FWDThinking Episode 5.2: Showing What’s Possible—an extended interview with Minister Murray

Since Canada’s Minister for Digital Government, the Honourable Joyce Murray, was only able to join our regional government episode, we found time to ask her some more questions afterwards. So here’s an extra episode of FWDThinking, featuring Minister Murray.

The Minister has her work cut out for her. “Behind every policy is the delivery of a transaction or service, which in turn depends on IT,” she said. “So digital is actually at the heart of virtually everything that we offer as a government. And it’s no secret that governments, over time, have fallen behind when it comes to delivering secure, reliable, and easy-to-use digital services.”

Part of this is expectation: Abundant, ubiquitous technology has become such a part of everyday life that we’re painfully aware of having to do something in person, or by fax. “We need to catch up, to make it as easy to apply for a passport as it is to book a trip online using your phone.” One of the culprits is simply underinvestment—not just in citizen-facing services, but also in the foundational infrastructure on which government runs.

The Minister has spent the summer talking to Canadians about privacy, data sharing, and accessibility. “Transitioning the government of Canada to be more digitally enabled is not simply a matter of simply putting services online,” she said.

COVID-19 has clearly been an accelerant, and the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit made it clear that we can move quickly, as one, when necessary. “But it was an exception [to] how government often operates, and I want it to be the norm,” she said. “COVID-19 also revealed a lot of gaps in policies and services that Canadians need at a time of emergency. And so as we figure out how to build Canada back better, digital is at the heart of everything we offer, and we have to accelerate our digital transformation just as we accelerate some of our other policies and programs that we’ll be offering.”

What’s clear is that Canadians won’t want to go back to a world where they have to stand in line, take a number, send faxes, and wait on hold now that they’ve had a taste of what digital can offer.

We also discussed cross-department collaboration and a switch from department- to service-centric design, the ways tech can reduce duplication of effort by finding others tackling a similar problem; and using data and analytics to track outcomes. Ultimately, much of her job is simply showing people what’s possible with a digital mindset. “Digital principles talk about experimentation, collaboration, and iteration, and they are very much focused on putting the person at the center of everything.”

All opinions expressed in in these episodes are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations for which our guests work.

Alistair Croll: [00:00:00] Hello everybody and welcome to another partial episode of FWDThinking. Recently, we had a conversation with Canada’s minister of digital government, Minister Joyce Murray, as well as many of the chief data officers around the country. Alors nous allons continuer la discussion avec la ministre du gouvernement numérique du Canada, Joyce Murray. I’ve asked the minister to join us so she can talk a little bit about where Canada’s digital government vision is headed. And we’re going to focus a little bit on what kind of skills public servants, as well as people in the private sector, need to gain as the country moves towards digital government and what it means to adopt technologies and make sure that they’re available for everyone.

FWD50 has, as its core idea, that we should use technology to make society better for everybody. [00:01:00] And these technologies only work if they’re broadly accessible and we think deeply about how to make them work for everybody to improve service delivery in government. So please join me in giving a very warm FWD50 welcome to the Honourable Joyce Murray. Minister Murray. 

The Honourable Joyce Murray: [00:01:16] Thanks. Thanks, Alistair. Thanks for having me on your podcast. What a timely initiative and what a great objective you have. And I’d like to acknowledge that I’m here on the traditional territories of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, and as Canada’s first minister of digital government, I’m leading our government’s digital transformation to improve services to Canadians. Behind every policy is the delivery of a transaction or service, which in turn depends on IT. So digital is actually at the heart of virtually everything that we offer as a government. And it’s no secret that governments, over time, have fallen behind when it comes to [00:02:00] delivering secure, reliable, and easy-to-use digital services.

Actually, people’s expectations have leapt past what governments have been doing. And so that’s why my role in this today- so, there’s no question that we need to catch up, to make it as easy to apply for a passport as it is to book a trip online using your phone. And of course we need to avoid falling behind again. And the prime minister has signaled that this is a top priority for our government. There’s lots of reasons why we are where we are today and I won’t go into them, but we do have decades of underinvestment in digital, leaving us ancient systems, inconsistent data collection, outdated processes and tools, and that public service whose structure and culture make it quite hard to quickly implement structural change.

