Shared Services Canada: One Year Into COVID-19

Results Highlights

Table of Contents

Message from the President

As the President of Shared Services Canada (SSC), it has been my privilege to work with all of you over this past year to support the essential services you collectively provide to Canadians, and in particular those key new emergency services that were established to support this country through the first 12 months of the pandemic.

I am particularly proud of how we worked together to respond to this crisis, and I believe this difficult past year has not only reinforced the critical importance of a strong and secure IT infrastructure, but also the tremendous potential our close collaboration has to advancing the Government of Canada’s (GC) digital transformation agenda. The past year has also re-enforced to me that our greatest asset is not the technology we use, but the people –here at SSC and in our partner departments– who deploy and support the technology.

When it comes to Information Technology (IT), those of us in the field know that one of the only constants is change. Technology, services delivery requirements, and our collective expectations around capabilities, ease and access move at a remarkable pace, constantly challenging us to plan better, pivot quickly and remain open to the shifts and evolutions in how we understand the IT ecosystem. That said, in this past year, the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic required us to collectively adapt and adjust to a truly unprecedented set of changes and challenges, all while needing to ensure that critical services to Canadians were not only continued, but expanded and improved.

Ten years ago, SSC was created to provide integrated and reliable digital solutions to public servants for the delivery of government services to Canadians. While no one anticipated how this past decade would go, we can say with confidence that the creation and evolution of SSC has provided key support and new opportunities for how the GC manages its IT infrastructure. When the pandemic started, through our work on our SSC 3.0 strategic vision, we had already identified key priorities and approaches; such as the importance of the network, the need for modern collaboration tools, and the necessity of having modern applications to deliver government services. The way we collectively responded to the pandemic has highlighted the value of the SSC 3.0 enterprise approach and its importance in ensuring the GC is always able to deliver uninterrupted services and programs. It has also demonstrated how quickly and effectively we can accelerate change when we work together.

As the majority of publics servants across the GC shifted from in person collaboration to a new remote-by-default reality, we have collectively been presented with new challenges and new opportunities. The realities of working from home are very different for everyone.

For some, these changes have brough unexpected benefits, with many public servants able to continue seamlessly, actually thriving and finding efficiencies in a virtual environment that weren’t possible in an office. For others, the transition has been more difficult. Family obligations, differences in communication styles, reduced informal interactions, and the now blurred boundaries between work and home have all emerged as challenges. All of this makes the way we have collectively managed these difficult times – while prioritizing and delivering essential services to Canadians – particularly worthy of recognition.  

We are proud to share our report with you, which celebrates what we have achieved together in service of Canadians. The value of us working together over the past few years to invest in our IT infrastructure and to take an enterprise approach with a focus on outcomes has made us stronger, more agile and ready to respond at speed and scale, and we look forward to continuing to work with all of you, our partners, to build on this. In the following pages, we reflect on the work that has been done, the challenges we have overcome, the lessons we have learned along the way, as well as a few opportunities we may be able to leverage as we come out of the current health crisis.

Our future is without a doubt, a digital one. As we move towards our vision of a modern, digital government, it is clear that we must maintain the momentum we have built. The GC response to the pandemic has proven that a strong collaborative and enterprise-wide approach to the management of the GC IT Ecosystem is critical to our ongoing, shared success.

From ensuring reliable, secure access to emergency benefits claims without service interruption, to setting up a new 1-800 number to help Canadians abroad get home safely, to ensuring our public service had the tools they needed to work remotely on a full-time basis, the way we are working together is making a difference.

Paul Glover
President

Context

On March 13, 2020, in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, a work-from-home order came into effect for most public servants. Tens of thousands of public servants started working entirely from home, marking the first time in history that the majority of public service employees used their digital workspace as their primary workspace.

This put an unprecedented demand on Government of Canada (GC) networks and bandwidth, remote access capabilities, collaboration and communication tools, and other support services for all GC employees. Similarly, new programs had to be rapidly designed and implemented to support Canadians and businesses during these challenging times. As a result, the GC refocused priorities to respond to this demand.

