Unreasonably aspirational: leadership in a digital age

In the Ontario Digital Service, people are the heart and soul of our work. To deliver user-centred products and services, we need people on the team who reflect the diversity of this province and are passionate about making it easier to get things done with government.

As part of that focus on people, we’ve been talking a lot about digital leadership. What does it look like, and what does it mean to be a public service leader in the internet era?

Over the past year, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people, both inside and outside our team (the Ontario Digital Service) and our organization (the Ontario Public Service). I’ve talked with program areas in the ministries with whom we partner, our staff and project teams, civic tech organizers, startups who are working on big systemic issues, and of course, our very own Chief Digital Officer — about their thoughts on digital leadership.

I’ve distilled my notes, and their insight, into eight principles that reflect our philosophy of leadership, and how we work in practice to lead as part of a digital organization in Ontario.

We’re excited to share these guiding principles with you.

Ontario Digital Service: Digital Leadership
  1. Obsess about the user. Make every decision with the end-user, the person who will use your product or service, in mind. Demand that of your team.
  2. Be agile and iterate. Get feedback on, and make changes at, every step of the process. Change and update based on ongoing feedback and user research.
  3. Work out loud. Encourage your team to communicate process to coworkers, to clients, and to partners throughout the work, not just when there is something to announce.
  4. Use the data. Rely on measurable evidence to inform your decision-making, and hold your team to the same standard. Make sure all decisions have mechanisms for measurement.
  5. Be prepared to fail. Failure is inherent to risk-taking — as long as the failure is small, iterative, and drives to a better user experience.
  6. Challenge everything. Ask questions, and don’t assume things need to be done in a certain way because they always have been. Many implicit “rules” are actually customs; let your team challenge those customs.
  7. Embrace the chaos. Your team will have different optimal methods of work, when it comes to time, place, environment, tools, and process. Encourage them to work in their best way, as long as the work (and team dynamics) isn’t compromised.
  8. Be unreasonably aspirational.

Of course, these principles were written with a view to the public sector context in which we work, but they can be applied no matter where you work or what you do. We hope that these will inspire you to explore your own ideas of digital leadership — and to share those with us!

If you have thoughts or feedback on these principles, or have your own to share, please do get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.


You can download the poster as a PDF, PNG, or collection of individual images.

The poster was designed by Lucia Hsieh. If you do print it out and put it up in your office, please share photos with us!


Sameer Vasta is a digital anthropologist, letter-writer, and hugger extraordinaire. He is the managing editor of the Ontario Digital blog, and avid observer of the world.

Lucia Hsieh is a User Research Lead in the Ontario Digital Service. She has lived in 6 countries and speak 3 languages. Lucia strives for a minimalist and sustainable lifestyle and enjoys good food and company.