John Glowacki is the former chief operating officer of Shared Services Canada.
While most of my focus here is on IT and digitization efforts, many of the issues also apply to non-IT areas of the Government, making the issues even more pervasive and strategic. The Government of Canada (GC) generally has qualified technical staff to perform IT projects and services, however there is a concern senior executives of the public service lack the qualifying experience to appropriately manage and lead the complex IT and digitization programs the GC has and will continue to face at an accelerating pace. To be clear, I am not challenging the general leadership and management competencies of career public servants as the Public Service does a very good job of grooming executives in general competencies. This is about the additional requisite experiences for specialized areas like digitization/IT, especially for key roles.
Executive management provides leadership and management by way of vision, strategy, plans and the execution of those plans to deliver predictable outcomes — in this case, the digitization/IT managed services for Canadians and the Government. This executive-level IT management is a specialized area and, interestingly enough, was not identified as a risk area in the Auditor General report on Phoenix. This is of particular concern for the most senior public servants who oversee digitization/IT programs to appropriately manage risk, provide a higher assurance of program delivery, and make decision recommendations to parliamentarians and ministers.
Our system of government requires elected officials to do their work primarily based on information and work provided by a professional public service. While we cannot expect our elected officials to have deep background in the areas they govern, the system breaks down when the supporting public servants do not have qualifying experience in the areas they work.
It is exceedingly difficult to meet the Government’s manpower requirements as the GC inherently does not have the ability to sustainably develop experience in this field, although this has not been for a lack of effort. It is important to recognize the situation for what it is: the government should not attempt to compete with one of the hottest industries on the planet for talent and expect to win, at least not without some significant compromises.
Also, there is a lack of understanding as to what constitutes qualified experience and an unfortunate tendency in government to hire with the assumption, “you’re from industry, so you must know what to do.” By analogy, if someone told you they were in the medical field, you might say, “please, help my child — she is very sick.” The problem is the person from the medical field may not be a doctor, but a technician who works with leg braces. While the medical field has clear certifications to understand qualifications, the IT field lacks these for management and governance, resulting in an intern being asked to run a medical center.
Don’t confuse enthusiasm for capability
There is an old saying, “don’t confuse enthusiasm for capability.” While people may be enthusiastic and sound like they know what they are talking about, this is not a replacement for experience. The fact is there are significant experience gaps individually in key roles and institutionally. This lack of appropriately experienced leaders has led to many delays and waste in projects as well as to gross failures of significant programs.
This is further complicated by the sensitive topic of official languages. The competitive issue above is exasperated by requirements for key people to be bilingual. While I genuinely appreciate the values behind the official language requirements, the fact is it makes this a truly untenable situation for the government to be successful. Additionally, it is important to understand this is an operational environment where time is of the essence, e.g., it is unforgiving regarding time to translate time-sensitive notifications for incidents and outages. This is analogous to air traffic control where English is the international language. It is inconceivable to think the time-sensitive communications for air traffic control would be required in two languages. The same goes for the highly dynamic environment in providing critical IT services 24/7/365.
Building the institutional experience and judgment necessary is a multi-decade challenge. By example, Eric Schmidt was CEO of Google for 10 years for the specific purpose of building the firm and grooming leadership to eventually run their business.
The government needs equivalent leadership in key IT roles. During my time at SSC, I always believed it was possible to train and educate the organization and stakeholders on how the managed services environment should operate, and was able to mentor the current SSC leadership to this end to a great degree. Unfortunately, GC digitization/IT is much broader than just SSC given the current division of roles and responsibilities and this is a long-term challenge.
The key problem is you cannot teach experience, especially across a large and complex environment like the government — it must be earned (taking many years), hired or otherwise sourced. While experienced senior leaders continually judge and manage risk, using the current approach to resource GC organizations means we have senior leaders who do not have this experience-based judgment. The result is decision makers are either very conservative regarding risk or make decisions without understanding real and significant risks. There are examples of both. While it may be too much to expect every senior executive to fit an objective profile, certainly the most critical roles must fit the profile. Nevertheless, this is an unhealthy situation for parliamentarians and ministers to rely on for advice, decisions and risk management.
