Honourable Scott Brison, President of the Treasury Board presentation at TEDxMoncton


April 14, 2018

Transcript - Democratic government. Is there an app for that? Scott Brison - TEDxMoncton.

Ever wonder what happens after you die?

Well, in Canada the government gets a fax.

You remember faxes, don’t you?

My twin daughters don’t even know what a fax is.

But they do know what an iPad is.

The other day, I had them watching the Sound of Music – you know “Do Re Mi” and “So Long, Farewell” – on my iPad while I was making them breakfast.

After 30 seconds I suddenly hear “Paw Patrol, Paw Patrol, whenever you’re in trou-ble…”

The girls had swiped away Julie Andrews and swiped in their favourite show.

If Apple can design something so intuitive that my 4 year olds can find exactly what they want in about 30 seconds, why can’t government design websites that grownups can navigate?

After all, Government exists to improve the lives of people.

Modern Digital gives us more power to do that than at any point in our history.

So getting digital government right actually means more than just great government services.

After more than 20 years in public service, I believe that digital has the potential to help restore people’s faith in government to serve them, to listen to them, to understand and to respond to their needs.

Today more than ever, companies and governments need to understand their core purpose.

Otherwise, they’ll be irrelevant before they know it.

Again – government’s purpose is to improve the lives of citizens.

Blockbuster – remember them? -- thought their purpose was to make it easy for you to pick up videos at a store in your neighbourhood.

Now Netflix actually started by delivering DVDs to your door.

Netflix understood that both companies were in the business of delivering entertainment.

And that people wanted entertainment at their fingertips, and they didn’t care how it got there.

So when digital delivery changed the game, Netflix was ready. 

Blockbuster wasn’t even on the field.

We can’t be a Blockbuster government serving a Netflix citizenry.

Government – unlike Netflix -- is not a start-up.

So how can we create that digital start-up mindset in government?

Well, successes often start with big failures.

On October 1, 2013, the U.S. Government launched Obamacare.

On that day, 4.7 million Americans tried to register on healthcare.gov.

Only 6 people succeeded.

It was one of the biggest government IT screwup ever.

In response, President Obama adhered to the adage you should “Never waste a good crisis.”

He effectively created a digital start-up right inside the Government of the United States.

18F and US Digital Government Services was formed – bringing in some of the best talent from Silicon Valley -- not just to tackle government IT problems, but to harness the digital to serve citizens better.

That same model has been taken up by governments in the UK, in Ontario and, over the last year, by the Government of Canada.

These startups understand the power of digital.

  • To empower clients to shape their services to their needs – in the digital world, they call that user-centric
  • It allows you to try new things, to learn as you go -- what techies call agile or iteration.
  • And the more you share, the more you gain – you put it all out there – that’s what’s known as open data and open source.

Let’s start with people.

Amazon didn’t just take the process of buying a book and move it online.

They harnessed the power of digital information to improve their customer’s experience.

That’s where you get personalized recommendations based on your last purchases, or those of similar shoppers.

This is a way that digital really adds value to the relationship.

Done right, digital should help citizens shape their government services.

Every time you interact with your government should be an opportunity for the government to learn how its services can better fit your needs.

Think about it. Why can’t you get the same quality of service when you renew your passport that you get when you buy something from Amazon?

I want to give you an example of where a small government change can make a big impact.

Last year, Canadians made almost 100,000 formal requests for information – Access to Information requests -- from the Government of Canada.

About half of all these information requests come from people checking on the status of immigration applications.

And a lot of those were just people confirming that the government had received their application.

Solution? Put a bar code on applications, so when they come in, the applicants are automatically notified by text or email.

That’s a small change that makes a big difference for a lot of people.

Now just imagine a future with a secure Digital App where people can learn about the rules for immigrating to Canada, complete their application and track the whole process online, just like they track an Amazon delivery.

So compared to that big future vision, the bar code pilot may seem like a small thing, but it’s actually a new way of doing things for government.

It’s something that startups do all the time: Start small and scale up.

Startups know that digital allows you to start small, build a prototype , put it in the hands of users – and then you make changes based on their experiences.

The third thing startups do and governments have trouble embracing is working in the open.

Open by default is also probably the most powerful way that digital can reboot the relationship between government and citizens.

Whose life today was improved by open government data?

Well, if you checked your weather App, or if you Googled a destination, you were tapping into the power of open government data. That’s what fuels those Apps.

Now what’s really powerful is if you combine open data with open source and you get smart people inside and outside of government sharing data, ideas and tools – in real time – all with the shared purpose of improving people’s lives.

That power of open collaboration wasn’t even possible a few year ago.

Now before we can truly embrace this new digital mindset, we’ve got to bust some myths that are holding us back, road blocks on the path to digital.

I’m going to list three.

One: That digital is less secure than analog.

Two: That citizens prefer bricks and mortar service centres.

Three: that somehow digital services won’t help low-income citizens.