In order to support the GC pandemic response and to meet the unprecedented demand for digital services due to COVID-19, Shared Services Canada (SSC) took action to support departments’ critical services. The pandemic has highlighted how much SSC’s services are critical to ensuring the continuous delivery of federal services to Canadians, and the ability of SSC’s staff to step up to the challenge.

Where we started

SSC was established in 2011 with the aim of consolidating the core Information Technology (IT) infrastructure of 42 of the largest departmentsFootnote 1 under a single organization. Within its current mandate, SSC performs a range of activities that enable departments to provide modern digital services for Canadians. For instance, SSC manages the networking backbone that connects large and small departments together, while providing them with email and secure access to the Internet.

Did you know that SSC operates one of Canada’s largest and most distributed IT infrastructures?

SSC also operates, through its data centres, the computing infrastructure that powers the thousands of applications used to serve internal government operations and deliver essential digital services to Canadians. Additionally, SSC delivers special-purpose computing environments, such as mainframes and supercomputers, to serve some departments’ unique requirements.

Since its first days, SSC has been central in accelerating the GC’s Digital Vision. While the road to where we are today has been long and demanding, SSC is now well positioned to deliver best-in-class digital services to the GC. A strategy for the department developed in July 2019, named “SSC 3.0 – an Enterprise Approach”, has been used to shape SSC’s service delivery model towards one focused on serving the common needs of the enterprise at speed and scale, while still allowing enough flexibility to address unique departmental requirements. Specifically, SSC 3.0 focuses on enhancing network operations, delivering new digital government tools, and supporting both IT capacity for departments and modern enterprise services enabling partner departments to deliver their programs and services effectively. SSC 3.0 provides a strategy for an enterprise approach to IT by concentrating work on three Service Transformation Priorities: Networks and Security, Collaboration Tools, and Digital Service Delivery. With this enterprise perspective, SSC was well-positioned to focus service delivery through an enterprise lens during the pandemic.

Response to COVID-19: Digital Disruptions and Accelerations

Throughout March and April 2020, the demand for both citizen-facing and internal digital services surged to unprecedented levels as unemployment soared and work-from-home orders came into effect.

Did you know that SSC was key in helping Global Affairs Canada (GAC) and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) provide a new 1-800 hotline? It was set up to help Canadians return home amidst growing fears that borders and international travel would soon be restricted.

For the GC, the heightened demand required crucial network capacity increases and access to modern collaboration tools to enable public servants to work from home and to continue delivering services to Canadians. This meant establishing entirely new digital services faster than ever before to support Canadians

To meet this challenge, SSC collaborated with the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat Office of the Chief Information Officer (TBS OCIO) to accelerate the planned and unplanned implementation of initiatives that had started as part of SSC 3.0 priorities, including rolling-out collaboration tools such as Microsoft 365, as well as network and security improvements. These measures represent meaningful advances towards the digital government vision by increasing users’ ability to work from anywhere, at any time. While having an enterprise approach was crucial in addressing most of these challenges, many tailored activities still took place to meet unique requirements or to deliver services for departments who still relied on older technology that had not yet been modernized.

Networks and Security

Even before to the pandemic, SSC recognized that networks and security were the very foundations of digital government and the basis for all government services. Prior to the pandemic, SSC was already working to improve network speed, reliability and capacity as part of its SSC 3.0 priorities, and this work has only been accelerated.

To support the GC during the pandemic, SSC focused efforts to ensure that enterprise networks were secure, reliable, accessible and capable of supporting digital service delivery. As a result, SSC employees worked tirelessly with telecommunication vendors to increase network capacity by implementing massive upgrades to bandwidth and remote access capacity.

Improving Bandwidth

To support unprecedented demand for network services, SSC accelerated bandwidth improvements to maintain the quality of service and upgrade network performance to compensate for the extra load of Internet traffic. SSC increased the enterprise redundant service bandwidth by 66%, ensuring there was a reliable network backup infrastructure in place to keep the Internet traffic running in case of a network failure. This activity—which would have taken approximately eight months to complete under normal circumstances—was completed in only four weeks.

Increasing Secure Remote Access

To support remote access requirements enabling public servants to work from home, SSC drastically increase increased Secure Remote Access (SRA) capacity. Since March 2020, SSC increased SRAFootnote 2 capacity by 111% to support 290,000 simultaneous connections. As a result, public servants were able to continue delivering services to Canadians and maintain operations following the work from home order.

