Exclusive: Inside the Canadian Digital Service

Canada’s Government CIO, Alex Benay, reveals plans to reboot the public sector.

This week, Canada became the latest government to launch a central government tech unit - the Canadian Digital Service (CDS). Canada needed a “fundamental rethink” of its public service delivery, says Alex Benay, the Government Chief Information Officer. The country’s UN E-Government Ranking has been slipping: from 3rd in 2010 to 14th last year. “We've lost our empathy within the Government of Canada as to how we design services for Canadians,” Benay says. A new digital unit has been tasked with revitalising digital services. “The intention is that CDS builds technology that interacts with the end user in a more rapid and user-centric way,” he says. Just before the launch of the new CDS, he exclusively chatted with GovInsider to set out the new vision. The Plan The team is looking at a “long list” of potential first projects, Benay says. AI and Blockchain are tools that the government is planning to use - with six pilot projects for each. Two AI projects have been announced so far, with the Blockchain ones due to air shortly. Heritage Canada is going to use chatbots to interact with citizens, while the Public Health Agency wants to predict disease outbreaks with AI and data analytics. [blockquote]"Can we have a central application for AI-as-a-service in the public sector?"[/blockquote] CDS plans to share learnings from these initiatives across government, and also build their own offerings. “The question will be: Can we have a central application for AI-as-a-service - so to speak - in the public sector?” Benay says. AI could also be used to predict the outcomes of new policies before they are launched, he believes, or used to hone digital services. Next year, the government plans to launch a “Grand Challenge” for AI, he says, to find other uses for it in the public sector. Meanwhile, the Government has set up a C$125 million (~US$93.4 million) fund for AI research. Changing service delivery The ultimate vision is to change how Canadians transact with the government, allowing them to choose the most convenient options for them. The Canadian tax process shows the way forwards. Citizens can file their own taxes, go through an accountant or use a private sector online service, but all of the the data eventually comes back to government. “Why can’t we do that with other services? Why can’t we have ten other options? The government is one, and then, nine others,” he says. Building these systems requires a new mindset. The team will promote agile project management across government, and has poached members of the UK Government Digital Service - number one in the UN E-Government Rankings - to take this forwards. This new team will even help Canada “leapfrog some of the things that have happened in the UK and US”, he says. Open by default The Government won’t build services on its own. Instead, Benay wants it to be “Open by Default” - constantly including service users in the process. To that end, he has launched a “digital youth advisory council” - a group of 20 gender and ethnically diverse young citizens that are “interested in helping make Canada digital for them”. “On the design of youth services online, frankly, I’d rather get the youth at the table, and have them design it, than potentially even CDS,” Benay says. Government will also change how it publishes information. “I would like more and more of the government content to be available to the public by default,” Benay says, “even raw content and content that is being drafted”. Five government departments are publicly sharing their work in progress: Canadian Heritage, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Treasury Board and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. [blockquote]“I would like more and more of the government content to be available to the public by default.”[/blockquote] The government is now tendering for an “Open By Default” pilot website. This would allow a researcher, business or student to discover an interesting government project, share their ideas with the officials working on it, and get involved. Agile procurement New digital tools require new methods of procurement. Benay wants to see more small businesses successfully bidding for government tenders. Canada will launch an agile procurement scheme in September, “where we can engage more small and medium enterprises in designing solutions for Canadians,” he says. Crucially, the procurement will “take place over a two-month period, not a two-year period” - which will save time and money for businesses engaging with government. He also plans to reduce the number of formal tenders, using challenge procurement instead. “We’re able to put out a [policy] problem on the street, have industry and academia respond to our problem, and select a winner in two months,” he explains. Make Canada digital (again) Benay was hired as the new GCIO in April this year to shake things up. “When Alex disrupts, I’ll have his back,” his boss publicly has told him. But he won’t be shaking it up alone: “I don't think service delivery should be the exclusive realm of government any more,” he says. Ultimately, the new CDS may one day “become irrelevant”, he says, because everyone in government will be building in an agile way, testing solutions alongside their users. There is currently a big job to do, however, with Benay’s reforms intended to see Canada lead the world in government digital delivery. The world’s newest digital service has big plans for Canada. Once again, the world may be looking to the far north for inspiration.