If Canada wants to remain competitive on the world stage, its government must adapt to the digital age – and that includes closing the skills gap, according to a report released today by the the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC).

“On a global basis, every country in the world is talking digital strategies and innovation agendas,” ITAC CEO Robert Watson tells ITBusiness.ca, noting that in Canada’s case, any digital strategy should include addressing its government workforce’s significant skills gap.

ITAC CEO Robert Watson
ITAC CEO Robert Watson says that if the Canadian government wants to remain competitive on the world stage, it must become a leader in digital transformation – and that includes closing the digital skills gap.

“Governments are the largest consumer of IT in Canada,” he says. “And when it comes to nurturing Canadians’ talent and skills, they have to lead the way.”

ITAC’s report, “Digital Government,” is the third of four “Innovation Papers,” a series outlining how Canada’s government can best pursue the six-pillar “innovation agenda” that Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains revealed earlier this year.

It suggests multiple ways the government could lead its own digital transformation, arguing that successfully doing so could give Canadian IT workers the boost they need to significantly push Canada’s economy forward.

“We’re not saying they aren’t listening, because they definitely are listening,” Watson says, before observing that a fully digitized government is more secure, more innovative, more efficient, and more accessible for citizens and businesses alike than today’s piecemeal operations.

“But just as (Finance) Minister (Bill) Morneau tapped into the financial industry for his economic advice, we think the government should tap into the ICT industry’s knowledge base for its digitization efforts,” he says.

Why – and how – the government must close its digital skills gap

By now, it’s common knowledge both within and outside the industry that by 2019, Canada could face a shortage of up to 182,000 skilled ICT workers thanks to the sector outpacing overall economic growth by a rate of more than four to one over the past two years.

And that, Watson says, represents a leadership opportunity for all three levels of government in Canada: to not only inspire more high school and university students to join the ICT workforce upon graduating, but to create jobs for them too.

“We already do presentations where we go into high schools and talk to students about what an ICT career can mean for them,” he says. “But of course also government has to be one of the options they have as a career – a place where they can go and work for a long time.”

Though Watson notes that both the federal and provincial governments have been very supportive on the educational side, collaborating with ITAC to develop technology programs at some 20 postsecondary institutions across the country and currently leading discussions with 23 more, the report indicates a lack of similar commitment to developing the government’s internal ICT workforces.

The federal public service, for example, currently has approximately 17,385 employees in its computer systems division. On average, they’re 45 years old, and have been working for the federal government for approximately 15 years.

The division’s lack of new blood, combined with the risks inherent in relying on veteran workers’ knowledge of legacy systems, has led to programs that attempt to fill the gap, such as the University of Ottawa’s CIO Institute of Professional Development, recently endorsed by the Government of Canada’s own CIO.

Unfortunately, the report notes, the federal government continues to lack a single definite source of information that clearly articulates minimum requirements for its ICT workforce. Addressing that problem would help leaders create the right policies and program investments, it says.

In summation, “ITAC asks the Government of Canada to (1) better understand the upskilling requirements of its ICT workers; and (2) leverage this data to develop the right policies and programs, which will better prepare its current workforce to support 21st century requirements,” the report says.

Solving the legacy dilemma

Implementing ICT infrastructure is an expensive undertaking, and Watson understands why governments would be reluctant to upgrade every facet of their legacy systems at once; however, the costs shouldn’t prevent them from upgrading individual systems one at a time, or from building a central network as they do so.

“We aren’t promoting a big bang theory,” he says. “We’re proposing a systematic approach.”

Above all, he says, the government needs to recognize that ICT is a sector organizations must continuously invest in.

“The government hasn’t really purchased ICT property for years,” he says. “We know they have to support their legacy systems, but we want them to effectively invest in today’s technology too.”

In the meantime, though running multiple systems makes realizing their dream of a centralized system difficult, ICT managers are used to running multiple systems separately, Watson admits.

The consequences for ignoring ITAC’s advice could be disastrous. In its report, the organization notes that Canada’s aging IT systems have led to data breaches at the National Research Council and cybersecurity risks at the Canada Border Services Agency, to name two.

While the federal government has added nearly $400 million to Shared Services Canada’s budget to maintain mission-critical legacy data centres, networks and security infrastructure, more funding is needed to maintain a secure, stable system until a full upgrade can take place, ITAC says.

“ITAC asks that — until a strong, stable and secure IT service delivery system can be supplied — the Government of Canada identifies and accounts for all costs associated with Shared Services Canada’s need to maintain legacy infrastructure,” the organization writes in the report. “Additionally, ITAC recommends the Government develop a transition fund to help departments and agencies kick-start digital initiatives and innovate public service delivery.”

Creating a central digital services authority

“Any large organization needs a compass,” Watson says. “And let’s face it – the federal government is one of the largest.”

ITAC’s report, however, depicts Canada’s ICT systems as guided by numerous compasses, most of them pointing in different directions. For example, the organization praises the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) for making strides in its Strategic IT Plan and Cloud Adoption Strategy, but calls the federal government’s systems maintenance practices a “cumbersome, ad hoc approach” that spans “numerous departments.”

Instead, the report says, Canada’s governments need to implement an integrated service strategy, overseen by a central body, to ensure that every department is moving in the same direction.

Watson is quick to clarify that such an organization wouldn’t necessarily dictate every IT-related move by every faction of the government – “there are many people within the government who are capable of managing their department’s ICT systems quite fine,” he says – but rather serve as an authority on best practices.

“Any board or advisor needs someone who’s been involved in a similar project, learned their lessons, and can advise them on what the long-term strategy should look like,” he says. “Other governments have done it – the U.S., U.K., Australia are all advanced as digital governments, and all use industry advisory councils to help them guide thems through opportunities such as ours.”

The report emphasizes that creating a central digital services organization would benefit every facet of government would benefit.

“Departments and agencies would be able to access ICT subject-matter experts — people who could provide integrated modernization planning and expertise to help those embarking on transformation, modernization and digitization plans,” it says. “Moreover, the service could report directly to (and be held accountable by) the Prime Minister or a central agency like TBS.”

…And that’s the tip of the iceberg

Other ITAC recommendations for the government’s digital transformation include:

  • Creating a modern hardware procurement process that reduces duplication, balances cost with value, and reaches the market quickly;
  • Collaborating with industry leaders on an advisory council to help guide the government’s digital transformation and infrastructure modernization efforts;
  • Developing a planning process that includes ICT experts and staff at both the pre-planning and final development stages of tech-related projects.

The full report can be read at ITAC’s website.

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