The new organization to consolidate federal government technology was the primary focus of the public sector technology conference. Why Liseanne Forand thinks Canada can succeed where Australia failed
This year’s GTEC public sector technology conference was a heady experience for Liseanne Forand and her staff at Shared Services Canada (SSC), the organization announced Aug. 4 to take over swathes of the federal government’s IT infrastructure.
“We felt like rock stars at our booth,” the new SSC president told a closing-day keynote audience. Shared Services was a theme of the conference, from Treasury Board president Tony Clement’s focus on it in his opening keynote through several breakout sessions.
SSC will take over e-mail systems, networks and data centres from 44 departments, starting life with about 7,000 employees and a budget of $2 billion, or around 40 per cent of Ottawa’s total IT budget. In announcing it, the government promised to consolidate more than 100 e-mail systems into one and more than 300 data centres into 30.
Forand cites two examples of problems consolidation should solve. She said her own agency is having trouble moving employees to new SSC e-mail addresses because of incompatibilities among government e-mail systems.
She also mentioned touring a data centre divided by a chain-link fence because some servers in it belonged to a different department. Maintaining 24-hour, seven-day service means keeping two technicians on call by pager at all hours, she said. The partitioned data centre means four are needed – two for each side of the fence.
“It’s a tiny example. It’s not going to bring in $100 million to fix that kind of thing.” But the savings from eliminating redundancies will add up. And cost savings isn’t the only rationale, Forand maintained. By taking over basic infrastructure, she said SSC will be “enabling individual departments to deliver on their own mandates.”
Or, as Corinne Charette, the federal CIO, said in a presentation the day before, “the whole purpose of the Shared Services Canada strategy … is to help consolidate where we spend on redundant, duplicative solutions so that we can redirect money to what is net new.”
Departments aren’t being told to stop all IT procurement, she noted. “We need to keep the business going,” Forand said. Some purchases will go ahead, even in areas slated to be taken over by SSC. But, Forand added, “I don’t mean signing 10-year contracts for things that are particularly in our remit of IT infrastructure.”
Forand acknowledged there have been doubts about SSC. In particular she addressed the state of Western Australia’s decision, earlier this year, to shut down an IT shared services project that was over budget, behind schedule and delivering poor service. “We did learn from that,” she said. “It’s actually quite a bit different from what we’re talking about.”
The Australian project tried to consolidate functions like human resources, finance and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Forand said. “Those initiatives are inherently difficult,” she said. It also allowed too much customization. The report by the state’s Economic Regulation Authority that recommended the shutdown bears that out, putting much of the blame for the project’s problems on customization issues. It also blamed mandated participation and a lack of service-level agreements for poor service.
Forand didn’t mention a PricewaterhouseCoopers report commissioned by Public Works and leaked to Canadian Press that said any savings from SSC would be long-term, with consolidation complete around 2024. She said SSC will start delivering savings in the next few years – like all federal departments it must submit a deficit reduction plan. E-mail will be consolidated first, she said, but other systems will take longer. “It will take somewhere between six, eight, 10 years to complete the full consolidation,” she said.