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Don't Forget About the Plumbing (with Honey Dacanay)
Episode 145th January 2024 • Let's Think Digital • Think Digital
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How do we get stuff done? If there’s a broader theme for this season of the podcast, it’s that. How do we get unstuck from the mud that we seem to be in, and get on with actually realizing our digital ambitions in government?

It would be easy to chase the next big digital technology. But this episode we're talking about why need to pay attention to the "plumbing." We have to think about the underlying infrastructure and the need to make upfront investments to identify and fix the deep structural problems in government that prevent us from achieving the ambitious vision of what a modern government should look like. It’s the unsexy, behind the scenes things that really holds us back.

Joining us this week to talk about this is Honey Dacanay. She is the Director-General of Policy and Performance at the Office of the Government of Canada’s Chief Information Officer at Treasury Board Secretariat. She joined the federal government in 2019 taking on roles initially in the Canada School of Public Service and then Service Canada, bringing her experience from serving in the Province of Ontario where she was one of the co-founders of the Ontario Digital Service. She’s also a Professor of Practice at McMaster University where she teaches about digital government in their Master of Public Policy in a Digital Society program. And in 2019 Honey was named one of Apolitical’s 100 Most influential people in Digital Government.

Watch on Youtube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=txKiN8I72K0

Chapters

00:04 Introduction and Welcome

02:45 Honey Dacanay

04:31 The Need for Upfront Investment in Digital Teams

18:33 Teaching the Next Generation of Leaders

20:36 The Importance of Public Administration in Digital Transformation

29:55 Closing Remarks and Reflections

Transcripts

Ryan 0:04

ned the federal government in:

Honey Dacanay 2:52

Thanks for having me here.

Ryan 2:53

So we met years ago when you were in the Ontario government, you were there in the early days of the Ontario Digital Service being formed.

Honey Dacanay 3:03

That's right.

Ryan 3:03

We were getting the Canadian Digital Service stood up and you've had an interesting career working in the provincial government. You've now been in the federal government for the last few years. And you're also teaching at McMaster University and trying to help the next generation of policy leaders come up. You know, I'm curious for you to maybe just kind of share a little bit about you know, your, your background, and kind of what you've been seeing over the last 10 years or so was like the big trends in what we call digital government.

Honey Dacanay 3:31

Where do I begin? So I, a career public servant, or now it feels that way. And I also had been in the digital space, probably for 10 to 12 years. And I mentioned that because probably half my career was technically either waiting for digital teams to exist or working in machinery of government in one form or another. And I do notice more than ever is just the overwhelming urgency and just the deficit, that governments are sort of sort of letting happen. By not addressing some of the things that are basically broken, digital or not happening, I think it's just the gap between policy delivery and evaluation. Fundamentally, it's those gaps where all the cracks are really, really starting to show.

Ryan 4:29

Yeah, and you know, we're here at the Forward 50 conference in Ottawa, recording this interview. And I think there's been a theme of that coming up in a lot of the conversations that have happened, right, and you're giving a presentation here about this very issue, right? You know, and around how, I mean, if I can put my words you know, there's been a sense of almost like the digital government movement getting stuck, because like, because I think back to like, you know, 7-8-10 years ago, there seems to be all of this momentum around these new digital government teams coming in. And, you know, a lot of ambition about what could happen. And it feels like, you know, some of that has kind of like hit up against reality, and we're maybe not where we want to be. I mean, curious if you kind of share that and your thoughts on maybe why that's been happening,

Honey Dacanay 5:14

etter for less narrative from:

Ryan 6:16

Yeah. Because, because I was interested to just ask you about what those first impressions were right, you know, on on that transition? And I mean, I guess maybe, you know, both in your transition, you know, coming in to working on digital in Ontario and now coming into the feds. So I guess there's a sense that there is some, like leapfrogging that has to happen or, you know, in order to try get us to where we need to be or basic plumbing maybe is is a better way of putting it.

Honey Dacanay 6:42

Yes. So in Ontario, before the Ontario Digital Service existed, there was a team at essentially, at the Office of the CIO, 10 years before that, that centralized like shared services. So for my entire career in the Ontario Public Service, I had a single email that followed me from one department to the next. I never had to worry that my pay would get compromised every two weeks. And things that are just part of the water I just took for granted, because that was the experience. And by the time the Ontario Digital Service was created, there was also a like, this was also built on top of the team that developed ontario.ca, which was a single channel for the Government of Ontario at the time, on open source technology designed around content that people were searching for. And it was a there was public appetite to make that difference and confidence internally that we can make this happen. There was also a recognition of capacity required at the line departments. There were also some IT failures in Ontario, that involved Auditor General reports. So one involving like, I guess, case management systems, and....

