Putting digital at the heart of government
Photography: Kevin Tuong
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Putting digital at the heart of government

Kenny MacIver — July 2018

Mark Brisson, CIO of the Government of Alberta, is leading a transformational program designed to deliver best-in-class digital services to the Canadian province’s citizens and businesses.

Public sector IT organizations have always had a reputation for lagging behind their private sector counterparts in the delivery of efficient processes and great customer experience. Mark Brisson, the corporate CIO for the Canadian province of Alberta, wants to close that gap once and for all.

The Alberta Government’s five-year information management and technology strategy, which kicked off last year, is designed to make the digital services it provides citizens and the effectiveness of its internal IT the equal of any private sector organization. And to get there, Brisson is leading a major transformation in the way IT is organized and delivered — as well as redefining the central purpose of an annual investment in information management and technology that runs to more than C$0.5 billion ($380m).

“Public sector IT has historically been based on delivering the needs of government. The real shift [in our strategy] has been to the delivery of services that match the needs of citizens and businesses,” he says. When they are used to the ease-of-engagement and convenience seen at Amazon.com or Netflix, few are going to want to line up at counters or fill in a web form to access government services, he explains. “The new expectations of citizens drive both our need to move forward and our desire to innovate. Citizens are used to constant innovation with private sector IT, so we have to get out in front of that now rather than always being forced to catch up.”

“““Edmonton”””

Getting out in front has involved the Alberta team rapidly populating an online portal, MyAlberta eServices, with a family of applications that provide access to a wide range of government services — from paying fines and renewing vehicle permits to booking campsites and applying for hunting licenses. Underpinning that is MyAlberta Digital Identity, a single sign-in for secure and easy access to services.

But that is just the start. “From a digital delivery perspective, the focus is on making all services available — anytime, anywhere and through any device,” says Brisson. For example, the IT team is working with health and motor vehicles departments to extend Digital Identity to enable access to many of their services.
Breaking down silos
As that suggests, alongside the rollout of new digital services there is a fundamental rethink of the way IT is structured at Alberta. “For the past 20 years, the way we’ve delivered our services has been siloed, with IT applied within the boundaries of individual government ministries. Unless we change that, the degree of complexity, duplication, inefficiency and, more importantly, missed opportunities to enhance services for Albertans will only get worse,” says Brisson, who is also an assistant deputy minister of the Government of Alberta.

Not only has this been a costly and inflexible structure, it has also meant that ministries have been unable to connect systems when trying to deliver any kind of cross-government innovation. “We’re restructuring that and moving towards enterprise delivery of information management and technology services — away from thinking of IT as back office to seeing IT from a strategic business perspective.”

“Agile digital design allows us to deliver business value quicker and drive more value to our consumer.”

Another factor driving the IT strategy is a change in employee demographics, says Brisson. “Like many organizations, we have legacy applications and processes, and many of the individuals responsible for those may be retiring in the next five to seven years. As such, we see our digital strategy as an opportunity to move away from older technologies to new opportunities to deliver great citizen services.”

Equally pressing is the need to attract fresh talent. “When we look at the potential workforce coming in, they’re not going to want to work with that type of [legacy] tools. They’re going to want to work in a more mobile, agile environment.”

Some of those new practices are already in action. For example, this year the Alberta team has used agile digital design to develop an emergency payments application that went from concept to deployment in less than four months. “Such approaches allow us to deliver business value quicker and drive more value to our consumer — whether that customer is a government ministry, the citizen or a local business,” says Brisson.

““MarkBrisson””

The technologies behind the new digital services, many of which are delivered via SaaS or cloud, also demand a different skillset that is less focused on coding and more on the business relationship. “It is about working with different business areas to explore the implications of utilizing a cloud service — for example, outlining why they won’t necessarily be able to customize the application with all of the bells and whistles they were able to have before, says Brisson. “On the other hand, we need to show them that using advanced cloud services will enable the adoption of best practices and up-to-date technology, as well as provide scalability and mobility,” he adds.

“We’re trying to transform our service delivery team into being more focused on strategy, innovation and business relationships,” he says. While previously the focus of the IT group might have been on simply capturing business requirements, the discussion has moved to what a particular business unit is trying to achieve, he adds.
Cloud allure
The IT transformation also points to a cloud-first approach. “When considering a capability or solution we require, we’re going to say let’s look to the cloud and see if it’s available there,” says Brisson. “If there is no data sensitivity issue, we’re going to move forward with that and take advantage of cloud infrastructure opportunities.”

Security is often a determining factor for cloud deployment. “Our cloud policy takes information security very seriously. We do risk assessments of any implementation we’re considering,” he says. Brisson is seeing many of its strategic IT partners developing a much more sophisticated understanding of its concerns around security and legislation, which is giving him confidence about further migration of applications and systems to the cloud.

“Alberta has been able to reduce its energy consumption in its data centers by 60% to 70%.”

The changes underway apply to applications and services large and small. For example, Alberta is currently looking at the potential of taking its ERP platforms into the cloud. The same goes for data centers. “Two to three years ago we had 37 data centers; we’re now down to 20 with a plan to take that to three in the next two and a half years,” he says.

That data center consolidation initiative, Enterprise IT Environment, is not just driven by the appeal of cloud: its central pillar is a desire to dramatically reduce Alberta IT’s carbon footprint. Over the past three years, Alberta has been able to reduce the energy consumption in its data centers by 60% to 70%, reports Brisson. Alongside that, “tooling up employees to work remotely and reduce the amount of travel is also key in that fight to reduce carbon footprint.”

A series of close partnerships with strategic technology vendors is also supporting that shift to more innovative services. Fujitsu, for example, was tasked in 2016 with providing enhanced IT service desk support for the Alberta Government’s 30,000 employees. While raising service satisfaction levels to 90% and first call resolution to 75% on the 13,500 requests received each month, Fujitsu has introduced a series of innovations to the service, adding new channels such as online chat and interaction via social media. (Download case study.)
Co-creation imperative
Such engagement points to an evolution in the relationship with technology suppliers. “Rather than just a contractual relationship, we want to talk to vendors about business value, about what we’re trying to achieve,” says Brisson. “We can build off that understanding of our business and the shared responsibility. By managing risk between the two partners, we get value to market quicker.”

Having worked through many of the transformational challenges, Brisson is happy to share some of his early learnings. “One is to get engagement and buy-in from the whole executive leadership team, so as you are driving out the strategy everyone is in agreement on the areas you really want to move forward. It’s agreement on things like cloud policy that allows you to go where you need to go,” he says.

The other key lesson Brisson highlights is to not be afraid of challenging the status quo of public sector IT — what it can and can’t do. “Private sector companies have different factors influencing how they adopt and implement advanced technologies but the needs of public sector are not so radically different. They may face limiting factors and projects may take longer but look to how those technologies can help you achieve the vision. We are moving from a legacy technology world to a world of digital delivery. We just have a transition to make to get there.”

 

First published June 2018
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