Alex Beraskow, member, CATA Innovation Leadership Council Leads Procurement Advocacy Campaign: Engage today!
++ Action Item: Please review Barrie McKenna I National Business Correspondent I Globe and Mail) recent article,” Consolidation of Government IT Departments a Failing Experiment ” together with CATA’s Advocacy release, “ Innovation Lobby Group Applauds Innovation Minister's Views on Procurement: Offers Guidance on Government of Canada Approaches to Procurement to Stimulate Innovation Success, ” located at: http://www.cata.ca/Media_and_Events/Press_Releases/cata_pr03301602.html
Consolidation of Government IT Departments a Failing Experiment
Not only is Ottawa not saving money, it’s spending more and getting less than it needs in the way of IT
It was a seductively simple idea.
Take the maze of federal government databases, e-mail systems and computer networks, and put them under one departmental roof. More than 60 e-mail systems would become one, 500-plus databases would be merged into seven, and thousands of tech workers from dozens of departments would go to work for a single agency, Shared Services Canada.
The two Conservative ministers in charge at the time – former public works minister Rona Ambrose (now interim Conservative leader) and treasury board president Tony Clement – were bursting with optimism when they announced the project five years ago. They promised the consolidation would save piles of money (up to $400-million a year), wipe out duplication and enhance cybersecurity.
“This is a whole new way of doing business for the government,” Mr. Clement vowed.
Not so much. It’s turned into an old and very familiar story of how Ottawa works. Years and billions of dollars later, virtually none of the wondrous benefits have come to pass. And in last week’s budget, the new Liberal government quietly gave Shared Services a $384-million infusion over two years to its roughly $1.9-billion annual budget – apparently, to keep creaky old government computer systems from crashing. The agency will get another $75-million to strengthen security.
But this isn’t just an inside-Ottawa tale of serial bungling. There are disturbing real-world consequences of the government’s failure to fix chronic information technology (IT) problems. Websites periodically crash and go offline, sometimes for days, because of continuing database problems. A 2014 cyberattack by Chinese hackers on the National Research Council’s network paralyzed much of its research work for nearly a year. Also in 2014, emergency workers in Saskatchewan lost voice communications for nearly an hour owing to a mix-up between Shared Services and the RCMP.
Not only is Ottawa not saving money, it’s spending more and getting less than it needs in the way of IT. Much of the promised consolidation remains a work in progress, with no clear end-date in sight. The merging of e-mail systems, outsourced to Bell Canada and CGI Group, is already more than a year behind schedule. Fewer than one in five government workers is using new Canada.ca addresses. Efforts to move more than 15,000 computer applications onto three new centralized databases in Gatineau, Que., Barrie, Ont., and at Canadian Forces Base Borden, north of Toronto, are running late. Fewer than 10 per cent of government apps have been shifted over to Shared Services. And an $18-million project aimed at making it easier for users to sort through Statistics Canada data is also badly behind schedule, and some fear it may never be completed.
Auditor-General Michael Ferguson issued a scathing report in February, outlining Shared Services’ mounting problems and its inability to deliver results. “They have big problems ahead of themselves,” Mr. Ferguson told reporters bluntly.
The view of the new Liberal government is that Shared Services was set up to fail by the Conservatives. The newly created agency was hit with severe budget cuts soon after its creation, leaving the agency starved of the resources it needed to manage a massive transition to new systems and databases.
The question now is can the new government make it right? A key issue is sorting out what information technology the government should develop in-house, and what it should buy off the shelf. In a post-budget brief, Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance president John Reid lamented that “despite longstanding good intentions, the [government’s] procurement model has not modernized to keep up with industry changes and standards. It is not fully aligned with the digital era.”
It’s a missed opportunity to spur innovation, according to CATA. Too often, Ottawa winds up overpaying for inferior IT, while crowding out the private sector by building custom systems rather than buying commercial offerings and spurring the emergence of promising technology exports. The government “has no export sales. … No intellectual property gets created that is patentable,” the group laments.
Of course, CATA, which speaks for Canadian tech companies, has an interest in seeing some of that business flow to its members.
But given recent experience, it’s hard to imagine Ottawa could do worse. Surely there is a better way for Ottawa to acquire the technology it needs to do its work.
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