SRA Concurrent connections by Capacity
Month Concurrent Connections Max of Capacity Total
February 2020 58,000 133,000
March 2020 100,000 190,000
April 2020 160,000 248,000
May 2020 182,000 280,000
June 2020 181,000 279,000
July 2020 169,000 279,000
August 2020 163,000 279,000
September 2020 209,000 286,000
October 2020 206,000 287,000
November 2020 214,000 289,000
December 2020 218,000 289,000
January 2021 237,000 300,000

Collaboration Tools

Prior to the pandemic, SSC was working to consolidate and streamline GC collaboration tools. The pandemic accelerated the planned rollout of certain modern, enterprise tools to enable public servants to collaborate remotely. SSC rapidly deployed Microsoft 365 and other collaboration tools to increase remote work capacity and maintain efficient service delivery.

Implementing Microsoft Teams

Before the pandemic, SSC 3.0 had emphasized the need for a GC-wide Enterprise Digital Workplace to enable employees to work in a more connected way using integrated, digital collaboration tools, instant messaging, enterprise-wide networks, videoconferencing and web applications. As the stay at home order emphasized the importance of a modern digital workplace, SSC acquired a suite of collaboration tools in record time enabling federal public servants to continue working collaboratively as they pivoted quickly to a near complete virtual working environment. Microsoft 365 cloud-based systems allowed GC employees to collaborate via technology that is easy to use, secure, reliable and accessible from home. SSC also accelerated the deployment of Microsoft Teams (MS Teams), a collaboration and messaging hub, to 40 departments. By providing chat, audio, videoconferencing and file-sharing functions, MS Teams offers a secure environment for communication and collaboration, enabling employees to continue delivering services to Canadians.

Number of Departments Using MS Teams
Month (2020) Number of Departments Using MS Teams
May 2
June 26
July 32
August 34
September 35

Additional Teleconferencing capacity and Call Service improvement

To support partner operations during the pandemic, SSC enabled modern telecommunications features like Wi-Fi calling on smartphones, allowing employees living in remote areas lacking reliable cellular service to continue working. SSC also provided teleconferencing services, licences and support across the GC. This enabled an increase of over 200% in the use of teleconferencing minutes between February and June 2020.

Digital Service Delivery

SSC’s departmental priorities focus on enabling departments and agencies to deliver better, faster and more reliable digital services to Canadians. To this end, SSC worked closely with partners to ensure that their digital infrastructure was able to deliver services to Canadians. This required identifying applications most at risk, with the biggest potential impact on services to Canadians, in order to determine reliable solutions capable of running on modern hosting solutions – whether cloud or enterprise data centres.

Procurement

Following the work from home order, the greater need for remote access required more than 5,600 new contracts and licences. In support, SSC quickly negotiated contracts with approximately 80 vendors without a break in service and at a 50% cost savings. SSC also helped departmental partners by procuring additional special licences, allowing increased calling capacity. For example, SSC procured an additional 200 agent licences and 450 phone lines for GAC to handle greatly increased call volumes from Canadians seeking information regarding international travel.

Call centre support

Contact Centre modernization is a core component of SSC 3.0, and the department accelerated the deployment of modern call centre solutions in order to support partner operations. Along with increasing GAC’s call centre capacity, SSC quickly onboarded more than 385 call centre operators onto the Virtual Desktop Infrastructure enabling them to work remotely—representing a 1000% increase in users in less than a month. SSC also worked to set up entirely new contact centres, including a new 50-seat contact centre on an accelerated timeline to serve 35 departments.

Support for Partners

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, SSC worked closely with departments to support systems delivering critical services to Canadians. Some major examples follow below.

Support for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit

Did you know?

Within the first 10 days of the work-from-home order, SSC procured:

  • 3,000 devices to supply departments with the hardware required for teleworking
  • 1,000 more devices to set up a secure communication system for GC senior leaders, called the GC Emergency Communication System (GCECS)

To support Canadians, the federal government announced the creation of emergency relief programs. On March 25, 2020, the Government announced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), with an effective implementation date of April 6, 2020. This left the Government with just two weeks to prepare to deliver this new service. The launch was anticipated to create a record-setting influx of almost 15.5 million additional submissions to Service Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), on top of the 25 million tax returns that Canadians typically submit online annually. Complicating the matter further was that these applications would be processed using the same legacy tax infrastructure.

