If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t the government help me renew my passport with Alexa? Or acquire new technologies without a year-long procurement process?
If you’ve ever grumbled such thoughts to yourself, then take comfort it knowing you have an ally in the government and he thinks like you do – except he’s actually working to do something about it. Aside from discussing ethical approaches to applying artificial intelligence (AI) and how blockchain can be used in government, our interview with Government of Canada CIO Alex Benay touched on a range of other topics. Here’s a roundup of some hot takes from the government’s top IT leader.
Answers are edited for length and clarity.
CanadianCIO: Your Twitter profile bio says “Don’t use the word ‘transformation.'” What do you have against that word?
Alex Benay: Transformation implies there’s an end state. In this day and age, we left the concept of an end state behind 10 years ago. We’re going to be in a constant state of chaos and disruption. There are many sectors not ready for this, including the research sector and large enterprises.
CCIO: You’ve also tweeted about exploring government service delivery through voice first devices like Alexa. How serious were you about pursuing that?
AB: We should be able to offer any Government of Canada service on any platform. It could be Facebook, on your watch, on your fridge, in your car, and with any partner. When you’re booking your vacation with Expedia.ca, you should be able to renew your passport for you. Your fridge should be able to warn you of that fish that got recalled.
What’s in the way of doing this is people, policy, and regulation. Our culture of service in the Government of Canada is about making people come to us. Why can’t we be where people reside? Voice first is worth investigating. Amazon shipped us a developer’s kit for Alexa to experiment with.
CCIO: Since coming into your role as the government’s CIO, you’ve worked to implement agile methodology, which is new in this realm. What’s your approach to change management to ensure a shift like this succeeds?
AB: Government is a large community and the largest tech operation in the country. If you look at the other nations going digital, they’re all small – Estonia, Israel, etc. A big ship can sometimes be a detriment. You want to start small and start infecting the system with different ways of working. It’s not the public policy that’s in the way, it’s the interpretation of it. We were able to launch our agile procurement at Transport Canada not but prescribing a solution, but by putting out a pilot and asking for responses. We have to accept the fact we’re not the exclusive expert on everything.
CCIO: Have you encountered any resistance to working like this? If so, how do you overcome it?
AB: You can just mandate it. In some cases, we’ve used it and talked about it. In some cases departments have used it and discussed the good and bad of it. If you think you’re going to change a system of 100,000 employees overnight, that’s going to be a challenge. You just have to chip away at it.
We are literally sending humans to Mars in the next 20-30 years, I think we should be able to figure this out.