Canada lagging behind on digital government transformation: Feds’ new CIO

With a rapidly evolving tech landscape in front of him and public sector IT verging on archaic, Alex Benay has a big to-do list
Alex Benay
Captain of the ship: Alex Benay is the new chief information officer for the federal government. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

For more than two years, Alex Benay manned the helm of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corp. His role, he says, was largely to bring the artifacts, stories and exhibitions documenting our nation’s technological innovations into the modern era, and make the museum more accessible to today’s digital population.

Last month, though, he began a new role as chief information officer of the federal government. Now, Benay has a much bigger task ahead of him: Take the largest technological operation in the country – an aging one, at that – and set it on a course to serve Canadian citizens through the impending digital future.

Since he began the role in April, Benay – a 2016 Forty Under 40 award recipient – has been working 15-hour days. When he’s not bouncing between meetings on Parliament Hill and his home base at the nearby Jim Flaherty building on Elgin Street, his LinkedIn feed is filling up with sales pitches for a new piece of tech to streamline the business of government. At the end of the day, the father of two says he either passes right out or, if he’s lucky, plays a little hockey before starting the hectic routine again.

In an interview with Techopia (squeezed between two other meetings), Benay says he’s getting used to the schedule. While he admits to underestimating the scope of some parts of the job, he says the enormous scale of his work is the entire reason he took it on.

“I think the CIOs of the future in government have a chance to shape how we do government,” he says.

The role of the CIO, in both the public and private sector, is changing. At first, it meant being a provider of technology: ensuring fax machines were in every office and infrastructure was in place. Now, Benay says, it’s about being an enabler of business. Today, that means ensuring government can embrace the technology needed to operate in a digital world.

“Now it’s about, how do we engage with people, how do we collaborate more, how do we do things faster, how do we make people mobile, how do we process certain transaction points more quickly … The world is moving towards these things, and blockchain and AI, and then you’ve got government. So I think the role that I’ve inherited is about trying to bring a different lens to the technology landscape of government.”

A titanic IT department

As part of his CIO role, Benay works very closely with Shared Services Canada, the government’s tech consolidation arm, to ensure the biggest IT department in the country has the technology it needs to deliver services for Canadians.

The feds spend roughly $6 billion annually on IT between Shared Services and other departments, with around 17,000 people working on the tech side of government. Benay says many of these skillsets could “use a polish”: Discussions in government IT today largely revolve around background infrastructure and problems the public sector has been focused on for decades, not the priorities Benay sees the outside world moving towards.

“It’s almost like we look at that like it’s a bridge too far. It shouldn’t be.”

The challenge in pivoting Shared Services and the rest of government towards digital is immense. Think about it: A department that once focused on buying and maintaining servers across the government must make space for the cloud; the public servants who once had to design fillable forms may soon have to work alongside an artificial intelligence.

Benay compares his job to docking a ship in space: Even though he’s light-years away from his goal, he has to start lining the shuttle up now to get the trajectory right. Otherwise, he’ll miss his target and sail off into oblivion.

“You can’t just turn this thing on a dime. It’s the largest tech operation in the country.”

“You can’t just turn this thing on a dime. It’s the largest tech operation in the country.”

Benay is a staunch believer that the digital world is the real world, with no separation between the two. Society has moved away from hardware and into app- and software-based services in our mobile phones or AI assistants. As consumers – especially the millennial generation – we’re not differentiating between where digital ends and physical begins; the government shouldn’t either.

“If we don’t change how we do things, we will potentially become more and more obsolete,” Benay says. “It is a big gap, and it is growing.”

There are a number of contributors to this gap between the government and digital, Benay says, with institutional culture being a significant one. For example, he says the hesitation to allow for more third-party service delivery, often considered to be a bastion of the public sector, hinders the development of useful service apps.

Traditionalists are concerned about what happens when the government takes its hands off the wheel and allows private, more nimble partners to replace its role as a service provider. Benay is concerned about what happens if it doesn’t.

The man for the job

“I think someone called my background eclectic once. I’d like to consider it more diverse,” Benay says with a laugh.

Before his role at the museum, Benay spent nine years in the government working on IT and international trade files. He left after nearly a decade for a spin in the private sector at OpenText, where he worked on the firm’s public sector relations. There, he saw governments around the world that were excelling in digital and he realized how far behind his own country was falling.

“Canada needs a wake-up call in that space. We can be innovative in the public sector with digital.”

His work at the museum saw it become the world’s first open-by-default institution, a complicated process that now sees the organization automatically publish all internal documents for public consumption. The push for open-by-default, one Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has outlined in his mandate letters to Liberal ministers, is one that Benay supports.

While his background is certainly diverse, the path to his current role seems more clear to Benay.

“The goal at the museum, the goal at OpenText, the goal at all the other things, is one space: the physical and the digital,” he says.

In the next few months, Benay and his team will lay out a plan for his tenure. It’ll be a mix of discussions from his many meetings, his own experience in digital transformations, and what he sees around him in the digital landscape. The new CIO isn’t naive about the size of the challenge, and he’s not hoping to fix Canada’s entire tech gap in one fell swoop. He’s just hoping to get the ship on course, and a little closer to the target.

“It’s always, what’s the next move, what’s the next move, one step ahead, one foot in front of the next and moving things forward,” he says.

“If you do it right, the impacts could be really, really cool and meaningful to how we deliver services to Canadians.”

Alex Benay’s “diverse” background

Crown Corporation – Science and Technology Museums Corporation:

  • President and CEO, 2014-2017

Private Sector – OpenText:

  • Vice-president, 2011-14
  • Director, 2009-11

Public Sector – Government of Canada (various roles):

  • Canadian International Development Agency, 2003-09
  • Natural Resources Canada, 2001-03
  • Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 2000-01