Ryan 7:06

It was, was it SAMS was one of them? The Social Assistance Management System. Yep.

Honey Dacanay 8:13

And then the Child Protection Information Network.

Ryan 8:13

Right.

Honey Dacanay 8:14

The case management is the same case management system.

Ryan 8:18

Which are also glaring because they're dealing with people who are very vulnerable, right?

Honey Dacanay 8:23

Exactly. And catastrophic consequences, because of the things that went wrong. So missed welfare payments, as well as people not ending up in the right foster homes or ending up in places where they shouldn't be. And now, one unreported part about that, that I love to talk about is, as a result of that, like that particular department now, that was responsible for it has invested significantly in developing digital and data capacity within the department. And so the Ministry of Children, community social services has the most sophisticated digital data analytics team that, in the Government of Ontario right now.

Ryan 9:08

Oh, wow.

Honey Dacanay 9:09

And it's not written about enough.

Ryan 9:11

Yeah.

Honey Dacanay 9:11

And I think that that should be written about more, because it created an appetite for that change. So it could happen as a result of something really bad happening. Or it could also grow as the expectation evolves, because at the end of the day, too, I mean, another recurring theme of this conference, is essentially a quote from John Paulgov, which is what government ultimately needs to keep up with is not technology, but people and their changing expectations. And their diminishing trust even in tech and other institutions. And so who else is left to care about them?

Ryan 9:52

And, you know, it's this makes me wonder, I mean, this is a really, this is very interesting, you know, example of an agency as you were mentioning, in Ontario that went through a big crisis, big failure, as a result, now has a leading practice. I mean, we've seen this with like, you know, the healthcare.gov example that always has talked about in the US, which was the impetus for the US Digital Service and 18F to get created. I mean, do you think crisis is necessary? Like, do we have to have a crisis to be able to make progress in this digital modernization space?

Honey Dacanay:

It never hurts. But it also, I don't think it needs to be that way. I guess if you care about the actual outcome, for people at the end of the day organize around it, that is probably still the most powerful thing that you can do, like no matter what's happening in government, regardless of any sort of, like whoever is on the political side, regardless of any stripe, like they would always care about, what's the impact on people.

Ryan:

Right.

Honey Dacanay:

And I think they're able to ask about that in terms that aren't as flowery or abstract. One of the favorite stories I love to tell is in Ontario, when we first published the Ontario Digital Standard, one of the instincts, of course, is to, let's require that out of like the Treasury Board submission at a cabinet policy document. At the time, the Ontario Digital Service was at Cabinet Office. So, Oh, yeah, we could totally just insert a question and a template and around... meanwhile, going wait, do they even know what we're talking about? And so let's take our medicine, let's do some visa research, and actually understand what policy advisors think about, and then what to ask what ministers think about just so that, you know, we can compare and contrast. And so we asked the public policy advisors and everybody was shepherding submissions to cabinet to tell us what do you think is the most important part, a cabinet submission? So the policy advisors said, I need to worry about the legislative impact, the financial impact, how we're going to operationalize this communication, stakeholder impact. Textbook, public policy, they've covered all the angles. Yes, we asked the ministers, and they essentially just had the one answer, what's the impact on people? And how do I explain it to somebody who's not in government? If somebody was asking me that, What does this mean for me? And I'm this done that, of course, need there is no overlap between the two answers, which I know in my heart of hearts is not true. The truth of the matter is that public servants come in thinking they make, they're going to make a difference. But the day job is, I'm going to do my part in the machine. And somehow the public good gets abstracted so much.

Ryan:

Right.

Honey Dacanay:

And I think that's probably what we need to undo a little.

Ryan:

Yeah, well, and I think, you know, two things is one that gets more challenging at the higher level of government, you get right, you know, like, at the municipal level, I think people sometimes just get a little bit more focused on what people need, because of the nature of the work they're doing is much closer to citizens. Whereas, you know, you get the provincial government, you're one level above that federal government are even a more abstracted in most cases, which I think can be really challenging around it. And it's, it's really interesting, this dichotomy between politicians and the public servants, right? Because I think, you know, sometimes in my mind, we don't actually think about the political dimension of this enough. And actually, my sense is like most politicians are actually very attuned to that user centricity because of the nature of their role, they have to directly interface with the public all the time, right?

