The innovation paradox: an interview with Canada’s digital chief Alex Benay

By on 21/02/2019 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Alex Benay says the CIO Strategy Council’s standards-setting approach is cross-sectoral, participatory in nature, and “completely transparent”.

Innovation is a bottom-up process, says Alex Benay, Canada’s chief information officer. He tells Matt Ross how the country’s traditionally top-down civil service is transforming its approach to digital delivery; now policymaking and regulation, he says, must make a similar journey

Alex Benay is the civil servant charged with leading digital innovation across the Canadian government. But there’s a paradox here: senior civil service leaders, he believes, are not in a position to innovate.

“Our workforce knows how to innovate,” he says, “but managers get in the way. As we go up the ranks, we become risk averse, and the ones that are able to manage risk get promoted.” By the time people reach the top, “they’re focused on risks, on audits, on managing budgets, on the crisis of the day.” These roles leave little room for managing and driving innovation.

So innovation must come from the ground up – and civil service cultures must change to support and promote it. But Benay, who became the Canadian government’s chief information officer in 2017, is also sceptical about leaders’ ability to shift organisational cultures. “If as a leader you set out to change culture, you’re not going to win – not on something as big as government,” he comments.

People talk of changing culture little by little, like “eating an elephant a bite at a time,” he adds, tongue firmly in cheek. “But who’s eaten an elephant? Why would you do that? It’s the wrong objective right out of the gate.”

Don’t drive innovation; support it

But this is no counsel of despair. For Benay – who will speak in London on 28 February at Innovation 2019 – is a truly innovative leader, currently catalysing culture change across Canada’s federal workforce. A former head of Canada’s Science and Technology Museums Corporation and vice-president of software firm OpenText, he has an impressive track record of doing things differently. And whilst senior leaders can’t create innovation and culture change, he says, they play a crucial role in supporting and enabling those who can.

“Innovation happens on the fringes,” he explains: his job is to spot it, support it, and to clear away the “white blood cells in the system” that will otherwise squash innovative ideas. Leaders must recognise their own ignorance, he adds, and “let go. You have to start by accepting that you know nothing of the modern way of creating a business.”

Similarly, to promote culture change, leaders must “find and inject life into the pockets” of positive change: “Don’t set out to change culture: set out to find the things that are working and could change things at a smaller scale.”

As an example, he cites Canada’s new Talent Cloud: a system for recruiting digital professionals on short-term contracts, whilst providing key benefits such as pensions. Then people aren’t “working forever as contractors without benefits in the gig economy,” he explains, and can build public sector careers that fit today’s working patterns and the digital economy.

No way out but forwards

And why are innovation and culture change so important? “Public trust in our public institutions continues to go down; this is a phenomenon that goes back to the 1960s,” Benay replies. Meanwhile, people’s expectations of public services are rising fast – tracking the convenience of digital services in the private sector. “So expectations are going up and trust is going down; that is a very bad place to be caught,” he comments. “And the more the public sector adopts digital-first approaches, the more in line we can be with the service model that citizens are coming to expect.”

That demands adventurous, radical thinking. “In a digital age, it’s the one who takes the risk and changes the environment who wins the game,” he explains. “The Hilton hotel chain wasn’t expecting Airbnb to become what it has, but three people in their basement are in the middle of disrupting a multi-billion dollar global corporation. We have this thinking in government that we can’t get disrupted, but we can: if e-Estonian businesses are launching out of South Korea, they have access to the EU”. In that context, Canada’s much-vaunted EU free trade agreement looks decidedly analogue.

And government, Benay believes, can indeed become the disruptor. Canada has launched voice services with Amazon, Alexa, Apple Home and carmakers: “Some of our voice services are better than the insurance companies’,” he comments. And the civil service is well advanced in deploying automation and Artificial Intelligence: “We have 74 vendors knocking on our door to show us what they can do,” he says; the training, the assessment tools and buying framework are all in place.

Principles into practice

For a glimpse of Canada’s digital future, take a look at Benay’s work at the Science and Technology Museums Corporation. For he has “a very drastic opinion on the openness that should be expected of government organisations” – and during his three-year stint as its chief exec, made 80% of its data available online.

Too often, he comments, the information presented by Canadian museums is “the story of the white man, and it’s also a story of public institutions telling you what your culture is.” That’s a poor fit with “an age where people are used to co-creating things, engaging, talking online.”

