Canada’s CIO Catherine Luelo: managing the IT needs of a nation

Jun 01, 2022
Government ITIT Leadership

The federal government’s IT leader talks about the risks and rewards of digital transformation, tech-related staffing challenges, and the push to establish single digital identities for Canadians

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Credit: Shutterstock/Coffeemill

When Catherine Luelo installed a new reservation system while an executive at WestJet Airlines Ltd., the change in technology inadvertently knocked the airline’s entire commercial website down for days.

That bumpy implementation might have been a harsh lesson, but it helped teach Luelo the skills to navigate large technical system implementations, communicate the risks involved in systems changes, and prepare an entire organization for major technological shifts.

[ Lisez la version française : « Catherine Luelo – DSI du Canada : gérer les besoins informatiques d’une nation » ]

Those skills come in handy in her new role as Canada’s chief information officer. After nine months on the job as CIO and a Deputy Minister for the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Luelo joined for a conversation on her path to becoming the government’s IT leader, her top priorities in the role, and how she plans to deal with challenges including data security, data privacy, and the transition to a more digital world.

En route to Ottawa

Luelo was born in Ontario and lived in Nova Scotia for a stint. She spent most of her adult life in Alberta, where she raised two children as a single parent. She moved to Ottawa in the spring of 2022 after spending several years in Québec.

Catherine Luelo

Before joining the government, Luelo held senior positions at Telus, WestJet, Enbridge and most recently Air Canada, where she was the CIO. At Canada’s largest airline she oversaw a refresh of the commercial systems and the rewards program – all during the pandemic.

“Being at an airline during COVID was probably one of the most difficult components of my career,” Luelo says. “It was difficult from a human perspective.”

Almost overnight, revenue went off a cliff and the business model pivoted to focus on cargo. Within two months of the first lockdown, Air Canada laid off 20,000 employees. But the airline stuck with the system upgrades, leaving it in a position to rebuild without technical barriers, she says.

From private to public sector: giving back to her country

The pandemic also gave her a chance to serve as chair of a Health Canada industry advisory committee on COVID-19 testing, screening, contact tracing, and data management. Exposure to the inner workings of the federal government piqued her interest in public service and a desire to use her skills to give something back to the country.

“It’s not normal that people come out of the private sector and go into the government at this stage in their career,” she says. “That was probably even what made it more appealing, because I think there’s a need for that.”

When she landed in Ottawa, she recognized the complexity involved in acting as CIO for departments as diverse as defence, immigration, and science.

“The size of the job is massive,” she says. “The trick is to make sure you pick the right couple of things to focus on so we can really advance the wheel on a few files.”

Among Luelo’s responsibilities is the execution the Government of Canada’s digital strategy. Her department has yet to release its official playbook, but she says her top three priorities are creating a digital identity for Canadians, hiring talented people in the digital space, and updating the government’s critically outdated information technology systems.

Forging the single digital identity

Advancing the concept of a single digital identity that would provide Canadians with a unified point of access to federal services is her top priority, Luelo says. She acknowledges such a massive undertaking requires a long lead time, as it will involve collaboration with the provinces and the private sector, not to mention buy-in from Canadians, some of whom may be skeptical.

Creating a digital identity system will be like building a highway, Luelo says, providing better access to services through a trusted credential Canadians can use whenever they interact with the government. The government could then use the data collected to improve programs and services and tailor them to an individual.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I’m filing my taxes, I’m making a reservation for a camping spot, I’m getting my fishing licence, I’m getting my driver’s licence, I’m paying my taxes in my municipal environment, and that could all be accessed through one trusted identity,” she says.

“Think about the credentials you have locked in a in a password vault or, worse, you’ve got them written down on a sticky note or in a secret notebook … think if those went away because you had one way of proving you are who you are.”

Not everyone is on board – some critics are reluctant to put all information in one place due to concerns over data privacy and security.

Luelo believes that moving forward will require a permissions-based system so people can see who’s accessing their data and can revoke access. To that end, she’s working closely with Canada’s privacy commissioner.

“There is a high level of accountability on the government to ensure that, if we’re collecting data about Canadians, we are being clear about what that data is being used for,” she says.

Addressing the skilled IT labour gap

Another major concern for Luelo is a deficit of skilled IT talent in the labour market, with too few graduates with the right skillsets to staff positions in the public sector, which has historically had difficulty attracting technology workers. There’s a 30 per cent vacancy rate in technology jobs in the National Capital Region, Luelo noted.

“We’ve got to really focus on non-traditional pools of resourcing,” she says.

Luelo wants to get creative. Many women exited the workforce during the pandemic who might not have technical backgrounds but whose experience could be perfect for digital roles in areas such as user experience. She also wants to make use of the government’s interchange program, which allows government and private sector workers to swap roles for six, 12, or 18 months.

“My thesis, and part of why I came into this role, is that if we don’t cross pollinate and show each other different ways of doing it, we’re never going to change,” she says.

Luelo would also like to see the government more effectively embrace remote work, which would open up talent pools across the country, and make it easier to achieve goals of hiring people with disabilities and from the Indigenous population.

“As long as you can get an internet connection, you can work,” she says.

Out with the old systems, in with the new

Luelo’s third priority is more traditional – large-scale upgrades for IT systems that are at risk of “critical failure,” according to a 2020 report.

“We have some systems that are older than the people they pay,” she says. “Critical risk of failure is never anything a CIO wants to see on a report card.”

Migrating from legacy systems is particularly difficult for the government, which needs to ensure uninterrupted service provision even as it switches platforms. Luelo is trying to find balance between the risk of the old technology and the risk of replacement while recognizing the needs of more than 100 different departments with varying needs. She wants to create an environment with more common enterprise systems, but she doesn’t subscribe to the idea that every department use the same technology due to their vastly different functions.

Her private sector experience also taught her not to underestimate the challenges of change management, the difficulty of transitions, and the importance of communicating risks in plain language. Luelo sees the government CIO’s most important role as getting all stakeholders moving in the right direction as the government strives to fully enter the digital age.

“We’re at a point where digital matters so much … we saw that amplified in the last two years,” she says.

To that end, she is urging people in the tech world to consider a tour in government service to work on a variety of the massive problems that need solving.

“There’s a technology, digital revolution going on. It is interesting, interesting work.”