In order to ensure that the CRA’s digital infrastructure could handle this demand, SSC quadrupled Internet bandwidth and increased SRA capacity from approximately 20,000 to 60,000 connections for employees of CRA and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) (as the two organizations share the same network) for the combined internet infrastructure.

Bandwidth Usage for CRA-CBSA
Month (2020) Bandwidth Usage (Mb/s)
April 2 Mb/s
May 3 Mb/s
June 3 Mb/s
July 4 Mb/s
August 4 Mb/s
September 5 Mb/s
October 4 Mb/s
November 5 Mb/s
Connections to CRA-CBSA
Month (2020) Connections
April 28,879
May 35,214
June 39,998
July 40,245
August 36,602
September 40,896
October 54,467
November 44,812

SSC also installed a new processing engine and provided massive capacity upgrades to CRA's mainframe. In addition, SSC upgraded the data centre network to allow eight times more internet traffic to flow through the CRA's processing environment so the Agency’s infrastructure could handle the significant increase in demand. These measures enhanced the infrastructure and services hosting CRA’s MyAccount Portal applications, providing the capacity needed to handle incoming requests and distribute critical emergency benefits.

Did you know that in the days leading up to the launch of CERB, CRA MyAccount registrations increased by up to 130,000 registrations a day compared to the previous year, and that SSC upgraded the data centre network to allow eight times more internet traffic to flow through the CRA's processing environment to support this?

Weeks later, more benefit programs went live, such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and CESB (Canada Emergency Student Benefit), testing the infrastructure even more. To ensure more Canadians could access the system, SSC increased SRA capacity to 60,000 connections (on May 1, 2020) and worked with the CRA to monitor the critical services with a 24-hour virtual "mission control centre." This centre allowed for rapid resolution of any problems during peak times.

Thanks to these efforts, CRA’s processing infrastructure was able to deliver these unprecedented services.

Maintaining Access to Employment Insurance for Canadians

The number of applications for Employment Insurance (EI) reached record highs due to people being laid off during the pandemic, putting Employment and Social Development Canada’s (ESDC) digital infrastructure under extreme pressure. In just one month, there were more EI applications than ESDC had seen in the entire previous year.

Did you know that the team at SSC responsible for managing the platforms used to host web applications worked an additional 1,500 hours to support the increased demand?

In record time, SSC installed and configured 150 middleware updates and 40 servers to handle demand and eliminate the backlog of EI claims that needed to be processed. These measures tripled the EI programs infrastructure, which meant maintaining Canadians’ access to benefit claims without service interruption.

Support for the ArriveCan App

The Public Health Agency (PHAC) and CBSA, in collaboration with the Canadian Security Establishment (CSE) and TBS OCIO, created the cloud-based mobile application, ArriveCan. This application was developed to get timely and accurate information to passengers and travellers arriving in Canada regarding the evolving travel restrictions and guidelines, contact tracing and other activities related to COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, SSC had already established a pilot environment for securely connecting the GC enterprise to Cloud Service Providers (for example, Amazon Web Service (AWS) and Microsoft Azure) through the Secure Cloud Enablement and Defence project. As a result, the federal government was able to immediately pivot towards remote work and stand-up new digital services, including the ArriveCan application.

Dedicated teams from SSC allowed the application to be securely housed in the Cloud and have its network traffic routed through a secure infrastructure in order to protect the sensitive data of Canadians.

Where we are now?

As discussed above, certain components of the SSC 3.0 approach have been accelerated to respond to emerging needs and support continued services delivery to Canadians. Network and security upgrades, the rapid deployment of collaboration tools, along with the assistance to SSC’s partners to deploy emergency services for Canadians, have proven to be instrumental in allowing the GC to continue operating throughout the pandemic. However, the work is not done. While SSC ramped up quickly to meet the demand, emergency changes brought to the GC IT infrastructure must be made more robust if they are to meet the ongoing demand and to be scalable to meet future requirements.