So we started our government in 2016, started to dedicate significant [00:03:00] funding and attention to the digital transformation. And we have made a great start with great people, dedicated to making these improvements. So what’s next? Well, first we have to modernize dated applications and infrastructure so we have a solid foundation. We also have to build digital tools so Canadians can access the service they need- services they need, and this means tools based on their needs, not on what government wants to provide and tools that are easy to find the roots. We have to create a government-wide platform to enable better collaboration and sharing data across departments. This will help the public service to avoid duplicating work and inconsistent approaches that make it confusing for Canadians to access services. So, and I guess finally, we have to address this significant culture shift that will be needed in order to succeed, [00:04:00] and that’s from breaking down departmental silos to bringing in the digital talent that we- as much as we need, and there’s a lot more I could talk about. But you know, over the course of this summer, I’ve been hosting round tables with subject matter experts in many of these areas. And in seeking their perspectives and insights, I’ve learned way more about how to approach this challenge and how to prioritize. So from consulting with people on privacy issues to collecting and sharing better data to how to work with those who have the most challenges in accessing digital services. I’m going to keep listening and working to ensure we’re doing this the right way because transitioning the government of Canada to be more digitally enabled is not simply a matter of simply putting services online.

We saw that through the [00:05:00] COVID-19 experience of the last eight months. We saw how crucial secure, accessible and reliable digital services are. And I can say I’ve heard so many people talk to me about the CERB, the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, and how quickly and effectively it was rolled out. That’s what we had to do as a government, and we did it. But it was an exception that how government often operates and I want it to be the norm. COVID-19 also revealed a lot of gaps in policies and services that Canadians need at a time of emergency. And so as we figure out how to build Canada back better, digital is at the heart of everything we offer, and we have to accelerate our digital transformation just as we accelerate some of our other policies and programs that we’ll be offering. So it’s a huge opportunity. [00:06:00] It’s a challenge to make a real difference in Canadian’s lives, and I am very excited and honored to be a part of it. 

Alistair Croll: [00:06:07] Oh, that’s great to hear. And I love that you’re spending so much time listening because while all of these things are incredibly promising, we can’t just voice them on people. They have to genuinely seek the benefits that are in them first. And I think shifting that public will, you’re right. The expectations have been set, but it really took a crisis like COVID to whet the appetite or increase the tolerance if you will, for digital as a cultural change. Maybe you can talk a little about, what’s the difference between digital as the word, as a technology, versus digital as like a cultural mindset? What a public servant needs to do to change their mindset, to be digital first. 

The Honourable Joyce Murray: [00:06:52] Well, I’m just thinking of your question there Alistair. And I think what happened was, people saw that it [00:07:00] was possible to suddenly receive services from a public servant, working from home. Now, I have to credit SSC and many others for enabling the equipment, that connectivity and all of that. But people that used to think, that used to have to go to an office line up, take a number, have the interaction, follow up by faxing something in, saw that they could actually do the transaction online with their smartphone or their computer. And so I don’t think Canadians will want to go back from that. 

In terms of the public service, I think we, in a way rightly, have had a culture of risk aversion because public servants want to get it right. They also don’t want to step on another public servant’s turf. And so everything [00:08:00] was balanced between effectiveness and safety. In other words, the risk aversion part. What happened in the pandemic is, we accelerated so incredibly, partly because the cost of not doing something quickly was way higher than usual and public servants were willing to accept the greater risk, and so were Canadians. And so some of the things we rolled out work perfect from the beginning. So I think the public servants have seen that there is a tolerance for taking a bit more risk when the payoff is bigger. And I don’t think that we will go back to the very careful, slow risk averse approach in the past. I think that this learning will have really, implanted in our psyches as public servants, of which I am one. I am here to serve the public and it certainly has opened my eyes.

