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Innovate on Demand, Episode 16: Digital Literacy, Mobility and Sovereignty

In the digital sphere, the public service has come a long way in facilitating internal collaboration and adopting best practices from other governments and organizations. This begs the question, how are we doing? In which areas might we do better?

Duration: 19:25
Date: November 2, 2020

Transcript

Todd
I'm Todd Lyons.

Natalie 
I'm Natalie Crandall.

Alexandre
I'm Alexandre Malboeuf.

Natale
And I'm Natale Dankotuwage.

Todd
And this is the Innovate on Demand podcast.

In the digital sphere, the public service has come a long way in facilitating internal collaboration and adopting best practices from other governments and organizations. It begs the question, how are we doing? Where are the areas where we might do better? What skills and knowledge should we strive to increase, because as we discussed on a previous episode, what got us here isn't going to get us to the next level.

Todd
Welcome.

Alexandre 
Thanks, Todd.

Natale 
Yeah. Thanks for having us.

Natalie 
Hello. So why don't you guys tell us a little bit about yourselves and a little bit about why you were interested in coming here to be on Innovate on Demand.

Natale 
So, I work in digital innovation with innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. And I'm looking at digital transformation within the department and working with our service providers to think about how might we provide our services in new ways, but also looking at ways of improving our existing digital services. We also have this unique opportunity to work out of an incubator where we work closely with IT talent in Canada, and get to see some of the funding that the department is making and the type of IT businesses that are being developed. And I'm constantly thinking about how might we as government work better at working with Canadians who have the skills that we need to resolve a lot of the issues that we have when we look at things from a digital tech perspective. So that's my area of interest.

Alexandre 
And, as for me, I work at Health Canada on the cannabis legalization portfolio, specifically, business intelligence, which is involved in measuring the existing cannabis market, how it's evolving, what products are selling, what's not selling, etc. And we also try to aim to be a digital leader in our branch and within the department using data and technology in the most effective way and leveraging it for Canadians.

Todd
Cool.

Natalie 
Very interesting. Natale, you mentioned wanting to unpack a little bit how the government works with or accesses some of the interesting things that are happening either within Canada or worldwide. What would you think are some of the barriers to us public servants accessing that? You said, You have interesting opportunities through the incubator?

Natale 
Yeah, I'm definitely super fortunate that I can work remotely and I've been enabled to work remotely.  And the work that I do -- we have user research that we do and so we get to go out and actually talk to Canadians and a lot of stakeholder engagements. So, I'm very fortunate that I've come into government from within the innovation context and have worked for several different innovation labs that already value collaboration and engagement as a key to creating new solutions. But the barrier I think, within government right now is this expert mindset -- this idea that we are the experts, and we have the solutions and we should build internally. And this lack of interest in actually openly communicating with the public, the problems we're trying to solve and the policies we're trying to enable. And this is something that I'd like to see change. And when we do engage Canadians, sometimes we're thinking about how might we help them, not realizing that Canadians could actually help government if we see them as potential experts in the field as well. And I see this constantly within the IT area, we especially in Ottawa. We are a hub of so much talent from an IT perspective. And I just think if government engaged more outside of the confines of our departments, we would find a lot of talent and a lot of answers to the problems we're trying to solve.

Alexandre 
If I could just build on what Natale just said, I think that it's interesting that you bring up the expert mindset that government has, when discussing technology, because I also see that there's somewhat of a lack of digital literacy among decision makers in the government. And so that's kind of a stark contrast, a strange contrast that we style ourselves as experts who refuse to consult outside. But many of our senior leaders aren't data experts [or] aren't digital experts. And I wonder if that's hindering their ability to make decisions in the best way.

Natalie 
That's very interesting. I'm trying to think back to a previous session of innovate on Demand that we've recorded. And I'm thinking of a guest who talked a little bit about the government's role is changing to some extent, and particularly the federal government, part of our role really needs to be around coordination and ensuring that the right people are in the room. So we talked about what are those different perspectives? We are actually [here] -- every single one of us here -- to serve Canadians. And until we understand all of those different perspectives, and have that more down pat, I agree with you. Those are huge obstacles to what we do.

