The Honourable Scott Brison, President of the Treasury Board and Minister of Digital Government at the Government of Canada, was in Montréal on September 23 for the Global Progress 2018 Summit. Damien Silès, Executive Director of the Quartier de l’Innovation, met with the MP to better understand this government’s mission. Both men are passionate about digital innovation.
Damien Silès: The Quartier de l’Innovation’s mission is to cultivate an ecosystem of innovation with the support of residents, the private sector and academic partners. Digital development falls within our areas of expertise and interest. What is the definition of a digital government?
Scott Brison: As you know, digital technology now provides us with the means to improve people’s lives like never before. We can provide more than one digital service. This technology allows us to renew the relationship between residents and the government, to understand their needs and act accordingly. In many ways, the private sector is at the forefront of modernizing digital tools. As a result, people expect the same services when renewing their passports as those provided by a company such as Amazon. In our efforts in the government, it is important to take the right position because we see an opportunity to improve lives, especially those that are most vulnerable. In the past, we would connect Canadians to a physical address, but people in precarious situations, or without a fixed residence, didn’t have one. Nowadays, however, almost everyone has a phone or an email address, including the most vulnerable individuals. Free Wi-Fi is available in many establishments such as community centres and shelters. This realization fundamentally changed our way of managing digital projects. We can now put the user at the centre of our efforts. In fact, we receive help from international experts to optimize and modernize our digital tools.
« ...digital technology now provides us with the means to improve people’s lives like never before »
D.S.: The Quartier de l’Innovation shares this vision. Before being able to reach residents the way the private sector does, as you mentioned, the municipality realized that acquiring digital tools entails a long and complex process. Do you face this obstacle as well?
S.B.: Yes, of course. But changing the culture is even more challenging. Digital development requires innovation, which involves a certain amount of risk. Experimenting with this can lead to success or to failure, as we have seen in smart city and smart community projects. Given the kind of relationship we have with the population, the government generally doesn’t dare take risks.
Ironically, the most reckless actions are often the most successful, so we have to adapt and replace our cautious culture with one similar to companies, with their risk-taking. It’s not easy to do with a government, but it can be done.
D.S.: Would you consider it to be your greatest challenge?
S.B.: Yes, since most of these changes don’t happen overnight. Also, government hierarchy and structure are not conducive to flexibility. It’s stunning how much we divide people into departments and prevent them from working together and sharing their ideas and talents. We are aware of it, and changing this mentality is also part of our mission.
D.S.: Globally, where does Canada stand in terms of digital development?
S.B.: Canada recently joined the D7, a network made up of the seven leading digital governments in the world. We still have lots of work to do, but we are now known for our innovation in the field. We recently received the title of most “open” government worldwide. Our open-access data allows us to serve Canadians and also to help out other countries. For example, we work with other governments by sharing our public data to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. In this case, our preventive measures save lives here and abroad. Most of the time, people don’t realize the impact that data banks have on their lives. However, if you open a weather application or look up information on the internet, what you see may be provided by our country’s open-access data.
« ...we are now known for our innovation in the digital field »
D.S.: What, then, are the next steps for your department?
S.B.: We are working on increasing the number of digital services to reach all Canadians. As the second largest country, connecting to everyone can be quite a challenge. We will succeed by daring to take risks and continuously making more prototypes.
D.S.: Thank you very much and see you soon !