Ken Cochrane, the newly minted CIO of Canada, has a big job ahead of him, as the federal government struggles to align its 100-plus departments and act more as a single enterprise. But he brings a wealth of experience to the position both from the private sector in the insurance industry and the public sector.
Most recently Cochrane was CEO of the IT branch of Public Works, but prior to that he also held the post of CIO of Canada’s customs and taxation department for a number of years.
Cochrane spoke to ITBusiness.ca about his plans for the job and where he sees public sector IT headed. Hint: don’t expect business as usual.
ITBusiness.ca: What are your top three priorities as CIO? Do you plan to take a different approach from that taken in the past?
Ken Cochrane: The first thing I’m doing on this assignment is focusing on a 100-day plan. I’m in the process with my team and the community (to see if) we are doing the right things and if we are focusing on the right priorities. The list of responsibilities is very broad because we have policy initiatives, but there are also initiatives under each of those. And I want to make sure we’re putting the right priority on each. No. 2 is we’re going back to the community we are responsible for and asking if we are engaging them properly – do we have the right mechanisms to get you involved and make sure you’re helping us? We use committees and workshops, so the question is (whether) we are doing this right. The third element of the 100-day plan focuses on whether, as a result of all this policy development, we are producing the right products to enable the community to be successful. As a result of policy we develop standards and tools and guidelines and all kinds of mechanisms — are they working for the community? We had an executive summit and we used it to get feedback on that. It was interesting – we used electronic voting. I think what they were really reinforcing is that some of these areas, such as information management, probably need a bit more focus because it’s not as well understood or communicated, so that was good feedback. They also indicated we need to strengthen our outreach activities through committee structure and so on. My second priority is policy suite renewal – Treasury Board has a mandate now to look at the entire policy suite and make all the policies are well aligned and simplified to ensure they can be easily implemented by departments – that’s a high priority for us. The third deals with the transformations underway (related to) the ITS shared services that I have responsibility for. The corporate admin services is another focus, as is our service agenda, along with Service Canada and other service providers.
ITB: What are the most important IT issues in the federal government, in your view?
KC: The first is consolidation of the IT infrastructure and corporate admin services. What’s really important is that we are trying to align government departments to do things in a similar way and have similar standards, ultimately moving to the shared model, like a shared service provider for IT and a shared service provider for corporate admin and finance and HR. The second key IT piece is the development of the workplace and the workforce. We have a team of people that focuses on attracting, retaining and developing talent in the enterprise. Our third most important IT issue is making sure we get the best value, with a very strong focus on improving our management of complex IT undertakings and helping departments do that.
ITB: Is e-government just government by now? Do you still distinguish between the two?
KC: I’ve certainly had a lot of debates within the community but also outside it. I would say we don’t talk so much about e-government. One of the surveys we’ve conducted for many years with Accenture seems to have shifted away from that and focuses more on service delivery. What I think has happened is we have evolved to a level where most departments and service delivery agents think about how they can reach their communities or clientele most effectively and doing it via the Internet is just one of our channels. We continue to do work in this area, but it’s probably not as strongly labelled e-government – it’s more labelled service transformation. We’ve done a lot of things in the last year, such as the online census. CRA has done some very interesting work on the Internet to allow third parties, say the parents of a tax filer or children who assist their parents, to access records over the Internet. We have about 19 other programs that are going to be implemented this year so we still do a tremendous amount of work here, but it’s part of service delivery.
ITB: Shared services is one of the big issues government is dealing with. What is that going to mean for IT departments?
KC: This is not a new subject – it’s one I spent the last two and a half years focusing on, building a shared service capability in Public Works and Government Services Canada. When I look at shared services it’s not just IT – we are looking at the IT infrastructure but it’s also true with the corporate admin services, HR and finance. We’ve already done shared services for things like procurement and we have compensation centralized, so what we’re looking at is the natural course of events. The Government of Canada is a very big enterprise with 100-plus departments, agencies and others, and they all do things that are very common, so we’re saying if you’re in the business of implementing networks or data centres, why wouldn’t we do it holistically as one enterprise? The focus is acting as one. When I look at the role of a CIO in a department it really has to be to ensure that their programs and unique business environments are receiving the appropriate attention. Usually what that means is getting the right information, building the right solutions, requiring the right software and doing the right analytic work. They tend not to need to focus as much on the IT infrastructure, and this allows them to say, ‘thanks service provider, take care of the networks and the data centres, I don’t really want to be in that business.’ The focus for them is shifting to the business value IT brings to the table. We take all this common and shared stuff and say that’s a utility.
ITB: The new rules related to IT procurement have created quite an uproar. How do you see the impact of those rules both on departments and the vendor community?
KC: In fairness I shouldn’t comment very much because the bottom line is PWGSC leads in the procurement space, but I would say the work they’re doing is once again part of an enterprise approach called The Way Forward. Their focus is on how we act as one as a government, work with the market, where we can consolidate, and how we do things holistically. If we are going to buy servers we try to create an environment where we can do it more effectively. How do we get the best value? I think the bottom line is how do we grow with industry and I think they’re going through that dialogue now.
ITB: Can you provide an update on Service Canada?
KC: Our branch is accountable for service policy and plays a big role in service transformation. Service Canada is definitely a big part of the service transformation so our job is to work closely with them to make sure they can achieve what they have to and that the vision that is established is one that is shared across the GoC. Service Canada’s focus is to be very citizen-centred and is very much on collaboration within the GoC but also across jurisdictions. I know they work very closely with the other jurisdictions to try to harmonize service.