Networks and Security

New SRA Accounts: February vs. September (2020)
Month February 2020 September 2020
CBSA/CRA 20,000 59,500
DND 12,750 40,000
ESDC 12,500 23,000
PHAC 10,000 15,000
RCMP 10,000 13,173
IRCC 6,000 7,864
ISED 5,000 7,500
SSC 5,000 7,400
GAC 3,000 4,500

Collaboration Tools

Digital Service Delivery

SSC:

As a result of its work during the pandemic, SSC has achieved one of its highest ever Customer Satisfaction Feedback Initiative (CSFI) results of 3.91 out of 5.0 (April to September 2020).

Overall CSFI Results by Quarter
Fiscal Year Q1
(General Satisfaction)
Q2
(Services)
Q3
(General Satisfaction)
Q4
(Services)
2015/16     2.79  
2016/17     3.06  
2017/18     3.39  
2018/19   3.51 3.42 3.47
2019/20 3.66 3.57 3.67  
2020/21 3.91 3.80    

Notable services that saw a significant client satisfaction improvement in Q2 of the 2020/21 fiscal year include:

Top Six Services for October 2020
Top Six Value
Email 4.33 Increase (.33)
Secure Remote Access 4.16 Increase (.09)
myKEY 4.12 Increase (.07)
Toll-Free Voice 4.05 = (0.2)
Middleware 4.05 Increase (.68)
Internet 4.02 Increase (.55)
Top Six Services for October 2019
Top six Value
External Credential Mgt 4.12 = (.04)
Secure Remote Access 4.07 Increase (.17)
myKEY 4.05 Increase (.07)
Toll-Free Voice 4.03 Increase (.15)
Email 4.00 Increase (.33)
Hardware Provisioning 3.86 Increase (.44)

Services such as SRA, myKey and Internet bandwidth in particular have been instrumental in enabling the GC work remotely during the pandemic.

What we learned

COVID showed what an enterprise approach can achieve. Namely, departments worked together, incentivized by a common goal: continuing to deliver services to Canadians. SSC’s experience supporting the GC’s pandemic response affirmed that the department’s pre-COVID priorities and enterprise approach to IT were well suited to delivering enterprise outcomes, and, in turn, results to Canadians. Nevertheless, the pandemic has yielded several lessons learned that reinforce the need to manage GC IT in a holistic, agile, and risk-aware approach moving forward.

COVID-19 demonstrated that now, more than an ever, an enterprise approach is necessary for the federal government to operate at the scale and speed required to deliver modern, responsive services to Canadians. SSC’s experience in supporting the Government’s pandemic response reaffirmed that, while tailored approaches to solving pressing needs can result in immediate benefits, they are rarely sustainable and scalable in the long run. Enterprise approaches, backed by strong principles, will maximize value for the GC through economies of scale and scope, and create robust, reliable service delivery channels for Canadians.

Networks

At the pandemic’s onset, it became quickly apparent that a robust network and security backbone is critical to sustaining GC operations and delivering new working methods. SSC would not have been able to deliver all the changes required during the pandemic if it had not invested in its core network infrastructure over the last years. Network upgrades allowed the GC to meet the unprecedented demand for digital services and enabled it to deliver critical services to Canadians, such as CERB. Strong networks also enabled the establishment of new services and the secure hosting of critical applications.

Application Health

An important lesson that was learned during the pandemic is the importance of application health across the GC IT ecosystem. All too often, legacy applications cannot simply be lifted-and-shifted to modern hosting solutions, such as those that are Cloud-based. During a time of urgency, when migrations to modern hosting solutions must be accelerated to ensure capacity and reliability, having applications that cannot be readily migrated can pose unnecessary burdens on internal operations and risk delaying the implementation of emergency services to Canadians. While this was mitigated during the early days of the pandemic by establishing war rooms to ensure that critical legacy systems would be ready to handle a projected increase in service delivery load, it is imperative in the long run for departments to work with SSC and TBS OCIO to make proactive updates and upgrades to their legacy applications. This will ensure that they are ready to be migrated to modern hosting solutions to meet unexpected emergent needs.

