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Interview Article June 22nd, 2016

Delivering government digital services in Ontario

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Ontario is moving forward at pace with a much-needed digital transformation

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The goal is cross-organisation transformation in the province

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Ontario's plan is about "fundamentally rethinking" how services are delivered

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“We must design government digital services that put people first, that are user-friendly and that are simple and straightforward so that, given the choice, people prefer to use them,” Kathleen Wynne, said recently. The premier of Ontario, Canada's most populous province has asked her government to move forward - at pace - with a much-needed digital transformation. As a result, working days have just got longer for Zeena Abdulla, director of digital in the Cabinet Office and Grahame Rivers, the premier's adviser on all things digital.

Their roles are different - Rivers works on strategic communications as a member of the political staff, whereas Abdulla is a member of the public service, typically more “behind the scenes” - but both are fully focused on the task in hand. “There are a lot of different partners in government and they are all working on different pieces. At the Premier's Office level, staff may not necessarily know who all of the players are,” Abdulla says of her role, which is about connecting people. “This means I'm a bit like the person in the labyrinth trying to find all the touch points.”

It's a role that suits her skill set and instincts. “I'm on the government machine side of it,” she explains. “I deal with the IT, policy and service delivery arms, which means I have to be a good listener. I'm interested in learning about the complexities, because things are always more complicated than they seem. Sometimes the problem could be a perception, a law or other institutional barrier, but whatever the issue, you have to respect that person suffering from a problem.”

Change in action

The province's 2016 Budget announced Ontario's digital government initiative and committed to developing a Digital Government Action Plan. Its implementation will be led by a new chief digital officer, who is yet to be recruited. The Plan contains priorities such as identifying the high-impact digital projects and services that are to be transformed and it adopts a “digital-by-default” approach, focused on making the online services so easy to use that Ontarians will choose them over the traditional methods of service delivery.

A new digital government startup team - which Abdulla leads - is set to drive transformation, organisation-wide. This work will include bringing in-demand digital talent into government and working with ministries to re-engineer current business practices and processes to improve online interactions for users.

“Certainly the intention is ambitious,” says Rivers. “We are starting with a select group of projects, but our goal is cross-organisation transformation. We are choosing projects that we can complete quickly and that allow us to show other actors in government that it is possible for them, too. Government colleagues are already far more excited than we ever expected. The interest is huge.”

Abdulla agrees that people are both curious and engaged, but adds that there is also the question ofhow it will be done. “Digital transformation is really just a collection of thousands of small problems,” she observes. “Some of them are actually really small but if you fix them, you have a huge impact.”

She goes on to explain that by targeting one problem at a time, pretty soon the size of the target grows. “Eventually, you start to see patterns, where 30 individual problems are due to the same thing. That's when you bring people together to solve it,” she says. “You don't have to solve every problem yourself; you just have to figure out who needs to be involved.”

Quick wins - with more to come

One of Ontario's goals is to build momentum by acting quickly and making changes that showcase the potential of digital government. Steps taken include developing a single place for Ontarians to participate in consultations, helping users better understand the province's budget process, and opening up public sector salary levels to public scrutiny.

Rivers explains that such initiatives flow from the premier's statement that she wants Ontario to be the most open and transparent government in Canada. “We began with an open government initiative, but if you follow that path to its logical end, then the delivery arm of those priorities comes through this digital lens,” he adds. “It was fortuitous - the political level combined with in-house expert teams - it's a perfect alignment.”

Interestingly, when asked who Ontario is seeking to emulate on this path, and whether it is another province, they both answer in unison: “the US and UK”. Abdulla reveals that she and her colleagues hold a monthly call with seven other countries and Ontario is the only sub-national government involved.

“There is always a tendency to just look at your immediate peer group, but if everyone is looking at each other, then who is looking forward?” she asks. “Everyone needs to make an effort to look at not only the best in your immediate peer group but rather at the best-performing organisations globally. You need to look at those you wish to be like.”

Clearing the path

One of the challenges on this journey, Rivers believes, is explaining the process and understanding the difference between digital and IT. “Digital will always be a priority,” he reflects. “I don't think there is a government out there that has not experienced a technology failure which has made them hesitant to jump in with both feet. What digital offers, to a degree, is a lesson learned from those experiences.”

Looking ahead, both Rivers and Abdulla are optimistic about the future. “One could say we have come a long way already,” Abdulla points out. “But this isn't just about better websites - it's about fundamentally rethinking how programmes and services are delivered.”

First, though, comes recruiting the right person to fill the pivotal position of chief digital officer.Anyone up for a challenge would be well advised to set their sights on Ontario and get ready for a few transformational years ahead.



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  • Computer says yes. Governments are increasingly reliant on digital technology to deliver public services - and Australia's myGov service is a potential game-changer. Gary Sterrenbergspeaks to Miguel Carrasco about it
  • Power to the people. Few countries have embraced the digital era as successfully as New Zealand. BCG's Miguel Carrasco talks to one of the New Zealand government's key digital transformation leaders, Richard Foy, about how they've done it.
  • Digital dawn. It may not be obvious, but US policymakers have had an important role to play in the creation of today's digital era. But sometimes it involves stepping back rather than stepping up, suggests David Dean

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