Ryan:

I want to challenge the idea that the federal mandate is abstract.

Ryan:

Please!

Honey Dacanay:

It's just so easy to hide behind that as a reason to well, it's not really our responsibility. Because the thing is, the issues that we are faced with now, do not have borders, like climate change is going to hit us. And it's not going to be one order of government problem. And it's going to affect us in very tangible ways. I think that us not having it and us as citizens, us as having family members or people in society. I think that's a problem across orders to government, and the public doesn't care which order government is responsible for what but somehow, the orders of government need to get over themselves a little, for lack of a better or more elegant way of saying it.

Ryan:

Yep.

Honey Dacanay:

It's all hands on deck.

Ryan:

Yeah.

Honey Dacanay:

And the truth is people's needs, in some cases transcend sort of the borders of our organization.

Ryan:

Yeah. It's a great point, Honey. And I think you're right, that I mean, we're dealing with such complex, like, cross jurisdictional issues these days. That yeah, from a citizen perspective, they don't care. You know, and a lot of the kind of federal system we've set up in Canada that division of powers and responsibilities, I mean, to be frank this was done, you know, over a century and a half ago in a very different world, for sure. And it's, it's, I mean, I always kind of feel we have these very, like creaky systems that were set up hundreds of years ago under very different assumptions. And it's kind of like we're trying to do the best we can with what we've got. But like, clearly, if we had a whiteboard, we would not design government to look like it does today, right?

Honey Dacanay:

Definitely, yeah. No, I wouldn't know how I would design it like, I don't. I don't know what that would look like to start over. Yeah, I think that the closest I would get is what do we need to do? And I think that the public service side, it's always about what do we do now and like, in the time, we have, and always sort of having that imagination around, like, and have that interesting relationship with time too. Which I think I feel like the public service now has such a short term horizon, when they think about their future, or they've stopped becoming, or somehow I don't hear it so much anymore, like this whole stewardship of the longer term or passing this on to the next generation and preparing them, or trying to worry about how this will shape the future. To come for better or worse, and how to actually worry about the various trade offs because we're always in the trade offs business, like who's going to win or loose? And how do we ameliorate some things for people who might end up on the losing side? I mean, not at the same scale. But probably in comparison today, in terms of the speed at which things are changing, thinking about when the rail car was introduced, and the motor vehicles were introduced. I think about Ontario, for example, and I forget if it was 1915, or 1920. There, anyhow, the Department of Transportation was created. And their mandate was to, like rethink the province as connected by a series of highways. And I'm pretty sure at the, on a parallel side, like the Government of Canada was also thinking about, what does that mean for like, to connect? Like, again, the national railway system, right? Like, like, how do we connect across and worry about who's gonna get excluded based on where we pick these routes?

Ryan:

Yeah.

Honey Dacanay:

I think that's always that, I guess that mandate to not leave anybody behind is always an ever present dilemma.

Ryan:

Yeah, you know, it's I've never thought before about that particular kind of jump from like rail, anyway rail was so foundational to the beginning of this country, that jumped to roads must have been a dramatic difference, right? Because even most of the major cities in Canada, they, their, their creation was driven by the railroad.

Honey Dacanay:

Exactly.

Ryan:

Right. And we've now been living through these last two decades, this kind of next jump on connection, where it's kind of divorced from Geography, in a sense.

Honey Dacanay:

Exactly.

Ryan:

But has some pretty profound implications around that. Yeah. And I love this notion of stewardship. I think this notion of time horizon that you were talking about, you know, the that we tend to get increasingly very caught in the short cycles, which you could argue, I think, is in part because of like the media landscape we're in, the social media world we're in, all those pressures, and being able to think about like, what are those next generations look like? How do we leave a lasting legacy? So I'm interested to ask you, because some of the work you're doing is actually trying to help shape that next generation and in the teaching work that you're doing with McMaster in their Master's of Public Policy Program. I'm curious to kind of get, you know, your impression, because you're working with students who are, you know, coming into their career, or, you know, many of them, I suspect, looking to come into government to have an impact. What is their viewpoint on this? Are they optimistic? Are they worried about the future? What's your sense of kind of what that next generation of policy and government and service leaders look like?

Honey Dacanay:

What I love about students in general is that they are bold enough to ask more of government and more of the institutions in society. One thing I need to say about this program is that it's quite different from the other public policy, public admin programs in that it's fashioned as a master's degree in public policy in a digital society. And then the course I'm co-teaching is likely the only government related one. So I think the hope is that wherever they end up, whether in government or in a think tank or in the private sector, they are thinking about these things at scale, because I also think that government is one actor. There are many others that need to be worried about these issues and working together. I know... so I think, Jake...

