Olivia Neal, Executive Director, Digital Change, Chief Information Officer Branch, Treasury Board, Canada
Women in GovTech Special Report 2017.
How do you use technology to improve citizens' lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.
I’ve always been passionate about working in the public sector, and the opportunities and the privileges that come with working in a role where one can positively influence people’s lives. I moved to Canada in June 2017 to work for the Canadian Government. Prior to that I worked for the UK’s Government Digital Service, where I was responsible for leading a fantastic team who assured the quality of all of the UK government’s digital services, and all of the UK government spend on digital and technology. This work saved the UK taxpayer over £300 million (US$403 million) every year, and resulted in government services which were shaped around the needs of their users.
Within the Canadian Government, I work in the Chief Information Officer Branch, where we shape the approaches and expectations for how digital government will be delivered. This includes teams working on technology, data, service and open government. It’s an exciting place right now.
Recently, we published a draft set of digital principles which will guide our approaches. The principles are influenced by the experiences of other countries, and shaped by what I learned through applying the Digital Service Standard in the UK. Governments tend to be large scale, with cultures and approaches that have built up over sometimes hundreds of years. Being part of an international digital government community means that ideas, experience, patterns and code can be shared – and we can each fill in separate pieces of the puzzle to help us all move forward more quickly.
What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2017?
In September 2017, the UK Prime Minister visited Ottawa and the Canadian Prime Minister, and one of the things announced was a memorandum of understanding between our two countries on digital government. This committed both countries to work towards a shared set of principles intended to help us deliver, and truly become a digital government. Specific commitments included putting users at the heart of service design, as well as working together to embed approaches to open standards and open source. Having worked in the UK, and now being here in Canada, it’s pretty exciting to be involved in connecting the knowledge on both sides of the Atlantic.
One of the teams I’ve been most excited to be involved in while I’ve been in Canada has been the team leading a project called Talent Cloud. They’re reimagining our approach to HR and recruitment, and are piloting this with people with skills that we need in digital and technology. They’re taking a user centred and iterative approach to look at all aspects of the challenge, from policy to what the interface would be for managers and applicants – all with the goal of making the Government of Canada a leader in this field.
What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2018?
I think we’ve seen many governments take huge strides forward in delivering transactional services that have started to be centred around users. I’m interested in how we start to move to a place where in government we expect and encourage services to be delivered wherever users already are (including in collaboration with third parties); and where we make the most of data which we already have available to provide seamless services to our users, building in security and privacy by design.
I’m also interested in how we take our approach to being open to the next level. Both in the Government of Canada, and in the UK we’ve been absolutely committed to Open Government. I’m interested to see how we can use the foundations which have been put in place there to move to becoming truly open by default, whether that be as we’re developing our thinking, or as we’re developing code.
Within the Chief Information Officer branch in the Government of Canada, we are currently working on a Whitepaper on the ethical use of AI – a hugely important subject for governments to get right. This work has been done completely in the open from the beginning, and we’re all benefitting from the input and feedback of experts from across sectors and around the world.
If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2017, what would it be?
You can achieve an awful lot if you don’t worry about who gets the credit.
What was the greatest challenge that you overcame in 2017?
On a personal level, moving countries is not a straightforward process. It gave me personal experience of how much further we have to go to build experiences based around users’ needs, and how there are great opportunities for both governments and the private sector to adapt to an increasingly international and mobile environment.
For example, I learnt that when you move overseas your credit history does not transfer, so in making a move from the UK to Canada I was not able to get a credit card or anything which requires that evidence. That and adapting to a Canadian winter…
What book did you read in 2017 that most interested or inspired you?
When I was at the UK’s Government Digital Service, I was lucky enough to work with Leisa Reichelt, who taught me and many others the value of great user research. She posts a reading list every week on her Twitter account (@leisa) which always contains a gem or two.
The book which is on my Christmas list is Sarah Richard’s on content design, which comes highly recommended. Although it’s primarily aimed at people writing content for web, I find that applying these approaches helps me think more clearly about what messages I want to convey and the best way of doing that; whether it be when writing, talking or presenting.
Who inspired you in 2017, and why?
There are lots of people, all across governments around the world who are constantly pushing the edges to move their governments further forward. They’re often not in senior positions, but have been getting on with gradually moving things forward for years. These are the people who make me believe that real and systemic change is possible.