Govt must team up with private sector to find solutions to aging tech systems and workforce

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The Auditor General is urging the Federal Government to upgrade its technology infrastructure. In a report issued on April 20, Sheila Frasier used stark language, describing the systems responsible for supporting Old Age Security and Employment Insurance as nearing ‘imminent collapse’. Without concrete steps, critical services, including the government’s ability to perform basic functions like tax collection and paying its own people, could be severely compromised.

This is not a new story. The good news is the Auditor General’s report has brought these issues to the forefront and there seems to be general agreement that it’s time to take action. What’s more, the private sector is willing and able to lend its support.

The challenge is that this is only part of a larger and more complex issue – one that includes the masses of federal government ICT workers due to retire over the next five years.

According to the 17th Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada, the average age of public servants in Canada is 43.9 years old and 50.3 years for executives. What’s more, the retirement rate in the public service has risen from about 2.4 percent in 2004 to between 3.3 percent and 3.6 percent. That adds up to roughly 9,000 to 10,000 public servants retiring each year for the next four to five years.

Finding skilled IT people is challenging enough. And it will become more difficult as boomers begin heading for the exits. With respect to the federal government, the task of finding replacements is exacerbated by the fact that we will be losing people with an intimate understanding of the government’s legacy systems and processes. These are the very individuals we should be relying on now to facilitate the transition to a new government IT strategy.

It is essential we find a new sense of urgency to drive transformational change before we lack the human capital to do so. The time has come for a comprehensive plan – one that addresses the short-term issues of so called systems ‘rust-out’ as well as the coming shortage of government ICT workers.

At the core, this is ultimately about productivity. Compared to our U.S. counterparts, as a country, we have consistently lagged in this area, and the so called ‘productivity gap’ has continued to widen. In many ways the challenge before government is also an opportunity to show leadership and to demonstrate to all Canadians the economic and environmental benefits of modernizing our technology infrastructure.

The issues and, more importantly, the solutions are well known. According to the Department of Public Works and Government Services, there are significant opportunities to make better use of existing resources. For example, there is something in the order of 124 separate networks government-wide. On top this there are 120 unique helpdesks in addition to 144 data centers. All told there are 120,000 servers supporting federal government operations today.

Beyond making the investments to replace aging systems, the government must focus on increasing the proportion of shared services it uses to manage its operations. Departments and agencies must embrace opportunities to use common approaches to address common needs.

With greater focus on sharing resources – including networks, helpdesks and data centers – there are opportunities to achieve dramatic economies of scale. Through consolidation it becomes possible to increase service levels while using fewer human resources to do so. In particular, clustering resources makes it possible to eliminate redundant infrastructure as well as the costs associated with maintenance and support.

This of course is only part of the answer. What is ultimately required are transformational projects that improve efficiency while enhancing the way services are delivered to Canadians.  Cloud computing, for example, is allowing organizations to pool and then rapidly deploy computing power when and where it is needed most. Cloud computing is also enabling the delivery of sophisticated services entirely over the web. This is far more cost-effective than doing so using the traditional bricks and mortar approach.

There is no shortage of solutions to the issues the Auditor General has highlighted in her report. Nonetheless, meeting the dual challenge of an aging workforce and systems infrastructure won’t be easy. It will require vision and, more importantly, the wherewithal to take aggressive action. Urgent investment and increased collaboration between government and the private sector are essential if we are to address both immediate deficiencies as well as the need to prepare for a future where skilled ICT workers may become increasingly scarce.

We can no longer neglect what is ultimately a pillar in our democracy. As we embrace the opportunities of a knowledge-based economy, the Canadian government’s focus on improving productivity through innovation should be source of pride and inspiration for all Canadians.
David MacDonald is the President and CEO of Softchoice Corporation and the former Chair of the Information Technology Association of Canada board of governors.

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