These days, Jim Alexander is acting Chief Information Officer with the federal government’s Treasury Board Secretariat. It’s a position that lies near the heart of federal policy management, which makes it a long way from his start in the public service as a meteorologist, in the mid-1970s. The route between took him through assignments managing information technology for the federal weather service, heading information technology operations with Environment Canada and, in 1999, moving to Treasury Board to lead the development of what became the infrastructure for Government On-Line. He recently talked with CGR writer Chris Bishop about aspects of the federal high technology operation. Excerpts from their conversation follow.
Q. Given your background in the shared services area, how do you think the whole project is progressing?
A. I think it is moving along extremely well. It is a very ambitious project and a fairly large transformative project. If you look at the number of individuals involved and the magnitude of the effort that goes into IT services, HR and financial services across an organization the size of the Government of Canada, the transformation will require a lot of focus on change management, and will need continued leadership and management attention. But we have made a good start.
Q. How large is the project and how long do you think it will take?
A. The experience of other organizations that have tackled a project of comparable size would suggest that this transformation would take five to seven years – or more – to reach across the whole of the Government of Canada. The level of investment is pretty difficult to estimate, but if we look at what we are spending on an annual basis – which is billions of dollars – then one would anticipate that the level of effort to cause the transformation would also be very significant.
Q. I understand that a number of waves or phases have been determined for moving on the corporate administrative services side, and certainly Wave I has been defined. How are people selected for these particular waves?
A. Well, first we saw it was really critical to do this in phases. If you are doing something as large as this, it is really important to take a manageable-sized piece and begin with that. So we have the concept of phases or waves, and the first group on the corporate administrative side was chosen partly from groups that were already working together, such as the central agencies and the science departments. They were already interested in cooperating and moving to a shared delivery model.
So, we really just brought those together, and added Citizenship and Immigration for extra critical mass. That’s done. The departments involved are very much those that are willing and enthusiastic to participate in it, because, when you are leading a change like this it is critical to have people and organizations who are keen to participate in it. So that’s what we’ve got in the first wave.
On the IT side, the selection of those departments is still under way and the discussions are ongoing with some of the potential departments.
Q. On the IT services side, there has been significant work done on defining different kinds of services, whether these are desktop services, or help desk services and so on. Are those close to being articulated and defined now? What is the role of your organization in this?
A. We are very strong partners with the delivery organization and are collectively working with the departments on ensuring that we will be successful on delivering IT services. Our primary role is to make sure that there is a coherence or consistency across the enterprise called Government of Canada. So that ranges from making sure that we are talking in a common way about desktop services, so that we know what those are and if we break those down into another 5 or 10 sub-services, then again we’ve got consistency in that. We are working with Ken Cochrane’s shared services organization (at Public Works and Government Services Canada) and the departments on those key pieces of architecture. There is also a key role that we play in setting up the business environment in which shared services will operate.
Q. A lot of the departments have consolidated in the past 18 months, for example Industry Canada, Fisheries, Natural Resources and Environment. They have pulled their departments together and are saying now they can at least map to it, so when the transition takes place, hopefully there is not a huge gap, as a lot of the legwork has been done.
A. Yes. And that is a really key point because, if you are going to act as one enterprise as the federal government, a step along the way is to act as one department. That is part of that alignment, so, under things like our policy review, we will be speaking to the nature of the governance that should exist around IT services in the departments and how it exists across the Government of Canada. That starts to speak to the need for a more consolidated approach to IT services governance and IM services governance within departments – which is what you just spoke of in terms of the consolidation within some of those departments.
Q. What is Service Canada doing and how does it fit into this whole IT services arena?
A. The fundamental distinction that I would make between Service Canada and IT and Corporate Administrative Shared Services is that the people being served by Service Canada are citizens, and the people being served by IT and Corporate Administrative Shared Services are public servants who in turn, of course, are serving citizens. This is all part of making sure that we have got an effective public service, and part of the whole management improvement agenda that we are undertaking.
In both, though . . . there are the business models that speak to the governance and the funding and the accountability of Service Canada to the departments that it is delivering programs to, and then to the citizens (through mechanisms such as service charters). There is an exact analog to what happens internally as well, in terms of the accountability of the shared service organization whether it be Corporate Administrative Service or IT Service to the departments that they are serving.
We would expect, although they are not there in the first wave, that Service Canada would be consuming its internal services, sooner or later, from Corporate Administrative and IT shared services, so that it can effectively focus on its core mandate, which is service delivery to citizens.
Q. What else is happening in the CIO office?
A. One area that is very critical for us, and this is a Treasury Board-wide approach, is to look at the renewal of our policy suite. Our policy suite is really how we express our intention about how we are going to operate as a Government of Canada. So, even within the area that we are responsible for within the CIO branch, there are a number of policies and policy-like instruments that need refreshing and aligning. So we are going to look very carefully at the Management of IT Policy.
As a result of these government operations reviews, we developed some very different models and objectives in terms of how we act as one enterprise in IT services. That needs to be expressed in a current policy.
We will also be reviewing the Service Delivery Policy. We did some extremely successful work on the Service Improvement Initiative, in tandem with Government On-line in terms of really driving to increase citizen satisfaction. We need to imbed the service improvement approach in an ongoing way so we continue to improve the Government of Canada service delivery. Policy suite renewal to us is absolutely a key tool so that we can affect the whole of government and not just focus on the Shared Services projects.
The other key area that I’d like to focus on is that of projects and project success. The Ontario Government has done some work on that quite recently. We really see a renewed focus on achieving outcomes. We’ve done some good work around developing an outcomes management practice, and as part of the renewal of the policy suite, we want to make sure that the really good learnings that are coming out of outcome management get incorporated into how we do business as the Government of Canada in areas like the Project Management Policy and Management of IT Policy.