[00:09:00] Alistair Croll: [00:09:00] That’s a really interesting point that I have heard apocryphally from government workers, that in some cases they couldn’t see one another’s schedule on Calendars to set up meetings. So they had no way to connect across departments, and it seems like in many cases, what you said about being afraid to step on someone else’s turf comes down to- there’s inefficient parallelism going on, where several people are trying to solve the same problem. All well intentioned, but they just can’t find one another. And it does seem like a crisis forces you to find out who else is working on the problem. Like, there was no way to hide if you were someone working on emergency relief benefits because all hands were on deck. How do we get people more aware of what else is happening so that we can find those inefficiencies? And instead of having three different groups doing the same work, sort of, put more wind behind fewer arrows, because it does seem that that’s one way to address inefficiency. Do you think technology can help us find who else is working on things? 

The Honourable Joyce Murray: [00:09:58] Oh, [00:10:00] absolutely. I’m convinced of that. I mean, the technology is available. People saw that they could and needed to work collaboratively and quickly and figured it out. So I don’t think it’s so much public servants’s challenge. I think that it has more to do with the authorities that reside on the side of ministries. And so when we see duplication, it’s because each ministry is empowered to solve their own problems, pursue their own mandate. And that is their priority. If another ministry said “we need to connect with you on this so we’re doing a common front that serving the customer”, they might get the answer like, “well, wait a minute. It might be your priority in your department. It’s not so much a priority in our department.” So there is a structure that really compels public servants and ministers to look at their own mandate and work [00:11:00] out best as possible, how to deliver it. So I, it’s a big culture shift to say, “okay, there are some things that if we collaborate on, we don’t have to duplicate and we can have a much more seamless experience for Canadians”.

And so that’s part of the culture shift that will have to happen, but it’s a structural and a process issue and not a person issue, I’m convinced. Public servants just want to do what is the best, in delivering service. And so when we can change some of those structures and processes, I think people will all be on board.

Alistair Croll: [00:11:35] If someone’s a manager in the public service, what should they be doing to get their teams more, sort of, digital first? What kind of training or learning would you suggest they offer to their organizations? 

The Honourable Joyce Murray: [00:11:49] Well, we do have the Digital Academy of Canada School of Public Service, which has done a great job so far. [00:12:00] And I want to see more, more training happening. Actually, when I was- early on, as the standalone digital government minister, I went into my office of newly hired staff in Ottawa in December. And the first thing I was hearing is “We did the digital training and it was so exciting, it was just eyeopening”. So, I think that we need to harness the tools that we have in the Canada School for Public Service is an important one. There’s a mindset with digital, so it’s- to some degree, it’s training, but to some degree, I think even just working with people who were trained in that mindset, and that’s the mindset of the person comes first. The Canadian is at the center of what we do. The shift from the mindset of my department, my minister, and my work, to the [00:13:00] Canadian. And what do we need to do to give the Canadian, the person, a better experience? That is a shift that I think people can learn by working on collaborative projects with people who have digital principles of heart and in their- ingrained into their DNA, and that’s one reason the Canadian digital service is such an important part of my ministry. And I continue asking other projects to take on some of the CDS teams to make sure that the digital principles of working in the open and using open source and trying things, iterating and not putting everything under the covers until you think it’s done and then revealing it and then finding out if it really worked or not.

So there’s some real changes in the way that the digital [00:14:00] culture works and we need to expand that understanding and that approach throughout the IT professionals in the Canadian public service. And I’m excited about that challenge and opportunity too. 