Uniform Service Options

SSC also demonstrated that standardization across the IT infrastructure will not only accelerate the deployment of enterprise applications, but can also facilitate troubleshooting and service optimization. For instance, when MS Teams was deployed in a matter of weeks across thousands of endpoints and multiple departments, the user experience was noticeably inconsistent at times. Some users were experiencing lag when videoconferencing, while others reported general performance issues on their laptops or tablets when MS Teams was running.

As resources were deployed to identify the source(s) of the problems and efficient troubleshooting became a challenge of its own, it became clear that standardization and end-to-end visibility are critical enablers for an enterprise that wants to move at speed and scale.

Priority Setting

Did you know that SSC’s Enterprise Data Repository, which serves as a one-stop-shop for most datasets pertaining to the GC’s IT infrastructure, proved invaluable during the pandemic by enabling evidence-based and data-driven decision making?

Lastly, SSC learned how important it was to prioritize urgent client requirements and strategically deploy resources to yield responsive, concrete results for the GC. The pandemic has demonstrated that institutional barriers, like funding approaches, and current processes, such as waterfall project management, can limit responsiveness when faced with urgent government priorities. By focusing on execution risks for projects, rather than schedule and cost-related risks, SSC enabled projects to adapt to emerging needs and successfully delivered outcomes.

What does this mean going forward?

As the federal government prepares for a possible return to the office, and explores what the future of work for public servants may look like, lessons learned during the pandemic must be integrated into the way the GC manages IT moving forward. The GC now has an opportunity to critically assess its digital response to COVID-19, the lasting implications of this digital acceleration, and digital opportunities and risks in the “new normal.” Moving forward, the GC needs to reconcile pre-COVID digital priorities with post-COVID digital realities, and capitalize on results achieved as part of the GC pandemic response.

Although the response to COVID-19 necessitated the accelerated implementation of digital government across the GC, these advancements were not evenly distributed. Some of the improvements that have been since March 13, 2020 will represent lasting contributions towards the GC vision for digital government, but more work is required to develop and advance modern, reliable, digital service delivery channels to serve Canadians.

Modernizing networks and hardware

For example, modern networks are a cornerstone of digital government. The current GC network continues to be a combination of independent, non-integrated networks. This network can have difficulties running some of the new and emerging technologies. In fact, some of the solutions implemented by SSC to manage network traffic to meet an immediate short term need will require investment to be sustainable and to eliminate vulnerabilities, such as single points of failure.

Future GC networks will need to be re-built or reconfigured to provide improved capacity to support cloud-based applications and modern digital tools, offering increased reliability, speed, scalability, access and interoperability. These changes will need to be accompanied with robust cyber security to respond to increasingly sophisticated attacks.

Additionally, a major effort is required to manage and reduce the GC’s immense technical debt. IT hardware has aged into obsolescence, which hinders modern digital government approaches. This calls on the need to develop modern enterprise solutions that support the digital government of tomorrow.

More work is required to reduce antiquated hardware, improve information management methods and modernize IT security. Critically, the GC needs to develop secure, robust, elastic and modern enterprise network services that are aligned with current best practices and adaptable to future network requirements to support current and future GC workloads.

Investing in tools for ongoing flexibility

The adoption of collaborative tools across the GC has transformed the way public servants work. These tools provide the foundation for greater efficiencies and interoperability, and improved cooperation between public servants across various departments. Moving forward, public servants will be looking for the ability to seamlessly switch between work environments, with the flexibility to work from many locations. Making this a reality will require investments and commitment to maintain the recent pace of change and to implement considerable improvements across the GC IT landscape.

Maintaining collaboration and momentum

Now more than ever, we recognize the importance of modern, reliable delivery approaches to serve Canadians. The pandemic has forced the government to accelerate aspects of digital government, and these achievements would not have been possible had it not been for the remarkable support, collaboration and dedication of GC departments. Nevertheless, more work is required to maintain this momentum and capitalize on successes.

The pandemic response serves as a reminder of the interdependencies of all GC organizations and how it would not have been possible to achieve these successes without GC-wide support and collaboration. Moving forward, this support and collaboration is required to meaningfully advance digital government.

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