Natale 
It definitely is. I feel when I first started in government, my first file was looking at creating a new service offering for all vulnerable youth. And I remember feeling like when we were trying to figure out how to design this new service offering, we brought in a lot of nonprofits and we brought in a lot of key stakeholders from various departments like PCO, Global Affairs, ESDC, and that's great. Great expertise. But I was like, Where's the IT talent? Now, three [or] four years later, I think government is starting to realize that service providers need to work more closely with CIO and our IT internally. And there's also interest to start moving outside of government to identify IT talent outside of departments. But I think it's that co-design piece. So then it's like, Well, then now how do we actually effectively co design and figuring out how we can start prototyping and actually building solutions. And I think in order to do that, we need an increase in trust. We need to increase trust amongst ourselves, amongst department staff, but also trusting Canadians. We tend to invest more in bigger companies, and think that they can design solutions rather than thinking that startups and smaller businesses could actually produce some solutions. And our department recently launched the Innovative Solutions Canada program where public servants can now propose challenges that small businesses can resolve. But there's still a hesitancy to really put those problems as government problems out there and invest in a small business. And I understand because sometimes these problems can impact a lot of Canadians. But I think we need to take that risk. Because who knows, maybe we can build something in Canada, and it can come from a small business or startup

Natalie 
That's very interesting. So Alex, I think you touched on something that's really key in here, which is, as we try and break down these barriers and blow through these obstacles, how do we make sure that the deciders, the people who unblock all of this for us have the digital literacy that they need in order to make these decisions and how do we ensure that they have the right data with the right stories?

Alexandre 
Good question. I think that the way that decision makers in the Federal Public Service currently get to their position as decision makers, typically, is a multiple decade long career moving up through the ranks, They may be near retirement and I don't know that in the digital space, that's the best person to be making the decisions. People without the expertise, they can have the best advisors in the world and subject matter experts feeding them the information, but they don't have that fundamental understanding -- that needs to change. And so, I don't know if it's looking at a different way of selecting executives. We had an interesting discussion about this recently at the One Team Gov unconference and Talent Cloud is recruiting external IT talent, as Natale mentioned, and that might be a good way to start recruiting IT and digital leaders into the public service instead of relying on the public service to produce people with that knowledge.

Natalie 
I could not agree with you more. I think to me, it's actually a mobility issue, to be honest with you, both internal to government, but also coming in and out of government, I think, is is something that would allow people to have just an unbelievable richness of experience and a breadth of experience that would help in a lot of ways. So, I'm personally quite interested in skills of the public service and I'm leading a project right now on skill mapping. So, trying to get some actual data about our workforce, which in 2019, it's shocking that we have these conversations and realize that we actually only store data about the jobs. And that point of intersection, which is where your performance meets the tasks that you had to do, but I don't know what other languages you speak, what professional memberships you have, what groups you talk to regularly about your work and things like that. And so I really think as we start unpacking and looking at all of that, for me, one of the keys is how do we facilitate some of that? How do we facilitate moving people around, allowing people to move? I've always thought, if someone takes an interchange and they go work on AI at Shopify, let's say, and they do a two year interchange there and then they come back. What are the chances that that person wants to do the job that they were doing two years ago? And as the employer don't we want to understand what this whole new skill set is and where we can apply it? So I think for me, like a lot of those things, and in and around that is all about our mobility as public servants.

Natale 
Yeah. And I mean, I've been really fortunate to be able to apply like design thinking in government and  what we usually do for the work that I'm conducting is hosting workshops and conferences, where we enable different sectors and different departments to come and collaborate and talk and exchange knowledge. Whenever senior management asks me to solve a problem, the first thing I'm thinking of is how do I get people in the room? How do I do a good quick stakeholder analysis of our department or of various departments in government? What are some stakeholders outside of government? How do we get them into one room talking with each other and exchanging information? And sometimes we've hosted conferences where you have ADM, DGs, sitting with analysts at a table and discussing a topic. We recently did a conference on the Beyond 2020 initiative and it was about changing the mindsets of employers and managers and employees, and it was a cross level session enabling people to share their solutions. There's so much knowledge and so much expertise inside the box. How do we provide that mobility for them to meet and exchange information and make connections? And I feel like that's the work that I've been doing a lot of and, and now it's like, Well, once you get them to meet and exchange knowledge, now how do we actually build something? And I think that's the next puzzle piece that I have to figure out.

Natalie 
Very interesting. So I guess the next question then Natal [and] Alex is why does this matter? Why does digital innovation actually matter in the context of the federal public service?

