CJ Ritchie, the chief information officer at the Government of British Columbia, is a visionary leader taking a pragmatic view of what the future may hold for British Columbia. In the fall of 2019, an amendment to B.C.’s Privacy laws regarding the use of cloud computing was passed to the benefit of public sector organizations and people across the province.
With the amended language comes the opportunity for the BC Government to drive significant value to constituents with discussions of achieving better health outcomes to how government agencies improve interaction with the people they serve. The amended language regarding the use of cloud computing essentially allows for modern technology to be considered for deployment. For example, leveraging public cloud infrastructure and cloud-enabled tools such as analytics and IoT to help with data-driven decision making.
At the centre of this new reality of how the province leverages technology is CJ Ritchie. From CJ’s unique vantage point, she is the best position to share a view of what the future may hold for us here in British Columbia to the benefit of our daily lives.
The BC Government, with its Digital Framework, is well-positioned for the future. I had a chat with CJ to gain insight into what drives her thinking on a variety of topics – from cloud computing to the foundation of blockchain that will drive public sector innovation and move to a digital economy.
Brian: How significant is this change to the policy around cloud computing for the British Columbia public sector?
CJ: “The Province has been using Canada-based cloud services for years, so the FOIPPA amendments don’t represent a significant shift in policy – but they are still important. What they do is authorize personal information to leave Canada for temporary processing only.
If we didn’t amend the legislation, at some point in the not-too-distant future, BC’s public bodies would have found themselves unable to keep using some of the world’s most common tools, such as email and word processing software – things that are vital to our operations, and of course to meeting citizens’ expectations.
These amendments will also mean the public sector can adopt the next generation of cloud-based or cloud-enabled tools.”
Brian: You’ve mentioned that the focus needs to be on outcomes – not the technology. Why is this important for people to understand?
CJ: “While governments, including our own in British Columbia, have a long history of leadership in technology innovation – BC is known, for example, for our leading work in digital identity through our BC Services Card – we don’t do this for the sake of the technology.
Technology isn’t an end on its own for us. We work to modernize technology to continuously improve the services we provide to citizens. And I say continuously for a reason – we have to maintain the relevance of the work we do to ensure continued trust in government as an institution.
So, as much as being a cloud-enabled government is a very positive thing for BC, it’s not because we’re excited about shiny new – or not so new at this point when it comes to cloud infrastructure and services technology, it’s because of what our move to cloud will make possible, for the benefit of British Columbians.”
Brian: What are some examples?
CJ: “The adoption of cloud will accelerate and enhance work we already have already underway in areas like analytics, robotic process automation, the Internet of Things, remote sensing, and machine learning.
For example, an early deployment of cloud-enabled software in the BC Government powers our ability to analyze the quality of services being provided to citizens through any channel – from their experience at a Service BC desk in their home town, through to a website and onto a call centre, or whatever path that service journey entails. This information allows us to improve that service at every point along the way.
As piloted in a handful of ministries, robotic process automation of routine tasks frees up capacity for our government staff to focus on higher-value work on things like Freedom of Information requests, natural resource permitting and meeting the needs of children in care. These pilots were previously challenged by an inability to use cloud-based tools. The Ministry of Transportation has cloud-enabled plans in place to enhance road safety through the use of sensors and the Internet of Things. And cloud will enhance our ability to use remote sensing and machine learning to augment data-driven decision-making in respect of things like Wildfire prediction.”
Brian: Let’s talk about engaging with British Columbians and government service delivery innovation. What are some of the biggest areas of opportunity for innovation at across the BC Government?
CJ: “Think about why public service exists in the first place – to help citizens. And the way we do that in 2020 needs to include a modern set of tools and delivery methods.
That means we need to embed innovation into our programs and priorities. First, we can do that by taking an ecosystem approach, looking across organizational boundaries to share data, tools, and knowledge.
Second, we can take a human-centred approach to service design. We want to meet citizens where they are at – whether it’s in a time of crisis or on the couch at 11:30 at night. And that’s where I see the biggest areas of opportunity.
For example, in the summer of 2018, BC was on fire. 1.4 million hectares of land were burning, and over 2000 people were evacuated. Almost 5000 were mobilized to fight the fires, and the cost of wildfire suppression reached $615 million. It was devastating.
To try to fight fires more effectively, the government took different data sources – historical fire data, topographical maps, lightning strikes – and layered it into 3D maps. This now allows emergency response teams and firefighters to model the spread of fire and fight them more effectively.
Another example. Before, when British Columbians were getting divorced, they would have to fill in forms and hand them in at a counter in the courts. People were having to go up to 7 times to hand in their forms, and they were getting turned away whenever there was a mistake in their paperwork. The errors were predictable, and it was a huge waste of time. Now there’s an online do-it-yourself form that helps people fill in the paperwork, reduces errors, and hopefully decreases stress at a tough time.”
Brian: How do you potentially harness the power of the data?
CJ: “We are actually doing this – harnessing the power of data – through our Data Innovation Program, which helps us share data in a timely, safe, and secure way across ministry boundaries. This program uses integrated data and analytics to support population-level research in the public interest.
For example, through machine learning, we were able to identify patterns in the mental health services used by young people and their outcomes as adults – an insight that can help the government improve services for this vulnerable population.
We are also working with some brilliant BC companies as well as academics to bring advanced analytics into our work.”
Brian: You’ve adopted blockchain. What important role does blockchain play into the technology vision?
CJ: “Blockchain is really the foundation that will help BC move to a digital economy. As we become more and more of a digital government, we really need secure ways of sharing information. And we need to be confident that people and businesses are really who they say they are. Historically, people have had to set up logins, usernames and passwords to access online services, which can make us reliant on third parties who might not be entirely credible. In a world of surveillance capitalism where so many different entities are hungry for our data, that is not an option.
That’s why the Ministry of Citizens’ Services decided to use blockchain technology to power OrgBookBC, a corporate registry. But I think this is just the beginning.”
Brian: The future looks exciting for the province. What needs to happen next for many of the topics we’ve discussed to come to fruition?
CJ: “We have some exciting things happening in government, but they tend to happen in pockets. So the next big thing is coordinating this digital transformation across government and then accelerating it. This means working across organizational boundaries both inside and outside our organization to share data, share tools, to share our lessons learned.
Gone are the days of working as an isolated entity. I see co-development and working in the open as the only way forward. I do not believe that government corners the market on innovation, but in that discovery and acceptance, we are taking an ecosystem approach and tapping into our thriving tech community. That’s why we created the Exchange Lab. The Lab brings together teams with tough problems. The teams get paired up with internal or external tech talent and together they build solutions. There are up to twelve teams working in the lab at any time. Right now, there are lab teams working on conservation, environmental assessments, patient empowerment through health information and responding to climate change.
We know the digital era has brought forward complex social challenges – but it’s also uncovered unlimited opportunities to collaborate with businesses of all sizes and deliver government’s priorities at the fastest pace, lowest costs and greatest equity to British Columbians.”