Alistair Croll: [00:14:18] It does seem like there’s a fundamental shift when you go from atoms to bits. And I joked a couple of years ago at FWD50 that if you’re building a battleship, it’s very hard to do sort of agile battleship destruct. You know, you don’t launch the first battleship and then try and add some things to it after it’s been at sea for a while, you kind of have to get it right the first time. Whereas with digital, it feels like the ability to update so that the thing is live now, and now, and now- sort of this continuous model is one thing that really gets us past this. The interface becomes everything, right? The user interface. And I think of Service Canada or a fax machine as interfaces. And I think most citizens think of them as interfaces. But as you said, behind that, there’s someone who [00:15:00] sees themselves as a department or a process. And it really is, it really crystallizes what it’s for when you start by thinking about “here’s the interface and the job that a citizen wants to have done”. And it may well be that behind that, there’s four ministries that are involved, but the customer shouldn’t have to know. When I use Google, I don’t care which data center I’m going to. I don’t care what browser I’m in. I just type in the search and it works. It seems to me like that’s a very big cultural shift for an organization where many people, you know, identify with their particular department or process or mandate. How are you and how are our ministers changing the sort of connective tissue between mandates to reduce the sort of isolation of each particular ministry?

The Honourable Joyce Murray: [00:15:51] Well, I see that as part of my responsibility to work with other ministers and to say “show what’s [00:16:00] possible”, to ask for that kind of collaboration and to talk about how, if we work together that way, the problems that they may be experiencing with old, monolithic legacy systems that were put together in one department and are still using paper-based upgrades. But you know, I can talk about how it will be better for them and what they’re trying to accomplish on behalf of citizens, because we have to- I mean, I just want to remind myself and any listeners that the ministers and their public servants are doing their level best to do the best job possible.

What’s changed is we now have technology that enables us to do an even better job by collaborating and by sharing data. But a lot of the processes and even the laws prevent that data sharing with the idea that it needs to be [00:17:00] constricted in a department to keep it safer. We know that there are ways of ensuring privacy and safety while having the data available across departments. So now we need to start actualizing that in what we do. I can point at a couple of examples from COVID, Alistair, that I think demonstrates that kind of sharing, and one of them is the Canadian Digital Service created using open source code, created a system called Notify that was about having secure and easy to provide notifications by ministries on whatever the key issues that they are wanting to interact with the public. I think there’s some two and a half million notifications have gone out using Notify, across many, many [00:18:00] ministries who were clearly willing to work together with the digital government to provide a better service to Canadians.

So that’s a small example. I would say COVID alert is another example of digital principles where our Canadian team took code that had been worked on by Apple, Google, foundational work, Shopify, putting an app on top of that, and then, worked with the Ontario Digital Service. So there’s a lot of collaboration and we now have an app- an exposure notification app. That’s a national app that is going to help keep people and their communities safer, as we reopen the economy. So there is work that changes how we think about the service relationship between the individual public [00:19:00] service or ministry, that is collaborative, that uses open source code and other digital principals, and we need to build on that and accelerate that work. 

Alistair Croll: [00:19:14] You mentioned data and digital, and they often get used in the same sentence. Obviously, digital allows you to make infinite copies of data for free, which makes it very easy to analyze and crunch in ways that would have taken days with people digging through records or underlining and highlighting documents. It seems like data and digital are inseparable, but that digital has given rise to a much more analytical approach to government. You know, you mentioned that people have an expectation of going to a Service Canada office, or reposting a letter or faxing or something. Are we tracking the satisfaction of Canadians using services across physical and digital versions? Do you have any insight into, you know, how [00:20:00] much more efficient it is, how much more people like it, where the issues are? Do we have analytics on that kind of stuff right now? 

The Honourable Joyce Murray: [00:20:06] I know that every ministry has some measures, some results measures that they have in place in terms of client and or customer satisfaction. I can’t tell you whether that directly compares digital versus not digital. But the thing that I know is that the more we’re able to provide the services, digitally- so for example, somebody being able to do something with their smartphone- the more, what I call self serve, is available. And self service a whole lot easier and quicker for the customer. They don’t have to wait in a line up. They don’t have to- they don’t have to wait two days before something’s processed and ready for their next action. So self-serve works for the Canadian and works for [00:21:00] the public servant. And best of all, what it does is it frees up public servants’ time to serve those that don’t have a smartphone or Internet or don’t want to work that way. So I think there’s going to be many people who like the old style of face to face, go into an office, and will continue wanting to do that or not have the option, but they will then have better service because all of the people who would rather do it on their smartphone certainly lighten the load for the public servants while getting a better satisfaction with the transaction. So it’s a total win-win from my perspective, and it really is also going to help us do a better job of serving those who are disadvantaged with a disability or simply don’t know how to use a computer, but they can get better service when the self-serve customers [00:22:00] or are doing a lot of the work themselves. 

