DigITal Magazine Snapshot – Interview with Senator Colin Deacon, Senate of Canada

The Honourable Colin Deacon’s entrepreneurial background provides a unique perspective in Canada’s Upper Chamber. This Nova Scotian has spent much of his career turning ideas into products and services sold globally.

In 2009, he founded BlueLight Analytics, a company in the restorative dentistry field. The company has successfully commercialized new technologies into dozens of countries and works with most of the major dental multinationals. Until 2006, he served as CEO of SpellRead, which improved reading skills among children and adults, and was one of Atlantic Canada’s fastest-growing companies. Senator Deacon has also contributed to the charitable sector in Halifax, where he has been an active member on the board of several organizations, including those dedicated to children’s health and well-being, mentorship, and celebrating social innovators.

His career has focused on enabling collaboration between research and business, and Senator Deacon continues to be a strong advocate for knowledge mobilization. He was appointed to the Senate in June 2018 as an Independent Senator representing Nova Scotia.

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Q: The current COVID-19 crisis has underscored a national imperative in governing trust in systems and services that consume and assert digital identities within and between organizations. What observations and insights could you share on what is seen as a real opportunity at the moment for digital identity amid the crisis?

A: The COVID-19 crisis caused a dramatic and sudden shift to online service delivery. Too many organizations were not prepared. Successful organizations are always examining how well their products and services align with their customers’ changing needs and expectations, and whether their business continuity plans are sufficient to provide resilience in the face of external threats. The opportunity and value and how it translates into an improved service delivery associated with establishing, with absolute certainty, an individual’s identity in one organization and then sharing that identity with certainty between organizations, has not been understood.

Limitations in an individual’s ability to easily, safely and confidently identify themselves online were not seen as barriers to service delivery. COVID-19 has laid bare our need for a national Digital Identity framework as everything from health services to banking to government support has moved entirely online. I think it’s fair to say that the leadership of most private and public organizations now see that. And perhaps they also now appreciate that establishing an individual’s identity with certainty, when they are only engaging digitally, is not as simple as it sounds.

Q: What is it going to take to accelerate the adoption and acceptance of trusted digital identities within and between organizations, and across all sectors of the Canadian economy, to securely permit clients, customers and Canadians alike to access online digital services?

A: Focus on quantifying the problem that you solve, and the benefits that can be achieved, not on the solution you are selling.  We must build initial use cases on the most self-evident problems and have the experience empower the crowd to find the next applications. Once you show someone what’s possible, they immediately respond with other useful applications. Let’s look at each of those and see which organizations are prepared and incentivized to act and harness their vested interests. When you roll out a new initiative with a willing partner, you have a much greater chance of turning any initial implementation challenges into opportunities for continued improvement. Make sure to grab any possible baseline data, and capture any interesting personal stories from different stakeholders, so that you will be able to illustrate and share your successes in an engaging manner.

Q: What are common misconceptions people have regarding digital identities? How can we combat these misconceptions and communicate more effectively?

In terms of addressing these misconceptions, I think there may be value in rebranding. Start by focusing on the specific problem that can be solved and why solving problem will benefit the average Canadian. Don’t focus on the technology, but on a plainly worded problem that most Canadians will recognize and want solved (even if you are trying to convince a senior executive team). Is that issue cybersecurity? Privacy? Ease of use of online services? Too many passwords? I’m not sure but that’s where I would be looking for an answer.

Q: The Council’s technical committee on digital trust and identity is in the latter stages of developing a national standard which specifies minimum requirements and a set of controls for creating and maintaining trust in digital systems and services, From your perspective, where do organizations and businesses need support to accept trusted digital identities and what does that support look like?

A: If senior leadership do not understand how the adoption of a national Digital Identity framework will benefit their business, then they will never maximize the value that its adoption holds for their organization. We need early success stories to make the need that is obvious to many of us, obvious to all of us. So, leadership is key.

To get leadership onside, we need to understand the organizations strategic challenges and opportunities and demonstrate how the adoption of the Digital Identity framework represents an effective and cost-efficient way to move forward. Identifying the organization’s strategic priorities, and the business case that illustrates how Digital Identity framework helps to achieve that priority is where I’d be investing my effort.

Q: Looking into the future, 5 or 10 years from now, what are significant inroads you think Canada needs to make to fuel the adoption of robust and interoperable identity systems?

A: Digital Identity, like every digital tool or opportunity, is built on trust. You all know that. The challenge is that the expectations required to achieve and maintain trust are constantly evolving. This means that we can no longer rely on traditional processes for developing standards and regulations. We need to have an ongoing, iterative process that involves a multitude of stakeholders who are on a constant journey, not just brought in at the end through a tightly controlled “consultation” process.

I believe that this is the process that the CIO Strategy Council has created, and it is what we need a lot more of in this country. The CIO Strategy Council is a very powerful example of how stakeholders can share the responsibility of collaboratively developing technical standards. My hope is that, where needed, this sort of technical standard development could provide a foundation for the development of regulations, and Canada’s productivity might begin to improve if we apply this model across a multitude of regulated industries. Every sector is changing at light speed, and that speed of competitive change demands reform in the way in which we develop regulations.

DigITal Magazine, Issue #3

This article was initially published in the CIO Strategy Council’s member-only magazine. To access the magazine and other member-only materials and information, please contact us to become a member.