Canada’s digital chief Alex Benay quits government

By on 08/08/2019
Alex Benay describes his time as CIO at the Government of Canada as "one heck of a ride" and says he is proud of what he and his colleagues have achieved in moving the national digital agenda forward.

Alex Benay has announced he will step down as Canada’s chief information officer next month to “take on new challenge” at tech start-up MindBridge.

“It is with mixed emotions that I am announcing my departure from the Government of Canada,” he said on Wednesday in a statement posted on social media, describing his time as CIO as “one heck of a ride”.

He said he is proud of the work the public service has accomplished in moving the national digital agenda forward. Among these achievements, he listed the adoption of public Cloud across government; delivering the “world’s first” ethical AI management framework; renewing decades-old policies to bring them into the digital age; and “solidifying Canada’s position as a global leader in open government”.

He also led the introduction of new digital standards in the workplace, and provided “a clear path for moving off” Canada’s failed Phoenix pay system.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

“I am proud of the many dedicated public servants with whom I have had the pleasure of working,” he said, adding that “leaving this amazing group of public servants who continue to move the Government of Canada into the digital age is one of the hardest things I have had to do in my professional career.”

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Benay said that he hadn’t planned a move into the private sector – but the opportunity to join MindBridge, where he will be responsible for the company’s global growth agenda, was “hard to pass up”.

MindBridge’s artificial intelligence product, Ai Auditor, aims to transform how auditors and financial regulators unearth fraud and irregularities. Benay will join the company as chief client officer, and said he will lean on his experience from both the public and private sectors to help MindBridge –  which has done projects for the Bank of England and Payments Canada, and which he described as “a Canadian industry leader in AI” –  to grow.

Commitment to openness

Benay joined the Canadian government as CIO in March 2017. Prior to that, he spent three years as chief executive of Canada’s Science and Technology Museums Corporation, where he demonstrated his commitment to openness by making 80% of its data available online. He was also vice-president of software firm OpenText.

Benay had previously worked in government at Global Affairs Canada between 2000 and 2009, latterly as director. 

He is a board member of the World Wide Web Foundation and co-founder of the CIO Strategy Council, which he formed with former BlackBerry chief executive Jim Balsillie.

In an exclusive interview with Global Government Forum, published in February, Benay spoke extensively about the Canadian government’s headway in digital transformation: “We’re not cutting edge, but we’re in the game now and that, in itself, is probably a game changer,” he said.

He argued that senior civil servants are not in a position to innovate because they are, by nature, risk adverse, and advocated for change in civil service cultures in order to support and promote innovation.

Adopting an agile approach

Benay told Global Government Forum that ministers and senior civil servants are supportive of a new Agile approach, but that it sits awkwardly with the civil service’s traditional approach to project governance and funding. “We have an industrial-age government and governance mechanism, and it doesn’t always work with doing the thing Agile, open, cloud-based,” he said. “It’s a question of education and removing the road-blocks.”

However, he added that he is confident that government now has the skills to incorporate advanced technologies, such as AI.

When Benay took on the CIO’s role, he entered a government focused on digital transformation. And with the support of Jane Philpott, President of the Treasury Board, he secured legislative changes to strengthen central oversight of digital programmes across government. But Philpott quit on 4 March – a victim of the scandal around Canadian construction firm SNC-Lavalin – and Justin Trudeau’s administration has become distracted in the run-up to October’s general election.

Looking ahead

Balsillie told The Globe and Mail that “Alex is a true champion of Canadian technology and a great example of a can-do, dynamic public servant that’s thinking about the modern economy of intellectual property and data, and designing policies for it. Ottawa still has a long way to go in understanding the knowledge-based economy and data-driven society, but I have been impressed at his willingness to get things done.”

In the final paragraph of the statement Benay posted about his resignation on social media, he said he looks forward to continuing to support Canada’s digital agenda, but that there is still more to do. He said the country needs to invest in digital economy infrastructure, develop a new set of digital citizens’ rights, and prepare the workforce for the inevitable changes that are coming to the economy as a result of “exciting” advances in technology.

“I know these key issues are in capable hands and I look forward to seeing their evolution over the years to come,” he said. “As for the #GCDigital community, I encourage you to continue forging ahead, keep asking why, and I know you will continue to make a positive and profound difference in the lives of Canadians everywhere.”

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

One Comment

  1. André Couture

    08/08/2019 at

    Goodbye. Glad to see him go.

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