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Technological revolution

By Chris Atchison | July 7, 2014
Technological revolution
Liseanne Forand

Former Auditor General Sheila Fraser was never shy to present blunt and often sobering audits of federal government operations to Canada’s political leaders. A section of one such assessment in 2010 was particularly frank and concerning, even though it went largely unnoticed by most Canadians.

In it, Fraser raised alarm bells over the federal government’s aging information technology infrastructure – everything from e-mail systems to data centres. Not only was that infrastructure rapidly reaching obsolescence; she found that most federal departments had no strategy or funding to update their technology, and couldn’t assess IT vulnerabilities and risk areas.

The report only underscored the importance of the government’s sweeping Administrative Services Review, which had been initiated as a way to reduce the federal budget deficit. In 2011, the review resulted in the establishment of Shared Services Canada (SSC), a new department tasked with the consolidation and rationalization of the federal government’s IT infrastructure. The objective was to create a more efficient, reliable and secure IT platform for the government of Canada.

The challenge would be herculean, to put it mildly. Over decades, the federal government’s IT infrastructure had been built department by department, resulting in huge systems diversity, duplication and complexity. The job of helming SSC and achieving what many considered an impossible goal went to Liseanne Forand, previously Senior Associate Deputy Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and Chief Operating Officer for Service Canada, the department that administers everything from passports to social insurance numbers. The veteran civil servant knew that a challenge lay ahead. “We had more firewalls between departments than with the outside world,” Forand recalls. “If there was a piece of IT equipment built anywhere that was available in Canada, we had bought at least one of them.”

SSC was charged with bringing together more than 6,000 IT staffers from across 43 departments and updating systems that in some cases are up to 30 years old. That also meant merging 485 data centres spread across dozens of federal office buildings. Another challenge: each department had its own wide-area network and together the departments had built thousands local area networks within their individual work sites.

That’s not to mention the 63 e-mail systems used by various federal departments, or the staggering number of commercial-grade video-conferencing systems. Prior to SSC’s creation, the federal public service had deployed over 80 such platforms, which were often not compatible with one another or and which made conferencing between departments difficult. SSC is working to shrink that number down to one to promote videoconferencing as an effective alternative to travel and as a means of involving regional teams in a wide range of initiatives. So, how are Forand and her colleagues accomplishing this massive effort? She says it involves taking a measured and strategic approach – one that could offer lessons to private-sector companies looking to update their IT infrastructure. For SSC, the first step was embracing the need for patience and unprecedented organization. “There was 18 months of planning work that was done before the department was created in August 2011,” Forand recalls. “It was a well-planned piece of work where the government took the time to decide the reasonable scope for the project. If the scope is too big, it can fail.”

After taking stock of the government’s myriad IT systems, SSC’s mandate was restricted to modernizing infrastructure and not departmental applications. Forand credits that narrowed scope with helping to create conditions for SSC to maintain continuity and avoid service disruptions to hundreds of critical government programs such as Employment Insurance and the Canada Pension Plan.

Forand and her team then rolled up their sleeves and began executing SSC’s ambitious IT infrastructure transformation plan, which extends until 2020. They started by carefully migrating those 6,000 federal government IT professionals to SSC and using their internal research to set out strategic infrastructure upgrade priorities. The department then engaged Canada’s information and communication technology industry associations for input on how best to manage the mammoth project. As a result, SSC created an IT infrastructure roundtable bringing together representatives of those organizations, as well as IT vendors, for an ongoing dialogue to discuss new strategies, highlight mission-critical objectives and overcome challenges that would emerge along the way. But the most important aspect in the process, according to Forand, was managing the human element. Between November 2011 and February 2012, SSC staged town-hall meetings to outline the department’s mandate and objectives to its new employees. Public-sector union representatives were also engaged, and regular internal SSC communications became a top priority. At that point, ironically, the department lacked the infrastructure to speak to its employees.

“They were all still on individual departmental e-mail systems and the firewalls among them didn’t allow us to communicate, so we created an extranet and started posting blogs and staging webinars to multiply the opportunities for communication,” Forand explains. “We had to make sure we conveyed to employees that our objective was to make things better, make them more secure, to improve the service being delivered and to talk concretely about where that standardization and consolidation was going to lead.”

To communicate with the 43 federal departments, SSC also created a Projects and Client Relationships branch to organize outreach on a regular basis.

Since its inception, SSC has identified savings totalling more than $200-million by amalgamating e-mail systems, finding software and hardware provisioning efficiencies, and renegotiating licensing contracts. What truly excites Forand, however, is the opportunity for the federal public service to take bold steps forward with cutting-edge tech tools at their disposal. “The public service of the future needs to be highly networked, needs to be able to work on an enterprise basis, needs to be very connected and nimble,” she says. “It needs to have the ability to leverage big data. It’s not the piece people think of first, but you actually can’t get there without the IT infrastructure we’re building.”

Among SSC’s many other objectives, that entails constructing a modern and secure networking system that reduces the number of wide-area networks and information security centres to one of each. It also means building seven new, state-of-the-art, fully secure data centres to ensure 24/7 availability.

When asked what advice she has for other organizations intending to modernize their IT infrastructure, Forand is unequivocal. “You need to plan, get the scope right and be rigorous about executing to that plan,” she says. “It’s not about servers and switches; it’s about people. You need to maintain that attention and focus on motivating people, informing them and making them part of the solution, because that’s really going to be the secret to success in the end.”

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