Speaking notes for the Honourable Scott Brison President of the Treasury Board to the Blueprint 2020 Innovation Fair


May 31, 2017


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I’m delighted to be here with you today, and I want to recognize of course my colleague Bill Morneau and my colleague Randy Boissonnault who are here with us today but also all of you. I found this really wonderful to be here last year for your Innovation Fair and I’m looking forward actually to getting around to the departments and agencies once the house rises to actually get to know what you’re doing out there, where you’re doing it, and to learn more about what we can do to innovate and better serve Canadians. 

Innovation is sometimes a word in government that we slap on things the way companies do with the terms “New and Improved,” on a can of soup or something. But the fact is what you’re doing here is you’re actually making it happen.

But the folks here at this Fair understand we need to give form and substance to innovation, not lip service.

And when we talk about innovation, we are often really talking about experimentation.

It is about trying a new idea, or method, or approach with the goal of serving Canadians better — and building into that new approach the ability to constantly refine, renew, update or reform it.

So what does experimentation really look like in government? Well, it can be something as simple as Canada Revenue Agency enabling auto-filling-in service for taxes to test its effectiveness.

Or at IRCC, texting people to notify them of their immigration screening and the status of it — that’s a pilot project that’s going on right now.

In the future, why not have an app where new Canadians can track their immigration process like you do when you buy a book on Amazon?

Canadians wonder in fact when you’re talking about government digital services, why they can’t get the same quality of digital services from their government that they’ve come to expect from Amazon when they buy a book.

These small innovations are effectively experiments, and the data we get from them will allow us to know what should be continued.

Speaking of digital, we cannot strengthen government services without strengthening digital services. It’s absolutely essential that our government raises its game in terms of digital services. If you can’t do digital, you can’t serve the public. And that’s why in Budget 2017, thank you Bill, it included funding for the Canadian Digital Service to modernize the way the Government of Canada designs and delivers digital services.

The fact is that the riskiest possible approach we can take as a government when it comes to digital or any area that involves disruption is to behave as we have done in the past ­— ironically, the most risk-averse approach is actually the riskiest. When we’re bound to how things have always been done, we will repeat mistakes of the past and particularly with the rapidity of change today — Cloud and Block chain and everything that is coming at us, we need to become, as government, more agile when it comes to digital.

We cannot meet the needs of a Netflix citizenry with a Blockbuster service model. We can do better and we will do better.

Industry already knows something about risk taking: they take small risks, they find   out what the best way is forward and that’s how you actually avoid the big catastrophes.

When it comes to government IT, old style approaches to procurement, and implementation have proven to be the riskiest.

In fact it was only a few years ago, in 2013, that the U.S. government launched HealthCare.gov — and on the first day almost 6 million people tried to register and  only six Americans successfully registered.

It was one of the biggest screw-ups in U.S. government IT history, and it led to a massive digital reformation by the Obama administration: it caused them to reprioritize government IT and digital services and they formed 18 F and U.S. Government Digital Services.

At that time the tech industry dubbed them “Obama’s Geeks.” They were digital disrupters and innovators from across government, and the private sector from across the U.S. and around the world who were brought together to rise to the challenge.

In the future perhaps we’ll call Canadian Digital Services “Trudeau’s Techies.”

But the fact is we believe CDS can become a magnet and hub for digital talent across the Government of Canada.

That’s the promising model that is currently going on today in the UK, the U.S., Ontario and Australia.

Last week when we were in London, we met with some of the leaders of the U.K. government digital services — the founders, the pioneers who got it started.  One of them told me at one of the meetings that Canada won’t be the first government digital services in the world, but you have the opportunity to be the best. That, my friends, is exactly what we’re going to be. We are going to be the best in the world in delivering government digital services.

Last week I actually became the first minister of any government to go to the U.K. school, The Digital Academy, to take the course called “Hands on for Agile Leaders.” I mention that because none of the U.K. ministers have done it. But I was there because I wanted to learn, because if we’re going to as a government raise our game, it means that as ministers we need to raise our game as well in terms of understanding digital services. I learned things about the importance of agile procurement. No more 200-page RFPs. Instead, bake-offs and competitions. No more blind marriages with big IT providers, instead constant dating. In fact, the blind marriage idea, you know you get into it, then two years in you discover they’re not satisfying you, you’re not satisfying them. You both oversold a little bit…{laughter} Sorry, I’m not uh…We’re talking about in terms of procurement, digital procurement, more show and less tell, more focus on working prototypes that we really see what a company or provider can do, more competition and more agile providers.

The fact is governments have to change in this rapidly changing world or we’re going to get left behind. Our relevance to citizens is in jeopardy if we don’t get this right. And today in this room, you are proving that we have the capacity individually and collectively to get innovation right.      

Smart use of technology is only part of the innovation story. 

When I think of what we can do in the future, I’m actually very excited about this.

Earlier today we saw a short video about our pilot project on new “generic terms and conditions for innovative uses of grants and contributions.”

What a cool, exciting title my friends.

Now, while the title is dull as hell, what it stands for is actually very exciting.

We’re going to incent and reward public servants, departments and agencies to try new things, to experiment across government. When I was here a year ago, I used the term “intelligent risk taking” and I thought about it after I gave that speech. When you say “intelligent risk taking,” what you’re really saying is people take risks as long as they work out. I want to actually push you to experiment, to try new things and to share with us not only the successes but also the failures so we can learn together. When we actually have contests and when we reward experimenters and people who will push the envelope and try new things, that is going to make it clear that this government is very serious about innovation and about rewarding the kind of pioneering we need to get government right.

For instance, imagine Health Canada offering a prize to researchers who can meet the challenge of developing a new vaccine or an approach to tackle emerging infectious diseases. 

So what’s the benefit?

It makes it much easier to experiment, in search of better outcomes.

So we’re going to actually be encouraging public servants across the Government of Canada to try new things, to experiment, to share those experiences with us. In fact, we’re making it fun.

We’re launching a gamified dashboard on GCpedia where we’ll see how departments are using these new tools.

There’s a kiosk here where you can ask questions about that and get engaged in it.

I will be personally engaged, and I can’t wait to see and learn from the experiments and the new ideas.

Right now at Treasury Board and across government we are testing a big idea in terms of “name-blind recruiting,” where candidates’ names and other identifiers are removed from job applications to eliminate “unconscious bias” during the screening process.

Because we know that more diversity builds a better public service.

And we know that a person’s name should never be a barrier to employment with the Government of Canada.

The government needs more employees with a diversity of views, experiences, backgrounds, orientations and ideas to better reflect and serve this diverse country on key public-policy issues.

I can’t tell you exactly what this pilot project will find; that’s the thing about experimentation. We take risks, we will learn and we will follow the best way forward.

Risk, rewards, results. That’s the road to innovation.

I want to personally hear your ideas for public service innovation, ideas to better serve Canadians. And I am inviting you to send them to me, through my Twitter account @ (at) scottbrison or my Scott Brison Facebook page. No idea is too big or too small to share.

I want the same type of energy, excitement and experimentation in our Government of Canada offices that you might see at a Shopify or an Amazon.

To all Canadians, to young Canadians, to all current and to future public servants, our government’s message is clear.

Unlike Shopify, we can’t give you stock options. But what we can offer you is something much bigger — the opportunity to paint on a bigger canvass, to build a better Canada.

Let’s work together to build the most diverse, digital and dynamic public service ever, to better serve Canadians.

Thank you very much.

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