So there was a democratic argument for openness. There was also an accessibility argument: throwing open the corporation’s data broadened its reach way beyond the half-million who visit its Ottawa museums annually. And there was – of course – an innovation argument. When the corporation uploaded 3D models of its aeroplanes, a local start-up used them in computer games: soon the business had expanded tenfold, and its apps were being used in nearly 200 countries.

The same approach, Benay says, has obvious applications in government science and beyond. The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat – where Benay is a deputy minister – has been developing “responsible Artificial Intelligence directives” on open platforms, attracting contributions from leading universities around the world. As a result, several countries are now collaborating on algorithm impact assessment tools to assess suppliers’ AI offers – “and frankly we need that, when we’re going up against companies like Google or IBM.”

Putting the pieces in place

In the CIO’s job, Benay has spent the last two years preparing federal government to make its own digital leap forwards. The Treasury has long had the powers to “set standards, find against those standards, and help shape the process” across government, he explains. “The problem was that we weren’t changing fast enough, as our IT policies hadn’t been touched in years and we didn’t have an architecture-setting body saying: ‘APIs are important; we should use them by default.”

So over the last year, legislative changes within the Financial Administration Act have put the CIO on a par with other key roles such as the chief HR officer – strengthening Benay’s authority. A set of Digital Standards have been agreed, and an Enterprise Architecture Review Board established to set government-wide tech standards. Alongside the Talent Cloud, a new Digital Academy is building capability. And in 2017 a Canadian Digital Service was established to offer departments centrally-funded advice and support on user-focused services.

A secure cross-departmental information exchange network – an updated version of Estonia’s ‘X-Road’ system – is under development, and a Pan-Canadian Trust Framework sets standards for identity verification across the public sector: “That could easily be extended into the banks, your insurance company, your energy provider, your car,” he comments. “We’re making our way towards more of a federated identity verification scheme.”

One of the next challenges, Benay suggests, will be that of creating a framework that allows government to deliver services with private sector providers whilst protecting Canadians’ data rights. “In future, public service delivery could be on any platform: it could be Instagram, or a travel site renewing your passport for you,” he says. “So you have to have the right cyber strategy to protect personal data; the right privacy conversation with your citizens.”

“Putting the building blocks in place – APIs, open source, open data – is easy,” he adds. “Now people can plug and play. But how we play the game, and what the rules are, will be very important.”

The first big test

So the route forward has been mapped out – and last year, the well-documented failure of Canada’s Phoenix pay system gave the government a hearty shove down that path. “People are realising that we self-impose these massive, $500m transformations and they never transform anything – or they do, and it’s for the worse!” says Benay, who’s leading the Treasury team developing its replacement. Just look at the progress on AI over the last two years, he adds; any IT system planned on a ten-year timescale is obsolete before it gets off the ground.

Phoenix is a “catalyst to doing things differently,” he continues. “So many things went wrong: design, procurement, project management approach, possibly culture.” There are “people working day and night to stabilise the current situation. And we’ve been given what is frankly the easier mandate: to find a replacement.”

To build that new system, Benay’s team is doing “the opposite of what was done in 2008: breaking the process into smaller deliverables; engaging vendors right from the beginning; putting users at the centre of everything, and letting them test what we’re doing.”

Know what is unknown

Ministers and Treasury chiefs are supportive of the new approach, he adds; but the project’s ‘Agile’ approach 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 comments. “It’s a question of education and removing the road-blocks.”

It is also a question of refusing to answer unanswerable questions. As Benay says: “Everyone’s asking: ‘When are you done?’ I’ll be done when I’m comfortable that what we have selected and the user needs are one and the same. ‘What’s your final budget?’ I don’t have a final budget. We tend to rely on what we know, which is asking these frankly silly questions when we can’t know what the end result is.”

Benay’s approach will make some people uncomfortable. But he is only too aware of the auditor general’s key criticism of Phoenix’s managers: that they agreed unrealistic budgets and deadlines, then felt compelled to launch a system that wasn’t ready. “You have to be very vocal and open about it, and frankly take a couple of lumps as we go through this process; we have to be willing to do the thing differently,” he comments.

Playing catch up

As Phoenix’s replacement arises from the ashes of its predecessor, Benay is confident that government now has the skills to incorporate advanced technologies, such as AI. But there is, he says, a wider challenge around AI policymaking and regulation.

