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“It’s the best role in Canada”

As Canada’s chief information officer and new MaRS board member, Catherine Luelo is working to accelerate the pace of innovation.

It’s been over a year since Catherine Luelo was appointed Canada’s chief information officer, and she’s still gracious about explaining just what exactly the job entails. “It’s a question my father asks me on a regular basis,” she says with a laugh.

It’s a long answer that befits the role’s extensive brief. As CIO, it’s Luelo’s job to bring Canada’s federal government into the digital age — inside and out. As such, she’s responsible for the overall technology planning for government, including strategy, approach and setting the technical standards. That’s just the “30,000-foot view” of the gig, which also includes the open government and access to information files as well as questions around citizen privacy.

Fortunately, Luelo loves a challenge, especially when the payoff for her efforts has the potential to benefit all Canadians. “I think it’s the best role in Canada.”

Luelo recently joined MaRs’ board of directors, a position she’s excited about and sees as an opportunity to create a bridge between Canada’s tech community and the federal government. Here, she shares her top priorities, her dreams of a streamlined single “front door” for public services, and what needs to happen for Canada to sharpen its competitive edge.

What’s at the top of your to-do list as Canada’s chief information officer?

If I had to wrap my hand around one thing, it’s building up digital talent and leadership. When you have those things in place all things are possible. Our ability to effectively deliver technology programs inside government leads to better information to inform policies and programs — and that creates a better experience for Canadians in terms of how they interact with the government. We have a high vacancy rate, much like my colleagues in banking or energy or transportation do, and filling those roles is a challenge in Canada overall.

How would you characterize Canada’a innovation sector?

Canada’s tech community is vibrant and growing. I am constantly encouraged by the innovation and talent in our tech sector from startup up to long-standing organizations. The challenge I see is that we simply do not have enough talent — we need to work on our ability to build, attract and keep talent in Canada and allow Canadian innovations to play globally.

How can we attract and retain tech talent in Canada?

For me, the focus is on how we get more people into the pipeline. How do we get a good diversity of people into that pipeline? It’s probably not through the normal pipelines. It’s people with adjacent skills who we can help train versus someone that has come out of a college or university. I often joke that we have to get these kids as they are going into high school, because we need to think about how we attract people into this growing sector of technology and digital.

There’s a huge arts side to this as well as science. This type of a career can really be for people who love to paint and love to code and engineer and everything in between — it’s pretty extraordinary. And the mission of what we get to do in the government is such a draw. In tech, we get to work on the defense of our country and ensure our most vulnerable populations have the benefits they need to live. We work on climate. We work on big, meaningful problems for Canadians. We have got to do a better job of telling that story about why you would come to the government and spend a bit of time of your tech career here.

That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of the need to position the federal government as a kind of startup…

It is — 100 percent!

You spent the bulk of your career working in the private sector for Air Canada, WestJet and TELUS. What concerns do you now have to balance in the public sector?

I find a lot of familiarity between the two environments. The ministers I’m working with are very open to taking bold advice. I’ve felt that there is a desire to do the right thing in a complex digital space. The other thing I would point to — and my colleagues in government would probably chuckle and say, of course she said that — is just that things take longer around here. My patience for that is something I’m having to learn, but I’m also raging against the machine. That’s part of the role that I need to play.

I wish everybody had the opportunity to work in both worlds. The reality is it’s not easy in either environment. It’s with great humbleness that I look at the complexity of the decisions that we make in government and their consequences. Having worked in the private sector, I also retain some of that how can we break things a little bit? attitude to allow us to move things faster for Canadians.

In your dream scenario, what does government in a digital age look like? I’m thinking of something like Denmark’s digital identity cards. Is this anything you’re working on?

Yes, you bet. Think about the changing demands of Canadians — how you interact with your bank, how you actually buy things and then balance that with your passport. You must balance out the efficiency of the digital environment to make sure you protect the validity of a passport, which is a very important document. I dream a dream where there’s one front door into government where you just need one way that you can say ‘I am who I say I am.’ Then we have the technology and processes in place to serve up the ability for you to access your CRA account or apply for a benefit or book a camp site.

I’d like Canadians’ experience in our digital space to be an easy and intuitive experience. It’s really important to note that not all Canadians are the same and that’s one of the beautiful parts about our country. We need to think about accessibility, language, all those things. Now there’s a lengthy period of time to get us there, but the only way to get there is to start and there’s some good foundational work already underway.

Are there countries that stand out to you in terms of how they’re using digital technology?

We’re always looking at where we can capture great ideas. The government of Australia has done a good job with e-payroll. Estonia is often held up as an example of a country doing digital government well. But you have to contrast that with the difference in complexity — Estonia is a country the size of Ottawa with about 1 million people.

We’re not satisfied where we are in the global order right now. We used to be a leader in e-government — we know how to do this, we just need to start moving forward on a number of digital initiatives. We are collaborating with different jurisdictions very openly. We have a very productive working relationship with our Five Eyes partners as well as other partners around the globe.

As you join MaRS’ board, what are you hoping to encourage in Canada’s innovation community?

The other board members are motivated by the same thing that I am, which is Canada’s competitive advantage. This is a way for me to continue to drive the entrepreneurial side of what I’ve enjoyed in my career. The flip side of it is having an opportunity to position the Government of Canada as a startup. For me, it’s a great place for me to help accelerate entrepreneurial, innovative Canadian-based tech for big complex problems. The talent and some of the exposure I get with MaRS is hopefully going to pull some of that talent, thinking and approaches into government.

Canada is experiencing its greatest innovation boom ever. MaRS sits at the fulcrum of that progress. Read our latest to Impact Report to learn more.

MaRS Discovery District
MaRS is the world's largest urban innovation hub in Toronto that supports startups in the health, cleantech, fintech, and enterprise sectors. When MaRS opened in 2005 this concept of urban innovation was an untested theory. Today, it’s reshaping cities around the world. MaRS has been at the forefront of a wave of change that extends from Melbourne to Amsterdam and runs through San Francisco, London, Medellín, Los Angeles, Paris and New York. These global cities are now striving to create what we have in Toronto: a dense innovation district that co-locates universities, startups, corporates and investors. In this increasingly competitive landscape, scale matters more than ever – the best talent is attracted to the brightest innovation hotspots.

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