Canadian public servants urged to send in ideas for better use of data

By on 26/04/2022 | Updated on 27/04/2022
Portrait photos of the Public Service Data Challenge Judges and Champions against a blue background.
The Public Service Data Challenge Champions are (top row, l-r) Catherine Luelo, Frank Des Rosiers, Anil Arora, and Taki Sarantakis. The Judges are (bottom row, l-r) Wesley Yung, Lucie Loignon, Elise Legendre and Jason Reid

Two top Canadian officials this week urged public servants to send in their ideas for how to make better use of data, as they launched a competition designed to build staff skills and launch new data projects.

“The future is very clearly illustrated as one that’s going to be digital. So if you really want to be part of building the future, you better know data,” Anil Arora, Canada’s chief statistician, told Global Government Forum. The ability to “harness the insights” available through good use of data, he added, is “not just a ‘nice to have’; it’s going to be one of those essential skill sets that every public servant” will require over the coming years.

“You can either spend years and years watching others do it, or you can roll up your sleeves, get involved and learn – and work on something that is meaningful in partnership with colleagues across the entire government,” said Arora. “This is a unique opportunity, and I would encourage every public servant to seriously consider being involved.”

Under the Public Service Data Challenge – launched today by Statistics Canada, Natural Resources Canada and Global Government Forum – federal officials of all disciplines, organisations, roles and seniorities are being invited to send in their ideas for improvements to the government’s collection, management and use of data. Public servants may also volunteer to join a project team to take forward the most promising ideas – carrying out research work, and pitching their concepts to a panel of top data leaders at ‘Dragon’s Den’-style events.

“For those employees who are entrepreneurial and dynamic in nature, this is the ideal opportunity to shape their destiny and advance their careers,” said Frank Des Rosiers, assistant deputy minister for strategic policy and innovation at Natural Resources Canada. “I can’t think of a better time to embrace digital innovation. We see it happening across so many industries, so many countries, and Canada has the ambition to be at the forefront of it. We have the expertise; we have the data; we have the will. And this Challenge is the perfect opportunity to unleash that creative energy.”

The organisers aim to draw on the expertise and experience of public servants across the workforce who may have ideas for how to improve or develop the data systems they use every day. Researching and developing the longlisted ideas, the eight project teams will seek to convince senior leaders of their concept’s efficacy and value for money – with the goal of securing mainstream funding, and putting the strongest ideas on the road to implementation.

These project teams will bring together staff from a wide range of professions, roles and organisations, explained Arora – providing the topical expertise, skills and connections required to address the cross-departmental challenges facing Canada. Issues such as social cohesion, climate change, inflation and employment require coordinated action across government, he noted: “Governments, by their very nature, have vertical mandates; but these questions are all horizontal.”

Unique opportunity to work on something ‘truly horizontal’

The Data Challenge, said Arora, provides a “unique ability to work on something that is truly horizontal” – with team members from a wide range of disciplines and professions contributing their own expertise, while learning from their colleagues and familiarising themselves with the issues and techniques around data projects. “It’s those different disciplines that make this happen,” he commented. “No matter what discipline you’re in, you’ve got to get proficient to some degree with data. This is a unique opportunity to make friends with data and technology, and really bring your discipline to the table.”

The skills that participating public servants gain while developing their data projects, said Des Rosiers, are bound to prove useful in their future careers: “You’ll have a chance to replicate similar solutions, tools and applications, broadening their application to other domains for whatever next move you want to make, career-wise.”

The Data Challenge’s public service ‘champions’ – who include Canadian government CIO Catherine Luelo and Taki Sarantakis, president of the Canada School of Public Service, as well as Arora and Des Rosiers – will assist the teams as they develop their ideas. And Canada’s most senior public service leaders are looking for projects that will get delivered, said Des Rosiers. “The leaders see the potential, see the impact,” he commented. “We’re not doing this because it’s cool. We’re not doing it because it sounds nice. We’re doing it because we’ve seen in recent months and years how useful, how impactful it can be.”

The Data Challenge’s unique format, he added, enables public servants to carve out the time required to develop and improve public services and staff tools. “Because we’re so busy dealing with our day to day operations, sometimes we fail to appreciate the opportunity to transform the way we make use of information,” he said. “Being part of such an exercise gives you that license to say: ‘I’m going to devote the time and effort of me and my team, my resources, my computing power to advance some of that work’.”

Canada’s Public Service Data Challenge is inspired by a similar project run last year in the UK by the Cabinet Office, Office of National Statistics, GGF and NTT DATA UK. At the Civil Service Data Challenge Final in December 2021, Cabinet Office permanent secretary and civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm pledged to take all eight of the teams’ ideas forward, commenting: “Every single one of those proposals we absolutely loved. We want all of them to go forward; every one of the shortlisted ones… we are absolutely determined that they should happen.”

Federal public servants from any Canadian government organisation can submit their ideas to the Public Service Data Challenge via a simple, short form, or volunteer to join a project team via the dedicated website, which provides full details of the programme. Applications opened today, and public servants have until 17 June to send in their ideas or offer to join a project team.

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About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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