Ontario communications directors offer guidance to social media specialists.

A shadow force for social media modernization

Ontario is a province full of passionate citizens. Whether it be discussions on equal pay, daycare spaces, or local infrastructure projects, the people of this province have a lot to say, and are constantly looking for more and better information to guide their decisions.

We’ve believed, for a long time, that Ontarians should be able to get information in the places where they live online. That belief is at the core of the work the Cabinet Office social media team, a team charged with developing content, guidelines and strategies for the Government of Ontario social channels, with a renewed focus on client service. The team also provides advice and support to all ministry social media channels for both paid and earned communication campaigns.

Digital government thrives on big ideas. So when I was assigned to revamp the government’s social media strategy, my first thought was, “How far can we go?”

My dream includes mobilizing an entire workforce, leveraging artificial intelligence, centralizing data collection for all ministries and tabulating standardized benchmarks. It was a big dream, but I knew we could do it.

The initial team working on social media here in Cabinet Office was small — one person, in fact. Chantal Sweeting, our government Lead of Social Media, is constantly hard at work on the government’s central customer service channels. She’s amazing, but in order to successfully revamp the government’s social strategy, we needed to mobilize additional resources to turn our dreams into practical solutions.

Working together, across ministries and teams, we were able to make a lot of great things happen. Here is our guide on how to turn 1 position into 81, and assemble the best shadow workforce of all time:

Gather the People who Matter Most: The Implementers

Before launching a new social media strategy, there was a lot we needed to learn. We started our journey by bringing together staff from across the OPS who oversee social media. Their stories and experiences helped us identify spot key opportunities to improve the customer experience. To support their smarts and enthusiasm, we set up a community of practice, providing access to resources, a healthy dose of specialist training, amazing guest speakers and, most importantly, the chance to direct initiatives and feed into projects that will impact their work.

Our team of one had already grown: we now had 44 implementers.

Find the Brains and Give Them Glory: The Innovators

Working with data from our implementers, we organized working groups around five key innovation areas. These working groups were championed by volunteers — a diverse group of problem-solvers who brought varied perspectives and a shared interest in building a better government. Anyone could join, provided they had approval from their manager and were ready to get to work. Library scientists, IT support staff, policy wonks and researchers came together to shape our two-year road map; they continue to build strategies and deliver the products that move us forward.

In addition to our implementers, we now had 30 very keen innovators on our dream team.

A few of the innovators that came together in our shadow force.

Harness the Passion of Executive Leads: The Advocates

To move the boulders of change you need momentum from the ground up and from the top down. We knew we would need considerable senior support to turn an idea into an outcome. Because social media channels typically live within our communications branches, we asked communications directors to join the cause. This provided a rare opportunity for our innovation team to work alongside senior directors and a unique reverse-mentoring opportunity for directors to enhance their digital skills. This collaboration made it easy to identify opportunities and resolve problems much earlier in the process. When it came to broader rollout strategies, we had a small army of supporters already built in.

Quickly and easily, 7 senior supporters joined our group of implementers and innovators, bringing us to a shadow force of 81 people working on making social media customer service the best it could possibly be for Ontarians.

A new roadmap and strategy

This impressive 81-strong shadow force has made great progress during year one of our two-year roadmap.

Here are a few highlights from that roadmap:

  • Building government visibility by standardizing account names and verification on all our ministry social media accounts
  • Supporting responsible social media use in the OPS by updating the 2013 social media guidelines with criteria for official, professional and personal use
  • Hosting our first-ever social media bootcamp for 50 ministry staff
  • Enhancing customer service on social media by launching a research group to review best practices and service standards

These early successes are the building blocks to make government communications more accessible and customer-centric. Our year two roadmap includes:

  • Procuring a more efficient system for social media management in government
  • Promoting public engagement through social media consultations, needs identifications and community-focused solution development
  • Enhancing French-focused communications outreach through the ONgouv channel
  • Leading pilot projects to integrate social media across issues management, correspondence, PR divisions
  • Exploring opportunities to crowdsource specialist and expert feedback on policy development through social media

We can’t promise we’ll achieve everything in the plan, but what I do know is that we’ve assembled an amazing group of people who are committed to improving access to government.


Senior Manager of Marketing and Digital Strategy for Cabinet Office. Jen’s background (and passion) is great design, user experience and digital marketing.