It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Treasury Board Secretariat chose Corinne Charette as Canada’s new CIO.
While she refers to herself as a “down to earth and relaxed individual,” she also spends her free time participating in adventurous outdoor activities such as snowmobiling and boating.
An ability to steer her way forward — no matter what the vehicle or conditions might be — is a perfect fit for her new role, considering the diverse set of challenges she’ll face.
It’s not the good old 90s anymore, when Canada consistently ranked atop global surveys as a leader in e-government and other federal technology initiatives. The country now finds itself slipping in those polls and in the eyes of many Canadians. One look at the wireless penetration rate in Canada can tell a huge story, as many third world countries have stronger adoption numbers.
Within the government itself, issues such as security, transparency, consistent and rigorous reporting and project delivery are key priorities. Citizens want to know where their tax dollars are headed. And for any investment that is made, they want to be sure it’s actually needed.
In her first major interview as federal CIO and ahead of her first major public address at this week’s GTEC 2009 conference in Ottawa, Charette made it clear that effective project delivery ranks at the top her priority list.
“We have been doing a good job . . . but we think there’s an opportunity to definitely do better,” she admitted, adding that federal government projects, by their very nature, are massive, complex, and usually involve numerous departments.
The problem, according to Charette, is that IT projects have historically operated separately. She wants to change that and push shared responsibilities between government decision-makers and IT implementers across all departments and agencies.
She calls it “coordinated IM/IT investment,” and it will be a task for both Charette’s relaxed and driven side.
For example, if something the Canada Revenue Agency uses for taxation can be used in the department of Human Resources and Skills Development, that link needs to be made, she said.
While it certainly makes sense for these agencies to occasionally work in their own silos, she added, common investment is not something the public sector should fear. The fact that the federal government maintains and operates multiple financial management platforms and a variety of HR management systems really highlights these inefficiencies.
Charette has spent her 30-year career tackling the same kinds of challenges in a variety of other industries.
Her last role was CIO for Montreal-based Transat A.T. Inc., but she’s also had stops along the way at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, KPMG LLP, IBM Global Services and Via Rail Canada Inc.
From Private to Public Sector IT Management
Besides quick detour in 2006 as deputy director and CIO at the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada — a federal government agency that gathers data on suspicious transactions, terrorist financing and other large cash transactions — she’s spent a lot of time practicing what she preaches in the private sector.
Fundamental to her focus on better project delivery and avoiding situations where government is buying the same systems twice, Charette also plans to push rigorous reporting practices across all federal agencies.
“We’ll basically be publishing scorecards on a number of projects that we’re following,” she said, adding that it will let both program owners and concerned citizens find out exactly where a project is headed and if it’s on budget.
Where Web 2.0 Fits In
Her desire for all this government efficiency and interdepartmental cooperation will also require better communication
among all stakeholders. This is where Web 2.0 and other tools may fit in.
GCpedia, for instance, is an internal federal government wiki which allows employees to collaborate and share best practices with each other. GCconnex, meanwhile is a “Facebook-like” tool that allows government employees to create profiles, post pictures, and converse.
While both projects are still in pilot stages, Charette said that takeup has been tremendous. “This is something the community is pushing all by itself and there’s no stopping it,” she said. “(Government staff) are interacting this way and are expecting more and more social networking and collaboration.”
The move toward corporate social networking is something that has taken the private sector by storm, and as consumers continue bringing their iPhones and Twitter accounts into the enterprise, it only makes sense that the government follows.
While her appointment in May wasn’t met with tremendous media coverage like her newly appointed counterpart, U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra, Charette has a very similar agenda. In fact, the two new CIOs have already met face-to-face and over videoconferencing on several different occasions to discuss some of these mutual issues, though she does differ with Kundra on a few of them.
For starters, Charette seems less than enthusiastic about cloud computing — or at least the use of the term. “We had a discussion with (Kundra) about cloud computing,” she said. “It’s a big label and we too are interested in it, but we have to put that label in perspective.”
Kundra, of course, has been a major supporter of cloud computing, recently unveiling Apps.gov, a Web site where federal agencies can buy government approved cloud computing tools.
In the Canadian government, Charette said, outsourced computing capacity is already being used in certain departments. “We haven’t labelled it as cloud computing, but it’s the same concept.
“We’re also interested in letting the private sector make investments in hardware and use it where we need it,” she added, referring to data centre colocation services as a primary example.
Charette also had a lukewarm reaction to hosted office productivity tools, which could be a growing trend among business and government alike. The City of Los Angeles, for instance, has gotten to work on a US $7.25 million plan to replace its current Novell and Microsoft-based productivity tools in exchange for Google Apps. Kundra is also known for advocating Web-based software.
“Right now, office applications are not necessarily a focus point, because it’s really not where we see a huge opportunity for us to improve our situation,” she said, adding that any move would lead to significant transition costs.
Charette knows her role is going to involve leading the federal community of CIOs across the wide spectrum of government departments and agencies. Whether she is successful driving her key themes of project delivery, effective and transparent reporting, and internal social networking, remains to be seen.
She’s certainly hoping to achieve many of the operational efficiencies that Kundra is striving for in the U.S., but Charette still lacks the same kind of high-ranking government sponsor. She doesn’t have Barak Obama pushing for IT to drive health care, to drive better project delivery and to drive transparent reporting.
For Charette, it’s clear that a more focused approach to IT delivery is needed, whether it be more efficient internal spending or better citizen-facing e-government services.
“You can’t be effective if you’re trying to do it all,” she said. “We can’t do everything from cloud computing, desktop, security and better project management. We have to pick our spots and we have to focus the community on that.”