Natale 
So we were recently at the One Team Gov conference, and one of the topics of discussion was like digital sovereignty. What is digital sovereignty? And it was a really interesting conversation on how does the nation make sure that they manage their data? How do we ensure that we have cyber security and how is digital sovereignty embedded in national sovereignty and national security? And so I think digital innovation essentially is super essential right now as we see the economy shifting from an industrial economy towards a more digital economy. So us as a nation remaining economically viable, is deeply connected to us being able to advance in the context of digital innovation, but also our national security is deeply embedded in this issue as well. For example, the banking system, right? If that's not secure -- that's one example of something that has been digitized -- and if that's not secure, what does that mean for the security of our country economically? And so I think that's one of the big issues.

Alexandre 
Yeah, I mean, I think Natale is right, were we're living in what's effectively a technopoly at the moment. You look at Canada [and] we're reliant on all these these big, huge firms that are mostly American. But we need some Canada-made talent to develop, if not competitors, complementary services that can keep some of that digital economy in Canada instead of keeping all that money flowing out. And that's where incubators like the one that Natalie mentioned, which I said runs here in Ottawa can be a first stepping stone towards that. They can help solve problems in government. They can help create apps that keep Canadian data in Canada [and] keep Canadian money in Canada. And that could be a big first step in shoring up Canada's position in the new digital economy and world.

Natale 
And Alex, you mentioned something about the Estonia - Russia situation. Could you highlight that what happened in Estonia?

Alexandre 
Yeah. That example highlights the risks of moving government to digital. Estonia, when when the wall fell, they had the opportunity to rebuild their government digitally from scratch, which made them the digital leader in Europe. And the one problem that that comes with, with digital is it's a lot harder to defend than a physical asset and physical infrastructure. And I forget the exact timeline, but the Russians ended up causing some damage to that infrastructure and effectively shutting down Estonian social services and health services and government services for a few days -- up to a week. And since then the Estonians have hopefully patched that vulnerability and are now more secure. But I think in this entire discussion, as we discussed, moving to digital is important for Canada and for the public service. But it all has to be done in a way that ensures our data, Canadians data, businesses data is secure and that we can make sure we're doing so in a responsible manner.

Natalie 
Thank you. It's very interesting. I've heard about the Estonian "crats" before as well. So I guess they're leaders in some of the robotic process automation, where they've created these little digital identities that are called "crats" ("bureaucrats") -- these little programmable bots that go in and [retrieve information]. And so, an Estonian citizen, when they're requesting one of their services from the government can just say, I want to do this. And then they've got these little crats that go in and the crats have credentials and passwords and all that. And they can go in and make all sorts of edits and do actions on behalf of that citizen in the various systems and stuff.

Alexandre 
Well, what's great about that is the Government of Canada -- when you think about it, you're a citizen [who might say], I want a service from Health Canada, they're taking your SIN, your address, your name. I want a service from ESDC, they're going to take your SIN, your address. your name. The good thing about a system like that is that you collect a piece of information once [and] everyone can access it. And on the whole that makes all the information -- if that central database is secure -- more secure, and that's hopefully in the long term where the Canadian government's going to head.

Natalie 
Personally, I want to have a -- [and] I've been talking about this on multiple episodes, so I apologize, you might want to cut this out -- but a Phoenix Pay System crat that goes in and helps me figure out where all my data is and helps me analyze a little bit of it. You know, we'll get there one day.

Todd
Maybe if we keep mentioning it in multiple episodes, it will come true. It's my hope.

Natale 
Yeah. I mean, obviously people want their services. More people are online; they're on their mobiles. It's one of the best access points to serving Canadians and potentially informing them  of the services available to them. Our department recently launched the Canada Business app so that small businesses can have a better understanding of what their services are. However, alongside that, we also have to think about our Internet policies and our digital policies and think about the international context within  which we are working and building and making sure that it's secure, and working with Canadians. Because ultimately, when we build products and we collaborate with international partners, that's money that potentially could have been invested in a Canadian company or a Canadian business. So as we shift into a digital economy and shift into more digital service providing, how might we do that in a way where we're working with Canadians and enabling Canadians to build these products? I think that would provide security, as well as be a financially viable model for the government to execute.

Natalie 
Awesome. Thank you very much.

Alexandre 
Thank you. Thanks for having us, Todd.

Todd
All right. Thanks.

You've been listening to Innovate On Demand, brought to you by the Canada School of Public Service. Our music is by grapes. I'm Todd Lyons, Producer of this series. Thank you for listening.

Credits

Todd Lyons
Producer
Canada School of Public Service

Natalie Crandall
Project Lead, Human Resources Business Intelligence
Canada School of Public Service

Natale Dankotuwage
Officer, Design and Digital Innovation
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada

Alexandre Malboeuf
Policy Analyst, Regulatory and Economic Affairs
Health Canada

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