Governments react slowly to technological change, he points out; it took the EU ten years to develop its GDPR data rules. And AI presents a new set of risks: if governments take another decade to respond, “you’re going to get more privacy breaches, more hacks. Can you change your laws, your policies, your regulations fast enough to, on the one side, provide economic opportunities, but on the other make sure you don’t get a Facebook-Cambridge Analytica situation?”

This is, he points out, a complex balancing act – but many governments lack the necessary scales. Canada lost General Motors’ autonomous vehicle and AI development work to Arizona because it couldn’t provide a testing site; but meanwhile, Canadian health providers are using ‘black box’ AI without fully understanding its operation. “We didn’t have the values discussion about how we’re going to automate life and death decisions in our healthcare system,” he says. “The skill set at the senior tables needs to continue changing – and quickly, because we’re maybe not even having the right conversations.”

The coming challenges

And even as people start having those conversations, the next set of technology-based challenges will come piling in. Blockchain and 5G are on their way, he says, and “quantum computing worries me a lot: people are just around the corner on this thing. NASA’s dealing in warp drives. There’s cases where we’ve successfully teleported atoms.”

“Maybe you think this is 50 years away,” he adds. “But what if it’s ten? We’re barely grasping the pace of change in AI and automated values. What happens when the machines start writing code at lightning speed? That’s just around the corner.”

Life clearly won’t get any easier for governments’ digital leaders any time soon – and that, Benay says, is par for the course. “My private sector friends ask me why I work for the civil service, and I say: ‘Because it’s harder!” he grins. But the public sector is moving forwards, and fast – building the systems and skills to meet business’s digital giants on equal terms.

“We’re not cutting edge, but we’re in the game now,” he concludes. “And that, in itself, is probably a game changer.”

Alex Benay will be speaking at Global Government Forum’s Innovation 2019 event in London on Thursday 28 February, alongside senior civil servants from around the world. The event is free to all public servants – please visit our dedicated website for details.

Alex Benay on learning from overseas

To help our readers get the best out of Global Government Forum, we ask interviewees five standard questions – four seeking practical advice and opinions, and one to reveal something a little more personal. This is an edited version of Benay’s answers.

Can you name one lesson or idea from abroad that’s helped you or your colleagues?

“I had a really good collaboration with the Estonian government, and we’ve been able to bring some of the original creators of X-Road to Canada and work with them to create our own digital exchange platform. So thank you very much for that!”

Are there any projects or innovations from Canada that might be useful to your peers overseas?

“I think we’re showing that we could do the AI thing: we could do the vendor list; we’ve got our values framework; we’ve got directions; we’ve got algorithmic impact assessment tools; we’ve got training. And we can do it very quickly, and accessible to all.”

How can we improve the ways in which senior public officials work with and learn from their colleagues overseas?

“There’s a lot of forums for that already; the thing is, you’ve got to fly to those places. We had a delegation of senior government officials going to Australia; I’m coming to Innovation 2019 next week.

“So the dialogue is there: I just think we need to have an agreement that digital is one of the core things that gets discussed every time these people are together. And not on the fringe, but as a real core item. It has to do with changing the culture and changing work; it has to do with values; it has to do with economic development – it is core to everything

“So the forums are there, but how do you make it a core part of the agenda moving forward?”

What are the biggest global challenges in digital services over the next few years?

“I think it’ll be a pinch of the middle nations. And what I mean is the Americans have industrial might and scale with their big companies, and countries like Japan or even India have scale of humans – so if they wanted to train 3,000 data scientists a year, they could. And so countries in the middle – the UK, Canada – we’re kind of stuck between those two, and it does become a conversation of values at that point. 

“So what does that look like for us? Alone we’re going to go nowhere, but we can get a group of countries together. We all know how working together can be complicated at times, so I think one of the challenges will be: we’re going to see countries get pinched in the middle, and it’ll be interesting to see how we react.”

Finally, what’s your favourite book?

“One I’ve read lately is a book called Legacy, by James Kerr, which is about the All Blacks and extrapolating their lives into management lessons. So don’t give feedback to people behind their back, give it to them upfront; that sounds super‑simplistic, but in big government and big corporations it’s not always obvious. So don’t be a jerk; clean up in the locker room, even if you’re the world’s best rugby player. I’m just really enjoying the read. “I’ll cheat and I’ll give you another one. A book that’s really helped me in life is Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. It’s about the value of creating human networks before you need them. Everybody gets laid off and then wants a network; but you should probably have had a network before you got laid off. It’s about how you connect.”

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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