The need to hire the right talent cannot be underestimated and this issue affects key IT leadership roles in the government. As demonstrated by Shared Services Canada in its current strategic management hires from industry, one person can have a tremendous effect if they have the right background and experience for the assignment. The leaders of Government digitization/IT must have sufficient experience to develop, understand and execute the vision and strategy to achieve Government objectives as well as mature its IT organizations. This cannot be left to the normal approach of briefing up the leadership of the day for them to then take decisions — the senior leadership must lead from their experience in this industry. Such experience is not just for decision making as it is also needed in explaining to other leadership and parliamentarians on the risks of not appropriately making investments or pursuing courses of action.
To this end, there are two recommendations regarding senior executives in Government digitization/IT:
- Establish more relevant industry experience requirements for senior IT leaders (example competency criteria are below)
- Provide market competitive compensation to compete for qualified experience
This last point of competitive compensation to attract executives with qualified experience may not work under current Government constructs. Various professions command higher than average compensation (e.g., doctors, lawyers), therefore accommodations need to be made to compete for talent in the hottest industry on the planet. These accommodations may not only be competitive compensation but also how GC IT is organized — a topic for another day….
An example of appropriate experience is shown below for these key senior roles in Government. Notice, I do not focus on technologies as they are transient — the experience and skills to manage the transition and transformation among people, process and technologies are not. Again, the same thing can be done for other specialized industries where the Government is facing similar circumstances.
Example: Experience and Education Requirements for Key Senior IT Executives of the Public Service
Experience (in a similar scale as the Government of Canada)
- 10+ years of increasing levels of managerial and executive (ideally VP through C-level) responsibility in the managed services industry
- Significant operational experience preferably working for IT managed service provider(s) (sell side) in several roles including technology strategy and architecture, cloud services, service delivery management, and management of complex, global IT organizations as well as similar experience as a client with direct authority in (buy side) managing large scale, complex, operations in global or major shared services or outsourced environments
- Significant experience (10+ years) in corporate financial practices and goals managing global, multi-party, service delivery models and financial management of enterprise and global service delivery models. Significant working knowledge of Tiers 1, 2, and 3 technology services providers delivering sourced services
- Demonstrated experience executing and managing implementation and delivery of strategic IT programs within agreed cost, scope, schedule and quality standards of a similar scale
- Significant experience owning a P&L or cost center budget and financial management in a complex organization on the order of $400 million or more
- Significant experience in contract and vendor management, including innovative procurement practices, contract law and negotiating contracts regarding networks and telecommunications, data centre operations, customer service environments, cloud operations, software licensing and enterprise agreements
- Experience focused on transformation aspects including organization optimization, shared services, and operational improvement, and multi-party, onshore and offshore service delivery models
- Sales or business development experience including stakeholder management
- Experience in union environments
- Demonstrated experience in the national security environment
- Executive management of operations related to the various elements of physical and cyber security providing an understanding not just of these operations, but also the implications of relevant policies and law
- Ability to serve as a subject matter expert with deep operational and/or technical knowledge in at least 2 of the following subjects: Enterprise Agility; Cloud Architecture and Design; Cloud Computing (SaaS, PaaS, IaaS); Agile Operations; Applications and Infrastructure Virtualization; Applications Rationalization and Modernization; Analytics; IOT; Automation; Enterprise Architecture; Applications Development; Maintenance and Support; Data Center Operations; Managed Network Services; Workplace Services; or Service Desk
- Significant experience in cyber security and physical security
- Experience of the above supporting many industries is preferred
- Bachelor degree in a business, technical, or scientific field
- MBA/MS or other advanced degree(s) in an applicable field is preferred
- Significant knowledge of IT market trends and managed or technology service providers’ capabilities and their implication on business strategy
- Deep understanding of enterprise agility and management
- Significant knowledge of information technology, specifically applications and/or infrastructure strategy, operating models, solutions architecture, systems implementation and integration, service management and delivery, sourcing contracts, and service provider management
- Significant knowledge of contract law and government procurement
- Basic understanding of GC financial and planning processes