Ryan:

Yes

Honey Dacanay:

and Bryce are on...

Ryan:

Jacob and Bryce are both they do policy analyst works with our team. They have been on the podcast in last season, because we did a, we did some work around artificial intelligence in the public sector, both graduates of that program.

Honey Dacanay:

That's right.

Ryan:

And both great role models for I think, you know, as two, two young guys coming out who wanted to have an impact on public policy, but to your point, they didn't necessarily want to become public servants right away. Right, but still felt that they could contribute to public policy issues in a non direct way.

Honey Dacanay:

So there's one feature of this program that's, I find kind of interesting, in that everybody wants to work on public policy. Nobody wants to work on public admin. And that is also a troubling trend, to be honest. And I mean, that was true, even when I was in Ontario, like in the Government of Ontario, if you work in corporate policy, it's slow motion career death.

Ryan:

Yep.

Honey Dacanay:

Because of that's like, the boring IT roles or the boring HR roles or the procurement roles. But we're in an age where things that are broken internally are gonna manifest in devastating ways.

Ryan:

Yes.

Honey Dacanay:

For people on the outside, and I think that taking an interest in public admin, and actually fixing those things at their core. Yeah, those are structural problems.

Ryan:

Yes.

Honey Dacanay:

Need to... that's one big thing that we need to actually really address.

Ryan:

Yeah, and I don't know if that's new because I mean, maybe I'm just a weirdo. I probably am. But like back when I was, no, because when I was doing my public policy degree, I did my undergraduate degree at Carleton University in their Bachelor of public affairs and policy management program. And so there was, if I remember right, six or seven different specializations. And like, everybody wants to do international affairs, you know, or there was ones around kind of like social policy or other like policy areas. But then there was public administration as like a core one.

Honey Dacanay:

Yes.

Ryan:

And I wanted to do that, because I was super excited about like, the deep structural stuff. But there was like four of us out of a class of 60, who picked that specialization. And then to your point, everybody wanted to get really driven by the bigger kind of social issues. But to me, and I think you're kind of in the same boat, like, actually, those plumbing issues to me are so interesting. Because if you don't get that right, kind of none of the other stuff matters in the end.

Honey Dacanay:

Exactly. And the, I guess, the unfortunate part, to be honest, is that's where you could apply so much creativity. I mean, that's where all the hacks happen. That's where all the structural changes can add up and then we introduce interruptions or it can make things accelerate or actually slow things down, at like, in this space, in particular, and it's so untapped. I think that the creative energy around it is actually like a good... that's where the change can happen.

Ryan:

Yep.

Honey Dacanay:

And I still see that potential.

Ryan:

Yep.

Honey Dacanay:

And it's still untapped, even by our own community.

Ryan:

Yes, absolutely. I mean, you're at Treasury Board Secretariat now, federally, I spent, you know, seven or eight years of my career at Treasury Board Secretariat. And I always saw it, actually, I mean, a lot of people dread it, right. They're like, I would never want to work at TBS, I don't want to be the central agency. But I actually think that to your point, it's a huge platform to actually impact change across the system. And I, you know, we, I mean, to kind of what you're saying, we've got to find a way to make public administration sexy again, you know, and because I think, you know, that in a big hierarchical system, that's in my mind, that's where some of the levers are to actually make some of these things happen throughout the system.

Honey Dacanay:

Exactly. I think, Treasury Board itself, that's where you can make things possible. And then you can create community around it, you normalize the things that aren't kind of that would seem fringe are just sort of a flash in the pan thing, and you could actually make a lot of things mainstream. And then the last bit around that is you could change the incentives, and then finally, hopefully require it.

Ryan:

Yes.

Honey Dacanay:

I guess, one fall is that everybody kind of starts with and then stops at the require-it playbook.

Ryan:

I do think that's a real challenge, right is like, and this is not just federal government, I think a lot of government, a lot of governments they kind of you know, the the central machinery, often views its job is just kind of create a policy document, putting it up on the website. And the real magic is that follow-up, right, on how do you actually educate people, I love that term of normalize it, right? Normalize these new behaviors and actually incentivize them to move around that. You know, the one other thing I wanted to ask you about, and I think kind of linked to this is, is this notion of kind of ambition because a lot of this change-making, like on a personal level, requires people to not just have ambition but to sustain ambition over time. And you've written about this, I've seen you talk about this before, of just like sometimes how difficult it is, when you're in these big machines, to kind of sustain that ambition over time. I mean, what's your... what's your advice for people you know, who might be listening, that are like in the trenches right now, they want government to work more effectively, but it's tough for them to see the end in sight.

