral part in helping Canada become rated number one for five years in a row [by consulting company Accenture], for its ability to connect with its citizens and businesses online,” says the executive.

“PWGSC takes it really seriously, protecting the integrity of Canadians and Canadian businesses. We know it requires some investment, but we’re really proud of the work we have done here so far.”

Secure Channel forms the centrepiece of Canada’s common information technology infrastructure, asserts Poole. “Canadians know we have a secure and private infrastructure second to none in the world.”

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