Chief Digital Officer

Mar 11th, 2015

Should Canada’s federal government & public service hire a Chief Digital Officer (CDO)? Yup. And its long overdue. Here’s why.

Transitioning from an ‘analog’ state to a digital business means big business & big cultural change on many different fronts. A CDO can help spearhead the cultural change, lay out the action map, set the tone & timetable and drive its execution by understanding its impact and pivot points. Importantly, the CDO can help to, hopefully, save money fostering more efficiency while providing a better user experience all around – from citizens to public servants (who by the way are citizens and pay taxes as well).

While a CDO doesn’t need to be the expert in the deep nuts and bolts of information technology, architecture, software, etc. inside and out, he/she needs to know enough to be credible, and authentic in the technology world but even more so with the business owners. Where the government CDO is concerned, they need to know the business inside out.

So what exactly is the business of government?

Its really simple. People make government sound more complex, complicated and convoluted than it really is (really, really). Strip it down to basics and see what I mean.

Government does three basic things all focused on policy. First, it does research to support policy-making. Social science, pure & applied natural science, in-house public, out-house contract research and variations therefore including interdisciplinary & multidisciplinary work. With professional scientists, and increasingly, with the support of citizen science. And its done in every possible area you can think of that government – at the federal, provincial/territorial, municipal, and local level – is involved in.

Second, government hopefully takes that research and pushes it through a process to make policy decisions. These can be at an administrative level (e.g., directives), or at a political level (e.g., a Canadian Cabinet Committee). Once the decision is made, it needs to somehow come alive.

Third, coming alive happens when decisions are put into practice. This happens through laws, regulations, directives, recommendations, programs or projects or any type of tool at government’s disposal to take action. Its here most often citizens feel the impact of the decision in very practical ways – from applying for a passport, to doing their taxes, to joining the military.

Once a policy decision is implemented, an on-going feed back loop tells government how its working or not (actually the loop happens during every stage and is a complex, free-for all mix of voices from society, stakeholders & within public service & Parliament). Research is the key to finding out if there are problems and hearing the voices of citizens in the process. And at every stage, lots of people help to make it happen – experts in finances, human resources, IM/IT, procurement and others – the core of the corporate services.

So where does the CDO add value? At the high level, setting a strategic vision & plan to change the business from analog to digital (where it makes sense). And at the operational level, helping to lay out business plans that impact the three policy areas of action – research, decision-making & action – that make the transition work.

Today, the business of government & public service remains digitally splintered – from client service operations to briefing Ministers with binders and paper, never mind Cabinet operations that still rely on archaic forms of communication and documentation – the cost of doing public service business remains high, and any drive toward efficiency, remains static – regardless of cuts to people and programs. There has been progress, but the pace of technological change & the competition for driving value has outpaced the ability of governments and public services to pivot and take advantage. Risks always exist, but risks also bring reward without necessarily reducing accountability.

Just a final thought. The idea of a Canadian federal CDO isn’t new. Canadian Dominic Barton, currently global managing director of McKinsey based in London said as much during the 2013 Manion Lecture on public service in Ottawa. He called for a “CDO to prioritize and execute digitization initiatives across government agencies”. Here’s his full talk

In the meantime, New York City (2011), Vancouver (2013) and Brisbane (2013) appointed CDOs at the city level. As I write, the Government of Australia is looking for its first CDO.

So, I think someone has to be the digital canary in the government (and public service) mineshaft of the 21st century.

Because without a canary, where does that leave us?


vision | voice | visuals mine