ITB: You referred to this earlier but it seems that working in the government is different from what it used to be, from what I hear. There’s a lot more pressure and it doesn’t perhaps provide the same security it once did. How do you see that?
KC: Government is a very big enterprise and it offers tremendous opportunities and challenges. Because of our breadth we work across the country and we’re in hundreds of business lines, so it’s an interesting place. The other thing is we work across jurisdictions so it’s a very interesting set of circumstances for the workforce. When I look at where we are versus where we might have been 10 years ago, there is an increasing demand for information, so with more accountability and better management being the theme of the day for government, that requires a tremendous amount of business information.That’s heavy lifting for IT people, to be able to make that information available in a consistent fashion. Because of the transformation work we’re into a huge amount of re-engineering across processes and systems. In some cases we’re interfacing with these systems and in other cases we’re putting in brand new systems. Public security is also a big factor in government in terms of the kind of work people have to do today.
Something that was very familiar to me in industry was time to market, where you have to get a product out in three months. It’s the same here too. We’re not competing with the company across the street, but we are competing in many ways with other jurisdictions to make sure Canada leads, so that tone is here – it may not have been if you went back 10 to 15 years. It’s a very challenging environment and it’s one where people really have to be on their toes.
ITB: You mentioned the teams formed to attract and recruit people. Is that how you’re approaching the predicted skills shortage or are you looking more at outsourcing?
KC: I think in fairness it’s difficult for me to answer all aspects of that. We do talk about skills shortage. One of the things about IT is we have a very rich IT workforce here and we also have a very rich workforce in the Ottawa area. We continue to see a fair amount of interest from people in the private sector wanting to play a role in government. We’ve been very fortunate not just in the 2000-2001 window when there were some challenges in industry, but also today. I’m not saying there won’t be shortages in the future, but we’ve had some very good success in the last few years. Where there are shortages we use other vehicles, such as contracting to try to close the gap, but we tend not to have tremendous difficulty with that either. In fairness we have to get ready for the future, so in the CIO organization we have a group called the organizational readiness office. It has been in place for a number of years and they’re doing a lot of things for us as a community to make sure we are ready for the future, such as standardizing job descriptions. That sounds simple, but when you have 100 organizations with IT workers, it’s hard to mobilize it and move them around unless people have similar job expectations and duties, so they’re going through that to give us greater mobility to relocate our workforce throughout the enterprise. They focus a lot as well on building career development tools.
ITB: The Auditor General has called IT on the carpet for IT security weaknesses in past reports, resulting in MITS, a government-wide security standards initiative. It’s unlikely anyone would argue that security standards are necessary but was the response required to prove compliance not a bit of overkill, considering that the big departments that deal with sensitive information probably exceed those standards in terms of security?
KC: I did work as the CIO in the tax department for a number of years so I am quite familiar with their technology and systems and yes, they are very sound. But I would never say we were perfectly secure because you don’t want people to think there is no an area for improvement. Our biggest issue here is we need to maintain trust with Canadians, and it’s important that on an ongoing basis we go through and look at our operations. What’s important is we have a program – MITS, the management of information technology security — that lets us do that holistically across the government. That’s a standard that allows us to say to departments, ‘let’s go thorough the checklist and make sure all of our security risks are understood and known,’ and it’s not prescriptive in terms of what you must do. It’s a tool that says you might have a risk in certain areas so you need to judge as to whether or not that requires certain remediation, so I don’t think it’s overkill. When you have an enterprise with as many entities as we have, it’s challenging to know holistically at the government level how everybody is doing. I think any enterprise would do this. There are risks; we want to know what they are so we can work collectively and (find out) how shared services can help close that gap. How can something like Secure Channel assist us? It’s good business.
ITB: I understand there were some issues with the Census – some people couldn’t get on to complete their forms at one point. How does that affect how Canadians view doing business online with the government?
KC: The Census online was first made available in early May. What was advertised as Census Day was May 16. The application stays up for a good period beyond that and that was always planned. We have about 13 million to 14 million households in Canada that would have received the Census and there was an expectation that a certain percentage would use the online application. So Statistics Canada scaled for what they expected and I think they did a fine job. They also used Secure Channel. Personally, I think it worked very well. At this point I think we’re at 2.2 million households that completed their Census online, so they exceeded what they were expecting. There was a period – probably the day before and the day after but primarily on Census Day — where it was extremely busy. We never lost the service but what did happen is they had to defer people because it was extraordinarily busy. You have to think about how massively you’d have to scale for 13 million to show up on one day.
ITB: You’ve come from the private sector, functioned as CIO of major departments and are now CIO of Canada. Where do you go from here?
KC: First of all, this is a role for me that is very interesting and appealing, and I’m very pleased to be able to play this role for a period. There is large complexity working across an enterprise of this size, so I think in many ways I have my work cut out for me. This assignment and the assignment I had on IT shared services and others really focused a lot on change — taking things and trying to improve them, so it’s difficult to say whether it’s something in the business line or in IT or elsewhere, but to me it probably has those elements – it’s something that needs change, something that needs to go through transformation, it’s something that requires re-assessing and moving in a new direction. So those are the types of things I look at, whether it’s in this domain or the business domain or a different government domain — it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s interesting.