Government projects can go off the rails, creep over budget, miss delivery dates, and result in both unhappy clients and vendors. Unfortunately, these are the IT stories that make the headlines over and over and yes, with projects like the Phoenix Pay system, they rightfully infuriate taxpayers everywhere, and nobody suffers more than the civil servants who miss cheques and spend countless hours “fixing” their pay. However, nobody ever hears of the many, successful and game changing Government projects that are implemented on time and within budget. They suffer media-wise from what I call the headline we never see “Plane Lands Safely” syndrome.
There have been a number of pandemic-related positive tech stories and we featured a selection of them on the Talent Development Centre. But perhaps there are none more impactful than that of the Federal Government’s ability to get benefits, most notably CERB and others related, in record time into the hands of many desperate Canadians as the economy screeched to a halt and layoffs mounted.
Hearing the stories from executives from both SSC and CRA about the incredible path towards getting benefits to Canadians in time of need in a record time, I feel the need to share that from an IT project implementation perspective, efforts like the CERB, wage subsidy and others would normally take at least 9-12 months. Instead in this case, they were mandated to be done in less than 3 weeks. These are just a few of the facts, stories and lessons learned in a huge government tech initiative that took place in people kitchens, basements and rec rooms, complete with the background sounds of dogs barking and kids crying as remote teams and resources got under way. The primary departments involved were SSC, CRA and CBSA.
Starting on March 13th, CRA had to work with partners like Cisco to get 20,000 then 40,000 and finally 60,000 employees plus many consultants secure remote access. Having just finished building the tax year platforms, they now had to build what they thought initially would be digital access to maybe 2 million people in 16 days.
With geography and workday in mind, work would begin early in the morning in the Maritimes, and then throughout the day to Ontario and Quebec, then the Prairies and BC, and back at night to workers in Ontario and Quebec. It was an all-out push to maximize effort.
With a primary team of 153 and many of their partners like IBM, Cisco, Oracle and many independent consultants, they would work in teams throughout the day with many meetings/calls focused on how to build system capacity to go from maybe 2 million people and then 4 million people. In reality, they had no idea how many would ultimately need to connect for the various benefits and subsidies.
23 different war rooms with 124 people were set up for conference calls and meetings representing the different service lines from SSC and all the applications needed with a common but near impossible goal of going live by April 6th!
Teams would literally build all day and test all night, working 24/7 and leveraging infrastructure from CBSA, performance testing to see if they could break the system.
Many went 2 months without a day off, working 16-hour days to deliver the biggest ever government program in 3 weeks. All of his was done in the middle of tax season where they had just built and were releasing new functionality, and all the while figuring out how to get everyone working from home securely.
What were some of the lessons learned by senior government executives intimately involved in this massive effort that were shared?
People — both consultants and employees — partners like IBM and other vendors, as well as sister departments SSC, CBSA were fantastic and true partners and are absolutely critical to success.
They learned they had a LOT of processes they did not need and dropped, focusing on making progress, not on mistakes. In doing so, they realized what processes were truly essential and which weren’t.
Massive cultural changes around, of course, the ability to work from home and collaborate seamlessly. Perhaps as we look to the future, the Feds may open hiring across Canada to get the best, as opposed to focusing on centralizing everyone in Ottawa and commuting to an office tower.
Secure remote access is now mission critical for nearly 100% of the Federal workforce and budgets will be moved towards that.
For many involved, it was a transformational and eye-opening experience and the most rewarding work they had ever done in their careers. It might change government for the good in the longer term.
Flattening the organization led to good and more critically quick decisions, adding trust and autonomy without adding risk.
With a stable network and a full build in less than 3 weeks, the CERB alone saw 6000 applicants in the first minute on April 6th,1,000,000 applicants the first day and in the few days following over 7,000,0000 million Canadians receiving their emergency benefits in 3 -5 days!
A truly remarkable Federal Government IT project success story that needs to be heard. Perhaps now the story and headline is: “Full Plane with a Half Engine in Hurricane Atmospherics and Two Hands Tied Behind Their Back… Lands Safely”