Earlier this week the Canadian Federal Government announced it will be creating Shared Services Canada which will absorb the resources and functions associated with the delivery of email, data centres and network services from 44 departments.
These types of shared services projects are always fraught with danger. While they sometimes are successful, they are often disasters. Highly disruptive with little to show for results (and eventually get unwound). However, I suspect there is a significant amount of savings that can be made and I remain optimistic. With luck the analogy here is the work outgoing US CIO Vivek Kundra accomplished as he has sought to close down and consolidate 800 data centres across the US which is yielding some serious savings.
So here’s what I’m hoping Shared Services Canada will mean:
1) A bigger opportunity for Open Source
What I’m still more hopeful about – although not overly optimistic – is the role that open source solutions could play in the solutions Shared Services Canada will implement. Over on the Drupal site, one contributor claims government officials have been told to hold off buying web content management systems as the government prepares to buy a single solution for across all departments.
If the government is serious about lowering its costs it absolutely must rethink its procurement models so that open source solutions can at least be made a viable option. If not this whole exercise will mean the government may save money, but it will be the we move from 5 expensive solutions to one expensive solution variety.
On the upside some of that work has clearly taken place. Already there are several federal government websites running on Drupal such as this Ministry of Public Works website, the NRCAN and DND intranet. Moreover, there are real efforts in the open source community to accommodate government. In the United States OpenPublic has fostered a version of Drupal designed for government’s needs.
Open source solutions have the added bonus of allowing you the option of using more local talent, which, if stimulus is part of the goal, would be wise. Also, any open source solutions fostered by the federal government could be picked up by the provinces, creating further savings to tax payers. As a bonus, you can also fire incompetent implementors, something that needs to happen a little more often in government IT.
2) More accountability
Ministers Ambrose and Clement are laser focused on finding savings – pretty much every ministry needs to find 5 or 10% savings across the board. I also know both speak passionately about managing tax payers dollars: “Canadians work hard for their money and expect our Government to manage taxpayers dollars responsibly, Shared Services Canada will have a mandate to streamline IT, save money, and end waste and duplication.”
Great. I agree. So one of Shared Service Canada’s first act should be to follow in the footsteps of another Vivek Kundra initiative and recreate his incredibly successful IT Dashboard. Indeed it was by using the dashboard Vivek was able to “cut the time in half to deliver meaningful [IT system] functionality and critical services, and reduced total budgeted [Federal government IT] costs by over $3 billion.” Now that some serious savings. It’s a great example of how transparency can drive effective organizational change.
And here’s the kicker. The White House open sourced the IT Dashboard (the code can be downloaded here). So while it will require some work adapting it, the software is there and a lot of the heavy work has been done. Again, if we are serious about this, the path forward is straightforward.
3) More open data
Speaking of transparency… one place shared services could really come in handy is creating some data warehouses for hosting critical government data sets (ideally in the cloud). I suspect there are a number of important datasets that are used by public servants across ministries, and so getting them on a robust platform that is accessible would make a lot of sense. This of course, would also be an ideal opportunity to engage in a massive open data project. It might be easier to create policy for making the data managed by Shared Service Canada “open.” Indeed, this blog post covers some of the reasons why now is the time to think about that issue.
So congratulations on the big move everyone and I hope these suggestions are helpful. Certainly we’ll be watching with interest – we can’t have a 21st century government unless we have 21st century infrastructure, and you’re now the group responsible for it.