Transforming (Digital) Government in Ontario: Part 1

With their budget release last week, the Government of Ontario announced a number of new commitments on digital services and data. The policy changes have the somewhat niche community of digital gov folks in Canada very, very excited, and there’s been a lot of enthusiastic chatter on Twitter in response. But these changes should be attracting the attention of a much broader audience, given they have the potential to radically transform public management and democratic governance in Ontario.

To jumpstart this conversation, I’ve written a series of posts covering some of my early reactions to the digital and data policy changes announced in the budget. This first post describes the scope of these policy changes, and argues why they’re worthy of our attention and ongoing scrutiny. The next few posts drill further into the new digital and data legislation introduced in the budget. I’ll analyze where this law could be useful, and where it should give us cause for concern.

Before jumping into this series of posts, I’ll add a caveat here: I have immense respect for the public servants working on this file, and I hope my commentary opens a constructive conversation with this team. I’m eager to hear their thoughts and in particular to receive any corrections in places where I’ve misinterpreted the budget announcements.

So, to begin, what exactly did the government announce on digital and data in its 2019 budget?

At the core of the Ontario government’s commitments on digital and data is a promise to deliver a “digital-first strategy” modelled on the private sector, that will “remove barriers to people-centred policies” and put “people at the centre of government services”. More concretely, the budget promised to improve the top ten most used ServiceOntario transactions, and to move roughly 10 million in-person services to digital channels. On data management, the budget document promises changes to “outdated laws, policies and rules” governing how data is used across government in order to fuel “innovation” and improve decision making, while also respecting privacy and security (much more on these rather vague statements on data governance in a future post).

The most important announcement was the introduction of a new piece of legislation, the Simpler, Faster, Better Services Act, 2019. With its snappy, apparently Kanye-inspired title, what exactly does this new law entail?

The basic gist is that the Act would be administered through the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services by a new deputy minister level position (created through the Act), the Chief Digital and Data Officer (CDDO), expanding the mandate of the existing Chief Digital Officer post. The CDDO will manage an impressively vast and potent mandate, which I gather will be laid out in large part in a Digital and Data Action Plan that they’re charged with developing, and reviewing at minimum every three years.

Within this plan and the deputy’s broader remit, the CDDO will set digital service standards, covering everything from IT procurement, service design, product management, service evaluation and reporting. On data, the CDDO will set requirements for the collection, management and use of data in the development and delivery of digital services. This commitment is left rather open ended in the Act.

The Act gets much more specific when discussing one slice of the data governance pie: open data.

Specifically, the Act dictates that the CDDO will manage open data standards, mandating requirements on which data to release, formats and technical standards for data releases, frequency of data releases, and terms under which a public sector organization can grant licenses for use of datasets it releases. The CDDO will also set requirements for public reporting on the availability of data.

Which organizations will be covered by this new law?

On scope, the Act stipulates that the CDDO will have authority on digital and data across all public sector organizations, which includes Ontario ministries and public bodies, as defined in the Public Service of Ontario Act, 2006. The CDDO also has some authority over what the Act defines as “broader public sector organizations”, which covers a range of institutions, including:

· Municipalities;

· local boards (e.g. transportation commissions, police services boards);

· universities and colleges;

· local health integration networks (LHINs) and community health facilities;

· school boards; and,

· service providers as defined under the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, 2017.

To be sure, from my reading, most of what the Act dictates as mandatory applies only to the Ontario ministries and public bodies (“public sector organizations”), whereas the CDDO seems to only have advisory and promotional roles to play in setting digital and data standards for these other actors. Still these organizations’ inclusion in the Act is notable and speaks to the wide lens the government is taking when thinking about how digital services and data are managed in the province, and in turn, the incredibly broad scope of influence that the CDDO will wield.

On this point, I want to be clear that the CDDO’s influence comes with teeth.

I’ve seen some on Twitter suggest that the Act doesn’t give the CDDO any real powers, only the ability to set standards and report publicly and to Cabinet on departments that fail to meet these standards (which is itself not at all insignificant). The view that the Act is largely symbolic seems to ignore the reality that once a law dictates that a ministry needs to do something, which this Act does through the authority of the CDDO, ministries have a legal responsibility to comply. This is notably distinct from the influence that other central directives on digital and data have tended to have on governments. My research consistently shows that things like Cabinet Office and Treasury Board policies and standards are regularly ignored by line departments. But when it comes to this new Act, ministers and executives across the Ontario Public Service won’t be able to say, “these standards are optional” or “those are nice ideas we might get to one day”, lest they wish to attract judicial review for remaining non-compliant with the laws of Ontario.

Now, some still living in denial about the centrality of digital and data to contemporary governance might respond, “okay, big deal, the CDDO has the legal authority to determine what apps and websites we have. They won’t actually influence the real business of government.” Let’s address that myth right now.

Digital Government=Government

Everything governments do is shaped by the digital and data systems they rely on, and all government activities result in some sort of digital output. A government policy or program’s success hinges on having sufficient data and digital systems to inform its design, and its implementation will live and die on the quality of the digital and data systems that shape its delivery. Massive government failures that rack up billions in costs, citizen disillusionment over services that simply don’t make sense at the point of delivery, and the privacy, equity and fairness breaches that failed data governance usher in — these are the stakes of the game when it comes to a government’s approach to digital and data.

Given these stakes and the centrality of digital and data to the daily operations of the state, when you control digital and data, you control government. The CDDO will emerge as one of the most powerful policy actors in Ontario. Likewise, the Act they’re administering stands to become one of the most potent policy tools across the government. Which is exactly why this policy change demands broad and sustained scrutiny, something it hasn’t received in the mainstream press, who appear to have largely glossed over this section of the budget.

Helping to fill this gap, my next posts will focus on the potential benefits and risks that may accompany the Simpler, Faster, Better Services Act, highlighting in particular the complex governance and accountability questions that it raises.