Harper’s new cabinet has chance to better support horizontal collaborations

We were basking in hot, sunny southern California weather when my colleagues and I got the word about the new federal ministry – the cabinet that will run the Harper government. Based on what we know thus far, a couple of things are clear, despite this being very early days for the new government.

First, there will be a significantly increased emphasis on national defence, which will increase business to technology companies working in the defence/aerospace field. It will also increase the tenor and torpor of research and development activities in such diverse agencies as PSEPC, NRC, Defence Research, CSE and a number of others.

National security will likely run a very close second, and we are already hard-pressed to meet a number of joint deadlines we have with the Americans in the border protection area, particularly in terms of what some folks call “data re-farming.”

This involves taking data from various databases, usually those which are integral to their respective operational systems, extracting it, transferring it to another database and re-loading it. Sometimes the target database is another operational system, but, increasingly it is what we used to call a data warehouse. However, the people pounding on this data are not performing esoteric BI functions or doing market research on 11-year-old girls. Rather they are trying to determine if, say, a man of Middle-Eastern extraction who appears to have two driver’s licences, three SIN numbers and very possibly more than one passport really is who he claims, and also maybe if there are any wants and warrants out on him. Is the fact that he has downloaded a lot of chemical and explosive tables of interest to anyone?

It is said that when student pilot permits were renewed for already-dead 9/11 pseudo-pilot terrorists that U.S. President George Bush fired a line of bureaucrats about four layers deep, starting with an assistant under secretary (an ADM in our parlance) and working his way down to director and chief.

Clearly, there was a massive failure to correlate data and we have seen many more such failures since that time, but horizontal data integration is not a trivial activity at the best of times. It is, unfortunately, more often than not in the light of the after-action report following a major emergency or calamity that we correlate Factor A from Database 1 with Factor B from Database 2.

However, horizontal integration involves not just data, but also people and process. Since my return to Canada in 2001, I have watched this process accelerating here in Ottawa and in the other levels of government across this country.

One of my closest colleagues here has made a sufficient study of the process of horizontal collaboration to author a full-fledged book on the subject and he has discovered several interesting things. A good number of them start with T, beginning with “turf.” When I was still a bureaucrat in the early 1990s, we had something called Increased Ministerial Authority and Accountability, which was all about making sure that the minster had full authority to run his or her department and was fully accountable for decisions made.

Reg Alcock spent a lot of time struggling with this issue when he was president of the Treasury Board. Increased minsterial authority also, of course, made sure that the DM was in full control of everybody, everything and every datum in his realm.

So if a database is created and then someone rips off the server it is sitting on and holds it for ransom, then everyone knows whom to blame for lousy physical (and system) security.

Our new government, if it so chooses, has a wonderful opportunity to take a deep breath and survey the landscape of horizontal collaboration, littered as it is with a number of successful and not so successful projects.

Daniel R. Perley is an Ottawa-based advanced technology executive who has also worked as a senior bureaucrat. E-mail him at dperley@mtc-stm.ca.

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