Shaking all over

The federal government’s electronic service delivery and information technology operations are undergoing evolutionary changes that are supposed to improve service to Canadians while saving Ottawa money.

They could also transform the way government itself goes about its business.

Two operations lie at or near the heart of the overhaul — Service Canada and the Information Technology Services Branch (ITSB) at Public Works and Government Services Canada.

Service Canada is armed with a mandate to deliver most of Ottawa’s forms and cheques and answer the questions Canadians have about government. Launched with considerable fanfare in September, just six months after it was formally announced in the federal budget, it has a high-profile deputy minister and a busy agenda to drive its operations over the next three years.

Meanwhile, at PWGSC, there’s a major initiative to bring much of Ottawa’s information technology under one roof. The goal of the realignment is “to better prepare ITSB for its mandate to serve as an IT Shared Services provider for the Government of Canada,” said a departmental statement to employees.

In an interview not long after the January budget announcement on Service Canada, Maryantonett Flumian, then deputy minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and now head of the new agency, said it would likely take three years before the agency was officially launched. That it happened much sooner is considered a testament to the support for the organization within the Martin cabinet.

In a recent speech, Flumian acknowledged that her agency had come a long way over the past few months. It already handles half of Ottawa’s $1.4 billion in payments to the public including unemployment insurance, CPP, old age security and senior disability benefits. It also looks after social insurance numbers and foreign worker permits. It has entered partnerships with Agriculture Canada and Transport Canada and, Flumian says, will likely distribute Ottawa’s proposed energy cost benefit payments.

During the next few years, other departments are expected to come on board and use Service Canada as their pipeline to the public, she added. “We will develop partnerships with them based on MOUs and service agreements.” While the government hasn’t introduced legislation to give the department a separate legal foundation, Flumian says it has all the legal authorities it needs to operate. “We will need legislation eventually. We will identify legislative barriers as we go. We haven’t run into any impediments yet.”

Flumian says making Service Canada work as intended will go a long way toward restoring public confidence in government. She promises seamless, citizen-oriented services and government working as a collaborative network. In the long run, she wants Service Canada to be a trademark for excellence in service delivery to Canadians.

While the changes at ITSB could have as significant an impact on government as the formation of Service Canada, no one in Ottawa seems to have chosen to draw much attention to them. Other than vague comments by Public Works Minister Scott Brison and Treasury Board President Reg Alcock, and a notice on the Treasury Board Web site, there has been little mention of the realignment.

But earlier this year, a Treasury Board review of government IT operations reported that they “consumed a full third of gross operating expenditures – some $13 billion annually.” It also concluded that they needed to be structured “in a client-centred manner with more transparency as to their costs and outcomes, and managed with a view to optimizing the overall value to the taxpayer and service to the client.” If the government wanted to show taxpayers it was spending its money wisely and managing better, this move would be an ideal way to make the point.

Ken Cochrane, CIO at PWGSC, said in an interview that the low-key launch of the new look ITSB was understandable as the changes have been under development for two years. “Our job is to look at managing IT much more intelligently across government and more cohesively as an enterprise.” Cochrane is more concerned with dispelling any notion that the ITSB has embarked on a sweeping takeover of government IT services.

“We have provided a number of IT services to other departments during the past 10 years,” he explains. “We are in the process of expanding our capabilities, so the reorganization was about expanding this branch as a business model that we can scale up and provide service to all government departments.

“So we are going through a process of working with departments to determine if their internal services are in a mode that they could be transferred to a shared services model. It is a collaborative effort to determine at what point and if and when we actually transfer that accountability to a shared services model.”

That, Cochrane says, means understanding the IT functions of each department and agency and whether there would be a benefit in obtaining them through ITSB instead of an in-house operation. Data centres and network and desktop management are the bulk of this shared services domain.

“So what we really do is go through something like a due diligence or feasibility study to determine whether to move to a shared services model. We’re saying let’s really understand how you manage those assets and whether there are any things happening in your department today that we should hold off on. Based on all that information we can determine whether some or all of those operations are ready for moving into a shared services model. It is a very structured and transparent approach we are using with the departments.”

So far nine departments are working with ITSB in an initial examination of shared IT services, Cochrane added. He wouldn’t name them because not all employees have been told of the development.

One advantage of shared services is that it could reduce difficulties in electronic communication among government departments, Cochrane points out. “If we have more common networks and defined interoperability as a requirement, then we would create more commonality but not necessarily one solution.”

While there has been talk of giving the ITSB special operating agency or organization status, Cochrane isn’t concerned with that for now. Asked if he would like a catchier name, he said he will worry about that if the government decides to change the branch’s status.

The PWGSC Web site says that “the implementation of the IT SSO will be phased in over a number of years. Shared services will mean efficiencies, better management of information for decision-making and an improvement in the quality and delivery of service.”

Wary of bureaucratic opposition and union concerns about job losses, the department adds that it “is working with client departments and the private sector to share approaches and solutions – and work collaboratively with bargaining agents to manage any human resource impacts – as decisions are made about IT shared services.”

Outside government, Ottawa-based IT consultant John Davis says ITSB’s ability to bring departments and agencies on board will depend on “whether it can build a solid business case for them to give up control over their IT infrastructure. It will be an uphill battle.” Davis says it will also depend on who captures the benefits from this cost saving measure and who is going to fund the ongoing operation.

In other words, according to Davis, if the federal government wants this shared services initiative to succeed, it will have to put up sufficient funds to make it happen – which it should because it will obtain the long-term benefit. “When projects like this succeed, it is because there is a critical business need and enough resources to make it happen. Shared services are a really good idea from a financial and an operational viewpoint.” But thus far there is no compelling business reason for departments to cast their lot with ITSB.

At the same time, ITSB will have to be able to satisfy departments and agencies that there is no business risk to giving up their IT operations. Davis says the existing track record of shared government services doesn’t inspire confidence among ITSB’s potential customers. The government’s central agencies – Treasury Board and the Privy Council Office — have already gone that route in a good-faith demonstration. But beyond that there “is no hard committed funding to build a common infrastructure. The government has to recognize that it needs to put money in the program if it is to work.”

As a department that is a heavy user of IT, Service Canada will be closely watched to see if it will cast its lot with ITSB or continue on its own. Service Canada has recently renamed its large IT shop the Information, Innovation and Technology Branch and is in the process of a hiring a new CIO. About 3,000 of its 22,000 employees are in the IT field, noted spokesman Mike Bryan. The department has inherited 23 call centres from other departments and will be working toward a single network to handle all of the demands from the public. It also operates 110 processing centres and four technology sites. It has already linked 170 government Web sites to a single source.

The realignment of the ITSB appears to mark the end of the line for the Government On-Line initiative when its funding expires next March. “PWGSC is counting on the support and assistance of its GOL initiative partners to continue delivering top-notch online services in keeping with the GOL commitment and providing these services to Canadians. One of the leaders in delivering on this will be Service Canada.”

Alex Binkley ([email protected]) is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa.

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