Alex Benay, CIO of the Government of Canada, is an insightful thought leader looking to help Canadians achieve long term success. Recently, at the Municipal Information Systems Association of British Columbia (MISA BC) fall conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Benay and listen to his well-attended keynote with British Columbia’s IT leaders from across the municipal sector.
Darin Murray Young, President of MISA BC and CIO at the City of Delta believes we need to support leaders and disruptors who are tying to make a difference and said, “Alex isn’t afraid to identify key issues in culture and process that are delaying digital opportunities at the federal level. We need more people thinking this way, and more leaders like Alex.”
Benay delivered as promised by the MISA BC organizers that he “is not your typical CIO!”:
“A dynamic executive with public, crown and private sector experience, he is tasked with guiding Canada’s largest technological operation in the country for the digital future. He is responsible for a massive portfolio; a budget of $6 billion, 17 thousand employees and countless vendors. With technology and change as constants Alex balances the needs of government information systems with the demands of an increasingly dynamic, savvy and on-demand population.”
Given that Benay is also an accomplished author with his recent book titled, “Government Digital” the topic of Benay’s keynote was “How Canada Can WIN at Digital” and it became very clear in the first few minutes that we, as Canadians, can and should do much more to thrive in the global digital economy. Widely agreed amongst the information technology community in Canada, our legislation makes it very difficult to do digital in any meaningful way. As Benay describes it, “Our policies hide behind outdated thinking and the public sector approval process to policy change is too slow.” We are in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution and Benay said that what is drastically different from a historical perspective is the “speed of change” of the current industrial revolution. The technological pace of change is much faster than it has ever been before, and, in Canada, “our policies work against us as a nation.”
When the idea of a national ‘Time to Market’ approach matters, we, as Canadians, must reflect deeply on our future and the role we desire to take on the global stage. Benay advised the MISA BC IT leaders that “Digital is the new norm placing the user first.” But, to place the user first, there needs to be public access to information from government entities at all levels from an ‘Open Data’ perspective to enable future innovation.
Essentially, the idea that digital as part of our daily lives. An excellent example of this was recounted in a story Benay shared about GM Canada reaching out to him for help with their self-driving vehicle software and control initiative. One of the focus areas of GM Canada’s new Canadian Technical Centre in Markham, Ontario is self-driving vehicles. The challenge they were having was getting enough data sets on city road conditions to feed their computers to run complex computation to improve the AI / machine learning capabilities. Benay made a few phone calls to Jessie Adcock, CTO of the City of Vancouver and CJ Ritchie, Associate Deputy Minister and CIO of the Government of British Columbia, to inquire about providing data to help GM Canada. He said that “after three conference calls between Jesse and CJ with GM Canada they were able to work in partnership between the public and private sector.” From Benay’s perspective, this was to the benefit of Canadian innovation to ensure we remain competitive on a global scale – “When people incorporate digital into their thinking, it has the potential to lead to tomorrow’s breakthroughs.”
Here in British Columbia at the municipal level, leaders are acting locally, but thinking globally. When asked what municipalities can do to collectively advance their position with respect to municipal services to residents, Darin Murray Young advised, “Collaboration is clearly the key, and although local governments already have a rich history of working together, it’s exciting to see new opportunities emerge from the federal government, particularly in online collaboration and cyber security. There are a number of federal joint councils today that recruit municipal participation – this future is a bright one. Federal initiatives such as the Smart Cities Challenge will improve life in our communities and showcase Canadian innovation to the world.”
Benay concluded his keynote by sharing the approach he is taking with Canada’s federal technology strategy going forward which was simply stated as, “Any new services must be API driven, must be in the cloud.”