Honey Dacanay:

Daphnee Nostrom at the conference yesterday, said it much better than I did in that business, a multigenerational kind of investment, and you do your part while you're here. I subscribe to the personnel as policy, that sort of, like I find and create, and foster leaders or I can amplify their work. And I do believe that it takes having as many allies as possible, creating communities, and honestly, lifting others while you're here. And that's how I know that even like, like, I don't have any, I don't pin any of those hopes, sort of, okay, I'm going to be the one that will kind of drive through this thing with my sledgehammer and be superheroes style, sort of, kind of saving the day for government. And yeah, honestly, like a my ambition for government, I'd like to think that my ambition for government working better for people is that honestly, like, government exists for people and for better society for all. So I think that how do we set up this institution to be able to make those choices very wisely, in an equitable way? And in a way that actually benefits everybody?

Ryan:

Yeah. And I think it's an important leadership lesson right around that notion of how do you, how do you be a leader in a selfless way? Because I think we've got a lot of traditional leadership paradigms that can be very kind of like strong leader driven. And we see that sometimes in government, right, they like to me, it's actually surprising how much a single senior leader can for good or for bad shape the organization. But I worry that the problem with that is, as soon as that person leaves, even if they're doing great stuff, it all kind of disappears with them, right? And I forget, I think it might have been Woodrow Wilson who said that, like you can do anything, as long as you don't want to take credit for it.

Honey Dacanay:

That's probably true.

Ryan:

And I think there's some truth to that, but like, but, you know, I think being able to kind of it's a different style of leadership than I think, perhaps that we're used to. And, and, you know, I think the ability to foster that is one of the real challenges.

Honey Dacanay:

It's hard because we're all raised on a diet of gold stars... a gift. And that's the other bright, like, almost, well, the majority of public servants come in, essentially, with graduate degrees. And there is that notion of you're competing, you're getting straight A's at school, you're the one who just followed all the instructions. And it's very oriented around individual achievement, and beating everybody, when you're supposed to be thinking about this in terms of how do we work together, which one will win, or will actually has the best chance, which idea has the best chance of having the greatest outcome for people and the best outcome for people rather than, and or maybe what about your some one person's idea, combined with this other person's idea, can actually come up with something even better, like that integrated kind of approach is not yet normalized. And I think that that's probably what it's new for people, like it's take some getting used to.

Ryan:

And it takes, you know, as we've talked about in the past, like shifting the incentives and the culture of the organization to reward that and to recognize it. And it's a process, and I'm appreciative of the work that you do to help move that process along, so.

Honey Dacanay:

A lot of us, it's...

Ryan:

No, it's, it's, I mean, I think events like this are always encouraging to kind of reconnect with that community of people who are kind of pushing for this and agitating for it in different ways. But appreciate your leadership on this. And I think it's been, you know, wonderful to kind of see you kind of, you know, do this work in Ontario, bring some of that perspective and wisdom to the federal government and, and do work with, with kind of the next generation coming in. So, so thank you, Honey, for all your work in this area.

Honey Dacanay:

Thank you.

Ryan:

Great to have you on the podcast and look forward to staying in touch.

Ryan:

Okay, me too.

Ryan:

Thanks. I know, compared to the flashy tech that's out there like artificial intelligence to the metaverse, the administration of government may seem a little dry. But believe me, time and time again, I have seen great ideas to modernize government fail, because we haven't made the necessary investment in that basic plumbing that makes the machine work. So thanks to Honey for joining us on the podcast to talk about that. And also to talk about her work teaching the next generation of leaders. As Honey said, these investments are sometimes multigenerational, and we have to think long term. Small actions today can have big impacts in the future. And that's the show for this week. Tell us what you think. How are you finding these live onsite interviews at Forward 50? If you're watching on YouTube, tell us in the comments below. Email us at podcast@thinkdigital.ca or use the #letsthinkdigital on social media. And while you're at it, make sure to like and subscribe. If you're listening to us on your favorite podcast app and you liked this episode, be sure to give us a five star review afterwards. And remember to go to letsthinkdigital.ca and sign up for our newsletter and to catch up on past episodes of the podcast. Today's episode of Let's Think Digital was produced by myself, Wayne Chu and Aislinn Bornais. Thanks so much for listening and let's keep thinking digital.

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