Ontario’s Digital Government Team: A Response

Ontario has clearly made digital government a priority. It’s grown from a team of a few renegade coders to several dozen people with diverse skill sets. It’s encouraged a digital mindset in higher-ups throughout the government, who may have otherwise been isolated from the concept of agile teamwork. It’s earned its keep by saving millions of dollars on IT projects that had stalled, and instituting easy-to-use tools for programs like college tuition subsidies. Frankly, the massive difference in budgeting may justify its existence to the regional government above all else.

That said, the team is clearly at a crucial point in its development. Currently, the team seems to be acting as both a group of people working on improving the overall user experience for Ontario.ca, as well as a consulting team for ministries throughout government. It is institutionalized enough to become the go-to team for digital questions, but not digital enough to have a designated process for such questions. (At least as far as I can tell.) One particularly funny takeaway from our discussion was the anecdote about how when innovators within other ministries want to work with the digital team on a new project, there’s a sort of back-door process, wherein someone asks Zeena “to get pancakes” with the intention of remaining below the radar.

My main concern, and piece of feedback, concerns the necessity of this process. It’s clear that as much progress as the team has made, the rest of the government hasn’t quite caught up yet. To really spread their mission throughout the government, the digital government team has to find a way to make asking for their help, or proposing a project within different ministries, easier and more above-board. Perhaps they can offer a rotating program of “digital fellows” that go to each department and seed ideas in an open discussion. Or perhaps once they have a CDO, they’ll have more leverage to make digital a priority throughout the government. Or perhaps they first need to use their existing leverage to conduct more intra-governmental outreach, outside of the monthly meet-ups, which are out of the normal process, almost by definition.

As a first step, I’d recommend the latter, working within the current structure to create a more open discussion of digital government in every ministry, making it part of the normal processes, not something to hide.