Alistair Croll: [00:22:04] I did some work with Code For America a few years ago around the failure to appear rate in Kentucky. This is when a person is accused of a crime, they’re given a date to show up in court, and then they forget that, and someone shows up to arrest them, which usually leads to an altercation. And then they have a second charge and it’s horrible. And it disadvantages minorities, people with lower socioeconomic backgrounds or lower income levels. It’s a horrible problem. And in the end, they couldn’t get Kentucky to play ball. There were so many stakeholders. So what they wound up doing was creating a tool to analyze the data and then show people, you know, “these are the judges, these are the types of crimes, these are the reasons these are the times of year when people get stuck in the system”. And I love that idea that if you can’t change a thing, then make the data available because sunlight is a great disinfectant. It very quickly forced them to confront, you know, certain judges, certain policies, certain crimes, certain [00:23:00] regions having problems.

And it does seem to me like as we’re moving from physical to a blended model and to your example, I think you may well find people that want to go in once, but then they’d love to receive notifications about the status of their application. They don’t need to go in to find out about that, but maybe you like to go in and see someone. I  left my passport in my pants pocket and washed them around this time last year. And it’s a perfectly good passport, it’s recognizable, but the color kind of ran. And I went to Passport Canada, and they said “oh it’s been damaged, so you have to, you know, do this whole process as if it needs to be replaced because it was lost”. And I said, “but it’s right here. You have a digital photo of me in your computer. You check it every time. I’ve got an access card and so on. Can’t you print another one?” And they said, “oh no, we can’t do that. It’s as if it’s damaged”. And I said, “but I have it right here”. And they said, “I know”. But they should just be able to press print and give me another one, rip out the old one and that’s done. There’s no real need. I’m still me. I’m recognizable on this thing. And so I think one of [00:24:00] the things I find fascinating is that digital forces us to confront absurdity. There are cases that seem almost like that Terry Gilliam movie Brazil, right? That seemed like these weird dystopian Byzantine issues and digital is this crystallizing sort of- but that’s foolish, we can do it better. And I think, you know, how do managers in the public service channel that sort of absurdity in that outrage into reinventing things where you can take a lot of Byzantine policy and implement it in the form of an app that does that for you? How do we get them thinking like that? 

The Honourable Joyce Murray: [00:24:43] I think we get examples of where things are working well. If there’s anything positive that came out of it, it has shown us that we can do things differently. And so [00:25:00] I’m very respectful of people who have a process that they’ve been hired to pursue or to apply. And, the reality is that every Canadian believes that they’re an exception to the rule and we shouldn’t have to follow the process. And, you know, probably for a big percentage, there is no downside to making those exceptions, but first in some cases there are. And so there again comes the risk aversion, which perhaps is the right way for public servants to be seeing this, that we have a process, I’m going to follow that process. So I get how aggravating it is to an individual for whom there is no real risk or downside to shortcutting the process. 

Alistair Croll: [00:25:55] And I think you were a little unfair to the government when you said, you know, “we have a lot of catching up to do”. I [00:26:00] remember Minister Brison at the first FWD50 saying that we are a Blockbuster nation in a Netflix world. But that’s about expectations. And I think that, you know, some of the people we’ve interviewed as part of FWDThinking have said, “Oh, I asked a question about AI and I was sort of laughed off the podcast by my guests”. And they said, “AI, that’s great. We’ll get there. We’re making policies on it”. But there’s so much low hanging fruit that when we say we’re going to stand up cloud computing, that’s no longer new and unusual. We understand clouds because other people have had to, you know, have got the scars from that. And so even if government is five years behind, you know, technology five years ago is still pretty cool. We still had Google maps and stuff. But you can approach it with much better wisdom than if you’re going in and experimenting a lot. So it does seem like there is an advantage to being five years behind, you know. They say the cutting edge is kind of covered in blood. There is something nice about being just behind the cutting edge and not being too aggressive about that. 

