Already one of the more familiar Government of Canada faces to the technology sector for his previous role as Industry minister and as a heavy user of technology himself, after May’s federal election Parry Sound-Muskoka MP Tony Clement found himself as president of the Treasury Board and with a new mandate: help make the long-promised dream of shared IT services across the federal government a reality.
Several governments have previously waded into the world of government IT with an eye on reform, around both service delivery and procurement. And each time they’ve backed away in the face of stiff opposition, particularly from a private sector comfortable in the way it engages with government.
Clement and Public Works minister Rona Ambrose threw down the gauntlet anew in August, announcing the creation of Shared Services Canada and plans to save between $100 and $200 million annually, a cut of between five and 10 per cent of IT spending, by consolidating services across 44 government departments and agencies. E-mail networks will be consolidated, data centres reduced and department networks streamlined. Many savings will come from reducing redundancy and duplication.
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These promises have been heard before, but in a recent interview with CDN Clement said this time, they’re serious. An agency has been created, a chief executive (Liseanne Forand) is in place, and staff are being moved from departments into the new agency. It’s happening.
“We’ve gotten far beyond where anyone has been able to go in the last decade at least,” said Clement. “It’s always good to have skeptics, and people challenging the system a bit, and that will perhaps lead to better systems in the future when it comes to how Shared Services Canada will implement its mandate. But we’re making great progress.”
Cost-savings are one driver for reforming IT service delivery, and the government has set ambitious targets on this front. A government-commissioned report from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, though, cautioned any savings will be long-term, and consolidation requires up-front investment. As president of the Treasury Board, Clement has a mandate to drive cost-savings across government. Shared Services Canada won’t be immune, but Clement said it’s not just about saving money.
“I don’t think it’s an either/or phenomenon,” said Clement. “I think obviously different parts of government have different aspirations for this. As IT continues to evolve, we want to make sure we have efficient processes, that our public servants are productive, that the interface is a positive one, not a frustrating one. At the same time, we’ve asked every major department and agency to come up with a five per cent and a 10 per cent savings plan as part of our efforts to get back to a balanced budget.”
Interest in the government’s plans for service reform was high at the annual GTEC government technology conference in Ottawa in October, as attendees looked for more information on the government’s plans. Both public sector unions, who represent federal IT workers wondering about their future employment status, as well as private sector vendors and partners that sell products and services to the government, have complained about a lack of detail around the government’s plans.
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“Obviously the first part of a business plan is you’ve got to set a goal, and we’ve already done that. We’re talking about going from 100 e-mail systems to one, going from 300 data centres to maybe 15 or 20, allowing the 3000 networks to have a better capability to communicate with one another,” said Clement. “In terms of the implementation of these plans, it will start with the 2012 budget because Shared Services Canada will be then able to implement its part of our savings strategies.”
While it’s not clear how partners will be impacted, it’s clear that they will be. Channel observers advise partners to make the shift from box-pushing and bid chasing to becoming true trusted advisors that engage with their public sector clients and add value. While the government wants to make sure smaller VARs can still compete, Clement said they will need to adjust.
“We’re always looking for ways to make sure the smaller players have a level playing field. But sometimes you’ve got to aggregate, and that may mean larger vendors and sub-contracting,” said Clement. “All of these solutions are important to make sure we’re helping the local suppliers, but at the same time have a transparent and accountable process for the taxpayers. That’s the balancing act.”
And the good news for those partners that make the adjustment is that despite the desire to drive cost savings, government will still be making IT investments in strategic areas. At GTEC, government officials mentioned cloud computing, video and social media as ongoing priority areas.
“We continue to spend on IT, that hasn’t stopped. There are various government departments, many of which have an interface with the Canadian public, that are anxious to upgrade their systems or even replace their systems that have been created over the last 30 years and are not robust enough for the legitimate demands of the Canadian public in terms of service,” said Clement. “I can say generally there will continue to be investments.”