The challenges of remote work have been amplified for every industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the public sector is no different. At Technicity West, panellists Jaimie Boyd, chief digital officer, Government of British Columbia, Michael Barr, CIO, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), and Wayne Karpoff, president and CEO, Edmonton AB-based industrial automation firm Willowglen Systems Inc joined moderator Steve Proctor, vice-president marketing and communications, IT World Canada to discuss the issues and how they’ve changed the way people work.
“It’s been remarkable,” Boyd said. “We’ve seen more change in the last year than we’ve seen in decades.” And it’s accelerating, she said.
Pre-COVID, the record number of remote workers in the B.C. public service was about 8,000. That was during a snow day. Today 35,000 public servants are enabled for daily remote work. The daily average throughout the pandemic has been 28,000.
• Naveed Husain, VP of Vertical Programs, RingCentral
• Steve Proctor, Vice President Marketing and Communications, ITWC
• Michael Barr, CIO, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology
• Wayne Karpoff, President & CEO, Willowglen Systems Inc
• Jaimie Boyd, Chief Digital Officer, Government of British Columbia
Karpoff says he faced different challenges. His company builds and supports the technology that keeps critical infrastructure such as power systems, transit, and hospitals running. “We switched into COVID mode, and we had to make sure that some really important things didn’t break or hospitals wouldn’t have power or people wouldn’t be able to get to where they needed to go,” he noted. “We needed to change the way we interacted with our customers. It was an interesting thing not just to do our COVID plan, but to integrate it with everybody else’s, and adjust the culture accordingly.”
At SAIT, Barr said that their disaster recovery and business continuity plans allowed them to spin up and support about 5,000 simultaneous VPN connections virtually overnight to support staff and students. While that was not without its challenges, the biggest issues were on the social side, he said. The biggest impact on the school was from communications. “The level, the volume, the pace, the urgency of communications has gone through the roof,” he said. “The thing that was surprising was the clock speed. We’ve increased our speed by about 30 per cent for project throughput and that type of thing. It’s just been an absolute crazy pace.”
Despite the pace, Karpoff was pleasantly surprised at how well Canada’s underlying infrastructure has held up to the strain. A telco CTO told him that the internet backbone and cellular networks did fine. Only traditional landlines struggled, he was told.
A more agile public sector
Two big changes surprised Boyd. Traditionally, the public sector is known for long development cycles for digital products, with requirements gathering, requests for proposals, and so forth taking many months. Now, she’s seeing those cycles go from months to weeks. Sometimes even days.
“And the second thing that really jumped out to me would be the level of cultural acceptance around remote work,” she remarked. “For so long we’ve been buying buildings, we’ve been creating these physical gathering points to try to create collaboration, to try to break down silos. And I think for the first time, we got rid of that bad assumption that it was the physical place that was limiting our collaboration. So it’s actually really accelerated some of the cultural change that we would see and desire when it comes to digital government.”
“For so long we’ve been buying buildings, we’ve been creating these physical gathering points to try to create collaboration, to try to break down silos. And I think for the first time, we got rid of that bad assumption that it was the physical place that was limiting our collaboration. So it’s actually really accelerated some of the cultural change that we would see and desire when it comes to digital government.”
That said, Proctor wondered what is being done to support workers who may be suffering video fatigue and are at risk of burnout.
“As a card-carrying introvert like most computer scientists, I’ve been training my whole life for this pandemic, and it’s not a big deal,” Karpoff said. But one thing he learned quickly is that everyone needs different levels of social interaction. Otherwise, he said, they start to fall apart. “And so that brings up a big thrust that we’ve had: over-emphasizing communication. The big challenge that we’re seeing is finding clever ways to create those serendipitous interactions that create the unplanned innovations.”
Leaders have also become more comfortable discussing mental health issues, added Barr. “I think one of the really cool things for society is that we’ve become a lot more open and supportive about mental health issues. There’s no longer the stigma.”
Technologists are optimists, Boyd noted. “We have an opportunity to build a more beautiful version of our society, a more inclusive one, one that’s more thoughtful. Working in the public sector, government exists to serve people, and so it’s easy to make that connection to the mission-driven work, it’s easy to say, ‘Listen, if this is too important, let’s get rid of the distractions. Let’s focus on creating a minimum viable bureaucracy.'”
The next 5 months …
What should we do over the next five months to enable and innovate? Proctor asked. Panellists’ responses described similar opportunities.
For Karpoff, it’s being active early adopters of products from small Canadian companies, supporting and mentoring them to keep them healthy and sustainable. Barr emphasized partnerships.
“I’m working on my roadmap out to 2025. I don’t know about 80 per cent of it. But probably 20/30/40 per cent of my portfolio will be partnering with a lot of companies that are tiny, two to five people. This is sort of the little green shoots that are coming up in our economy where we’re part of that ecosystem,” Barr said.
Boyd’s priority is addressing shortcomings that were revealed by the pandemic, such as data management and making use of the situation to move forward.
“There are certain things that we can push through that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise,” she said. “In public policy we talk about Overton’s window, that window of possibility for public sector interventions. And I think that our Overton window is wider than it ever has been on things like digital ID, which are for me the backbone of collaboration and trust. I would love to see us leverage this opportunity to strengthen pan Canadian collaboration on things like that.”
Proctor wound up the session by asking each panellist for one piece of advice to help people up their innovation and enablement game.
Barr leaped in with two suggestions. First, he said, support a culture of innovation. And secondly, look at the cloud as a utility, and with cybersecurity so complex, if third party management and vendor management isn’t a high priority, it should be.
Karpoff thinks people should take advantage of the opportunity to do more aspirational thinking about how to proceed over the next five years and start planning.
“Trust your people,” Boyd said. “I think when we trust our people, within our organizations, when we offer them the imperative of building better services for our own communities, most people will rise to the challenge in spectacular ways.”