Myth #1 is that somehow digital information is less secure than analog, making people nervous about using it.

That myth doesn’t square with the fact that 90% of Canadians do their taxes online and that 68% of Canadians do “most” of their banking digitally.

You ever hear of Estonia?  Well in 30 years it’s gone from soviet state to “Digital Republic” according to The New Yorker.

Everybody there has a government Digital ID, and they use it for everything.

If a government employee checks your digital record, you’re notified by text or email. The public servant who looks at your record better have a legitimate reason.

Because if they don’t, they’ll be sanctioned – they could lose their job or face criminal charges.

Think about it – when was the last time a government employee checked your file?

Fact is, you don’t know.

The second myth is that Canadians prefer bricks and mortar service deliver. If that were really true, Blockbuster would still be in business -- and Netflix wouldn’t have 7 million Canadian customers.

Closely related to that myth is the one that seniors really don’t do digital.

Albeit, that might be the case for my 94-year-old father, but then again he never really got a handle on the microwave oven either.

But my inlaws – Max’s parents’ – they’re in their mid-seventies.

They bank online, email, text, facetime with grandkids, shop online, often for Rose and Claire.

They’re too busy living in a digital world to think about driving their car to a Government office during regular office hours, taking a number and waiting. And they certainly don’t want to be on the end of a phone listening to government muzak.

And then there’s Mr. Esmond Alcock living out in Saskatchewan.  At 108 years old, he’s the oldest man in Canada.

Now he recently had his birthday party, but his 78 year-old son Dale couldn’t make it.

But don’t worry … they Facetimed instead.

They Facetime every single day, in fact.

Myth #3 is that vulnerable Canadians or low-income citizens lack digital connectivity.

The fact is there are 24 million smart phone users in Canada, and the numbers are growing every year. If you take kids out of the mix, that’s pretty much everybody.

There’s free wifi in coffee shops, fast food restaurants, libraries, malls, seniors centres, homeless shelters; far more locations than the Government could ever offer.

Another thing is that in the past, and even today, the main point of contact today between the Government and citizens is through your physical address – your home address.

Well, guess what? If you’re precariously employed, you probably precariously housed. And if you’re couch surfing, you don’t really have a home address.

But you do probably have a digital address -- a cell number or an email that stays with you for years, maybe your whole lifetime.

I’d actually make the case that our most vulnerable stand to benefit the most from good digital.

Let me give you an example.

For years, the Federal Government has tried to boost uptake of the Canada Learning bond.

It kick-starts low income families’ savings for post-secondary education.

It’s free money!

But it’s estimated that about 2/3 of those eligible don’t receive the benefit, leaving about $1 Billion unclaimed.

With digital, we can nudge those families receiving the Canada Child Benefit – that’s lifted 300,000 kids out of poverty -- to apply for the Canada Learning Bond.

So what does this digital future look like?

Well first of all, Canadian funeral homes shouldn’t have to send faxes to the government anymore when somebody dies.

Digitizing death notifications is the type of thing that’s doable in the short term.

But … I think we can be even more ambitious.

I think we should aspire to provide great digital services to citizens *while they’re still alive.

In fact, digital government can, and already is, saving lives.

The government has developed a network of public information sharing across the world to help predict and prepare for outbreaks of infectious diseases.

By sharing all sorts of data – from emergency room records to weather patterns – we can communicate risks to the public and take action earlier to save lives.

And here in Canada, we’re using artificial intelligence to save lives.

We’re using public social media posts to detect possible health risks in children’s toys.

If parents start complaining online about toys malfunctioning, Health Canada can detect the trend and follow up with the manufacturer before a formal complaint is even made.

Now, we’ve talked about digital at the end of your life, we’ve talked about saving lives. What about digital just making life better?

In Estonia, citizens are automatically enrolled in benefits and services without having to apply.

In Denmark and the UK, people’s taxes are filled in automatically. You get an email once a year telling you how your return was calculated. If you have an issue, you can raise it then, but if it all looks good you can file instantly. Imagine filing your taxes in a couple of minutes from your phone while you’re on the bus to work.

Now sometimes when I talk about the potential of digital government to restore the relationship with citizens, I get asked by colleagues: “Do you really think we can do this digital stuff?”

My response is: “That’s kind of like asking can we really do this breathing stuff?”

In 2018, you’re either digital or you’re dead.

If a company fails to get digital right, it’s out of business.

If a government fails to get digital right, it’s out of touch.

If citizens aren’t well-served by government, they lose trust in government – all government.

Because if they can’t trust government to do the basics really well, how can they trust it to do the big things right?

Imagine a digitally enabled future where there are no wait times, where you don’t even need to enroll for a service, it just automatically happens.  A future where young bright minds tap into government data to save lives, fuel new businesses and put services we haven’t yet imagined at our fingertips.

Government exists to improve the lives of citizens.

There ought to be an app for that.

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