Reg Alcock, President of the federal government’s Treasury Board since 2003, is no stranger to the Lac Carling Congress. An active participant in discussions around the role of politicians in the electronic transformation of the public sector, he emerged as an unusually thoughtful analyst of a long list of complex issues. He was back at Lac Carling this year, as keynote speaker, and chatted following his address with Robert Parkins, editor of CIO Government Review, and CGR writer Richard Bray. Following are excerpts from their conversation:
Q. The more senior the public servants, the more successful they have been working inside the current system. How do you convince people to change their management practices in a new, digital era?
A. . . . where the technology is taking us is a place where we have to make different decisions to get the value that the technology offers us. We have to do things like combine data. As soon as you combine data, you threaten people’s control over their information. The classic “information is power” plays out in the real world and so people feel enormously threatened by it. They are threatened by it in the private sector too, but in the private sector, you’ve got a couple of things – the management models are simpler and you usually you are driven there by a crisis. . .
We’ve got none of that. I used to call the sponsorship thing the “wind beneath my wings.” You want a compelling reason to change? Here is a reason to change. But public attention doesn’t sustain on that issue. . . . Money is not the problem. The problem is internal management consensus. These guys are fighting me every step of the way, even some of the smart ones, not because they are personally resistant to it, but it just represents such a threat and loss of control.
Q. If awareness and consensus-building is stage one, as you’ve argued, what is stage two?
A. . . . there needs to be a re-framing of the management model of government. Right now, if you look at all the departments we have, forgetting about stovepipes and things like that, they all tend to be headed by policy shops. The operational side tends to be the servant of the policy shop. We’ve argued for years that there is no management culture. And that is an observation. I don’t launch that as a criticism. It doesn’t mean that managers don’t care about proper reporting and those things, it just means it’s not what they are driven by. What they are driven by is the next new idea to feed Question Period in the House. What I’ve been arguing for and what we’re hoping to do is restructure some of these operational portfolios.
Service Canada pulls a bunch of this out of two departments and puts it over to a brand-new entity that will eventually have a minister, focused only on the delivery of those services. That is an interesting change. The policy people will be reassured about their role, but they will not implement their products.
I am not one who promotes private sector models because I just think the public sector is far more complex. However, think about a car company. You have a design shop, and you have a place that builds cars and you have salespeople. You don’t have the salespeople running the auto plant. You don’t have the design people running it. You have different functions, yet we have these things all stacked vertically so the design people are running the sales force and running the delivery guys.
Knowledge management is critical, because as you collect information, you start to throw off artifacts that we can begin to analyze. Who knows what the endpoint of that is going to be? But it will be radically different. Take simple things like civil society and democracy. If citizens can see what is going on – and this is where I get into the freedom of information side of things – my answer to that is “build the tools and just throw it all into the public view all the time.” We have some work going on internally about reporting to the House that is as radical as anything you are ever going to see. The system is so frightened about transparency because its history is to be hidden. That creates another boundary you’ve got to get over.
We have done a fair bit of that in a fairly simple way up to now and we’ve not had any real explosions. We have all contracting online now, over $10,000. We’re going to do grants and contributions next. When you start to do those things, people realize the world didn’t collapse … You see it in the [online] expense accounts. We said, here are the policies for expense accounts, and everybody knows what they are. Now we are putting them online. We have saved a lot of money because it’s all self-correction. People check now.
. . . Just recently, we completed some work on contaminated sites. You can go online and bring up a registry of every contaminated site in Canada that’s been identified and look at the remediation planning. You can find it online and track it. That site is the one the public service itself uses to manage and clean up contaminated sites. In a democratic sense, that changes a lot.
Q. Is expenditure review cutting too close?
A. I argued for a while that expenditure review was the wrong term because you always want to manage your finances as carefully as you can, and you always want to demonstrate that you are on top of it and doing it. The problem was, a lot of the reforms that are going on – in fact, the bulk of the savings in expenditure review – are coming from things I argue should be done regardless of what the drivers are. Procurement reform and supply chain management are going to save a lot of money, just by changing the processes of how we procure things. So it was driven as a cost-cutting exercise, because we wanted some money for reallocation, but I argue it was as much a service modernization exercise. Service Canada is the same thing. It will throw off savings, because we’re combining things, but doing it in the name of financial savings actually works against you, because people see Service Canada as only being there to cut things and fire civil servants as opposed to improve the service offerings that are available to citizens.
. . . But I argue that politicians provide insurance to public servants in the sense that in contentious or difficult areas, if the politicians say “go there,” then the public servants are empowered to go there because it is hard for them to go into difficult spaces. So you look at some of these problems. The Auditor General and I have had a long talk about this. The public service’s reaction to some of our criticisms was to tighten everything up to the point where it was almost impossible to do anything. Contracting became a joke; the relationship with not-for-profits came down to 30-page legal documents for $30,000 grants. Just nuts.
Q. You’ve said that change should be incremental but that it should also be whole-of-government. Contradiction?
A. So much of the problem of building IT in government comes from the fact that most of the IT planning models were built in the days of mainframes. You had to figure out everything before you wrote a line of code and so we built these elaborate planning processes, and we overbuilt all the time. In today’s world, we can build with modules. Take HR. In the first instance, this is “who is working for you, where do they live, what is their SIN number, how much are they being paid.” But you can build much more on it. You can build some pretty sophisticated life-long learning tools, you can build retirement planning, pension planning, and HR professionals can go even further and build really exciting things. So I keep saying, “No, stop that. We’ll talk about that when you can tell me how many people work for us.” Let’s build it basic.
I just think about it as the modernization of public management. What we’ve got is a lag time of about 15 years. Large private sector organizations went through this in the late ‘80s. . . . They went through a lot of this as these things played out – restructuring, right-sizing, reorganization, reengineering – all the “re” words. There was lots of that talked about in the public sector, but the only real reengineering was privatization. We cut off chunks and threw them out. . . .”‘Innovative, free from the constraints of government, they need to be able to ride the innovation trail and service local communities.” Then I thought, if those things are good for them, why aren’t they good for government?
. . . It may be time to call together the equivalent of the 1994 Information Highway group, looking at internal services, just to build a robust consensus among a bunch of internal and external experts, on the need to do this and lay out the game plan.
Richard Bray (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Ottawa-based freelance journalist specializing in high technology issues.