The Honourable Joyce Murray: [00:26:58] Well, absolutely. [00:27:00] And I think that there’s some things that we were trying to do maybe as a government, a federal government, 15 years ago, that ended up with massive failure that today could be done. But if the government gets too far ahead, you’re right. But that’s got a downside as well. But at this point, I think we have a challenge to keep up with some of our fellow digital nations. And Canada’s got some unique challenges with the provincial federal jurisdictions, those kinds of things make it even more complicated.

So we, we love a challenge. I’m committed to Canada, accelerating the digital government transformation. And, I only see willing partners in the public service on this. I also am a  pragmatist, so I know that [00:28:00] you want to take things in bite size pieces and show successes and then expand those out. And I think the digital principles are relatively new thanks to Scott Brison, who you just referenced for being a champion for bringing this shift. We have a foundation to work from and we’ve got every opportunity to really move much more quickly to serve Canadians better in the years to come, 

Alistair Croll: [00:28:31] It really does seem like, you know, if you had said, as minister of digital government, “I want everybody to work from home for six months”, you would have been laughed out of the house. Now, you’ve got a very- we are in the middle of the largest social experiment in the last century. Everything from, you know, the carbon footprint of air travel to food supply chains and realizing how they’re balanced between restaurants, you know. The giant toilet paper shortage of 2020, which everyone laughed at, was [00:29:00] actually because we don’t use our toilets in our houses all the time. We use them about half the time. So there was a whole bunch of industrial toilet paper that was ready to go to public washrooms. But there was a shortage of home, right? So I think it’s been- if we are wise enough to learn from it, this is an amazing opportunity to skip 10 years of trying to convince people to change their culture. And I think, you know, we are lucky to be in a country where we have the support of things like CERB and so on, that we’re able to learn from these changes. But, but you’re absolutely right. It does seem to be a transitional year for so many reasons. So, I know we have to wrap up, I really appreciate you being with us and we’re going align this with our conversation we had with the other digital ministers last week where things like identity came up, as you said. If you could give one piece of advice to public servants for something they should do differently between now and the end of the year; one thing that you think they should challenge their teams to do, whether it’s learning or experimenting? Or [00:30:00] what is the one thing you think they should take advantage of doing in this singular time to move us towards that sort of inclusive self-service, seamless service an citizen-centric delivery. What should they spend their time doing in the next four months?

The Honourable Joyce Murray: [00:30:23] The shift to seeing the person at the center of what they do, I think, is a key part of this and that is a mental shift that we need to make because we have our processes and our teams and so on. So that’s what I would challenge people to do is to really think about that as a person and how we serve that person needs to be really thinking about how they can access the service and what is their perspective, not what’s convenient or comfortable for us. I think that many public [00:31:00] servants do do that. But that’s one key in the digital principles. So the second, the thing I would say is if you’re embarking on an IT project of any time, and you want to make sure that you were using digital principles, please check with our ministry if you have any questions, and we will be happy to provide support and coaching and advice. Because it’s tried and true that digital principals talk about the experimentation, they talk about collaboration, they talk about iteration, and they are very much focused on putting the person at the center of everything. So that’s the drum that I’m leading and digital principles. 

Alistair Croll: [00:31:49] It’s a good drum to beat. Well, thank you so much for your comments and your time today. I’m definitely loving seeing this stuff change as a citizen and also as someone who’s trying to provoke some of these changes in the world. [00:32:00] It’s great to see everybody collaborating on this stuff, and thank you so much for your service and the service of the people that are working with you to steer Canada through COVID as well as we have. I think- I speak on behalf of many, many citizens that 2020 has made us extremely proud of our government and of being Canadian. So thank you very much. 

The Honourable Joyce Murray: [00:32:19] Well, thanks Alistair, and thank you for the inspiration you are for how to serve people better using digital tools.

Alistair Croll: [00:32:27] Thanks.